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By John McGregor, translator and researcher on political violence
Since the current phase of the conflict in Ukraine began in February 2022, Pope Francis has expressed a variety of opinions about an appropriate response. This was, in part, an attempt by a PR campaign to project the image of the Catholic Church as a neutral conduit for peace. However, as the conflict progressed, Pope Francis clarified his views on arming Ukraine.
During an interview on the return flight from a visit to Kazakhstan on Thursday, Pope Francis was asked if weapons should be delivered to Ukraine. In response, Francis said:
This is a political decision, which can be moral – morally acceptable – if made according to the multiple terms of morality, and then we can talk about it. But it can be unethical if it is done with the intent of provoking more war, selling weapons, or getting rid of those weapons that are no longer needed. Motivation is what largely describes the morality of this act. Self-defense is not only legal, but also an expression of patriotism. Those who do not stand up for themselves, those who do not stand up for something, do not like it, instead of those who stand up, they love.
In 2016, when the Pope met with Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, the two issued a joint statement. This called on “all parties to the conflict to be vigilant, social solidarity and action aimed at building peace.”
In March 2022, when the conflict entered a new stage, Francis held a remote meeting with Patriarch Kirill. At this meeting, the Pope was clear that peace should be the goal of both churches. Francis was frank on the just war question:
There was a time, even in our churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot talk that way. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has arisen.
This sentiment aligns with the general message for 2020 all brothers in which the Pope, based on the traditional Catholic concept of a “just war,” nonetheless repudiated war as a solution:
We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will always be greater than its supposed benefits. In light of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria established in previous centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. Never war again!
A footnote to the text emphasized this change:
Saint Augustine, who coined the concept of “just war” that we no longer hold to in our days…
The Pope explained in an audience in March 2022 that spending money on weapons was a scandal that stains humanity. In an article published in April 2022, Francis frankly stated that Ukraine had been attacked and invaded, but nevertheless cautioned against spending huge sums of money on rearmament.
When Francis was interviewed by Corriere della Sera in May 2022, his responses to Ukraine blamed “brutality” on Russia. The Pope said he had visited the Russian embassy and asked them to stop and send a signal to the world. Francis also dismissed the Ukrainian actions in the Donbass as an “old case” of ten years ago.
Despite this reference, Francis reiterated his concerns about the arms trade and claimed that the weapons were being tested in Ukraine. The pope even noted that “NATO’s barking at Russia’s gates” may have facilitated, if not provoked, the Russian response. When asked explicitly about the weapons of Ukraine, Francis answered:
I do not know how to answer, I am very far from the question whether it is right to supply the Ukrainians.
This is not the only reference Francis has made at NATO. In June 2022, speaking to the heads of Jesuit cultural magazines in Europe, he explained that he had met an unknown head of state prior to the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. This same head of state used the same terms to warn the Pope that NATO was barking at Russia’s gates. Francis emphasized that he was opposed to reducing the complex situation to a question of good things and bad things, and instead insisted that we need to consider the complex origins of violence and existing interests.
In 2020, in writing Against War, Francis identified the rule of law as the way to prevent and resolve conflicts, as exemplified by the United Nations:
To this end, there is a need to ensure the indisputable rule of law and diligent recourse to negotiation, mediation and arbitration, as suggested by the Charter of the United Nations, which truly constitutes a fundamental legal basis. The seventy-five years since the founding of the United Nations and the experience of the first twenty years of this millennium have shown that the full application of international standards proves to be truly effective, and that non-compliance with them is harmful. The Charter of the United Nations, when adhered to and applied transparently and faithfully, is a mandatory reference for justice and a conduit for peace.
By the time of his interview on his way back from Kazakhstan last week, Pope Francis had dramatically changed his tune at the United Nations:
Here she touches on another thing I said in one of my speeches, which is that one should think more about the concept of a just war. Because everyone is talking about peace today: for so many years and seventy years ago, the United Nations has been talking about peace; They gave a lot of speeches about peace. But right now how many wars are going on? What you mentioned, Ukraine – Russia, now Azerbaijan and Armenia that stopped for a while because Russia acted as a guarantor: a guarantor of peace here and waging war there … Then there is Syria, ten years of war, what is going on there that does not stop for? What interests drive these things?
This new disregard for the UN’s ability to resolve conflicts and endorse arms shipments brings the Pope much closer to NATO’s response to the conflict in Ukraine. By aligning with the conflict’s Western political goals (despite arguing that arms sales would be immoral if done “with the intent of provoking more war, selling arms, or getting rid of those arms that are no longer needed”), Francis risks alienating chips. Great lay Catholics.
Even when Francis champions the European cause against Russia, the majority of Catholics do not live in Europe. The largest number of Catholics is in Latin American countries such as Brazil and Mexico, and the church is experiencing its fastest growth in Africa and Asia (where it also recruits many of the primary next generation of seminarians).
In fact, Brazil and Mexico provided mixed government responses to the conflict in Ukraine. Even when diplomats from countries condemned Russia’s actions, the political leadership refused to do so (and in Brazil, Lula also attacked Zelensky from the opposition). An Ipsos poll in April 2022 found that only 40% of Brazilians and 35% of Mexicans felt paying more for fuel and gas because of the sanctions was worth it to defend Ukraine. 35% of Brazilians felt that Ukraine’s problems were not their business and that they should not interfere, a number that rose to 52% in Mexico.
Pope Francis’ recent statement that providing arms to Ukraine could be a moral decision puts him at odds with his own statements on the war over the years and represents a shift closer to NATO’s position. More importantly, it also puts him at odds with a large portion of the population of the Global South, now the population center of the Catholic Church, who do not share the same degree of media-supported enthusiasm for arms shipments as the Western political leadership. .