Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 24 October 2023



The Incoherence of Pope Francis

The Vatican offers confusion instead of clarity in Gaza, Ukraine and China.

William McGurn

Oct. 23, 2023 6:17 pm ET

Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from his window at the Vatican, Oct. 22. PHOTO: REUTERS

Pope Francis called President Biden on Sunday to talk about Gaza. The papal phone call came amid Israel’s public criticism of the Vatican’s tendency to treat the Israel Defense Forces as morally equivalent to the Hamas terrorists who targeted, attacked and butchered unarmed Israeli civilians.

Israel’s irritation was kicked off by a joint statement on Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas attack, from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. This is an ecumenical Christian group that includes the Catholic Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. The leaders did “unequivocally condemn” acts that target civilians. But the statement didn’t name Hamas, and it called for the “cessation of all violent and military activities that bring harm to both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”

The Israeli Embassy to the Holy See said the statement reflected an “immoral linguistic ambiguity.” “From reading it,” the embassy response said, “there is no way to understand what happened, who were the aggressors and who the victims.” Pope Francis has since affirmed the right of Israelis to defend themselves and called for the release of Israeli hostages.

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But a week later, the patriarchs and church leaders issued a second statement, and the pope followed with an address calling for humanitarian law to be respected in Gaza. Israelis took these as a shots directed at them. For missing from the pope’s remarks was any appreciation that Israeli forces will invade Gaza to ensure that Hamas can never pull off such a barbarous attack on their people again. Likewise missing is an acknowledgment that Hamas bears primary moral responsibility for any civilian deaths from Israel’s military entry into Gaza because Hamas deliberately hides among the Palestinian population, using them as human shields.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen made clear what Israel wants from the Vatican: “an unequivocal and clear condemnation of the murderous terrorist acts perpetrated by Hamas terrorists that caused grievous harm to children, women, and the elderly just because they are Jews and Israelis.”

Vatican incoherence is also sowing confusion in Ukraine. As with Gaza, the pope’s insistence on defining the problem as war itself—not Vladimir Putin’s unjustified invasion of a neighbor—also suggests moral equivalence. So even though he has talked about a right of nations to defend themselves and referred to “martyred Ukraine,” these get swallowed up by his “both sides” approach on war.

In August, Ukrainians were horrified when the pope, via video, told young Russian Catholics gathered in St. Petersburg that they are heirs to the “great, enlightened Russian empire” as embodied by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. As Ukrainians well know, and the pope should have known, Mr. Putin has invoked this legacy to justify his invasion of their homeland. The pope later had to clarify that he wasn’t endorsing Russian imperialism.

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But the damage was done. Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic church, said the pope’s words were “painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence.”

Finally there is China. Unlike in Israel and Ukraine, there is no war in China, but an invasion of Taiwan can’t be ruled out. Yet the Vatican has been largely silent on Beijing’s outrages, including the genocide of the Uyghurs.

Last week the Acton Institute held the Rome premiere for its documentary “The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai’s Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom.” In December Mr. Lai, founder of a popular pro-democracy newspaper, goes on trial in Hong Kong for sedition. Though Mr. Lai is arguably the best-known Catholic imprisoned in China, the church seems embarrassed by its heroic son. His name goes unmentioned by the pope and his diplomats. No doubt it is because acknowledging unjustly imprisoned Chinese Catholics risks underscoring the Vatican’s disastrous 2018 secret deal with China, which was supposed to mark a rapprochement with Beijing and improve the situation of Chinese Catholics.

The Vatican likes to boast of having the world’s oldest diplomatic service. But at a time when the world is desperate for moral clarity, it offers confusion. Every time the pope speaks of war, the Vatican’s credibility takes another hit because of his failure to make basic distinctions. This is especially true when he speaks about war-torn regions of the world, where justice appears to carry no weight in his moral calculus.

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“The current Vatican position on all this is a basic throwback to the days of the Cold War that held to the mistaken notion that the absence of direct conflict was peace,” says the Rev. Robert Sirico, president emeritus of Acton. “So what we have is secrecy, lack of clarity and a sense of abandonment on the part of a growing number of people suffering at the hands of dictators and totalitarians.”

The Vatican summary of the pope’s conversation Sunday with the president reported that the two men spoke for 20 minutes about war and the steps toward peace. The White House readout said much the same. But it included this zinger: “The President condemned the barbarous attack by Hamas against Israeli civilians.”

It’s a sad day when Joe Biden offers more moral coherence than the pope.

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