For Putin and the Catholic Church, history repeats itself – POLITICO

Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Writer at POLITICO Europe.

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

He may have first asked the derogatory question during his 1944 meeting in Moscow with British warlord Winston Churchill. However, some historians argue that he crossed the line by rejecting 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 Russian Catholics.

Be that as it may, the militarist Stalin didn’t consider the Catholic Church an enemy at the time – and today Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently doesn’t have to worry either, as few things seem to have changed.

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

In interviews, Francis also questioned whether it was right for Western powers to arm Ukrainians. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do to supply the Ukrainian fighters,” he told Corriere della Sera, after explaining that he was trying to assess the roots of the conflict and the reasons behind it. push Putin to engage in such a brutal war.

“I have no way of telling if his rage was provoked,” he wondered aloud, “but I suspect it may have been facilitated by the attitude of the West.”

He told La Civiltà Cattolica: “I am simply against reducing complexity to distinguishing 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 provoked or not prevented”.

In these declarations, many ambiguities hang over the words “perhaps” and “perhaps”. While laying the blame for the war on the shoulders of the West, they also offer Francis some protection against the accusation of blaming NATO outright for the invasion of Russia. And cynics might say that the pope’s interviews have been nothing more than exercises in the kind of philosophical casuistry that his religious missionary order has historically reproached for centuries.

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

The remarks contrast sharply, for example, with the outspoken Catholic Primate Archbishop of Poland Wojciech Polak who in early June forcefully declared that the Church would always stand “on the side of the weaker” in a “war between David and Goliath.”

Their tone is also very different from Ukrainian clerics who have been unequivocal in their explicit censure of Putin and have lamented the destruction of 133 churches in Ukraine since February 24. noted Father Gregorio Semenkov after the bombing of a Catholic diocesan building in Kharkiv.

Some see Francis’ equivocations as tied to his long-standing ecumenical overtures to the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Kirill, who has been a staunch defender of Putin and a staunch theological supporter 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 advocacy, Francis focused more on protecting Christians in the Middle East.

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

And when you are struggling with the so-called Filioque clause, perhaps it is better to drop the slightest political differences!

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

Still, Francis’ remarks weren’t good enough for Kirill, as the Russian Orthodox Church reprimanded him in May for using the wrong tone, after he urged Kirill not to turn into an ‘altar boy’. from the Kremlin and suggested neither he nor Kirill. should behave like “ecclesiastics of the state”.

But, of course, both are – and in the case of the Pope, he is the ruler of both the Vatican City State and the Holy See, with ultimate temporal responsibility for the global Church and of 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 moral authority of the Church?

This was the case when the Church signed the Lateran Pacts with Benito Mussolini in 1929, also in the 1960s and 1970s when it continued “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’s not just when it comes to Putin that Francis seems to be doing well. His approach to China has also sparked unease within the church, with prostration charges in 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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