Vatican Scrambles to Shore Up Ukrainian Diplomacy

COMMENTARY: Ukraine last month received what it has been demanding for months — an unequivocal condemnation of Russia for its aggressive war by the Holy See.

Women carrying Ukrainian flags listen to Pope Francis' weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at The Vatican, Aug. 24. Pope Francis marked the sixth month start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday by denouncing the "insanity" of war, warning against the risk of nuclear "disaster" and lamenting that innocents on both sides were paying the price.
Women carrying Ukrainian flags listen to Pope Francis' weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at The Vatican, Aug. 24. Pope Francis marked the sixth month start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday by denouncing the "insanity" of war, warning against the risk of nuclear "disaster" and lamenting that innocents on both sides were paying the price. (photo: Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)

What happens when Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See denounces Pope Francis as not being able to tell the moral difference between a rapist and the rape victim? The ambassador prevails.

In response to the scathing rebuke — perhaps without precedent — of Pope Francis by the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, the Vatican scrambled to shore up its diplomatic position, seeking to salvage the possibility of a papal visit to Ukraine.

That Vatican nuncios from around the world are gathering in Rome for plenary meetings this month, and no doubt the diplomats will be discussing one of the most astonishing episodes in the centuries-old history of Vatican diplomacy.

On Aug. 24, referring to the killing of Darya Dugina, 29, a journalist and daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian intellectual close to Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis said:

“I think of that poor girl blown up by a bomb under her car seat in Moscow. The innocent pay for war, the innocent! Let us think about this reality and say to each other: war is madness.”

The reaction in Ukraine was explosive. Dugina was killed in Moscow, not killed in battle. There is no evidence that she was killed by Ukrainians; indeed the Ukrainian position is that Russian secret police were responsible. Moreover, Ukraine does not regard her an innocent child killed in war, but rather a staunch defender of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

The government in Kyiv summoned the apostolic nuncio to lodge a formal protest. And in Rome, Andrii Yurash, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, erupted in outrage.

“Today’s speech of Pope was disappointing and made me think about many things,” Yurash tweeted. “[One] can’t speak in same categories about aggressor and victim, rapist and raped; how possible to mention one of ideologists of Imperialism as innocent victim? She was killed by Russians.”

Yurash’s response was, in diplomatic terms, astounding. The language was overheated. One might have expected a formal response, or at least a quiet but firm word, from senior Vatican diplomats in Rome.

Instead there was silence for a few days and then a similarly astonishing communiqué from the Holy See. The unsigned statement — certainly from the Secretariat of State, given that it concerned foreign policy — made it very clear that the Holy See knows who is the rapist and who is the raped in Ukraine. Ambassador Yurash’s provocation achieved what Ukraine has been demanding for months — an unequivocal condemnation of Russia for its aggressive war.

The communiqué read:

In this regard, it is reiterated that the Holy Father’s words on this dramatic issue should be interpreted as a voice raised in defense of human life and the values associated with it, and not as a political stance. As for the large-scale war in Ukraine, initiated by the Russian Federation, the Holy Father Francis’ interventions are clear and unequivocal in condemning it as morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious.

What happened?

The Secretariat of State, for months now, has gone slightly further than Pope Francis in identifying Russia as the aggressor. The Holy Father has instead preferred not to condemn Russia or Vladimir Putin by name, stating that he wants to visit Moscow before Kyiv to speak “as a brother” to Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.

It has never been clear why Pope Francis has been so insistent in giving priority to Moscow and Kirill. There was never a chance that he would be welcome in Moscow. If Patriarch Pimen refused St. John Paul II an invitation to visit for the Millennium of Russia’s baptism in 1988, and Patriarch Alexy refused to allow John Paul to personally return the precious icon of Our Lady of Kazan in the early 2000s, the chance of Patriarch Kirill welcoming Pope Francis to Moscow in the midst of war was always less than zero.

Pope Francis never explained why he thought that meeting Kirill in wartime would advance the cause of peace; it was just assumed that it would do so. Recall, though, that the price of the Holy Father’s first meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Cuba was a joint statement which undermined the identity, history and mission of Ukrainian Catholics. Patriarch Sviatoslav, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, objected strongly at the time, though, unlike Yurash, in a measured tone.

What if the price of a wartime meeting was papal agreement to a statement apportioning some blame for the war to Ukraine — to the rape victim for being raped?

Pope Francis has paid a heavy price for giving priority to Kirill and the Russian Orthodox, despite his frequent, urgent and sincere statements of solidarity with Ukraine. The three most important Catholic bishops in Ukraine have made their displeasure known with Vatican statements. The Latin-rite archbishop of Lviv went so far as to say it would a “disaster” if Pope Francis did what he wanted to do, namely visit Moscow before Kyiv.

The Russians — both Putin and Kirill, president and patriarch — found it useful to string the Pope along for the last six months. By dangling the possibility of a meeting, they knew that they could neuter Vatican rhetoric on the war. The first proposed pope-patriarch meeting was to be in June in Jerusalem. That did not materialize. The second option — given that Moscow was never in the cards — was in Kazakhstan later this month at an international interreligious conference.

Pope Francis dutifully announced that he would go to Kazakhstan, hoping to meet Kirill. It was a surprise to no one outside the papal household that Kirill, after waiting for the Holy Father to commit himself, announced that he would not go, leaving the Holy Father to make a trip with no great purpose. That bit of rude gamesmanship may have finally persuaded the Holy See to accept no for an answer.

What may have rattled the Holy See is that “No” is increasingly likely to be the answer from Ukraine too. Many Western European heads of government have already made solidarity visits to Kyiv. If the Pope were to go, it would be more dramatic. But if he were not to go, after repeatedly saying that he wishes to make the visit, it would be a blow — not to Ukraine, but to Pope Francis.

Ambassador Yurash’s eruption clearly got the Holy See’s attention. Given the coolness from his own bishops in Ukraine, it would be impossible to imagine a visit if the Ukrainian ambassador was fulsomely denouncing the Holy Father’s position. And if the Pope managed to make himself unwelcome in both Moscow and Kyiv, Holy See diplomacy would have been revealed to be utterly irrelevant to the current war.

Hence the intense communiqué from the Holy See, piling up the castigatory adjectives, including the ultimate and most inflammatory one: “sacrilegious.” Having utterly failed in courting Kirill as a fantastical way to convert Putin, condemning him might get the Holy See back in the good graces of Ukraine. The communiqué was mostly likely a salvage operation for a visit to Ukraine.

Whether it was enough remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the assembled nuncios in Rome will have learned a new lesson from Ambassador Yurash. Diplomatic victories can be won by deploying very undiplomatic language.

An apartment building stands damaged after a Russian attack in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

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