Pope Francis’s prevarication over Russia will disappoint Ukrainians

Pope Francis, right, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill meet at the Jose Marti aiport in Havana (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

The full transcript, translated into English, of the Pope’s remarks on the plane back from Mexico, has now been published and can be read here. I was immediately interested to see what the Pope had to say about the Ukraine, but I have to say that having read what the Pope said to the French journalist who raised the subject, I am confused.

There is one simple reason for this: a press conference is never going to have the clarity of a written essay on the matter. Reading the transcript, one certainly has the impression that press conferences are wordy, rambling and rather hard to reduce to coherent positions on anything. Several things, however, have emerged.

Firstly, when asked if he had been invited to Moscow by Patriarch Kirill, the Pope did not give a direct answer. This can only mean that he has not been invited. I can’t see that this can be interpreted in any other way. If a firm invitation has been given, then why not mention it? Some may be disappointed by this. On the other hand, given that Russia is waging war against Ukraine, and bombing Syria, it may be that the Pope is wise to stay away. In addition, an unasked question hangs in the air: has Patriarch Kirill been invited to Rome? And if so, what was his response? That there has been no announcement about mutual invitations is a sign that relations are still fraught, despite the meeting in Cuba; though the froideur is all on one side, as we shall see from what the Pope said on the situation in Ukraine.

Secondly, the French journalist raised the question of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and their reaction to the Cuban Joint Declaration: “They speak of a political document that supports Russian politics.” The Pope’s long reply does nothing to dispel the unhappiness of the UGCC, to my mind. This is not because what the Pope says, but because of what he does not say. At no point does he acknowledge that the situation in the Donbass and in Crimea is the result of Russian aggression. That is something of an omission. Indeed the rambling nature of the Pope’s response is reminiscent of a politician desperately trying to avoid this single fact. It makes painful reading:

In Ukraine, it’s a moment of war, of suffering, with so many interpretations. I have named the Ukrainian people, asking for prayers, closeness, so many times both in the Angelus and in the Wednesday audience. There is this closeness. But the historical fact of a war, experienced as…I don’t know if…well, everyone has their own idea of this war, who started it, what to do and it’s evident that this is a historical issue, but also a personal, historical, existential issue of that country and it speaks of the suffering.

This sort of prevarication will disappoint Ukrainians; but the disappointment will go much further. It will disappoint all those who hoped for moral clarity and moral leadership. Russia started the Ukrainian war: and when one looks at recent history – in Georgia and in Chechnya – a pattern of Russian aggression emerges. Russia is not a normal country, but the Pope seems determined not to acknowledge this. So, once more, one looks back to the Cuba meeting, and one realises that the winners there were the Russians, by which I do not mean the Russian Church, but the Russian State. The UGCC will certainly feel betrayed at the thought that the Pope has effectively become an apologist for Putin. Particularly unfortunate is the sound of the Pope speaking up for the Minsk Accords, which have been broken again and again by the Russians.

Things may change soon in Russia, given its precarious economic situation. If and when that happens, the current posture of the Holy See might look very shortsighted.