When God’s diplomat meets a hellish war
In a recent public statement, Pope Francis lamented the destruction of the war in Ukraine, emphasizing the impact that the conflict has had on civilians throughout the world.
“I think of so much cruelty, so many innocents who are paying for the madness, the madness of all sides,” Francis said. “I think of that poor girl who was blown up by a bomb that was under her car seat in Moscow. The innocent pay for war, the innocent!”
The seemingly anodyne comment led to a sharp rebuke from Ukraine’s supporters, many of whom objected to the idea that Daria Dugin — a prominent Russian booster of the war — could be framed as “innocent.” In an unusually harsh statement, Kyiv’s ambassador to the Vatican called the comment “disappointing.”
“You can’t talk about the aggressor and the victim, the rapist and the raped in the same categories,” Andrii Yurash wrote in a tweet. “[H]ow can you call one of the ideologues of Russian imperialism an innocent victim?”
The response “probably blindsided” Francis, according to Timothy Byrnes of Colgate University. The pope has often expressed sorrow for all of the deaths caused by the war, but, Byrnes added, he’s recently been pushed “to be more clear about his opposition to Russia, rather than simply or merely his opposition to the war as a thing.”
The episode highlights the complex role that Pope Francis plays in the Ukraine conflict. Since February, the pontiff has avoided condemning Russia and endorsing sanctions, opting instead to emphasize the tragedy of war and call on both sides to lay down their arms immediately.
The logic behind this strategy is straightforward: The Catholic Church teaches that human life is sacred, meaning that war — which is at its core an efficient way to kill people at scale — must be stopped at all costs. From a practical perspective, Francis’ neutrality means he can use his considerable influence to act as a mediator between warring parties.
“Obviously, your chances of mediating are zero if you actually call out the main culprit,” said Gerard O’Connor, a journalist who has spent decades covering the Vatican.
As the war settles into a bloody stalemate, Francis may just be the diplomat that Ukraine and Russia need. When it comes to international affairs, the pope has a range of tools at his disposal. The Vatican has diplomatic relations with most states, and it has been an observer state at the UN since 1964. Perhaps most importantly, the pontiff has an unusually large microphone.
Take, for example, the back-and-forth regarding Dugin’s killing. Following Ukraine’s rebuke, Francis released a brief statement in which he personally said that Russia initiated the war for the first time (his foreign minister had been clearer in recent months, arguing in support of Kyiv’s right to territorial integrity during a visit to Ukraine). Within a few hours, nearly every major news outlet in America had covered the 150-word statement.
“The Pope is unique,” said Byrnes. “I just don’t think there’s a religious figure that comes close to receiving the kind of media coverage that he receives.”
War has long been a challenging issue for the Vatican. Despite its small size and limited temporal authority, the Holy See represents more than a billion Catholics spread throughout the world. This makes the pope a stakeholder in just about every armed conflict, with his followers often standing on both sides of the front lines.
Given the church’s pro-life philosophy, popes generally focused on halting bloodshed while mitigating wars’ effects through charity and diplomacy. Pope Benedict XV famously made desperate calls to end World War I, lamenting that “day by day the earth is drenched with newly shed blood and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain.” But he avoided blaming any individual state for the conflict.
Two decades later, Pope Pius XII fought hard to stop World War II from breaking out and, when his efforts failed, penned an encyclical letter condemning racism and totalitarianism.
In a controversial decision, Pius followed Benedict’s example and avoided calling out Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini by name. His detractors contend that Nazi Germany was uniquely evil and thus uniquely deserving of clear condemnation. “Nazi aggression and brutality should have been explicitly condemned,” write Carol Rittner, Stephen D. Smith and Irena Steinfeldt in a summary of the views of Pius’ critics. “Roman Catholics might have been inspired to do more for Jews and other victims of persecution, who would at least have had the comfort of knowing that the world was not indifferent to their fate.”
But Pius’ supporters argue that the neutral position was necessary to protect priests and allow the church to continue its charitable work — after all, the Nazis killed thousands of members of the Catholic clergy, and religious officials who survived helped save over 700,000 Jews from likely slaughter.
Since then, political neutrality has been a core aspect of the playbook for popes in war time. While Pope John Paul II railed against the march to war in Iraq, he carefully avoided condemning George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein by name.
“War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity,” he said in a speech in early 2003. “International law, honest dialogue, solidarity between states, the noble exercise of diplomacy: These are methods worthy of individuals and nations in resolving their differences.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Francis largely picked up where previous popes had left off. In the months leading up to Russia’s invasion, he frequently called for dialogue instead of war and urged “world leaders” (without naming any in particular) to do everything in their power to avoid bloodshed.
When the fighting started, the Vatican immediately started a two-pronged strategy, publicly calling for an end to the war while quietly working behind the scenes to push Kyiv and Moscow toward negotiations. Unlike many other world leaders, Francis decided to keep his diplomatic mission to Ukraine open, allowing his envoy to maintain close contact with Kyiv and help to alleviate suffering on the ground while other diplomats operated from a distance. (He’s done the same in other war-torn countries, including Syria.)
A day after the war began, the pope personally visited the Russian embassy to the Vatican in order to beg Moscow to stop the invasion — a highly unusual move that highlighted his outrage over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision, according to O’Connell. Francis quickly followed that effort with a call to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky. Though he has not spoken to Putin since the war broke out, he has stayed in touch with both Kyiv and Moscow ever since, consistently calling on both sides to negotiate an end to the war.
Francis has also tried to engage with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a major defender of Putin’s invasion. In a call in March, Francis warned Kirill to not reduce himself to being Putin’s “altar boy.” The pope also referred to the invasion as “sacrilegious” in a recent statement, which some have interpreted as a subtle critique of the patriarch.
The comments highlight the extent to which ties between the two religious figures have frayed in recent months. Christian leaders have spent decades trying to soften the animosity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which dates all the way back to the Schism of 1054. In a historically significant shift, Francis and Kirill met in Havana back in 2016 and have largely gotten along ever since. While this rapprochement has drawn criticism from Ukrainian Catholics, the pope has worked hard to balance support for his flock with the goal of religious tolerance. But the war has thrown a wrench into this careful balancing act.
The core of the current tensions comes from the approach that each prelate takes to politics. For Francis, Kirill’s decision to eschew neutrality makes it more difficult to fulfill his moral obligations as a pastor for all of God’s children. In other words, it’s wrong for a religious leader to be anyone’s altar boy.
This neutral approach has drawn the ire of many in the West, leading some to go so far as to question the pope’s moral authority. In a sneering article for the Daily Beast, journalist Allison Quinn attacked the bishop of Rome for suggesting that the West could have done something to stop Putin from invading.
“He appeared to finally remember the plight of Ukrainians later on in the conversation, noting that the Russian military had ‘miscalculated’ in its initial assessment of a quick takeover of the country,” Quinn wrote.
In the end, the pope faces the same moral questions as the rest of us: Is it right to call for an immediate end to war, even if that could lead to an unjust outcome? Can loss of life be justified in order to regain stolen territory? Does the right to self-defense hold primacy over the right to life?
On these questions, Francis has begun to depart from his predecessors. Unlike many prior popes, the current pontiff is skeptical of Catholic “just war theory,” a philosophical doctrine that lays out when and how war can be conducted righteously. The official church teaching states that wars can be fought in self-defense, though it counsels against arms races and condemns human rights abuses in conflict. But Francis has avoided invoking this doctrine in the case of Ukraine, choosing instead to emphasize all of the death and destruction that accompanies conflict.
“For Francis, there’s just no such thing as a just war,” O’Connell said.
This approach is rooted in the pope’s unique background. Francis is the first modern pope born and raised outside of Europe. His native country of Argentina suffered greatly under a dictatorship that the United States quietly supported during the Cold War, giving him — like many others in the Global South — a healthy skepticism of Western claims to moral superiority. That view dovetails with the main thrust of the Catholic worldview, which counsels against self-righteousness given that everyone (including the pope) is a sinner.
This background also informs Francis’ approach to nuclear weapons and the arms trade, both of which he views as fundamentally immoral. While every pope has opposed nukes at some level, the current pontiff has gone further, arguing that it’s a grave sin to even possess such a deadly bomb. When it comes to weapons transfers, the pope believes that it is a dangerous misallocation of resources to spend billions of dollars in order to fight a war instead of fighting climate change or feeding the poor.
“Certain choices are not neutral: to allocate a large part of spending to weapons means taking it away from something else, which means continuing to take it away from those who lack the necessities,” he said in May. “And this is an outrage.”
As the conflict drags on, the Vatican will no doubt continue to face flak for Francis’ largely neutral approach. But, so long as a sliver of hope remains that the pope could act as a mediator and help end the brutal war, he’s unlikely to change his tune.