Pope Francis is undoubtedly grieved by the carnage in Ukraine. And when the Catholic Church’s chief ecumenical officer, Cardinal Kurt Koch, tells journalists he shares the papal conviction that religious justifications of aggression are “blasphemy”—a wicked use of the things of God—we may be sure that this, too, is Francis’s view of things.
Why, then, should Pope Francis meet with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, as some personalities and movements in the Church were once urging? Since the invasion of February 24, Kirill has repeatedly deployed religious justifications for Russia’s barbaric assault on Ukraine. Is Kirill not, then, a blasphemer?
Some of those promoting a second Francis/Kirill encounter were likely thinking of the “optics.” Two religious leaders meeting in wartime to pray for peace would, they imagined, vividly demonstrate the Christian capacity to rise above ethnic hatred and national passion in the name of Easter faith and universal moral norms. That, however, was fantasy based on fallacy.
Kirill Gundayev began his ecclesiastical career at the World Council of Churches in a job that would only be given to someone completely trusted by, and likely working with, the KGB, the Soviet secret intelligence service. During his years as Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill has promoted an expansive vision of the “Russian world” that falsifies the Christian history of the eastern Slavs and underwrites a revival of czarist and Stalinist imperialism. Kirill is also a mouthpiece in the Russian disinformation campaign proclaiming the tyrant Vladimir Putin as the savior of civilization against Western decadence—a lie that has duped too many Catholics.
A meeting between the current Bishop of Rome and the current Patriarch of Moscow would not have been a meeting of two religious leaders. It would have been a meeting between a religious leader and an instrument of Russian state power.
But, some might have replied, that’s the point. By continuing the personal dialogue with Kirill he opened in Havana in 2015, Francis would have empowered Kirill to have a tempering effect on Putin while positioning the Vatican as honest broker in arranging a negotiated peace in Ukraine.
That, too, is fantasy.
First, in the Putin-Kirill relationship, the patriarch has no real leverage. The tyrant-president does not look to the patriarch for strategic counsel, and he certainly doesn’t look to him for moral correction. He looks to Kirill for support and for cover. Which he gets.
For the sad fact is that its subservience to the state precludes the Russian Orthodox leadership speaking truth to Kremlin power or calling the post-communist czar to conversion. What Kirill and his associates (like his principal ecumenist, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev) do provide is a faux-religious justification for Putin’s imperial ambitions, while assuring the Russians who commit horrendous acts of violence against civilians that they are true patriots and sons of the motherland.
Second, the idea of the Vatican as global honest broker is based on a misconception of how the Holy See can exert influence in the twenty-first-century world. Today’s Vatican is not the early nineteenth century’s Papal States: a third-tier European power that nonetheless exercised leverage at events like the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815. The Papal States no longer exist, and neither does the world of Metternich, Castlereagh, and Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Pope Pius VII’s brilliant and effective secretary of state.
As John Paul II demonstrated, though, the Holy See does have power in today’s world: the power of moral witness, which begins by calling things by their right names. Vatican commentary in the Ukraine war’s second month used a more honest vocabulary than was displayed in the war’s first weeks. Still, as of Easter, the papal and Vatican voice remained more a voice of lamentation than a prophetic voice denouncing aggression and naming the aggressor. That flaw was compounded by imprudent words suggesting that no wars are ever morally legitimate, which is not true of Ukraine’s defense of its territory, and of the cultural and political transformation of the country that began with the Maidan Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv in 2013–2014.
By the wanton slaughter of innocents in Bucha, in Mariupol’, and throughout Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has stigmatized himself with the mark of Cain. Kirill has tried to mask that stigma. For the Bishop of Rome to have met with Kirill as if the Russian were a true religious leader would have bitterly disappointed Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainians, who would not unreasonably have regarded it as a betrayal; it would have depleted the Holy See’s moral capital in world affairs; and it would have contributed nothing to peace.
This article was originally published on George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference