Ukraine, the Pivot of Francis. In Support of the Armed Struggle of a Martyr People
by Sandro Magister
“This is not even Russophobia, but perversion of the truth”: so the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, has dismissed the pope’s arguments. “Indignation” at the papal “insinuations” has also been expressed by the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeyev. And finally, it is foreign minister Sergey Lavrov himself who has branded the pope’s words as “un-Christian.” Adding: “The Vatican has said that this will not happen again and that there has probably been a misunderstanding, but this does not help to increase the authority of the pontifical state.”
What provoked Moscow’s reactions was that passage of the interview in which the pope said he had “a lot of information about the cruelty of the troops” sent to attack Ukraine, with the unfortunate specification that “generally the cruelest are perhaps the peoples that are of Russia but not of the Russian tradition, like the Chechens, Buryats, and so on.” Not just the “mercenaries,” therefore, as the pope had previously lamented on a couple of occasions, but also the troops of particular ethnic groups, whose leaders, the Chechen Ramzan Kadyrov foremost, have also protested loudly.
The fact is that – leaving aside the all too frequent errors of communication – lately much has changed in what Francis says and thinks about the war in Ukraine.
The pivot is to be traced back to the meeting that the pope had at the Vatican on November 7 with the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk (in the photo). And it materialized in that “Letter of the Holy Father to the Ukrainian people” released on November 24 which Shevchuk himself had asked Francis to write, and which is very close in style and content to the messages that the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics addresses his faithful.
November 24 was two days before the commemoration of the Holodomor, the “terrible genocide, the extermination by hunger in 1932-33, artificially caused by Stalin in Ukraine,” as Francis has called it not only in the letter to the Ukrainian people but also in the general audience on Wednesday November 23, at the Angelus on Sunday the 27th, and in the interview with “America” on the 28th.
And this in itself is a new development of enormous significance, in the pope’s judgments on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, all the more on account of the use of the label of “genocide,” which up to now only a few states in the world have applied to the Holodomor, recalled by Francis “as a historical antecedent of the conflict” today.
Moreover there is now in the pope’s words a description of this war that is wholly and solely on the side of the “martyred” Ukrainian people and against that other state which “is martyring them.”
But above all in the letter from Francis to the Ukrainians there is a statement that for him is unprecedented. It is where he writes: “I think of you, young people, who in courageous defense of your homeland have had to take up arms rather than pursue your cherished dreams for the future.”
And further on: “I stand in admiration of your steadfast resistance. Even amid the experience of this enormous tragedy, the Ukrainian people have never given in to discouragement or self-pity. The world has come to recognize a people bold and strong, a people that suffers and prays, weeps and struggles, resists and continues to hope, a noble people of martyrs. I remain close to you.”
For the first time, here, after nine months of war, Francis says clear words in support of the armed struggle of the Ukrainians against the Russians. In contrast to the pacifist line still professed by almost all Italian Catholic organizations, following, to hear them tell it, the pope.
But that’s just it, which pope? The one who until a month ago was blaming the West and NATO for having provoked Russia, “barking” at its borders? The one who traced even this conflict, like all of them, back to the “madness” of global arms manufacture and trade? The one who ruled out the notion that a “just” war could ever be fought?
Or the pope who today sympathizes with the Ukrainian soldiers who are defending their homeland with arms?
As bishop of Rome and primate of Italy, Francis has behind him a Catholic people whose most prominent leaders, associative structures, and press outlets all call for peace but disapprove of sending weapons to Ukraine.
From the very first day of the Russian aggression, Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, sided with the surrender of Ukraine, launching an appeal to have Kyiv declared an “open city,” that is, occupied by the invading army without offering any resistance.
On November 5 it was again Riccardi who gave the closing speech of the big pacifist demonstration – with the participation of almost all the Catholic associations – that marched through the streets of Rome to St. John Lateran, with dozens of Sant’Egidio flags in the square, but understandably not even one of Ukraine waved by Ukrainians.
It is “Avvenire,” the official newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference directed by Marco Tarquinio, that speaks up every day for peace in Ukraine, but always against the sending of weapons to that nation.
It was Stefano Zamagni and Mauro Magatti, two prominent Catholic intellectuals – the former an economist and the president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, and the latter a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of Milan and the secretary of the Italian Catholic Social Weeks – who in October launched a six-point peace plan including, among other things, referendums for the autonomy of the Russian-speaking regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, the creation of a joint Russian-Ukrainian body for the exploitation of the mineral wealth of Donbas, and the de facto concession of Crimea to Russia.
Until a month ago, this Catholic world had a field day claiming the pope’s support for itself.
But today? It comes as no surprise that Francis’s November 24 letter to the Ukrainian people has met with a frosty reception from this same Catholic world.
A world that naturally has no lack of effective dissonant voices, albeit rare. Among which is that of Vittorio Emanuele Parsi, professor of international relations at the Catholic University of Milan and director, at the same university, of the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations.
The following is a short excerpt from his latest book, “The place of war and the cost of freedom,” published by Bompiani.
THE COST OF FREEDOM
by Vittorio Emanuele Parsi
If the Russian aggression in Ukraine teaches us one thing, it is that the rules that have allowed the banishing of war from Europe work between democracies, and there an end. Let’s take, for example, the age-old Franco-German enmity. [...] What makes any mutual concern about conflict between France and Germany implausible today is simply the fact that both share similar political institutions, the same values, and are “open societies” in which the state is the guardian of the civil, political, and social liberties of its citizens.
This is what has made it possible that, where in the past the fear of war was the constant, there should now reign absolute trust in peace. And it is from this that it has been possible to develop the international and transnational institutions – the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union – that have provided the means to strengthen, deepen, and guarantee the security of the Europe in which we lived until February 24 2022 and in which we should continue to live even after.
It almost seems that we Europeans struggle to understand not only how our very continent has been the main beneficiary of the liberal international order that emerged after the Second World War, but also how our institutions constitute its second main pillar, together with the one represented by the United States, which above all militarily remains the first. If only we had a greater awareness of this, perhaps we would have much less difficulty in recognizing that what is at stake in Ukraine is not only the legitimate right of the Ukrainians to be masters in their own home, the political future of that valiant and unfortunate country, but also the survival of that order which has constituted the landscape and framework in which we have developed “our” peaceful and democratic Europe, and whose passing away would make keeping to this course unthinkable.
And therefore? And therefore one must be convinced that domestic peace in Europe is possible only if no one threatens its borders and tries to interrupt the autonomous development of democracy on its borders. Because the fundamental thing to reiterate today is that Ukraine had begun in autonomy its evolution toward democracy, in which western positioning represented a natural complement, considering that the established democracies are all located to the west of Ukraine and that from the west there did not come – and does not come – any threat to its territorial integrity. […]
Whatever may be said of it by Russian propaganda and repeated by its Trojan horses, [...] there was no prospect of Ukraine’s joining NATO. This was proposed in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush and was rejected by the heads of state and of government of the main European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. While it was precisely the prospect of a structural alignment of Ukraine with the European Union that in 2014 provoked the heavyhanded Russian interference in the Ukrainian political process, the invasion of Crimea, and military support for the separatists of Donbas. […]
It is only we – the West, Europe – who can decree the victory of the Kremlin’s criminal plan, not believing in the goodness of our cause which at this moment is at one with the cause of the Ukrainian people, and instead giving in to the veiled threats in the subtle and mendacious arguments of Vladimir Putin.
It is only we who can deliver up to him the spoils together with the victor’s palm, accompanied by a license of respectability for him and of innocence for us, misrepresenting under the reassuring epithets of realism, prudence, and pacifism what are called cynicism, cowardice, and irresponsibility.
It is up to us to decide whether we want to put the Ukrainians in a position to fight and, of course, to prolong the war, but to be able to choose which they prefer between living as slaves or dying in order to continue to be free.