Francisco’s third position

The recent statements of Pope Francis for America. The Jesuist Review about the “cruelty” of some of the Russian soldiers at the front, especially the “Chechens” and “Buryats”, strained relations between the Kremlin and the Vatican to the maximum. The Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, expressed his outrage and stressed that “nothing can shake the cohesion and unity of the Russian multinational people.” The person in charge of Russia’s foreign relations, Sergei Lavrov, also questioned Francis and accused him of having made “non-Christian” comments, as did the spokesperson for said ministry, Maria Zajárova, who spoke directly of “perversion” and “Russophobia”. . The Vatican sought to put cold cloths and, with the aim of lowering the tension, through official channels said that surely Pope Francis had been misunderstood. Likewise, the Secretary of State of the Holy See sent a letter to the Russian government reaffirming the “great respect” that the Vatican has for “all the peoples of Russia, their honor, their faith and their culture.” On the other hand, in recent days, on the occasion of Orthodox Christmas, Francisco asked for peace and recorded the victims on both sides without suspicion.

Meanwhile, the recent anger of the government headed by Vladimir Putin does not seem to have changed the position of the most radical sectors of Ukrainian and Polish nationalism, for whom the Pope is simply a pro-Russian leader.

In Poland, for example, Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the country’s main media outlets, harshly questioned Francis, calling him “Putin’s useful idiot.” For his part, the Pole Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, wrote a few months ago on Twitter that “probably San Francisco” was “heartbroken by the fact that the Pope” had “taken his name”, in a sample of disagreement with the merciful declarations of Francisco before the murder of the daughter of the Russian nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

Of course, from Rome, Francis denies being pro-Russian or, now, pro-Ukrainian, calling such tales “simplistic and incorrect.” In tune with official Vatican spokesmen, Lithuanian Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the Catholic nuncio to Ukraine, defended the Pope and said, once again, that “papal diplomacy” had been “misinterpreted” on both sides. Why is this happening? Why do Francisco’s interventions generate so many reactions on the two opposing sides? Is it just communication problems or are there deeper reasons?

A little history. Above all, Francis’ position must be understood within the framework of the diplomatic tradition inaugurated by Pope Benedict XV during the Great War, at the beginning of the 20th century. During that war, the papacy opted to maintain neutrality with the aim of turning the Catholic Church into an international political actor capable of mediating between the parties. In continuity with this position, in our days, Francis seeks to preserve the Vatican as a channel of dialogue and a relevant actor in the construction of a future diplomatic solution to the war. In light of the current military situation at the front, it seems the only possible way to resolve it. Within this framework, as numerous Vatican diplomats have explained, it is essential to avoid virulent statements or verbal escalations. In the same way, it is essential to build your own position, a “third position” if you will, than to place the Vatican beyond the propaganda of both sides. A few months ago, the Catholic nunciature in Ukraine itself stated: “Starting to accuse not only prevents channels of dialogue from being opened, but also reduces the possibilities of humanitarian or diplomatic solutions.” In addition, “the Pope is a universal shepherd and for him all humanity is his family. That is why it is difficult for the Pope to say that Russia is the aggressor, something that he would undoubtedly say directly to Putin face to face.”

Who is the real Goliath? The main discomfort among those who accuse the Pope of being pro-Russian, however, does not come so much from the Vatican’s diplomatic tradition as from Francis’ attempt to build a “third position” when it comes to establishing the responsibilities of the war. A perspective that is in dissonance with the official position of the European Union, Great Britain and the United States. Francis considered Russia the aggressor, and he said it once again with all the letters in the recent interview for the North American Jesuit magazine America. He condemns the conflict, moreover, without mitigating and even spoke of the Ukrainians as a “martyred people”.

His reading of the facts, however, does not stop there. For the Pope, the dominant interpretations in the West in relation to the war and Russia, on which all the inks are loaded, are biased and counterproductive to reach a ceasefire. Instead, Francis, who has long talked about the existence of a “Third World War in quotas,” proposes a more complex look at Russian aggression in which, of course, Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical ambitions are a factor. of weight, but also the actions of NATO and the foreign policy of the European Union. As I said in an interview for an Italian media a few months ago, “NATO barked at Russia’s doors” knowing in advance what the consequences could be.

On the other hand, it is not lost on Francis that, beyond the fact that Russia may seem like a Goliath in its confrontation with Ukraine, in general terms, the true Goliath of the story in question is NATO. In fact, Russia’s difficulties on the battlefield demonstrate that, as military experts have long known, Russia is far from being a military superpower capable of deploying its might on a large scale. Even less far from her borders.

A quick look at military spending worldwide should clear up any doubts about it. The US invests between twelve and 13 times more than Russia per year in the military budget, and has been doing so for thirty years. Recently, the US Congress succeeded in spending around 850 billion dollars by 2023. Something that the Vatican denounces and condemns as a structural and inadmissible form of violence.

If we compare Russia’s military spending with that of NATO, the difference is even more shocking. Not to mention if we take into account the number of military bases scattered around the world. The US has more than 250, forty of them in Germany. Russia barely a dozen, also located mainly near its borders. On the other hand, the war also showed that the appalling Russian military spending, as well as its scientific research, is directed towards the defense of its own territory and nuclear deterrence, in contrast to that of the US, aimed at enhancing the capacity of the country to deploy anywhere in the world.

The fact that Francisco suggests this does not deny that the aggressor is Russia nor does he intend to liquefy its responsibilities, but it does point to outlining a less Manichaean picture, more multi-causal, where the “good” are not totally good nor the “bad” totally bad. Where the facts do not unfold in a vacuum, but from previous stories that cannot be ignored. A position that constitutes a rare bird in the Western concert, quite monotonous, and in which Russia usually embodies absolute evil.

The Pope and the globalization of exclusion. Lastly, a third key factor to consider when understanding Francis’ position is his fundamental criticism of globalization in its current neoliberal version. The globalization of “exclusion and indifference”, according to his words, aimed at suppressing the particularities and history of each people. In the opposite direction, a “Christian globalization”, affirms Francis, should be like a polyhedron in which each one, “maintaining their identity”, is enriched at the same time in the interaction with what is different. A globalization as a dialogue between peoples who, while stories, do not renounce their roots. The only way, adds Francisco, to achieve a real exchange that does not destroy weak interlocutors or annihilate their cultures.

In 2014, he defined this type of globalization as a “culture of encounter”, opposed to the culture of discrimination and xenophobia, and once again compared it to a polyhedron capable of reflecting the “confluence of all biases”. In it, Francisco views with concern both the radical expressions of Eastern European nationalism, based on essential meaningless and excluding ways of understanding the people, and neoliberal globalization, which instrumentalizes “the global economy to impose a unique cultural model.” In the words of Francisco, “a globalism that favors the identity of the strongest” and “seeks to liquefy the identities of the weakest and poorest regions, making them more vulnerable and dependent […] against the transnational economic powers, which apply divide and rule”.

From this perspective, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is also explained as a by-product of the globalization of “exclusion and indifference” and, finally, as one more chapter of the “divide and rule” that the Pope has been denouncing in different forums. and international meetings. “Polarization is not Catholic,” he said without going any further in his recent interview for America. With this, Francis does not seek to separate Russia from the responsibilities that fall to it as the initiator of the war, but rather in line with the orientation forged by Benedict XV at the beginning of the 20th century: to place the Catholic Church beyond the propaganda from both sides, preserving it as a diplomatic channel capable of contributing to the end of the conflict in the future. For now, it is true, the strong misgivings that such a position generates among Ukrainians and Poles, as well as among Russians after the recent confrontation with the Kremlin, distance the Vatican from said mediating role.

*Conicet researcher and coordinator of the Doctorate in History at the National University of Rosario.

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