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For Putin and the Catholic Church, history repeats

Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe. 

ROME — There are scholarly disputes as to when and to whom Joseph Stalin first uttered his rhetorical question about the power of the Roman Catholic Church — “how many divisions does the pope have?” 

He may have first asked the disparaging question during his 1944 meeting in Moscow with Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill. However, some historians maintain he trotted out the line when dismissing a plea by French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval who, during a visit to the Russian capital in 1935, asked the Communist autocrat if he could do something to improve the lives of Russia’s Catholics. 

Either way, the militaristic Stalin didn’t rate the Catholic Church as a foe back then — and today, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin doesn’t need to worry either, apparently, as not much appears to have changed.   

In separate interviews with the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolic and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera over the last months, Pope Francis — the first Jesuit to become pope — openly echoed a Kremlin talking point, suggesting the war in Ukraine is a consequence of NATO “barking at Russia’s gate.” He then blamed the “international arms industry” for the conflict. 

In the interviews, Francis also pondered whether it’s right for Western powers to arm Ukrainians. “I don’t know if it is the right thing to supply the Ukrainian fighters,” he told Corriere della Sera, after explaining he’s been trying to assess the roots of the conflict and the reasons pushing Putin to engage in such brutal warfare. 

“I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked,” he wondered aloud, “but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude.” 

He told La Civiltà Cattolica, “I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good guys and bad guys, without reasoning about roots and interests, which are very complex.” Adding that Russia’s war in Ukraine was “perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented.” 

In these statements, a lot of equivocation hangs on the words “maybe” and “perhaps.” While nudging responsibility for the war on to the West’s shoulders, they also offer Francis some protection from being accused of blaming NATO outright for Russia’s invasion. And cynics might argue the pope’s interviews have simply been exercises in the kind of philosophical casuistry that his religious missionary order’s been historically reproached for over centuries.  

This may be so, but Francis’ comments have discouraged and offended many Ukrainians — including Catholics — who, along with others of their faith, are now debating the reasons behind the pope’s opaque approach. 

The remarks stand in marked contrast, for example, to the outspokenness of Poland’s Catholic Primate Archbishop Wojciech Polak who, in early June, resoundingly declared the church would always “stand on the side of the weakest” in a “war between David and Goliath.”  

They’re also very different in tone from Ukrainian clerics who haven’t been equivocal in their explicit censuring of Putin, and have deplored the destruction of 133 churches in Ukraine since February 24. “This morning was hell — the bomb fell on the curia,” noted Father Gregorio Semenkov after the bombing of a Catholic diocesan building in Kharkiv. 

Some see Francis’ equivocations as tied up with his long-standing ecumenical overtures to the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader Patriarch Kirill, who has been a strong Putin advocate and outspoken theological backer of the invasion. 

Francis has long pursued a goal of healing relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, advancing the work of his predecessor Benedict XVI in developing a relationship with Kirill. And where Benedict leveraged shared opposition to Western sexual mores and same-sex marriage in his outreach, Francis has focused more on protecting Christians in the Middle East. 

The Pope is now reluctant to abandon his bid to ease tensions between the two largest denominations of Christianity, which had split in the Great Schism of 1054. That breach was about politics as much as it was about obscure but significant theological differences, including the Western church’s identification of the Son, Jesus Christ, as an additional origin point of the Holy Spirit on par with God.  

And when one’s grappling with the so-called Filioque clause, maybe it’s best to drop the lesser political differences! 

But others place Francis’ approach in an Argentinian Peronist past from which he “inherited a third-world-style criticism” of the West, and is “more inclined to understand the anti-Americanism of Putin and Kirill,” according to Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne, founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions. 

Still, Francis’ remarks haven’t been good enough for Kirill, as the Russian Orthodox Church scolded him in May for using the wrong tone, after he urged Kirill not to turn himself into the Kremlin’s “altar boy” and suggested neither he nor Kirill should behave like “clerics of the state.”  

But, of course, both are — and in the Pope’s case, he’s the ruler of both the Vatican City State and the Holy See, with ultimate temporal responsibility for the worldwide church and its 640 archdioceses, 2,851 dioceses, 221,000 parishes and nearly 4,000 cathedrals.  

Isn’t Francis simply doing what, institutionally, so many popes have done before — placing temporal interests above spiritual and moral imperatives and undermining the church’s moral authority? 

This was the case when the church signed the Lateran Pacts with Benito Mussolini in 1929, also in the 1960s and 1970s when it pursued “Ostpolitik” policies with the Soviet Union, avoiding any public condemnation of the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain until Pope John Paul II. 

It isn’t only when it comes to Putin that Francis appears to be pulling his punches either. His approach to China has also prompted unease within the church, with accusations of kowtowing to Beijing by turning a blind eye to human rights violations in China.

So, maybe none of this is so surprising after all.

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