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Pope Francis makes puzzling remarks to Italian daily about Ukraine


Pope Francis is pictured during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 4, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There’s been a bit of chatter about Pope Francis’s most recent interview in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera newspaper, but not as much as he or the folks at the Corriere probably wish there were. To be perfectly frank, that’s probably for the best. There’s a good bit in it that could damage the Holy See – especially the Holy See’s diplomatic credibility – and a lot in it that could damage the Holy Father personally.

Take, for example, his insistence on going to Moscow before Kyiv, even though Kyiv is the seat of an autocephalous Catholic Church and Russian President Vladimir Putin is the aggressor in a war that has seen Russian forces invade Ukraine: “To Kyiv, for now, I am not going,” he said. “I sent Cardinal Michael Czerny (late of the Section for Migrants in Pope Francis’s prototype superdicastery for human development, now prefect of the same) and [papal almoner] Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who has been there four times.”

For himself, Pope Francis says: “I feel I cannot go. I must first go to Moscow, I must first meet Putin.” He adds: “But, I’m [only] a priest, too, what can I do?” and then, almost plaintively, “If Putin would only open the door.”

That, coupled with his insistence that he is “too far away” from the situation in Ukraine and “do[esn’t] know how to answer the question whether the international community ought to be resupplying Ukraine,” was more than enough to raise eyebrows. The line that really garnered headlines, however, was the pope’s insistence that “NATO’s barking at Putin’s door” perhaps had something to do with the Russian leader’s decision to invade his neighbor. 

That adds a tinge of bitter irony to Francis’s other oft-quoted line, to the effect that Russia’s Patriarch Kirill, who has been a vocal supporter of Putin and Putin’s war in Ukraine, ought not “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.” Leave aside that Kirill doesn’t have very far to go. Pope Francis’s insistence that senior Church leaders “not be clerics of state” is difficult to square with his copious praise of Italy’s top leaders. Former President Giorgio Napolitano is “a great man,” according to Francis. The pope said he “very much admires” incumbent Sergio Mattarella, too. Francis also verbally doffed his zucchetto to Italy’s pro-abortion paladin, Emma Bonino.

Pope Francis also wondered – aloud and very much on the record – whether Ukraine’s handling of Russian activity in the embattled Donbas region “almost ten years ago” may be somehow and in some measure to blame.

It is unthinkable that one free state should attack another free state,” Pope Francis said. “In Ukraine, it was others who sought conflict,” he continued. “The only thing that can be imputed to the Ukrainians is that they had responded in the Donbas, but we’re talking about a decade ago,” he said. A decade ago or not, the Donbas is an integral part of Ukrainian territory and the Russians were actively supporting Russian separatists waging war there. If the Ukrainians were wrong to defend themselves then, well, what about now?

All that makes it hard to see how the Holy See is supposed to bill itself credibly as an honest broker in crisis situations anywhere, while – credit to Charles Collins for noting it on Twitter – heads of state and government may well think twice before sharing sensitive information, after Pope Francis appeared to divulge information he received in late April from Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán, regarding Russia’s war plans and schedule.

For all his talk about listening to people on the margins, Pope Francis also shows a remarkable unwillingness to do just that. Explaining the recent contretemps over plans to have a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman read a rather too even-handed prayer at the recent via Crucis on Good Friday – the organizers eventually decided to put the prayer in File 13 and have the women bear the Cross in silence — Pope Francis said:

[W]hen for the via Crucis there were two women, one Russian and the other Ukrainian, who had to read the prayer together, they [the Ukrainians] made it a scandal. So I called Krajewski who was there and he said to me: “Stop, don’t read the prayer. They are right, even if we don’t fully understand.

The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, had said as much, but that was just the “proud” Ukrainians – Pope Francis’s word – making a stink, to hear him tell it. Pope Francis needed to hear it from his friend, Cardinal Krajewski. While we’re on the subject, it is worth mentioning that there is one thing Pope Francis could have done do to show support for the Ukrainian people and especially for Ukrainian Catholics: He could have sent Cardinal Krajewski with a red hat in his luggage for Archbishop Shevchuk. That would have been something.

The really bad thing about all this, is that there’s no spinning it. This is straight from the horse’s mouth, on the record, in the books. There’s no Scalfari to blame, no clarification to offer (or not), no ambiguity about a timeline or source material.

If Vatican beat journalists grouse a bit about the Corriere’s decision not to publish the interview as a straight Q&A, they’re well within the bounds of reason. Nevertheless, the Pope tends to say many words while finishing very few sentences. Getting pull quotes is not always a straightforward proposition. This time, one gets the impression that any attempt to clarify, revise, extend, or otherwise add to the pope’s remarks would only serve to keep the story alive – and that’s likely the very last thing anyone wants (Pope Francis possibly excepted).

If you want to gauge the damage Pope Francis’s interview has done, consider that it took much of the world a full 24 hours to notice it. This interview may be a slow burn, of the sort that smolders until it is an inexorable conflagration. More likely, it will crackle a bit and then quickly wane.


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