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By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher
Since the start of the current phase of the conflict in Ukraine in February 2022, Pope Francis has expressed a variety of views on the appropriate response. This was to some degree an attempt at a PR campaign to project an image of the Catholic Church as an impartial channel for peace. However, as the conflict has progressed, Pope Francis has clarified his views on arming Ukraine.
During an interview on the return flight from a visit to Kazakhstan on Thursday, Pope Francis was asked whether weapons should be given to Ukraine. In response, Francis said:
This is a political decision, which can be moral – morally acceptable – if it is done according to the conditions of morality, which are manifold, and then we can talk about it. But it can be immoral if it is done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed. The motivation is what largely qualifies the morality of this act. To defend oneself is not only lawful but also an expression of love of country. Those who do not defend themselves, those who do not defend something, do not love it, instead those who defend, love.
In 2016, when the Pope met with Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, the two released a joint statement. This invited “all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace.”
In March 2022, when the conflict had entered a new phase, Francis had a remote meeting with Patriarch Kirill. At this meeting, the Pope was clear that peace should be the goal of both Churches. One the question of a just war, Francis was explicit:
There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed.
This sentiment aligns with the 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti in which the Pope, building on the traditional Catholic concept of a “just war”, nonetheless disavowed war as a solution:
We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. Never again war!
A footnote to the text further emphasized this change:
Saint Augustine, who forged a concept of “just war” that we no longer uphold in our own day…
At an audience in March 2022, the Pope explained that spending money on weapons was a scandal that tarnishes humanity. In an April 2022 essay, Francis stated bluntly that Ukraine had been attacked and invaded, but nonetheless warned against spending astronomical sums of money on rearming.
When the Corriere della Sera interviewed Francis in May 2022, his responses on Ukraine placed the blame for the “brutality” on Russia. The Pope said that he had visited the Russian embassy and asked them to stop in order send a signal to the world. Francis also dismissed Ukrainian actions in the Donbass as an “old issue” from ten years ago.
Despite this signalling, Francis repeated his concerns about the arms trade and claimed that weapons were being tested in Ukraine. The Pope even noted that “NATO barking at Russia’s door” might have facilitated, if not provoked, the Russian response. Asked explicitly about weapons for Ukraine, Francis answered:
I don’t know how to answer, I’m too far away, the question of whether it’s right to supply the Ukrainians.
This is not the only reference Francis has made to NATO. In June 2022, speaking to the heads of Jesuit cultural magazines in Europe, explained that he had met an unidentified head of state prior to escalation in the Ukraine conflict. This head of state had used the same terminology to warn the Pope that NATO was barking at Russia’s door. Francis maintained that he was opposed to reducing a complex situation down to a question of goodies and baddies, instead insisting that we need to think about the complex origins of the violence and interests at play.
In 2020, writing against war, Francis identified the rule of law as the way to prevent and resolve conflicts, as embodied by the United Nations:
‘To this end, there is a need to ensure the uncontested rule of law and tireless recourse to negotiation, mediation and arbitration, as proposed by the Charter of the United Nations, which constitutes truly a fundamental juridical norm’. The seventy-five years since the establishment of the United Nations and the experience of the first twenty years of this millennium have shown that the full application of international norms proves truly effective, and that failure to comply with them is detrimental. The Charter of the United Nations, when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace.
By the time of his interview on the way back from Kazakhstan last week, Pope Francis had dramatically shifted tune on the UN:
Here you touch on something else that I said in one of my speeches, which is that one should think more about the concept of just war. Because everybody is talking about peace today: for so many years, for seventy years, the United Nations has been talking about peace; they have been making so many speeches about peace. But right now how many wars are going on? The one you mentioned, Ukraine-Russia, now Azerbaijan and Armenia which had stopped for a while because Russia acted as a guarantor: a guarantor of peace here and makes war there… Then there is Syria, ten years of war, what is going on there for which it never stops? What interests are moving these things?
This newfound disregard for the capacity of the UN to resolve conflicts and endorsement of arms shipments places the Pope far closer to the NATO response to the conflict in Ukraine. By falling into line with the Western political aims of the conflict (despite protesting that selling arms would be immoral if it were done “with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed”), Francis risks alienating large segments of the Catholic laity.
Even as Francis champions the European cause against Russia, the majority of Catholics don’t live in Europe. The largest populations of Catholics are to be found in Latin American states such as Brazil and Mexico, and the Church is experiencing its fastest growth in Africa and Asia (which is also where it is recruiting many of its essential next generation of seminarians).
Both Brazil and Mexico have in fact presented mixed governmental responses to the conflict in Ukraine. Even as diplomats for the countries have condemned Russia’s actions, the political leadership has refused to do so (and in Brazil, Lula has also attacked Zelenskiy from the Opposition). An Ipsos poll from April 2022 found that only 40% of Brazilians and 35% of Mexicans felt paying more for fuel and gas due to sanctions was worthwhile to defend Ukraine. 35% of Brazilians felt that the problems of Ukraine were none of their business and that they shouldn’t interfere, a figure that rose to 52% in Mexico.
Pope Francis’ recent statement that providing weapons to Ukraine can be a moral decision puts him at odds with his own pronouncements on war over the years and represents a shift even closer towards the NATO position. More importantly, it also puts him at odds with a large chunk of the population of the Global South, now the population center for the Catholic Church, who do not share the same degree of media-backed enthusiasm for arms shipments as the Western political leadership.