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Jamie Detmer is Opinion Editor for Politico Europe.
In 2017, Pope Francis became the first pope to visit the Anglican Church in Rome. He did not refer directly to Henry VIII of England, who defected from Catholicism in 1534 after refusing to annul his marriage. Nor did he encourage young Englishmen to respect the legacy of Henry VIII—arguably one of England’s great, albeit ruthless, kings—or to glory in the cultural history of English Anglicanism.
In his homily, the pope acknowledged that Anglicans and Catholics had “viewed each other with suspicion and hostility” for centuries, but encouraged the two religions to be “always more free from our prejudices than in the past”.
However, last week, Francis urged young Russians, gathered at the All-Russian Meeting of Catholic Youth in St. Petersburg, not to abandon their “legacy” as heirs to the “great, enlightened Russian empire.” And in a section of his speech it was to publish Online, he cited Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, both of which were cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify the invasion of Ukraine and stir up military passion.
So, while Henry VIII was an outcast six years ago, it is clear that Peter the Great, whose rule was decisive in setting Russia on the path to imperialism and European conquest, deserves respect.
Is this the case of the tin-eared pope, or is there something more to it?
One could almost hear the laughter in the Kremlin, where Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, described the remarks as deeply satisfying. “The pope knows Russian history and that is very good,” he added, adding that Francis is “in tune” with the Russian government’s efforts to teach history as Putin wrote it.
Unsurprisingly, the pope’s comments drew condemnations from Ukraine, including from Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who He said Francis’ words caused “great pain and fear.” Criticizing the pope for praising “the worst example of extreme Russian imperialism and nationalism,” the Ukrainian bishop said, “We fear that some will understand these words as an encouragement of this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war.” in Ukraine.”
Likewise, Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, stated, “It is very unfortunate that the ideas of the great Russian state, which are in fact the cause of Russia’s chronic aggression, knowingly or not, come from the mouth of the Pope, whose mission, in our understanding, is Precisely opening the eyes of Russian youth to the disastrous path of the current Russian leadership.
The Vatican disagreed, arguing that Francis did not mean to praise imperialism when he urged young Russians to be proud of their heritage. Indeed, the pope’s prepared proclamations were not a call to imperial arms. He advised him, “Be sowers of the seeds of reconciliation, small seeds that will not sprout in the frozen ground in this winter of war, but will blossom in the spring of the future.”
But these statements were undermined by his vulgar comments in which he invoked the “enlightened Russian Empire”. Being spontaneous, these comments added strength.
What is surprising is that the pope has not been more careful, having already offended Ukraine – a victim of Russian aggression – before.
Francis stirred up a storm last year in interviews with the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, where he suggested that the war in Ukraine was the result of “NATO barking at Russia’s gate”.
In interviews, he also questioned whether it was right for Western powers to arm Ukraine, explaining that he was trying to assess the roots of the conflict and the reasons why Putin would engage in such a brutal war. “I have no way of knowing whether his anger was provoked,” he asked aloud, “but I suspect the attitude of the West made it easier.”
Given the anger those comments sparked, one would have thought that Francis would have been more careful and more careful in his statements last week – at the very least avoiding the glorification of imperial figures in Putin’s pantheon of Russian heroes. A bronze statue of Peter the Great, who fought the Swedes for control of Central Europe, looms large over Putin’s ceremonial desk in the Cabinet Room. “He will live as long as his cause lives,” Putin said. pensive to journalist Lionel Barber a few years ago.
Pope Francis is fond of saying that the Catholic Church “is not a political organization with left and right wings, as in parliaments.” “Sometimes, unfortunately, our considerations are limited to this, with some roots in reality. But no, the church is not that.” According to Vatican Correspondents in 2021.
So, is this one of the times? for him Are considerations reduced to politics?
While the Church, in his view, may not be a political organization, Francis is viewed by many as a highly political pope, and it is hard to believe — especially given previous bitterness over his comments on Ukraine — that these latest statements have been misjudged as as far as he can see. He is, after all, the first Jesuit to head the Holy See, and as I noted last year, cynics might argue that his interviews are exercises in the philosophical arguments with which his missionary system has often been associated.
Francis has said little about the destruction of churches in Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion. Some see his quirks as related to his longstanding ecumenical contact with the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Kirill. Francis has certainly been careful not to offend Kirill since he warned him to avoid becoming the Kremlin’s “altar boy” last year.
Meanwhile, others place Francis’ approach in the context of his Argentine Peronist past and his “Third World-style critique of the West”. And more in line with Putin and Kirill’s anti-Americanism. This may be the root of the Pope’s stance on this war, as Francis has taken a position that puts him more in line with Beijing, New Delhi and Brasilia, according to John Allen of the Catholic news site Crux.
Francis is, of course, the first pope in history from the developing world, and he rules at a time when Catholicism’s demographic center of gravity has clearly shifted. Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics live outside the West, a proportion that will rise to three-quarters by the middle of this century. “In such a world,” Allen wrote, “it stands to reason that the Vatican’s geopolitical instincts would increasingly become more similar to those of, say, the African Union, India, or even OPEC countries than those of Washington and Brussels.” The Pope’s evasions do not help Kiev or its Western allies convince the Global South of the necessity of isolating Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine.
Thus Peter the Great was glorified, and another state-building king, Henry VIII, was shunned as a dissident.
On the day Francis preached to young Russians, accomplished Ukrainian fighter pilot Andrei Pilchikov, aka Joyce, himself a Catholic, plummeted to his death when two training planes collided west of Kiev. It is not difficult to guess how he might feel about the pope’s statements.