When Diplomacy Prevails over the Principles of the Faith
Ukrainian Catholics are talking quite a bit about His Holiness Pope Francis these days. We are grateful that a unique relic from the Vatican, the image of Christ on the veil, has been brought to Lviv. Many pilgrims are traveling to pray fervently before the icon, which the Pope has generously allowed to be brought to a country suffering a painful war.
At the same time, we are very disturbed by the words with which Pope Francis addressed Ukrainians during his general audience of February 4, equating our current conflict with Russia with “fratricidal fighting among Christians.”
A bold pastor and a man of clear words, Pope Francis, nevertheless, depends on his curia to understand the Russian-Ukrainian war. That’s the problem. For many Vatican diplomats, relations with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church are the priority when there is a question about Eastern-rite Catholics in this part of the world.
I have two motivations for criticizing the Vatican’s position on the “Ukrainian question.” First of all, as Pope Francis has said, we should look on the Church’s sins and imperfections as on those of our own mother. So, the mistakes of my Mother, the Church, pain me and I must speak. So I will speak with respect for the Pope, who himself bravely speaks the truth to which he witnesses.
Secondly, in my own life I have paid for defending the truth, at the cost of ten years’ imprisonment in a Soviet concentration camp. So I know that faithfulness to the truth is a higher value than one’s own security or peaceful prosperity. I continue to live according to this principle.
Diplomacy is a legitimate part of church life. However, for diplomacy, centers of power have first place. It is not interested in spirituality and personal witnessing to the faith.
But it is difficult to imagine something more contradictory to Christ’s ministry than absolutizing centers of power. Can you picture Jesus flattering the power-holders of his time and not reacting to a simple person’s efforts to cleanse his religious devotion of corruption?
For many Vatican diplomats, the Ukrainian Church is divided, naïve, unskilled in diplomacy – it does not exist as a center of power. For them, it is only a trouble-maker that creates problems in relations with the only real center of power in our area, the Moscow Patriarchate. And the Moscow Patriarchate’s clear, scandalous sins do not trouble the diplomats: they will give it priority as long as it remains influential in interchurch relations.
Vatican functionaries were almost entirely silent at the manifestation of authentic spirituality on the Maidan, the protests in Kyiv and throughout the country in late 2013 and early 2014. Simple people turned to spiritual values. There was a desire to overcome corruption. Kyiv’s Independence Square, the Maidan, was a place of daily prayers, night vigils, and conversions to the faith. The Maidan was a site of ecumenism and interreligious cooperation on human dignity, that is, there was a public consensus of all Christians, Jews and Muslims of Ukraine. There is now incredible volunteer work being done to help numerous refugees, wounded and traumatized. All this has earned not a single explicit word of support from the curia.
These events happened in the Moscow Patriarchate’s sphere of interests, so the Vatican diplomats made a taboo of any real support of Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity.” It seems the diplomats had an excessive influence on the Holy See’s decisions. At moments like this, you feel that the Vatican diplomat corps as a center of power has crushed beneath its heel the role of the Vatican as a spiritual center.
But this is not all. The Vatican, silent about Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, has refused to take a position. It is perhaps understandable that the Vatican did not call Russia an aggressor at the beginning of the conflict, when Europe was unable to sort out the true causes and guilty parties. However, today massive evidence is available about Russia’s direct participation.
Still, the Holy See made one gesture of public support: sending a papal legate to Ukraine, Cardinal Schoenborn. His day of meetings in Ukraine’s capital had important symbolic meaning.
However, even when the Pope had access to appropriate information at his public audience of February 4, in accord with his advisors he called the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine “fratricidal,” as if repeating Moscow’s totally false versions of “a civil war in Ukraine.” Even now, grieving over terrible human losses, the Pope says no word about Russia as an aggressor and the true first cause of these losses!
And when he tells Ukrainians that in this allegedly internal conflict there is “fighting among Christians,” the Roman Pontiff addresses not a single word to the spiritual head of Russia’s Christians, who together with Putin is equally responsible for this bloody conflict! The Holy See has not even spoken out in defense of Ukrainian officer Nadia Savchenko, who is being held in a Russia prison in violation of all international agreements and today is in danger of a very real death.
So the Pope, a brave pastor and moral authority, is forced to be a careful diplomat who is afraid to name the cause of the pain which his flock is suffering. However, I think it’s even more dangerous that diplomacy and reluctance to spoil relations with Moscow has invaded the domain of the Catholic faith. Calls for reconciliation hang in the air if the main prerequisite of all reconciliation, truth, is not secure. If the Church does not establish and defend the truth, it cannot carry out its peacekeeping mission or establish appropriate relations with other sister-churches.
The situation is critical. It was unacceptable that the Vatican did not protest when, at the Synod of Catholic Bishops in October 2014, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a guest of the Synod, in the presence of the Pope insulted the Catholic Church and uttered yet another slander against the Ukrainian Catholic Church, one of the churches of the Catholic family. At that point it became entirely clear that the formula “dialogue at any cost” is ruinous.
The Catholic Church must radically re-think its position on ecumenism, cleansing it of false stereotypes and harmful intertia. An appropriate Gospel verse is Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” In this sentence, we should substitute the word “life” with “ecumenical dialogue.” Ecumenical dialogue cannot be preserved at the cost of denying the truth; on the contrary, this is the best way to ruin it.
Only by “losing” today’s imitation of ecumenical dialogue for the sake of Jesus and his truth can the Church find out how the Christian churches are truly prepared for brotherhood in truth and love.