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It's clear what the Vatican is thinking on Ukraine

Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis, Havana, 2016. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Archbishop Paul Gallagher is on a three-day trip to Ukraine, set to include a meeting with foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, in which he will affirm “the importance of dialogue to restore peace” as the country continues its fight to repel the Russian invasion which began three months ago.

The archbishop is the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States. His visit to Kyiv marks three decades of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and the Holy See, but comes amid steady criticism of the Holy See, and Pope Francis personally, for not taking a more explicitly pro-Ukraine stance on the diplomatic field and condemning Russia’s invasion.

Many Ukrainians, and Ukrainian Catholics in particular, have a desire to see the pope denounce Russian president Vladimir Putin, and his invasion of their country.

But the pope has also taken considerable criticism from global media outlets in recent weeks, all of whom seem to expect that Francis should be more brazenly engaging Moscow’s patriarch, or otherwise taking a much firmer line against the invasion.

So, what is the Vatican thinking?

To understand the Holy See on Ukraine, one thing must be clear: the Vatican does not think about war like the U.S. State Department does, and even less like the talking heads on CNN do — if, that is, television pundits do much thinking on any subject at all.

The Holy See has traditionally maintained strict neutrality in state-on-state conflicts, even when there is a clear moral right and wrong — even during the Second World War.

Part of the reason for this policy of neutrality is self-preservation. The Holy See does not want to be considered a belligerent or explicit ally of either side in any conflict, since doing so could make Catholic institutions, churches, and clergy more lucrative targets in a war zone. Given the apparent willingness of Russian forces to attack civilian targets, this is a likely a real concern in the Vatican.

This neutrality is it is also a proactive stance — in addition to pleading for peace, in times of conflict popes have often offered themselves as potential mediators to end conflicts.

Francis, in this case, has done so repeatedly — the pontiff seems eager to get into the game, and has offered to host a negotiating table frequently.

The chances that Francis will be invited to Moscow or emerge as the broker of some truce or ceasefire with Putin’s government, appear remote. But the Holy See has been clear that it’s not given up hope on those goals.

Far more important - the Holy See seems to understand that if Francis appears to support Ukraine or condemn Moscow too directly, his interventions will be used by Moscow for the purposes of propaganda.

For decades, especially during the Cold War, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been decried by the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church as an agent of division, social unrest and a threat to Ukrainian society. These arguments have often been advanced as part of the Russkiy Mir project, a worldview advanced by the Russian Church and state which claims a fundamental unity of the Russian and Ukrainian countries and peoples.

A visit by Pope Francis to Kyiv without a similar trip to Moscow, and along with an unequivocal statement of opposition to the Russian government, could quickly be parlayed into anti-Catholic and anti-Western propaganda, portraying the pope as trying to undermine Orthodox Christianity in the country.

When Francis recently revealed he’d told Kirill on a March video call that he mustn’t be “Putin’s altar boy,” the Russian Orthodox leader’s reaction was notably frosty; Kirill said he had told Francis that his own flock “is on both sides of the confrontation.”

“The role of the opposition” Kirill pointedly told the pope “applies to your flock.”

While allegations of a subversive Catholic plot might be recognized as spurious by outside observers, the internal tensions between the Churches in Ukraine cannot be discounted — and almost certainly loom large in the Vatican’s thinking.

The independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople but not Moscow, and the Moscow Patriarchate-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church have both seen their people suffer at the hands of Russian forces, with many faithful, clergy, and whole communities breaking with Moscow to join the independent Church.

That ongoing realignment within the Orthodox community in Ukraine is a complicated, painful, and nuanced affair. The tragic events that are causing it are affecting Ukrainian Catholics just as much, of course, but tensions between the three communities still exist and could be heightened by even seemingly benign acts of support for Ukrainian Catholics from the pope — like the creation of a Ukrainian cardinal or patriarch — some have called for.

While the expectation, both in Ukraine and in Western media, to see Francis take a more strident position in support of Ukraine is perhaps understandable, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Vatican has determined it would be easy — or necessarily helpful — for him to do so.

The Vatican often takes criticism for appearing to lean too far towards realpolitik when balancing its public moral witness with the realities of diplomacy. But, with the situation on the ground especially complicated, the Vatican may well feel justified in treading carefully.

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