A young woman and a priest from Ukraine give Pope Francis shards from their war-torn country during a private meeting Aug. 3, 2023, at the Vatican nunciature in Lisbon, Portugal. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Diplomacy must trump the barrel of a gun

  • August 25, 2023

Some World Youth Day pilgrims in Portugal were critical of Pope Francis for failing to condemn Russia’s brutal invasion of their homeland.

An Aug. 5 New York Times story quoted 16-year-old Kristina Kosarkova of the Czech Republic as saying, “I want the Pope to unite the world for Ukraine and against Russia.”

Anastasiia Koval, 17, of Ukraine was more forthright. “I don’t want him to say Ukraine must forgive Russia because a lot of our people are dying, and we will never forgive them. And I hate Russia for that.”

It would be easy to criticize the youth for refusing to forgive and preaching hatred. Hatred is never the path to peace, and lasting peace is built on forgiveness and reconciliation. Moral condemnation, as well deserved as it is, may make one feel good, but it does little to spur an examination of conscience among Russian leaders.

The teens’ comments ought to be seen as an expression of the horrendous suffering the Ukrainian people have experienced over 18 months of war. Such anguish does not always express itself in ways that are morally clean and neat.

The day after the Times story appeared, the Pope did address the war, praying for peace and asking the WYD pilgrims to be signs of peace in their own lives. Indeed, he has criticized the invasion in the past and called the Ukrainian people “martyred.”

Still, the Pope’s current reluctance to condemn Russian actions raises the question of whether popes ought to condemn the perpetrators of inhuman actions or try to find ways to make peace. The question goes back at least to the decision of Pope Pius XII not to condemn Nazi actions in the Second World War, choosing instead to focus on humanitarian actions which saved the lives of thousands of Jews.

Pope John Paul II was more outspoken than Pope Pius. First, during his famous 1979 visit to Poland, he spoke glowingly of the virtue of social solidarity, implying but not directly stating his support for the Solidarity trade union. His tacit support for the workers was widely seen as being the spark which fueled the collapse of the Soviet empire 10 years later.

Second, during the two Persian Gulf wars, he bluntly condemned the American invasions of Iraq, in one instance denouncing the war as “an adventure without return.” Despite these strong words, his condemnations gave no sign of having lessened the fighting.

Although we in the West see the Russian war on Ukraine as black and white, those from other parts of the world, such as the current Pope, tend not to view Western military interventions and NATO through rose-coloured glasses. Pope Francis, for example, has surely not forgotten his country’s war with Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982.

The Pope has chosen the way of diplomacy as the best route to resolving the war in Ukraine. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, Italy, is his emissary, currently making his way to various world capitals seeking a ground which will lead to a negotiated settlement.

It is wrong-headed to see the Zuppi campaign as doomed from the start. Zuppi, significantly, has strong connections with the Sant’ Egidio Community based in Rome, a community which negotiated an end to the Mozambique civil war in 1992.

Indeed, it seems to this writer that the pursuit of a diplomatic end to the Ukraine war is exactly the approach the Holy See should take. The Church is committed to peace and dialogue rather than peace through the barrel of a gun. It has a well-trained diplomatic corps as well as access to statespersons, Christian and non-Christian, who want non-violent solutions to conflicts.

When you are negotiating an end to hostilities, it is counter-productive to denounce one of the pugilists as an inhuman monster, even if you believe that to be the case. St. Francis de Sales once noted it is easier to win over an adversary with honey than with vinegar.

The world, not only Ukraine, is in grave danger because of the ongoing war which has now reached a stalemate. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has hinted at the possible use of nuclear weapons if the war does not go his way. In all likelihood, such an attack would draw Western retaliation and the potential annihilation of much of humanity. This is not a time for glib condemnations. Serious work for peace must be done.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.