Catholic Theologians Are Standing Up For Ukraine — And So Are Their Orthodox Peers

In a letter, theologians concluded by appealing to “all people of goodwill to support the victims of this aggression.”

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, pictured on June 3, 2011.
Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, pictured on June 3, 2011. (photo: Tanya Dedyukhina via Wikimedia / (CC BY 3.0))

In what can be considered an exercise of Vatican soft diplomacy, a group of 19 Catholic theologians published an open letter on March 2 criticizing the “Russian military aggression” against Ukraine.

The majority were members of the prestigious International Theological Commission (ITC), which assists the Holy See by examining doctrinal questions.

As the commission could not take an official position on the war, the signatories drafted and signed the letter as individuals rather than representatives of the institution. But the theologians’ membership of the commission suggests that there is a broad common view on the war within the ITC.

In the letter, the theologians condemned “this war against the sovereign state of Ukraine in the strongest possible terms.”

They noted that “this unprovoked attack that has already cost thousands of lives can have no justification,” stressing that the full-scale Russian invasion “is a crime against international law, against human rights, against freedom, and against humanity.”

The theologians underlined that “the attack on Ukraine is an attack on the very foundations of human civilization nourished by the moral guidance of Christianity and other world religions” and “all those responsible for this act of war must be named by name and brought to justice.”

“We stand,” they wrote, “with the people of Ukraine in this tragic moment of their history and ask people in the whole world to pray with us for Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

The theologians also called for prayer for the people of Russia, both for those “who have the courage to stand against evil” and those “who have been brainwashed by the vicious propaganda spread by the media machine of their state and turned into instruments of the criminal activity of their leader.”

The theologians urged “all world leaders who respect freedom, human dignity, and democratic principles to exert the toughest possible pressure on the Kremlin to stop this war immediately and to withdraw all its troops from Ukrainian territory.”

They also called on “all religious leaders in Russia to speak a clear word of condemnation of the unjust and criminal war and the suffering their state has brought to the neighboring country and Europe.”

They concluded by appealing to “all people of goodwill to support the victims of this aggression.”

Fourteen out of the 19 signatories are ITC members. The theological commission emerged from a proposal at a 1967 assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Pope Paul VI established the body on an experimental basis in 1969. Pope John Paul II confirmed the ITC’s structure in 1982 and women have served as members since 2004.

The commission advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on doctrinal questions. The CDF’s prefect ⁠— currently Cardinal Luis Ladaria ⁠— is always the ITC’s president. The ITC’s membership consists of no more than 30 Catholic theologians.

We can deduce that the ITC did not want to take an official stance on the Ukraine war from the facts that half of the commission’s members signed the statement and it was issued in the form of an open letter.

Yet many things have changed since March 2, when the letter was issued. Pope Francis’ comments on the war have become ever more direct, so much so that he spoke of a “war of aggression” in his most recent Angelus address.

Orthodox theologians have also spoken out about the war, which has shaken the Eastern Orthodox world and left the Patriarchate of Moscow increasingly isolated.

Public Orthodoxy, a website run by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, published on March 13 a theological critique of Russia’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.

The declaration was signed by more than 60 Orthodox theologians, most of whom live in the U.S. or other Western countries and many of whom are linked to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The declaration said that “the support of many of the hierarchy of the Moscow Patriarchate for President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is rooted in the form of Orthodox ethnic-phyletic religious fundamentalism, totalitarian in character, called Russkii mir or the Russian world, a false teaching which is attracting many in the Orthodox Church and has even been taken up by the Far Right and Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists.”

The document stressed that the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was justified with the same arguments, as well as the “proxy war” in Donbas and the present war in Ukraine.

“Putin and [Moscow] Patriarch Kirill,” it said, “have used Russian world ideology as a principal justification for the invasion. The teaching states that there is a transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus’, which includes Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan), as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world.”

The Orthodox theologians said that the “Russian world” ideology had “a common political center (Moscow), a common spiritual center (Kyiv as the ‘mother of all Rus’), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate), and a common patriarch (the Patriarch of Moscow), who works in ‘symphony with a common president/national leader (Putin) to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality, and culture.”

And yet, the declaration said, “against this ‘Russian world’ (so the teaching goes) stands the corrupt West, led by the United States and Western European nations, which has capitulated to ‘liberalism,’ ‘globalization,’ ‘Christianophobia,’ ‘homosexual rights’ promoted in gay parades, and ‘militant secularism.’”

It continued: “Over and against the West and those Orthodox who have fallen into schism and error (such as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and other local Orthodox churches that support him) stands the Moscow Patriarchate, along with Vladimir Putin, as the true defenders of Orthodox teaching, which they view in terms of traditional morality, a rigorist and inflexible understanding of tradition, and veneration of Holy Russia.”

According to the Orthodox theologians, the “Russian world” teaching “is devastating and dividing the Church.”

The declaration included a six-point statement, rejecting what the signatories described as the heresy of the “Russian world” teaching.

“Just as Russia has invaded Ukraine, so too the Moscow Patriarchate of Patriarch Kirill has invaded the Orthodox Church, for example in Africa, causing division and strife, with untold casualties not just to the body but to the soul, endangering the salvation of the faithful,” they said.

Their appeal is only one among many emanating from the Orthodox world, adding to the pressure on the Patriarchate of Moscow to condemn the Russian invasion.

After the war ends, theologians will face daunting tasks. For the Orthodox, there is the mission of overcoming the deep internal disputes that have arisen. Then, for both Catholic and Orthodox theologians, there is the challenge of coming together in the future and speaking with one voice.

Pope Francis: ‘The West Has Taken the Wrong Paths’

In the course of the in-flight press conference, the Pope also addressed the Russo-Ukrainian War and Ukraine’s right to defend itself, relations between the Holy See and China, and critiques that participation in the Kazakh interreligious congress risks indifferentism.