Pope Francis kisses a Ukrainian flag while meeting with a group of Ukrainians at the Vatican, April 27, 2022 (CNS photo/Vatican Media).

Since the outset of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, the Catholic Church seems to have had difficulty rising to the diplomatic challenges it presents. Here we are, in the midst of one of the most serious and dangerous (if not most dangerous) conflicts since 1945. But the Vatican—rather than drawing on, say, the courageous example of Pope John XXIII in skillfully aiding negotiations to defuse the Cuban missile crisis fifty years ago—seems to favor imagery. This was evident from the emphasis on visuals at the Way of the Cross on Good Friday in Rome.

In 1962, the few words that came out of the Vatican were measured and focused; its diplomacy did not yield to the demands of the media circus. But Pope Francis’s choice to have one woman from Ukraine and one from Russia pray together at Station XIII on April 15 resulted in unnecessary, avoidable controversy. True, it may have been intended as a prophetic gesture. But it failed to consider how the language of reconciliation—which was included in the original “script” for the event, with the input of the two women—might be perceived as an imposition on Ukraine just when mass graves and evidence of potential war crimes were being discovered in Bucha and elsewhere. It appeared to betray ignorance of how the language of “brotherhood” between the Russian and Ukrainian people carries echoes of the Soviet era. In the end, the two women—who work at a Rome hospital—walked together with the cross, while participants were invited to pause in “prayerful silence” and pray in their hearts for peace in the world.

The next day, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin restored order in relations between the Holy See and Ukrainian representatives. But the damage was done, and it has widened the distance between this pontificate and large parts of Eastern European Catholicism and its diaspora. It’s true the Vatican has to walk a diplomatic tightrope, but in doing so it increasingly risks drawing moral equivalence between Russia and Ukraine. Perhaps this is what happens when even diplomacy can be shaped by how it’s perceived in social media, and when officials—or opportunists—act more like influencers than diplomats. Still, the Vatican’s predicament can’t be attributed simply to a problem with communication. Putin’s war requires the Holy See to devise a new doctrine for international relations, one that does not adhere to the Ostpolitik of decades ago (as I wrote at Commonweal last month). The Cold War era never saw a European conflict like this one, in which the aggressor has expressed genocidal intent in denying the right of the Ukrainian peoples to exist. Except for long-view notions like a more global and less European Church, and, at the same time a smaller, more Gospel-like Church, Rome really hasn’t had a strategy regarding what happens in the Church and in relations among the churches internationally.

But even then, the crisis signals something more: the twilight of the political and theological paradigm of the Catholic Church. If we think of Catholic progressivism as one of the world’s “collective cultural families,” we can see how the war is challenging the assumptions (or perhaps the illusions) it embraced after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This progressivism has been characterized by a collection of benevolent impulses that reasonable people couldn’t possibly disagree with: peace, the expansion of rights for individuals and communities, respect for the planet, universal brotherhood, and so forth. But the war, one could now say, has brought history back to Europe.

Walking alone (or walking out) appears to be more popular than “walking together.”

Something similar can be said about the sixty-year season of the post–Vatican II  Church. We thought we had left the era of great conflicts behind. While some of the old political and religious regimes persisted, their influence and impact seemed to lessen: they were no longer going to determine the future. Indeed, it seemed a new world had arrived. Now we have to wonder whether this hopefulness was misplaced. Perhaps the grip of the old-world order was stronger than we knew, or at least stronger than the dream of building a new Church in the world. In recent years the spaces of dialogue have been overwhelmed or have disappeared, both in politics and in the Church: decisions are made in places that are inaccessible or hard to locate. Synodality could yet bring real change to the Church, in the long run. But it seems we’ve lost the patience (and the obedience) that characterized the generations of Chenu, Congar, de Lubac, Rahner, and of the scholars, priests, and monks who trained me. Now it seems that romanticism or a managerial view are the only options for thinking about the past and present of the Church; walking alone (or walking out) appears to be more popular than “walking together,” pace the synodal process.

Still, on a positive note, Rome has exhibited some wisdom during this crisis. Francis is trying to save the Catholic Church from the mortal danger to which Benedict XVI and the elite he appointed were blind: falling into the same civilizational trap the Russian Orthodox Church did in the 1990s. Contrary to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (and some Catholic cardinals), Francis refuses to see the Church downgraded into an ideological refuge, whether for romantics or cynics, from the mass of collective identities that took shape during the Cold War.


Andrea Graziosi, one of the great Italian historians and a specialist of Russia and Ukraine in the last century, wrote recently that “the crisis of our West, visible in the seventies and then hidden by the triumph of 1991, was in the first decade of our century visible to all, including Putin.” The crisis of the Church has also been visible to all since the beginning of this century. In this epochal shift, the Catholic Church, the Vatican, and the papacy are still trying to find a role. We could think of Benedict as the last pope of the old era, and of Francis as the first pope of a new era. A political parallel might be the presidencies of George W. Bush and, in the new era, Barack Obama. But then we all know who followed Obama. Should we thus be on guard for what might happen in the Catholic Church?

It’s an important question, given the confusion of the diplomatic and international-relations efforts regarding Ukraine. The war is having a bigger impact on the Church than, say, 9/11 did.  In 1991 the Vatican already understood how the first Iraq war would affect relations between Christianity and Islam globally, and what U.S. wars in the Middle East might mean for the region (American neocons, including Catholic neocons, might have benefited from such foresight at the time). But now, the legacy of post-conciliar Ostpolitik, John Paul II’s idea of the unity of the European continent “from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains,” Benedict XVI’s lament over the “Christian roots of Europe”—all of this seems outdated. Putin’s regime, supported by the Patriarch of Moscow, forces us to consider whether the categories and approaches that once helped us interpret the twentieth century no longer obtain. The crisis of confidence of Catholic leaders in the Vatican’s handling of the Russian war in Ukraine is the result of mounting nationalism in Europe, but it also re-ignites Eastern Catholic grievances that have been kept under control for long. And it also presents something of a theological emergency on top of the institutional paralysis of Roman Catholicism: the abuse scandal, the impending collapse of the clerical system, the ignoring or belittling of ecclesial issues (e.g., women in the Church). Key questions had been posed to the Church’s hierarchy, and with more theological coherence than today, at least fifty years ago, before postmodernism made the very concept of reform so arduous. Now it may be too late.

The war also casts a light on the sinister theo-political pieties of anti-liberal converts. Even if Francis has worked to confront this, his pontificate will not last forever. It will be up to the supporters of Vatican II Catholicism to counter the efforts of the Catholic alt-right (both in the United States and elsewhere), which seeks to link an emphasis on morality with ethnonationalism and political authoritarianism. At the same time, the war in Ukraine forces self-examination among progressive Catholics, whose horizons may now be clouded. Visions of a post-conciliar arcadia must be left behind; we should admit to some of the naivete of Vatican II itself (for example, its conception of martyrdom and martyrs only as something of the past). A naïve post–Vatican II progressivism unconsciously anticipated Fukuyama’s thesis of “the end of history.” But now it must reckon with those illusions, both in world affairs and in the Church. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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