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Holy See Diplomacy and the War in Ukraine: Looking to Peace After Kazakhstan by Felipe Chertouh

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Holy See Diplomacy and the War in Ukraine: Looking to Peace After Kazakhstan

The Vatican’s Holy Cause for Peace

On August 1st, the Vatican confirmed that, in spite of his knee injury, Pope Francis would be traveling to Kazakhstan for an interreligious meeting in September. Cross-faith dialogue has long-been a central pillar of his papacy; in his latest Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father eloquently comments on the encounter between Jesus, a Jew, and a Samaritan woman, whom He asks for a drink (John 4:4-42). This passage “gives us a universal dimension of our call to love, one that transcends all prejudices, all historical and cultural barriers, all petty interests,” he writes. It is based on this notion of shared dignity that the Supreme Pontiff seeks to unite a disgruntled world, extending hands of genuine friendship and opening eyes based on a candid willingness to just turn the other cheek.

The Pope’s trip in September stands to be a revolutionary one, marking the first in-person meeting between the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and the Bishop of Rome amidst Russia’s war in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill has described Russian President Putin’s rule as a “miracle of God,” and lauded his “special military operation” as being about the salvation of those in Donbas and the West’s violations of Divine law. While this demonstrates a toeing of the state’s diplomatic line, Kirill has an unprecedented history of Ecumenism with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly through his desire to protect the Christian way of life. This signals to the Vatican that there exists a common ground on which to base negotiation with the Orthodox leader. 

It is precisely on this premise that I posit that Pope Francis ought to take action. He should play the part of a mutually empathetic intermediary, one who speaks the moral language of his Eastern counterpart yet shares the fierce opposition to this war by Western powers.

Why Care for Russia’s Patriarch?

Harboring influence over 100 million Orthodox Christians in Russia and being leader of the ‘third Rome,’ Kirill is an indispensable ally of the Kremlin. His spiritual authority legitimizes Putin’s traditionalist apparatus, and when he goes live on Russia TV for his weekly sermons, war support does all but wane. At present, three quarters of the native population champions the invasion of Ukraine. And, while the effects of sanctions are taking their time to set in due to Russia’s large cash reserves, it may be time for those who uphold the dignity of life to begin speaking the language of the locals. Outside attacks have done nothing but unite the Russian sphere against Western ills, so the approach ought to be modified in order to now either spur palpable internal divisions between church and state or move towards candid negotiations. At present, the widest corridor for this geopolitical objective appears to be the mind of Patriarch Kirill, whose words are eagerly attended to by a faithful people and strongman president.

Reviving Synergy Between Church and State: A Proposition for the West

Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic Church, has managed to craft the best relations with Russia and the Eastern Church since the Great Schism, nearly 1,000 years ago. He has even gained Putin’s own admiration, given a recent commitment to “work together [to] protect Christians.” Their shared commitment to traditional moral values does nothing but add to this, especially as Russia now finds itself surrounded by what it sees as Western decadence. Gay marriage, abortion, and transgenderism have been integrated without question into the politik of virtually every major Western leader: in the eyes of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox hierarchy, an assault on natural law. This is precisely where the Pope fits in. His reverent Christian humanism has garnered the admiration, friendship, and applause of the secular and progressive Occident. And yet, despite his media image, the Pope remains grounded in the unabandoned traditions, values, and Christian culture common to the Slavic sphere. As such, he and his administration are the best (and perhaps only) plausible candidates for a sincere sit-down with Russian authorities, Ecclesiastical and governmental alike. This leaves two options: pushing to distance relations between Kirill and Putin, or prompting negotiations with Putin, through Kirill. At present, it is the latter which seems all the more likely.

Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary of State and Minister of Foreign Relations – branded “men of diplomacy”– have had several extensive conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in the past. Parolin even offered to take an unprecedented trip to Moscow and mediate negotiations to settle disputes— a proposal accepted by Ukraine but not Russia. Given this, the Pope’s trip to Kazakhstan opens a window of opportunity to have the ear of a man whose influence on the Kremlin is unparalleled. Such an opening may not come about for a while, and, since Putin has affirmed that he would only host the Vatican in Moscow if Orthodox leadership were accepting, there is nothing left but to say that this is the time to strike.

From stagflation to democratic deficit, only God knows how much longer the West can survive its own domestic turmoils. Putin has already urged his generals to “just get [him] to winter,” and unilateral sanctions  don’t seem to be working fast enough. Grain shortages continue afflicting prices, and upon the brokering of a deal to facilitate said exports, Russia immediately recanted by bombing the Odesa port (Ukraine’s largest seaport). This all suggests urgency from Western powers who now must consider a diplomacy of compromise if they seek a return to the ever-admired rules-based international order. So far, the Western obsession with the expansion of its sphere of influence – namely through NATO and the EU – has done nothing but aggravate already tense relations with Russia. This, in addition to the constant demonization of Russia in multilateral settings, has only made it more difficult for conversations to proceed. And thus, this is exactly where synergy with the Vatican is of utmost importance. The Holy See has not once condemned Russian aggression, remains open to diplomatic talks, and represents a portal of exchange in this newly formed ‘curtain-of-stars’ which is perceived as a threat to Russian sovereignty. As such, the West must tap deep into its own collective memory, remembering an epoch when the Latin Church still provided an indispensable and unifying ethos for its own laity: using this to properly negotiate with Russia and exhibiting a willingness to compromise with opposition demands.

The Final Act–– Pax Ecclesiae

Who but the Vicar of Christ to push for an end to this bloodshed? It wouldn’t be the first time a pope exercised unprecedented soft power and shook the world. Pope John Paul II is widely credited for landing the final blow against Eastern Communism by sparking a human rights revolution in 1980, and just a few years ago, it was Pope Francis who managed to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States. Granted, the Holy Father now shoulders a moral obstacle far greater than that of any Petrine successor since Pope Pius XII, who led the Catholic Church during the Second World War. And yet, in bridging East and West in a millennium old divide, the opportunity has arisen for one man, armed only with the glory of God, to be the international voice of peace. Whether or not Pope Francis will live up to this, shall only be seen in September.

Felipe Chertouh is a student of politics, government, and international economics at Sciences Po Paris. He has interned for the Holy See’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City and has published in the Oxford Political Review and Columbia Political Review.