Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 8 September 2023


 To Russia, with love from Pope Francis

The pontiff has a weakness for autocracies: the Kremlin appreciates it

Dominic Lawson

Dominic Lawson

Awicked place, social media. Doing the rounds: pictures of Pope Francis and the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, noting their extraordinary physical resemblance, with the odd comment along the lines of “they have never been seen in the same place together”. How disgraceful to insinuate that the Holy Father and the man responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Ukrainians might actually be the same person in different guises. For a start, only one of them, in real life, had worked as a nightclub bouncer (Jorge Bergoglio, before he entered the priesthood).

And for another thing, Francis is far from being a thorn in the side of President Putin, as his doppelganger eventually became (with fatal consequences). Quite the opposite: last week in an encounter with young Russian Catholics in St Petersburg, the Pope, via video, read out prepared words telling them to be “artisans of peace”. Nice. But then he departed from the script, with some passion: “You are the heirs of the great Russia. The great Russia of the saints, of the kings, of the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, that great imperial Russia, cultivated with so much culture and humanity. Never forget this inheritance. You are the heirs of the Great Mother Russia, go forward.”

To say this went down badly in Ukraine, not least among the Pope’s fellow Catholics there, would be an understatement. The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, many of whose churches have been laid waste by Russian bombs over the past year and a half, said the Pope’s “words about ‘the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II’ refer to the worst examples of Russian imperialism. We fear that these words will be ... an encouragement of this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine.”

Fair comment. Putin has frequently cited those two imperial Russian rulers in defence of his own view of Ukraine (that it has no true independent identity). Catherine was the empress who, by force, brought most of what we now know as Ukraine under Russian rule, and turned vast numbers of Ukrainian peasants into the personal slaves of favoured Russian nobles. She also tried to extirpate the Ukrainian language. Peter, too, issued a decree forbidding the printing of any book in Ukrainian. A massacre during Peter’s reign was reported in the Gazette de France at the time:“All the inhabitants of Baturyn, regardless of age or sex, are slaughtered, according to the inhuman customs of the Muscovites... The whole of Ukraine is bathed in blood.”

Admittedly, Peter’s barbarism did not spare his own family: he personally oversaw the torture of his son, before having him executed. I don’t suppose this is the sort of thing the Pope meant when he extemporaneously praised these rulers’ “great imperial Russia, cultivated with so much... humanity”.

Whatever he did mean by it, the present occupants of the Kremlin were delighted. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said this was “gratifying... the pontiff knows Russian history and this is very good”. Peskov added that Francis was “in unison” with the Russian government’s efforts to teach history according to Putin’s interpretation.

This episode seems even odder, given that the Vatican has offered to act as some sort of peacemaker in Ukraine. That was always farfetched; but what chance now of any Ukrainian regarding the diplomats of the Holy See as honest brokers? Yet it is part of a strange pattern. The only person mourned specifically as an innocent casualty of the conflict by the Pope is Daria Dugina, whom he referred to as “that poor girl thrown into the air by a bomb under the seat of a car in Moscow”.

Francis spoke last week of ‘great imperial Russia’

She was the daughter of the man probably intended as the target by Kyiv (though it denies it), the ultra-nationalist Russian academic Alexander Dugin: he had declared that “Ukrainians need to be killed, killed, killed. I am telling you this as a professor.” Dugina, an enthusiastic proponent of her father’s worldview, had in an interview promoted the idea that Russians should be permitted to assault captured Ukrainian soldiers. When it was suggested the captives might not survive such treatment, Dugina responded: “There is nothing terrible about that.” Her own end was indeed terrible; but it is still peculiar that sheshould have been singled out by the Pope as an example of an “innocent”, rather than any one of the hundreds of children murdered by Putin’s bombing of the Ukrainian civilian population.

But Francis does seem to have a tendresse for autocracies (which anti-Catholics would doubtless see as unsurprising, given the way popes are accorded unquestioned authority).

In 2018 he agreed to give the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the right to nominate Catholic bishops, a policy never agreed by any of his predecessors, and described to me by a distraught Catholic priest as “an act of perfidy, stupidity and betrayal”.

In 2021, when the Vatican held an extraordinary gathering of the world’s faith leaders in the run-up to the UN’s climate change conference in Glasgow, calling on governments to “take speedy, responsible and shared action” to reduce C02 emissions, the only faith leader who seemed not to have been invited was the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. Previous popes had invited the Dalai Lama to the Vatican — John Paul II on several occasions. But Francis will do nothing that might offend the CCP, which was, bizarrely, praised in 2018 by the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Pope’s fellow Argentinian bishop Marcelo Sorondo, as “assuming a moral leadership which others have abandoned”.

This referred to climate change policy (notwithstanding China building more new coal-fired power stations than any other nation). And it gives a clue to why the Pope’s genuflections to Beijing and Moscow are given less critical scrutiny than one might expect.

Francis’s decision to put the Catholic Church in the forefront of “saving the environment” has made him a hero in the secular media, which would normally have little time for any Vatican autocrat. Thus, Time magazine, marking a decade of Francis’s rule in March, ran a hagiographic piece entitled “How ten years of Pope Francis has changed climate action”.

And last week The Guardian, which did not report the Pope’s endorsement of Russian imperial “humanity”, ran a feature headlined: “Pope Francis to lay bare ‘terrible world war’ on nature”. He had indeed just referred to CO 2 emissions as “a terrible world war”, and to “the victims of climatic injustice”, promising a further papal letter on this next month.

Does that make him one of the good guys? I don’t think so.

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