Sunday, February 25, 2024

On war’s anniversary, is ‘Fiducia’ a new obstacle to Vatican’s peace push on Ukraine?

As the world marked the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine yesterday, the failure to date of all diplomatic efforts, including those of the Vatican, to bring the war to an end were painfully clear.

The most obvious reason for those failures, of course, is the fact that neither Russia nor Ukraine have yet shown any real interest in making the sort of concessions that would be necessary for a negotiated settlement.

Yet with regard to the Vatican specifically, there are a handful of additional factors which help explain why its efforts to play a mediating role have come up short, and recently a new one has begun to come into focus: The fact that Pope Francis’s external and internal agendas may be in conflict vis-à-vis engaging Russia.

To wit, the very flexibility and non-traditional thinking that makes Francis more open to Russia’s geopolitical and diplomatic agenda ad extra, meaning with regard to the wider world, may also make this pope a tough sell for the Russians ad intra, meaning having to do with the internal life of the Church.

The thought comes to mind in light of Russian Orthodox reaction to Fiducia Supplicans, the controversial Dec. 18 document from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith authorizing priests to administer non-liturgical blessings to couples involved in “irregular” relationships, including same-sex unions.

While the document has generated massive controversy inside the Catholic fold, of late it’s also begun to become the focus of ecumenical reaction, including a new critical note from the Synodal Biblical-Theological Commission of the Moscow Patriarchate, meaning the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.

According to a Feb. 20 statement posted on the website of the Moscow Patriarchate, the commission examined the document at the direction of Patriarch Kirill, and was unanimous in reaching the conclusion that “this innovation reflected a sharp departure from Christian moral teaching.”

The statement followed an earlier interview with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Budapest, head of the commission that studied Fiducia and the former number two official in the Russian Orthodox power structure after Kirill, in which Hilarion referred to the document as “a kind of shock.”

“Everyone now will believe that the Church blesses homosexual couples,” he said, insisting that the document thereby “deceives those who receive such a blessing and those who witness it.”

Notably, Hilarion generally is seen as among the moderates in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, not part of the staunchly anti-Roman hardliners.

The backlash to Fiducia stands in contrast with the pope’s broad opening to Russia on the geopolitical front, where substantively he’s closer to the position of the BRICS nations – now BRICS plus six, with the admission of Francis’s own Argentina, as well as Saudia Arabia, Iran, and others – than to Washington, Brussels or NATO.

Across much of the developing world, there is no presumption that the Western powers, most notably the United States, have any monopoly on moral virtue, nor any widespread conviction that Russia should be frozen out of the international system. 

According to The Economist, the number of nations either neutral on the conflict in Ukraine or supportive of Russia’s position is roughly 70, representing almost two-thirds of the world’s population, including India and China.

In that sense, Pope Francis’s policy of refusing to condemn President Vladimir Putin by name, and of dropping hints that Russia may have had legitimate security concerns about NATO “barking at its door” that contributed to the conflict, is of a piece with his broader agenda of the decolonization of Vatican foreign policy, meaning a shift from being a predominantly western institution to becoming a truly global one.

Speaking just ahead of Saturday’s anniversary, the pontiff’s hand-picked envoy on the conflict, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, once more employed the sort of rhetoric which has occasionally driven Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian Catholics, to distraction.

It’s important, Zuppi said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, “to remember, despite the temptation of a polarization that has nothing to do with understanding the problems, that all wars are always fratricides.”

“It’s always Cain who kills his brother Abel,” he said.

Francis too has used the term “fratricide” on multiple occasions to refer to the conflict, always drawing protests from Ukrainians who insist that this is not a fight among brothers but rather a war of conquest in which there’s a clear aggressor and a clear victim.

Knowing how irritating many Ukrainians find the phrase, the fact that Zuppi is still using it is telling.

From the beginning of his papacy, Francis has enjoyed a relatively amicable relationship with Putin, and the two men have found common cause before. 

In 2013, Francis and Putin joined forces in opposing what seemed at the time a Western push for the use of military force in Syria to promote a regime change, effectively keeping Assad in power.

In a March 2023 interview, Francis also went out of his way to describe Putin as a man of culture.

“He visited me three times as head of state, and one could have a conversation at a high level with him,” the pope said. “We spoke about literature once. He is a man who not only speaks Russian. He speaks German fluently and he speaks English. He is educated.”

All of this suggests that, politically and diplomatically, Francis and his allies are not part of the anti-Russian consensus of the Western powers, a stance which theoretically might position the Vatican well to act as an intermediary.

On the other hand, any such effort probably would have to pass through the Russian Orthodox Church – which, as we have seen, may appreciate the Argentine pontiff’s diplomatic style, but which appears to have doubts about some elements of his theological and doctrinal approach, thereby raising questions about the overall trust level in the relationship.

From the broadly center-left perspective of this papacy, the desire to promote peace around the world, to hear the voice of the developing world, and to reach out to previously marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, undoubtedly all seem cut from the same cloth.

The case of Russia, however, suggests that thing aren’t always quite that simple. Sometimes, one element of your agenda may actually be in conflict with another, however internally consistent they may seem to you.

Then the truly hard part begins: You have to choose.