Historian Françoise Thom examines the relationship between the Russian Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis and the latter’s recent statements about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to the author, these statements, welcomed by the Kremlin, show the ideological erring of the Pope and weaken Catholicism in Europe.
The turning point that Europe has experienced in recent weeks under the influence of the exemplary courage of the Ukrainians is very reminiscent of the evolution of Western Europe from 1945 to 1948, when European democracies, long in search of a “third way” between Moscow and Washington, became resolutely involved in the Cold War, while in the United States a parallel evolution was taking place. America, at first in a hurry to return to the isolationism of the pre-war years, finally resolved to become involved in European security. The cause of this turn was the aggressive policy of Stalin, who, not content with occupying the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, installed a regime of terror cloned from that of the USSR. The weight of the Communist parties, boosted by the “Stalingrad effect” in France, Belgium, and Italy, led to fears that these countries would fall into the Soviet orbit.
Great Britain was the first to sound the alarm and to devise a policy to block Stalin’s expansion in Europe. It was Britain that drew the United States in, reminding them of the price that had to be paid for the appeasement policy pursued toward Hitler in the 1930s. Today, Great Britain is at the forefront of Western countries in its assistance to Ukraine. As in 1945, England has shown itself to be more lucid and far-sighted than other Westerners: it began training the Ukrainian army in 2015. Thus, the current situation has striking similarities with the period at the beginning of the Cold War.
With one notable difference, however. In the post-war years, the Western democracies had the discreet but resolute support of the Vatican. Pope Pius XII had silenced prejudices against the United States that he had expressed in his critique of capitalism, aiming at the overwhelming influence of Protestantism across the Atlantic. But in the face of the Soviet threat, the Church of Pius XII placed all its moral authority in the Western camp1. The pope and President Truman both seemed convinced that they had to combine their spiritual authority with economic and military power to fight against communist expansionism. The Pope was delighted with the adoption of the Marshall Plan and was favorably impressed by the American promise to provide financial aid to Italy, which had been threatened with chaos that could only benefit the communists. The communist party had become very influential because of its involvement in the resistance. Similarly, the Pope supported the nascent construction of Europe and Italy’s entry into NATO. At the end of 1948, he played a decisive role in overcoming the internal hesitations of the Italian Christian Democracy concerning membership in the Atlantic Pact. It has been said that “in the fight against communism, Pius XII was to the religious world what Churchill was to the political world”2. On July 13, 1949, the Pope issued a decree excommunicating anyone associated in any way with communism, thus destabilizing the Soviet bloc by preventing any “arrangement” between Catholics and communist authorities.
Similarly, at the time of the Polish crisis from 1980 onwards, the Reagan Administration and John Paul II’s Vatican had a similar view of the USSR. They were both convinced of the profoundly immoral nature of communist ideology and believed that communism could be defeated. In early December 1980, the U.S. government learned that Soviet troops had been deployed on the Polish border. It warned the Pope and asked him to use his influence to convince European Catholic countries to support an ultimatum threatening the Soviet Union with reprisals in case of intervention in Poland, which Pope John Paul II allegedly agreed to without the slightest hesitation3.
Unfortunately, today, when Western countries, awakened by the tragic fate of Ukraine and the crescendo of threats emanating from Moscow, stand together and are laboring in pain to elaborate a policy of solidarity, they can only note a great absence, the Roman Church. The Pope’s words make one wonder whether he sympathizes with the Russian cause in his heart.
These concerns are not new. One recalls the meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Kirill held in Cuba on February 12, 2016, launching the Vatican’s rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church4 . A Russian commentator thus summarized the significance of this event: “We have a common enemy, secularism, and we are ready to fight together against global liberal atheism“.
In this case, Pope Francis did not hesitate to “dialogue” with a character known for his links to the KGB, a man who has loudly contributed to the repressive and xenophobic evolution of the regime since spring 2012, declared for example without batting an eye: “Human rights are a pretext for insults against national values“; a man who became one of the main propagandists of the theory of the “Russian world”, justifying territorial amputation and ethnocide in Ukraine. “The Russian world is not the world of the Russian Federation, it is the world of the Russian empire” to which Belarusians and Ukrainians belong. Patriarch Kirill does not hesitate to play the role of a firebrand, declaring that seeking a compromise with the “Kyiv junta” was “wanting to get along with the devil” (24 May 2015). In 2014-2015, far from seeking to tone down the chauvinistic delirium that is taking hold of Russians, he has instead sought to bolster it on a theological basis: “Holy Russia remains the spiritual and moral ideal of our people. This ideal is expressed in holiness. Usually people have other ideals, related to secular existence, wealth, power, prestige. But for our people the national idea is holiness”5. Other hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, such as Vsevolod Tchaplin, then responsible for relations between the Church and society in the Patriarchate, have gone even further: “Russia has its mission, which is not in the sphere of economics and politics. Russia alone knows the unique path that leads to God… We are not alone in this path, we can gather around us peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, because the Russian people have a special quality, they can sacrifice themselves to serve other peoples”6. As the West rotted by liberalism is in the throes of collapse, Kirill sees himself as the leader of Christianity: “The crisis of the West is very deep. […] It is true that the West enjoys external prosperity, but one day everything began to collapse. And this spiritual erosion of the basis of life weakens Western society considerably […] The countries where the majority of iinhabitants are Orthodox have the vocation to show the world the example of the construction of an economy and a popular government in conformity with the Christian principles and ideals”7.
Pope Francis during his video meeting with Patriarch Kirill, March 16, 2022. Photo : patriarchia.ru
It is with such an interlocutor that the Pope signs a joint declaration that “gives the impression that it was dictated to the chancellery of the Russian Orthodox Church by an official of the administration of President Putin”, notes the Russian commentator Igor Yakovenko. The pontiff seems to have adopted all the ideological baggage insidiously integrated in this text. Thus, to the secularism of Western countries, he opposes “the unprecedented revival of Christianity” that is taking place in Russia, allegedly evidenced by the large number of churches built. This neo-Slavophile foundation sometimes reveals a deeper layer of the current Russian ideology, old Marxism mixed with Third Worldism. The document stigmatizes the “unbridled consumption characteristic of the most developed countries, which exhausts the planet’s resources”. “The growing inequality in the distribution of the world’s goods increases the sense of injustice generated by the system of international relations.” The last sentence echoes Putin’s desire to overturn the international order, which is allegedly unjust because of the dominance of the developed countries, a desire that will culminate in 2022 with consequences that we know.
In his interviews, the Pope likes to acknowledge that “there is a convergence of analysis between the Holy See and the Kremlin”8, espousing in particular all the Russian theses on the responsibility of the West in the Middle East crisis. According to him, “the West should be self-critical”. In Russia, they are even more explicit: “The Pope and the Patriarch have noted the death of the West”, states the weekly Zavtra. “It is the weakened West, embodied by the Pope, that asks for Russia’s help. And Moscow can answer him from a position of strength, both as a great power and a spiritual power”. The joint declaration is “a death sentence for liberal democracy” that announces the upcoming collapse of “the Tower of Babylon of Eurosodom”. Putin propagandist Natalia Narotchnitskaya said on Channel 1: “Europe is threatened by de-Christianization, the total loss of religious values. And we are coming to the Pope’s aid […] There they force him to keep silent. Our Church is stronger in its area than the Catholic Church in its own” (February 14, 2016). The Independent Newspaper, less strident, is content to note: “If the Kremlin and the Vatican speak with one voice, the West will find it difficult to address Russia in the categorical tone that it has used as long as Russia has been isolated…”
The reference in the joint statement to the Ukrainian conflict (“We invite all parties involved in the conflict to prudence, social solidarity and action aimed at building peace. We invite our churches in Ukraine to work for social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and not to support any further development of the conflict”), ignores the role of Russia in the aggression against Ukraine and places the aggressor and the victim on the same level. Under the pretext of distancing himself “from the old quarrels of the ‘Old World’“, as stated in the joint declaration, the pope has overlooked the persecution experienced by Ukrainian Greek Catholics whose Church was suppressed with the support of the Orthodox Patriarch Alexis of Moscow in March 1946. Obviously, for Pope Francis repentance is only appropriate for the West, not for communist and post-communist Russia. We also note the hypocrisy of the calls for “religious unity” in Ukraine, a unity which in Kirill’s mind and in the mind of his sponsors in the Kremlin, can only be achieved under the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate. Sviatoslav Schevchuk, the primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, reacted as follows on February 14, 2016: “Many people have contacted me and told me that they feel betrayed by the Vatican; they are disappointed by the half-truth character of this document, which they even perceive as indirect support given by the Apostolic See to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. […] Either one has the impression that the Patriarchate of Moscow stubbornly refuses to recognize that it is participating in the conflict, since it openly supports the aggression perpetrated by Russia against Ukraine — I note, in passing, that the Moscow Patriarcate also blesses the military operations carried out by Russia in Syria, described as a ‘holy war’. Or one thinks that he appeals above all to his conscience and that he also seeks to show prudence, social solidarity, and activity in favor of peace building. I don’t know! The word ‘conflict’ itself is obscure in this sentence and seems to suggest to the reader that we are dealing with a ‘civil war’ rather than an external aggression by a border state. […] If Russia did not send soldiers to Ukrainian territory and provide heavy weapons, if the Russian Orthodox Church, instead of blessing the idea of ‘Russkiy mir’(‘Russian World’), supported Ukraine in its efforts to take control of its own borders, there would be no annexation of Crimea and no war. It is precisely this kind of social solidarity with the Ukrainian people and this active peace building that we expect from the signatories of this document.”
As Philippe de Lara writes, “the pope has sacrificed his principles and part of his flock to an arrangement that has the appearance of defining areas of influence between rival bureaucracies, under the guise of ‘communion’ and ‘dialogue’ between divided spiritual families.”
The Russian statements quoted above should have been sufficient to open the eyes of the Pope and make him understand the dangerous path he was propelling the Catholic Church: because he had given the impression of making a pact with the representative of one of the most harmful currents in Russia. Patriarch Kirill, true to form, defended the “special military operation” of February 24, 2022. Parroting the arguments of the authorities, he interpreted the war as a confrontation with the “forces of evil” that are fighting the “historical unity” between Russia and Ukraine; a provocation from the West, which seeks to implant foreign values in Russia such as gay pride. On March 13, he offered an icon to the head of the Russian National Guard, hoping that it would “inspire young fighters”. In mid-April, Kirill urged people to rally around the government to fight Russia’s “external and internal enemies”. In a sermon on May 3, the patriarch, after praising the Russian autocracy, declared without batting an eyelid that “Russia has never attacked anyone”, but “has only defended its borders”.
The stance of the patriarch did not prevent Pope Francis to have a video interview with him on March 16, 2022, on the war in Ukraine, during which they expressed piously the wish for “a just peace”. The patriarchate’s account does not include any condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine or a commitment to intervene with President Vladimir Putin for a ceasefire, while the Vatican statement highlights both the points of convergence and divergence between the Moscow patriarchate and Rome on the war in Ukraine. The Pope condemned as a “sacrilege” what he called “the monstrosity” of the war, its “savage cruelty”. He reminded Kirill that “the Church must not use the language of politics, but the language of Jesus”.
The details of this telephone conversation are now better known. Kirill read an account of the reasons for the war for twenty minutes. In true Putin style he listed Russia’s grievances, saying that at the end of the Soviet era Russia had been assured that NATO would not move an inch eastward. However, this promise had not been kept, even the former Soviet Baltic republics had joined NATO. As a result, a most dangerous situation developed: NATO’s borders were located 130 kilometers from St. Petersburg, the flight time of missiles was only a few minutes. If Ukraine were admitted to NATO, the flight time to Moscow would be reduced to a few minutes. Russia could not allow this to happen.
After this presentation the pontiff realized that Kirill was only a minion of the Putin regime. It was better to talk to God than to his saints. As a result, Pope Francis proposed direct negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Kirill’s indoctrination has left its mark. In an interview with Corriere della Sera on May 3, Pope Francis suggested that some of Moscow’s grievances could justify the motivations for the war in Ukraine. And on this occasion, the pontiff did not express himself “in the language of Jesus”, as he had advised Patriarch Kirill, but in a vocabulary reminiscent of Vladimir Soloviov, the Kremlin’s now famous propagandist. According to him, “NATO’s barking at Russia’s door” could have pushed Moscow “to react badly and to start the conflict” under the effect of “an anger which I do not know if it was provoked, but perhaps facilitated”. The implication is clear: the United States may have pushed Russia towards war on purpose. These words were appreciated by Beijing (“For the pope, NATO could be at the origin of Russia’s actions in Ukraine”, headlines a Chinese publication in French), but provoked strong reactions from the Polish authorities. “For sure, many of us have our heads in our hands when we hear what the Pope said,” stated the Polish Minister of Education, Przemyslaw Czarnek.
In his interview in Corriere della Sera, the Pope returned to his proposal of mediation to end the war. He explained that he has decided not to go to Kyiv “for now” — a possibility “on the table”, because it would inevitably be perceived as a hostile act by the Kremlin. “First, I have to go to Moscow, first I have to meet Putin […]. I do what I can. If Putin would open the door…”
Should arms be delivered to Ukraine, as many NATO countries are doing? As the Pope has stated on several occasions since the beginning of his pontificate, in his eyes wars are the result of arms sales, which lead to an arms race (here we find the leftist foundation of the Pope’s thinking). It is therefore easy to guess the answer to the question about the delivery of arms to Ukraine, even if the Pope is careful not to be explicit, all the while proceeding by innuendo: “I don’t know how to answer, I am too far away.” “What is clear,” he continued, “is that weapons are being tested there. That’s why we fight wars: to test the weapons we produce”.
Another gesture was addressed to Moscow. On April 21, the Pontiff received Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The Hungarian leaders refused to allow the passage of weapons destined for Ukraine, arguing that additional armament of Kyiv would prolong and aggravate the conflict. At the same time, the Pope sent his representative, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, to Ukraine. In his Easter homily, the Pope’s envoy called on the Ukrainians to overcome the tragedy and to maintain their desire for peace.
These pronouncements have been fully appreciated in Moscow, as evidenced by an editorial by the now famous Pyotr Akopov, entitled “Why did the Pope recall ‘NATO barking at Russia’s gates’?” “Condemning Russia, the Pope simultaneously condemns the West, and this does not at all meet the interests of the Anglo-Saxon leaders, who have announced the need to achieve not only the isolation, but also the defeat of Russia. […] But the Vatican’s position is not really surprising — the Vatican as a whole and Pope Francis in particular have long distanced themselves from the Anglo-Saxon version of globalization. The Catholic Church has its own ecumenical project. The Anglo-Saxon project was born out of Protestant messianism and, since the French Revolution, has succeeded in ousting Catholics. First of all, in the Western world, where the position of the Vatican is rapidly weakening, especially after the Second World War. […] It is no coincidence that Francis constantly criticizes the ‘free market’ and affirms that the ‘magic theories’ of market capitalism have failed, calling for the development of an economic system of equitable relations instead of the current system, which enriches a few and perpetuates poverty. The Pope also dislikes the West’s belief in its superiority and its right to lecture other peoples and civilizations and to punish them by organizing new ‘crusades’.[…] Putin’s formula ‘It is necessary to put an end to the irresponsible policy of imposing one’s values and trying to build democracies in other countries according to foreign models, without taking into account historical, national and religious characteristics and completely ignoring the traditions of other peoples’ is very much appreciated by the Pope who has taken it up. […] In other words, the attitude of the Vatican and Moscow towards Anglo-Saxon globalization is much closer than it seems, and not only because they are against the dictates of the forces of ‘global good’. But also because Catholics and Orthodox, despite all their differences and contradictions over the millennia, despite all the rejection of the ‘Orthodox schismatics’ by the Catholic West in its time, are allies today in many ways, because they defend traditional, religious and family values, the traditional way of life, justice and the diversity of humanity.” He concluded, “The Vatican inevitably finds itself on the same side of the barricades as holy Russia.”
Moscow is already calculating the benefits that Russia can gain from its convergence with the Vatican. It has high hopes for Croatia’s president, Zoran Milanovic, “Russia’s main friend in the EU: he has promised to block the accelerated entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO.” In short, “Catholics spoiled NATO’s plan at the crucial moment,” Vzgliad triumphantly headlines. Another promising prospect reported by Vzgliad: “Catholics have started dismantling Britain”, referring to the election victory of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
Journalist Vadim Trukhachev has just published an editorial in Vzgliad entitled “It’s time for Russia to stake on relations with the non-West”. It is to be feared that Pope Francis will make the same analysis for the Catholic Church. This basic orientation leads him not to distinguish between the aggressor and the aggressed in the war in Ukraine. No humanitarian gesticulation will be able to camouflage for a long time the questionable ideological assumptions that contribute more to weaken Catholicism in Europe than the aberrations of progressivism feeding the Kremlin’s propaganda.
Céline Cros, « Le Vatican et la guerre froide », in Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, nos 37-38, 1995, p. 48-49. ↩
Marie Gayte, Les États-Unis et le Vatican. Analyse d’un rapprochement (1981-1989), thèse de doctorat, Université de la Sorbonne nouvelle – Paris III, 2010. ↩
See Françoise Thom, « Qui est Kirill, le partenaire du pape ? », Commentaire, no 154, été 2016, p. 303-308. ↩
I. Iakovenko, « Mediafrenia », Ejenedelny journal, 29 juillet 2014. ↩
Nezavissimaïa gazeta, 8 août 2014. ↩
Interfax, 26 juin 2012. ↩
The Economist, 15 février 2016. ↩