The Pope’s dilemma: Is even a just war madness

Tomáš Petráček

Katolický teolog a kněz

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, attention has also been focused on one of the biggest global celebrities – Pope Francis. He heads a community of over a billion faithful over whom he still holds a high degree of authority. With his charismatic style of exercising his office, Francis has become an authority even for millions of people who have nothing to do with the Church. Conservative church circles even criticize that he is the first pope in history who is preferred by people outside the church rather than by Catholics themselves. How to assess the attitudes and actions of Pope Francis after two months of war in Ukraine? And could he not have done more for the peace of arms?


From warriors to peacemakers

Christianity, originally a pacifist faith, has had to find a way to cope with war and violence in a situation where a Christian state has been established, everyone is a Christian and must defend its population. Gradually it developed the concept of just war, warfare became a normal part of the Christian world, however much there was an attempt to set limits and rules on the course of war through the ideal of chivalry or the so-called divine peace (setting periods when war must not be fought). Popes themselves, as rulers of the ecclesiastical state, were still leading armies into battle in the 16th century. Only the demise of the ecclesiastical state relieved them of this temptation, but even as late as the occupation of papal Rome in September 1870, Pope Pius IX ordered armed resistance, so that it would not look for the future as if he had perhaps tacitly agreed to it. The loss of temporal and political power has led to the transformation of the papacy into a role of moral and spiritual authority; the concern for peace and the effort to prevent war has traditionally been a great concern and priority of the Holy See, especially since the disasters of the two world wars.

The most famous intervention in modern times is Pope Benedict XV’s attempt to end World War I, which was vigorously rejected by all sides, including Catholics, because they had already sacrificed too much to accept a compromise peace. Church circles were also involved in the secret peace negotiations of Emperor Charles I, which also collapsed. The Catholic Church finds it difficult to manoeuvre in these situations, often with Catholics on both sides, or threatening repression of Catholics and the Church if the Pope were to agree to condemn one side.

Hence the disappointing attitude of Pope Pius XII when Poland was invaded in 1939. The Vatican saw it as a conflict between two states where neutrality had to be maintained. Throughout the war, then, this Pope concentrated on urging an end to fighting, the establishment of a just peace, and an end to the persecution of groups of people simply because of their language, race or faith. The situation was exacerbated by the threat of the annihilation of mankind using nuclear weapons, recalling the encyclicals of John XXIII. The effort to keep the peace thus became an important part of the work of all the popes of the post-war era.


Sacrifices on all sides

Pope Francis goes decisively beyond the emphatic calls not to resolve conflicts between states through war, as we have known them especially from Pope John Paul II, precisely by disrespecting the position of head of state, which he still is. Despite the disapproval of part of the curia, he is going beyond the diplomatic rules and making gestures of a prophetic nature. For example, when he made his appeal to the warlords of South Sudan for peace and an end to genocide by kneeling down and kissing their feet in front of these cruel, cynical politicians. Yet just 100 years ago, his predecessors were on stretchers in public and kissed the Pope’s slipper in audiences.

So, for the sake of saving lives and stopping the madness of war, he similarly does not invite an ambassador to the Apostolic Palace, but impulsively and despite serious health problems, goes to the Russian embassy to expedite his appeal and to emphasize, “I went alone. I did not want anyone to accompany me. It was my personal responsibility. It was a decision I made at night when I was watching over Ukraine. I wanted to do something so that not one more person would die in Ukraine.”

Francis names things directly. It is a war, and the victims of the war are Ukraine and its people, but he does not forget to mention that ordinary Russian soldiers are also victims of the war and the decisions of their government: “Ukraine has been invaded and occupied… War is not a solution, war is a monstrous madness, it is a tumor eating everything around it! Even more – war is sacrilege, it ravages everything that is most precious on earth: human life, the innocence of the little ones, the beauty of creation.” Once again, words are accompanied by action: immediately after the outbreak of war, he sends two prominent curial cardinals, his closest collaborators, to Ukraine to organize humanitarian aid, but obviously as an expression of his support for the invaded country. He publicly kisses the bloodied Ukrainian flag.

Significant is his constant reminder of the war, which has been going on for over two months now and threatens to slowly become familiar to the world public. Significantly more problematic is his claim that there is no just war. First, because we should not abandon elaborate concepts unless we have some more perfect ones to replace them. And secondly, because what else would better fit the concept of a just war than the defence of Ukraine? But Francis is all about the phrase “just war”, which fails to take into account that every war entails not only death, pain and injury, but also the destruction of the humanity of all those involved.

Similarly, he has offended many by criticising the plans of European countries to increase spending on armaments and the military. But the Pope is supposed to speak as a Pope, as a spiritual leader, and perhaps we can agree that humanity would benefit if these resources were devoted to eliminating hunger, poverty, disease or education. In the real world, with predatory regimes like Russia and China, it is the role of democratic statesmen and politicians to ensure the security of their citizens and states. Yet the call to remember the overall framework of trying to build a fairer, more just world in an atmosphere of war should be made, and who else should make it?

And each of us can do something about it right here and now, as Francis reminds us, “War must be stopped in our hearts before it reaches the front. Hatred must be eradicated from hearts before it is too late, with dialogue, negotiation, listening, diplomatic skills and creativity, far-sighted policies capable of building a new system of coexistence not based on weapons and their power, on intimidation.”


Don’t burn bridges

The Pope has been criticized for never directly naming Russia or Putin, responding in an interview with Argentine daily La Nación on 21 April: “I am ready to do everything to stop the war… The Pope never names a head of state, let alone a country that is superior to its head of state.” Of a possible meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, he says: “I regret that the Vatican had to cancel the second meeting with Patriarch Kirill that we had planned for June in Jerusalem. However, our diplomacy felt that our meeting at this time could lead to great confusion.” While he does not want to lose the opportunity to talk to those who have the power to end the violence, he also does not want to contribute to diluting responsibility for the madness of war.

The Vatican does not hold a strong hand in brokering peace. The papacy is not seen as a neutral mediator in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church views Catholics as schismatics and heretics; indeed, the Pope has good relations with the Metropolitan of Tsarigrad, not Moscow. On the contrary, Francis’ efforts to renew the Church and Christianity are seen as yet another manifestation of the decadent decline of the West and a move away from “truly Christian” roots. Francis has long had a desire to travel to Russia, but his visit is blocked as undesirable by the Orthodox Church in particular.

But online meetings with Kirill are of similar importance to Francis’ meetings with some Islamic religious authorities. One cannot expect immediate progress in relations, and Francis’ helpfulness is not often reciprocated to the same extent. The Christian is called to be a peacemaker, and that is what Francis is trying to do. He gives himself to the other side. The various zealots and bullies then have at least the difficult task of portraying Catholics and the West as bitter enemies, when the Pope himself seeks dialogue and goes to them, talks to them, shows his respect

So can Pope Francis do more, overtly or covertly, to end the war and for Ukraine? I guess we can only really judge that fairly in hindsight. But it is already clear that he is giving everything he can and should to the cause of peace and to helping the beleaguered Ukrainian people, and that in doing so he is going far beyond the actions of his predecessors.

Translated from the Czech original.



published: 9. 5. 2022

Datum publikace:
9. 5. 2022
Autor článku:
Tomáš Petráček