Vatican Finds Itself on the Outside Looking In at Russia-Ukraine Diplomatic Efforts

COMMENTARY: Despite intensive efforts, the Holy See finds itself strangely isolated.

Pope Francis, with Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (r), and a translator attend a video call with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, at right on the monitor, and Metropolitan Hilarion, March 16.
Pope Francis, with Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (r), and a translator attend a video call with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, at right on the monitor, and Metropolitan Hilarion, March 16. (photo: Vatican Media / via AP)

When Pope Francis visited the Russian Embassy to the Holy See in late February, it was a clear sign that papal diplomacy in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine would be exercised creatively. After all, ambassadors visit heads of state, not the other way around. President Joe Biden would never visit the Chinese embassy to discuss provocative operations in the South China Sea. 

A willingness to be bold and creative speaks well of Pope Francis’ eagerness to end the war, but at the same time runs the risk of unintended consequences. 

Thus far, Pope Francis has expressed his view on the illegitimate invasion of Ukraine by his own public statements, dramatic gestures (kissing the Ukrainian flag), sending of envoys to Ukraine and phone calls with the Ukrainian president. The Holy Father has also given press interviews.  

In the early weeks of the 2022 expansion of the war — the war actually began in 2014, with the Russia invasion, occupation and annexation of Crimea — Holy See diplomacy attempted to operate on two tracks. The Holy Father himself would condemn the aggression while his chief diplomats would make clear who the aggressor was. Hence Pope Francis did not condemn Vladimir Putin or Russia by name, but Cardinal Pietro Parolin did.  

Pope Francis himself argued that this was standard Vatican diplomacy, which clearly condemns injustice but refrains from condemning individuals, in the hope that avenues of dialogue for peace can be kept open. It is a plausible claim. There was no doubt about how Pope Pius XII felt about Hitler, or St. John Paul II about communism, but their rhetorical condemnations of persons or parties were restrained. For two months, that has been the approach, with Cardinal Parolin growing increasingly pointed. 

Yet now the Holy See finds itself isolated. Far from its aspiration to be an honest broker or even mediator, trust has been lost from parties on all sides. 


Ukrainian Catholics 

The Catholics directly affected by Putin’s expanded invasion are largely members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), led by Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv. The UGCC has had cool relations with Pope Francis since 2014, when Putin first invaded Crimea and the Holy See’s response was muted. The reward for compliant Vatican diplomacy was widely understood to be Putin’s approving the 2016 meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.  

The Holy See considered the Francis-Kirill meeting a historic ecumenical breakthrough, justifying the high (Ukrainian) price paid for it. Given the Moscow Patriarchate’s view that the UGCC should not even exist, Kyiv considered that price too high.  

Therefore, the Holy Father’s efforts to salvage a second meeting with Kirill caused pain in Ukraine, as Kirill continues to bless the Russian invasion and even defend it as a defensive operation. The UGCC would have preferred an unambiguous statement that as long as Kirill is acting as “Putin’s altar boy” — to use the strong language of Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia, the most senior UGCC bishop in the United States — the Vatican considered him ineligible for further ecumenical contact. Instead, the UGCC has been frustrated with the Vatican’s continuing courting of Kirill. 


Patriarch Kirill 

So it was surprising and explosive when Pope Francis used the derogatory reference of “Putin’s altar boy” for Kirill in an interview this week with an Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera

Patriarch Kirill in turn issued a statement expressing dismay at the “tone” of the papal altar-boy remarks. Thus, while Pope Francis offended Ukrainians by taking a softer line with Patriarch Kirill regarding his support for the invasion, Kirill himself is now upset with the papal tone. 

Further, in the same interview, Pope Francis announced that he had offered to go to Moscow to meet Putin. That casually cast aside the Vatican position of some 50 years, namely that a pope would never visit Russia unless invited by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. In saying that he would not require the permission of “Putin’s altar boy” to visit Putin in Moscow, Pope Francis abandoned a position observed by all his predecessors. That will widen the gap between Rome and Moscow, contrary to all the efforts Pope Francis has made to narrow it. 


Choosing Moscow Over Constantinople 

Pope Francis met Patriarch Kirill in Cuba in 2016 before the titular head of Orthodoxy, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, recognized a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from Moscow. When Bartholomew did that in 2018, Kirill broke off “Eucharistic communion” with Constantinople — an effective excommunication.  

Thus the efforts, alive until recently, to meet again with Kirill would certainly cause offense in Constantinople, effectively declaring Kirill’s excommunication of Bartholomew to be inconsequential in terms of Rome-Moscow relations. 

Moreover, the Vatican’s revelation that its representatives had agreed to meet Kirill in Jerusalem in June would be highly offensive to Constantinople. It was there that Paul VI and Athenagoras had their historic meeting in 1964, the first in nearly a millennium. To elevate Kirill to that level would be unsupported in global Orthodoxy today. 



Speaking on the causes of the war, Pope Francis said that he had “no way of telling whether [Putin’s] rage has been provoked” and suggested that perhaps “NATO barking at Russia’s gate” had caused the aggressive rage and invasion. While the remarks must be clearly read as assigning to Putin responsibility for the war, the Pope had more to say. 

“I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude,” Pope Francis said, referring to Putin’s rage or to the invasion itself.  

That remark was poorly received in NATO capitals, as it suggested that Putin’s war may be a justified response to NATO policy. Pope Francis did not clarify or explain that incendiary implication. Whatever relations he may or may not have in Moscow, it is clear that Ukraine’s NATO friends would not trust papal mediation now. 


Ukrainian Government  

Ukraine’s president and government have received a global groundswell of support. Pope Francis telephoned the Ukrainian president on the first day of the war. 

Yet he spoke harshly about Ukrainians in the context of the recent Via Crucis controversy. The Good Friday devotion at the Colosseum in Rome included plans for a joint Ukrainian-Russia prayer. It caused a volcanic eruption in Ukraine for presenting a certain moral equivalence on the war. Patriarch Sviatoslav called it “offensive,” and the Ukrainian government protested vigorously. Pope Francis withdrew the prayer but was not pleased.  

“The Ukrainians are a proud people, that’s for sure,” Pope Francis said. “During the Way of the Cross we had two ladies, a Russian and a Ukrainian, who were asked to read the prayers together. The Ukrainians were outraged. I spoke with [papal envoy Cardinal Konrad] Krajewski, and he told me: ‘Stop them; don’t let them read the prayer together.’ He was right, of course; we can’t really understand them. So the two ladies remained silent. They are very touchy, the Ukrainians, maybe because they were defeated and demeaned after the Second World War, and they paid a very heavy price.” 

A proud and touchy people: If that is how Vatican support is expressed, it is likely that Kyiv will not be seeking more of it.  

Indeed, all the principal actors — Putin himself, Kirill, Ukraine’s government, Ukrainian Catholics, Orthodox Christians and NATO — now have serious grievances with Vatican interventions. 

Should the Holy Father attempt another spontaneous visit at another embassy, it is not clear what kind of welcome he would receive. 

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