VATICAN CITY — In the nearly three months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly about the suffering of Ukrainians. He’s called the war “cruel and senseless” and kissed the Ukrainian flag. Last week, he met with Ukrainian women who said their husbands were defending the besieged Mariupol steel plant.
But the pope’s messaging about the war, even to some supporters, has also been head-scratching.
He has conspicuously avoided condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin as the aggressor. He has criticized the West’s sanctions and defense spending. And in an interview published this month by an Italian newspaper, Francis appeared to echo a Kremlin talking point, describing the “barking of NATO at Russia’s door” as one of the triggers for Putin’s wrath.
For Francis, 85, the war has become a second epochal event, after the pandemic, that has come to define the agenda of his pontificate. And while he was widely recognized for his clear-eyed take on the coronavirus — the isolation it engendered, the dangers of inequitable vaccine distribution — Francis has spurred a debate within the church about his approach to the war and whether he is being too cautious toward Russia and too bent on maintaining ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
“There are people, like me, who think how he has acted so far is not enough,” said Thomas Bremer, a theologian at the University of Münster, who argued that both Russia and the Russian church have become too compromised to merit an attempt at maintaining good relations. “There is no ‘business as usual’ possible right now. It can’t be like it was six months ago.”
Defenders of Francis’s strategy say the pope is maintaining a neutrality that has long been at the center of Holy See diplomacy. Francis has said it’s not the role of a pontiff to call out a head of state. And in contrast to World War II, when Jewish communities accused the church of turning a blind eye, Francis is highlighting the suffering that is happening.
The pope has positioned himself in a way that could, in theory, make the church a credible player in any mediation — something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said would be “appreciated.”
“He’s neither acting like Putin, calling other people Nazis, nor like Biden, saying that Putin should go,” said Marco Politi, a papal biographer, who argues that Francis is wisely avoiding making the conflict personal.
Andrii Yurash, the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, said in an interview that he feels the Vatican is “doing everything possible to build peace.”
In a more critical telling, though, Francis is misperceiving the war and squandering some of his moral authority in a conflict where religion and Christianity are adjacent to the politics and fighting.
Though Catholic teaching has long held that countries have the right to defend themselves under certain circumstances, the pope’s statements have been vague enough to leave Catholics uncertain about whether he thinks Ukraine’s defense is justified.
Francis said in March that wars are “always unjust.” In his interview this month with the Corriere della Sera, he was hesitant about whether it is appropriate to send weapons to Ukraine. “I don’t know,” he said, going on to decry the production and sale of arms.
It has been left to other church leaders to suggest that Ukraine is morally justified in using arms against Russian forces. “Ukraine has the right to defend itself,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s de facto foreign minister, said in a recent TV interview.
The pope’s most criticized effort amid the war was aimed at symbolic peacemaking — having a Ukrainian and a Russian woman carry a cross together on Good Friday. Originally, the women were supposed to recite a short passage, saying: “Why have you forsaken us? Why have you forsaken our peoples?” But many Ukrainians said such a message would wrongly put Ukrainians and Russians on equal footing as victims of the war. Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, called the idea “inappropriate.”
The recitation was ultimately scrapped — a decision the pope attributed to a conversation he had with Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski. Francis acknowledged in the Corriere interview that Ukrainians had been “outraged” by the plan, yet he then suggested: “They are very touchy, the Ukrainians, maybe because they were defeated and demeaned after the Second World War.”
There has been a series of critiques of the pope’s approach, including from figures far removed from traditionalist circles.
In one of the most direct, Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor of the Vatican’s newspaper, told Spanish outlet La Vanguardia that Francis risked putting the Holy See in a “historic mess,” based on his effort to “show that he is neither on one side nor the other.” Vian noted pointedly that Pius XII is remembered by many historians for not being vocal enough about the evils of Nazism.
For Francis, perhaps the most personally delicate aspect of the war is his relationship with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has become one of the war’s most prominent backers. Francis met with Kirill in Havana in 2016, a move aimed at repairing centuries of divisions since the split of Eastern Orthodoxy from Western Christianity.
A second meeting, scheduled for June in Jerusalem, has been called off, the pope said, because “it could send the wrong message.” By Francis’s account, he warned Kirill over Zoom not to become “Putin’s altar boy” and justify the war.
John Allen, editor of the Catholic publication Crux, noted in an op-ed that the various papal statements throughout the war “seem almost deliberately calculated to keep people guessing.” He connected some of the uncertainty to the nature of Francis — a non-European pope who’s never seemed inclined to following the conventions of Western powers. Allen wrote that Francis has been able to open doors with the Orthodox world, and in the long view of the church, few things matter more to popes than the “quest for Christian unity.”
“No ecumenical détente with the Orthodox will ever be possible without the Russians,” Allen wrote.
Francis has so far sent several deputies to Ukraine, including most recently Gallagher. But the pope has made clear that his own preference is to go to Moscow first. In his interview with the Corriere, he said that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-ranked official, had conveyed to Putin the pope’s interest in visiting.
But no invitation has come.
“We keep pressing them on this issue,” Francis said. “I fear, however, that Putin cannot, or does not want to agree to our meeting at the moment. But how can you not try and do whatever you can to stop the atrocities?”