Why Is the Pope Pro-Putin?
Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, on February 12. It’s the first time the leaders of the two churches have met since the Great Schism almost 1,000 years ago.
Kirill, wrote Stratfor, “has been deeply involved with Russia’s Federal Security Services (fsb), and he thinks geopolitically. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has used the political nature of the church to consolidate influence at home and reach out for influence abroad.”
The patriarch’s meeting with the pope, then, happened because the Russian government wanted it to. But why?
The Ukrainian crisis gives one clue.
Back in 2013, as the Ukraine crisis was first beginning, the Los Angeles Times wrote: “As pro-Western and pro-Russian Ukrainians battle over the future orientation of their country, there is a world figure who could offer an important symbolic gift to European-minded Ukrainians: Pope Francis.” The pope’s mentor was a Ukrainian Catholic, so many expected the pope would take their side.
That never happened. Over 15 percent of Ukrainians belong to churches in full communion with Rome. Almost all of these are pro-Western. Yet the Vatican has consistently refused to stand up for them. Many commentators have expressed surprise that the Vatican’s position on Ukraine is so similar to Russia’s.
Did Putin convince the pope to stay out of the Ukraine conflict? He certainly respects the Vatican’s power. “The Kremlin sees the Vatican as a multidimensional power—bigger, in some ways, than what Russia considers ‘the West’,” wrote Anna Nemtsova in the Daily Beast this month. “That is one reason why Putin has twice met with Pope Francis in the recent years to discuss the importance of changing the political climate.”
The first of those visits came in late 2013. Ukraine was on course to shift to a pro-Western and pro-European direction. That came to an abrupt halt in November. On Nov. 21, 2013, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suspended preparations for an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. On November 29, Yanukovych dramatically failed to sign the deal at a key EU summit.
In the midst of this, Russian President Vladimir Putin had his first ever meeting with Pope Francis. On November 25, Putin visited the Vatican for a private audience.
The events of November 2013 triggered the Ukraine crisis. The rallying cry from the pope that the Los Angeles Times expected never came. But Ukrainians rose up and overthrew their pro-Russian president nonetheless.
Russia responded by invading Ukraine. Yet the Vatican had almost nothing to say about it.
The pope remained silent as Catholics claimed that Russian security services were driving them out of Crimea.
For local Catholics, it was very different. Religious authorities in Ukraine who are in communion with Rome are robust critics of Russia. But the pope told them to be quiet.
In February 2015, the pope condemned the “fratricidal violence” in Ukraine. This language closely mirrored the Russian government’s—who always referred to the conflict as a “civil war.”
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of Kiev-Halych and the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, quickly contradicted him. “We have to say that we do not have a civil war in Ukraine,” he told journalists. “We have an aggression of a foreign country against the Ukrainian citizens and the Ukrainian state.”
Later that month, Ukraine’s bishops had already been scheduled to travel to Rome to meet the pope. When asked about the upcoming meeting, Shevchuk said, “Our duty is to convey the truth, not to force somebody to change their mind.”
Instead, the pope told the Ukrainian bishops to stay out of politics. According to text released by the Vatican, he told the bishops at a private meeting that “recent historical events that have marked your land are still present in the collective memory. These are questions that have in part a political basis and to which you are not called to give a direct answer.”
Meanwhile, the pope’s stance did not budge. Later in the year, Shevchuk said, “I would have expected a lot more involvement by the Vatican—the time for cautious diplomacy is at an end.”
Also in February 2015, Patriarch Kirill publicly thanked the Vatican for its stance on Ukraine. Local Catholic authorities “made extremely politicized statements, which did not help end the civil confrontation,” said Kirill. “I would like to note with satisfaction that the Holy See itself has always pursued a balanced stance toward the situation in Ukraine and has avoided any lopsided assessments, but has called for peace talks and an end to armed clashes,” he added.
The Vatican’s nuncio in Ukraine—essentially a papal ambassador—Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, tweeted links to articles very critical of the pope, including one called “The Pope Got It Completely and Utterly Wrong.”
These tweets did not deal directly with the Ukraine situation but he has been outspoken on that issue also. He compared the persecution of Catholics in Crimea and the Donbass with the persecution Ukrainian Catholics suffered under Joseph Stalin. This persecution, he said, was being carried out “with the complicity of the Orthodox brethren and the blessing of Moscow.”
“The reports that the nuncio is sending to Rome are detailed and alarming,” wrote Sandro Magister for the Italian L’Espresso magazine. “And Ukrainian Catholics have been furious to see how none of this has appeared in the words of Pope Francis. It is their conviction that in the Roman curia, as well as in Ukraine, the pro-Russian party has free rein and is influencing the pope.”
The Vatican continued to ignore Gullickson’s reports, until September 2015 when they moved the troublesome nuncio to Switzerland. Foreign Affairs magazine noted that the move was “allegedly because Moscow complained that he [Gullickson] was biased against Russia.” The Catholic Church has fought wars to prevent national leaders from telling the church where to station its bishops. Yet if these allegations are true, this time the Vatican meekly rolled over.
Ukrainian Catholics were very disappointed at last week’s meeting with the Russian patriarch. While Shevchuk was careful not to criticize the pope directly, he condemned the Joint Declaration signed by the two church leaders.
“It is hard to imagine a weaker team than the one that drafted this text,” he said. The document once again takes Russia’s stance that this is a civil war rather than a Russian invasion. Shevchuk went on to say:
Undoubtedly, this text has caused deep disappointment among many faithful of our church and among conscientious citizens of Ukraine. Today, many contacted me about this and said that they feel betrayed by the Vatican, disappointed by the half-truth nature of this document, and even see it as indirect support by the Apostolic See for Russian aggression against Ukraine. I can certainly understand those feelings.
The church’s stance on Ukraine is part of a strong trend. “Francis has always done all he could not to annoy the patriarchate of Moscow and the imperial politics of Vladimir Putin, even at the cost of sowing the strongest disappointment among the bishops, clergy and faithful of the Catholic Church in the region,” wrote Magister.
“One relationship Francis has patiently cultivated is with Putin,” Foreign Affairs wrote. Why bend over backward for Putin like this? The Trumpet has long speculated that Germany and Russia would come to some kind of agreement as both powers become more assertive. The late Ron Fraser clearly articulated the case several years ago:
Uncertain of the U.S. as an underwriter for European security, the EU is undergoing a sea change in respect to the mind-set of its senior bureaucrats and politicians. Increasingly, calls are being made for the consolidation of a pan-European military force to defend EU interests. Germany is leading this call to arms; hence the current clash between EU President Merkel and Russian President Putin.
Each knows that the situation in play is of historic proportions. Each is cognizant of the history of Germany and Russia having played this same game in the past, and the vast loss of life resulting from military clashes between the two. Neither currently wants to antagonize the other that far. Each wants a satisfactory political conclusion to their individual security interests so they can get on with the business of consolidating their respective empires unchallenged at the point where their imperial borders meet. On several occasions since Napoleon’s defeat brought the fifth revival of the Holy Roman Empire to its end, Germany, prior to going to war in the West, first secured its eastern border by concluding treaties with Russia. Treaties Between Germany and Russia, 1881-1939 • The Secret Treaty and Protocol, 1881, renewed 1884 • Reinsurance Treaty, 1887 • Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, 1918 • Treaty of Rapallo, 1922 • Germany-ussr Neutrality Agreement, 1926 • Treaty of Nonaggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), August 1939. • German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty, September 1939 Neither Russia nor the German-dominated European Union can tolerate for much longer the lack of a clear balance of power on the Continent.
There’s already evidence that Germany and Russia have come to some kind of arrangement—at the very least informally. Germany has consistently blocked Georgia and Ukraine from joining nato, for example. And while Germany maintained close ties to some Ukrainian political movements, it missed several easy opportunities to cause trouble for Russia in Ukraine. Instead, it seems Germany is trying to walk a fine line—opposing Russia enough to keep Poland, the Baltics and other states that fear Russia on its side, while at the same time not pushing Russia into all-out opposition.
Could the Vatican play a role in forging a deal between Russia and Europe? The way they’re behaving over Ukraine makes it appear that way.
“For Putin, the meeting [between the pope and patriarch] could not come at a better time,” wrote Nina Khrushcheva on Project Syndicate. “Plunging oil prices, the dramatic decline in the value of the ruble, ongoing sanctions, and the increasingly bloody images coming out of Syria have left him desperate for positive news. And what better photo opportunity than having the vicar of Christ standing side by side with your close spiritual and political ally?” The Vatican’s help in coming to an arrangement with Europe could not come at a better time either.
Nemtsova wrote that “Russian President Vladimir Putin asked the Moscow patriarchate to play a diplomatic role, to help convince Pope Francis—whose good offices did much to end the decades of hostility between Cuba and the United States—that he should help smooth the way for better understanding between Washington and Moscow.”
“According to one official close to the Kremlin, who spoke privately to the Daily Beast, the message is supposed to be that Russia is kindhearted, that it cares about Christians everywhere, and that the West should be careful not to provoke a widening war,” she continued. “The official claimed the patriarch might also complain about ‘irresponsible American politicians,’ including Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who has taken the point on U.S. policy toward Ukraine.”
There could certainly be room for agreement here. The pope is no fan of America’s economic system. When he visited America last year, he had much criticism for the United States. But when he visited Cuba, he had almost nothing bad to say about the autocratic regime of the Castro brothers. The pope’s opposition to America could go a long way to explaining his apparent support for Putin.
Of course there are other potential interests at play. The Catholic Church is trying to reunite with all of its offshoots. The Russian Orthodox Church is so heavily ingrained in the Russian state that it may not be successful in this case. But would it be willing to make concessions to Russia in exchange for a great role in the Russian church?
This is how many in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church see it: The Russia Orthodox Church objects to the existence of a separate Orthodox church in full communion with Rome in what it sees as its territory. Ukrainian Greek Catholics fear the Vatican has thrown them under the bus in order to chase unification with Russia Orthodoxy.
Looming large over this visit is the first meeting of Orthodox patriarchs in 1,000 years, to be held in June. Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church is generally regarded as the head of the Orthodox Church—at least as a “first among equals.” But the Russian Orthodox Church does not accept this. Much of Bartholomew’s prestige comes from the fact that the Catholic Church has treated him as the chief Orthodox patriarch. By dealing directly with Rome, Kirill is trying to boost his prestige ahead of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest of all the Orthodox groups, giving his claim to primacy weight. At the same time, the Vatican may be sending a message to Bartholomew: Do more to bring your church back to Rome. If you don’t, there are other patriarchs we can work with.
There’s a lot potentially at play here. The Vatican has been so close to Putin it’s impossible to ignore. It could simply be the pope taking the opposing side to the power that spreads the “dung of the devil”—as the pope called unbridled capitalism.
But if the Vatican is involved in some kind of deal between Russia and Germany, that is very worrying. Back in 2008 after Russia invaded Georgia, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote, “Russia and Germany fear each other. … [L]ook at history. Every time competition between Russia and Germany heats up, they form a deal with one another—just before going to war! …
“The presence of a deal between these two nations is not a sign of peace. Like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and so many others before it, it is a sign of exactly the opposite. Both of these nations are looking to secure their shared border—so they can pursue their imperialistic aims elsewhere! It is a precursor to war!”
The pope appears to have allowed Russia to do whatever it wants in Ukraine without opposition. If he can convince Germany and the rest of Europe to do likewise—and so far they’ve put up very little resistance—how much more will Putin do? And what will be the quid pro quo? What will Russia allow Europe to get away with?
That is why the pope’s silence on Ukraine is so concerning. For more on where the ambitions of Germany and Russia will take the world, read Mr. Flurry’s article “Russia’s Attack Signals Dangerous New Era.”