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.