Has Pope Francis Squandered the Chance To Be Peacemaker?
He has work to do to reclaim the Catholic Church’s moral authority and maximize chances of success.
Pope Francis seeks to broker an end to the war in Ukraine, but after wading into so many political squabbles during his tenure, he’ll have work to do to reclaim the Catholic Church’s moral authority and maximize chances of success.
In an interview with Il Corriere della Sera, the pope’s efforts got off to a rocky start. He suggested that Kyiv moving closer to the West amounted to “NATO barking at Russia’s doors” and that President Putin’s rage was “maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude.”
The argument that NATO’s expansion gave a pretext to invade can get you branded a “Russian asset” in America. Never mind that it’s the exact threat Mr. Putin has made to discourage Finland and Sweden from joining the alliance.
Blaming both sides might be a good strategy by which to mark the Vatican’s neutrality. As a fellow head of state, the pontiff may have thought this would get him that facetime he seeks with the Russian leader.
The pontiff also started out well trying to influence his pro-Putin counterpart in the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who read a series of talking points from the Kremlin justifying the invasion straight off a cue card.
“Brother,” the pope told him, “we are not clerics of state. We cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus.” Yet rather than quote this invocation of the Prince of Peace, headlines chose a more sensational aspect of the conversation.
“Pope Francis,” CNN reported, “warns pro-war Russian patriarch not to be ‘Putin’s altar boy.’” Sharing the admonition, made in private on Zoom, alienated Russians and played into the Kremlin’s propaganda.
As a product of the Greek Orthodox Church — which still seethes over the Vatican’s half-hearted defense of Constantinople in 1453 — I can tell you that the schism between east and west remains deep.
His Holiness just made it deeper, belittling Kirill as the lowest rung in the church hierarchy. Compare this handling of a peace mission with Pope John Paul II’s visit to Pope Francis’s hometown of Buenos Aires 40 years ago, hoping to end the Falklands War.
When John Paul arrived and kissed the tarmac, he carried the hopes of peace-loving people everywhere that he might persuade the Catholic nation’s military junta to withdraw its troops from the islands.
He conducted his negotiations behind closed doors, not in the press. We learned only in 2014 that he tried to persuade the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, to abandon the Falklands and their people to the Argentines.
When John Paul urged Britain to accept an “honorable compromise” and abandon the Falklands, he did it through one of his most senior diplomats, who presented the request to Thatcher one-on-one. Not even cabinet ministers were present.
In the end, the prime minister sent an armada to the bottom of the world to reassert British sovereignty, captured by Newsweek’s greatest cover story of all time: “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Although John Paul’s efforts failed to cause olive branches to bloom, he had a much better chance of success because he conducted his efforts in private, speaking not as a pundit but as pope, the agent of Christ on Earth.
He later united in a holy alliance with President Reagan and Thatcher to oppose Soviet communism. They were the politicians; he was the pontiff. All backed the Solidarity movement in his native Poland in their unique capacity, sparking the end of the Evil Empire.
That pope didn’t diminish his moral authority as this one has done by criticizing American presidents the way this one has President Trump, much less blunder with remarks on issues from gay rights to divorce and the church’s sex-abuse scandal.
This tendency to speak off the cuff as the “people’s pope” may help the Vatican’s PR, but one cannot play the Average Joe on the one hand and on the other hand command respect from believer and non-believer alike.
It is in the interest of everyone to see the bloodshed in Ukraine end, and the world wishes Pope Francis well in his quest, but unless he recognizes his unique position, he won’t be remembered as a peacemaker, but as a pope who barked too much.