War in Ukraine and Vatican Polyphony

Source: FSSPX News

Archbishop Paul Gallagher

As the conflict between Ukraine and Russia enters its third year, different points of view have emerged in the official remarks of the Holy See, whether on the side of the Holy Father or the diplomatic services of the Secretariat of State. 

Symphony? Cacophony? Intentional dissonance? Whether or not one is enthusiastic about the current pontificate, the appreciation of the differences in tone that one observes beyond the Tiber in the treatment of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict varies notably.

On the Pope’s side, Pope Francis has for months constantly repeated his calls for peace for the reason that “war is always a defeat” and that those who win are the “manufacturers of weapons.” It is a position which has the merit of remaining unchanged.

In an interview with the Swiss television channel RTS on February 2, 2024, aired in March, the Pope called on Ukraine to have “the courage to negotiate”: “I believe that the stronger one is the one who sees the situation, who thinks of the people, who has the courage of the white flag, to negotiate,” he stated, calling for mediation to be carried out by a country that has offered it, such as Turkey.

It will be a necessary negotiation in order to avoid the “suicide” of the country. The Pope then responded to a question on the theme of “white,” speaking of virtues of white but also of the “white flag.” His remarks triggered a diplomatic crisis between the Holy See and Ukraine, but which would aim to emphasize the pacifist positioning of a Pope who puts the sanctity of life above all else.

For the head of Ukrainian diplomacy, joined by the most critical voices within the Church against the current Roman Pontiff, this would be an attitude evoking the “neutrality observed by Pius XII during the Second World War.”

The Vatican attempted to end the controversy: “The Pope uses the term white flag, and responds by picking up the image proposed by the interviewer, to indicate a cessation of hostilities, a truce reached with the courage of negotiation,” the director of the Press Office of the Holy See stated.

On April 24, Francis persisted and affirmed during a new interview granted to the American channel CBS: “Look to negotiate. Look for peace. A negotiated peace is better than a war without end,” the Supreme Pontiff emphasizes, alluding both to the war in Ukraine and the situation in Gaza.

On the side of the Secretariat of State, the tone is not exactly the same. Since the start of the conflict, Vatican diplomacy has never defended a capitulation of Ukraine. On several occasions, its two highest officials, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, publicly admitted the legitimacy of a defensive war, and even sending weapons to carry it out.

In a recent interview with the review America on March 25, 2024, Archbishop Gallagher said he believes that “Russia does not establish the conditions that are necessary [to negotiate]. The conditions that are necessary, which are in the hands of Russia, are to stop the attacks, to stop the missiles.” He also states of the Holy See that, “We do not endorse that the boundaries of countries should be changed by force.”

The Jesuits of Civilta Cattolica--an influential review in Italy, and theoretically stamped by the Holy See before publication--defended a position different from that of Pope Francis and the Secretariat of State, supporting a future Ukrainian counter-offensive and a stronger support from Europe and NATO for Ukraine. What can be said about this multi-voice concert?

A Vatican official, quoted on condition of anonymity by La Croix, summarizes the situation by painting a nuanced picture of the oldest diplomacy in the world: “We are neutral but without ethical indifference. The story is more complex than a world in black and white. For us, Ukraine and Russia are not two completely separate sociopolitical realities...”