During his recent trip to Hungary, Pope Francis was undoubtedly bold to remind Viktor Orban, to his face, that his immigration policy could not be reconciled with his supposed defence of Christian values. But unfortunately, it seems that there was compensation for this frankness: a clear assertion of shared views with the Hungarian government over Ukraine. The Pope’s comments on this issue were surprisingly crude. Not only did Francis speak of a “senseless war”, he also castigated the “bellicose infantilism of the West”, before pleading the cause of peace by negotiations and a renouncement of arms. In absolute terms, who would not dream of peace? However, the word “peace” should be taken with a pinch of salt: such language is a staple of Putin’s propaganda. It should inspire no more confidence than Xi Jinping’s recently proposed mediation.
Since the beginning of the Ukrainian tragedy, the Vatican has struggled to name things correctly and take a clear position. It talks casually about reconciliation to Ukrainians who are living under Russian terror. The Pope’s repeated refusal to go to Kyiv unless he can also go to Moscow is similarly disconcerting. It is as if we were dealing with a war in which two opposing camps are symmetrically facing each other in a conflict that should end in a compromise around a negotiating table. Francis likes to appeal to basic principles. Indeed, it would be a good idea to look there. There is no shortage of clues to help us see things a little more clearly.
Since the first hour of the invasion – disguised as a “special military operation” – everything coming from the Kremlin has been a constant inversion of the truth, a distortion of words, a falsification of reality in the service of barbarity and terror. Inside Russia there is nothing but delirious propaganda, the enslavement of minds and a ruthless policy of repression. All these things are tragic hallmarks of the unpurged Soviet past, of Stalinist terror, which is resurfacing today like an evil hydra. This past of the Soviet night”, which Nadejda Mandelstam referred to, is being rehabilitated with unabashed cynicism by the current regime. Clearly, the Pope has not been alerted to all this. Similarly, he has not questioned the incredible project of “denazifying” Ukraine, let alone recognised it as an extraordinary invention. With all due respect, we would like to suggest that Pope Francis read Vassily Grossman, as many others have urged him to do. To reread this work is to open one’s eyes to a truth that was iconoclastic in Grossman’s Russia, but which should no longer be so: the Nazi and Soviet regimes were never anything but twins, serving the same ends and thus capable of taking each other’s place. In Life and Destiny, a Nazi camp leader explains to an old Bolshevik that even if he were to win, “we shall continue to live in your victory”.
This is why, whether we are dealing with Putin or Hitler, the position of pacifism is equally fallacious. It is why the Pope’s current arguments are irresistibly reminiscent of 1938 and the illusions of the Munich negotiators. Was it necessary to talk to Hitler to bring him back into line with international law? Was it necessary to talk to Putin, the invader of Crimea and then the Donbass, so as to find a modus vivendi? The truth is that one does not negotiate with the devil. The same applies to a putative dialogue with Kyrill, the church leader who gives an air of fraud to Moscow’s patriarchate by his shameless support for barbarism disguised as a crusade for the cause of Christianity. The virtues of dialogue are falsely invoked when one of the parties has nothing to offer but lies. Need we recall that Pastor Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Nazism led him to join the conspiracy of July 1944, which was to put an end to Hitler?
It is of course quite tragic that we should find ourselves caught up in a vicious circle of military one-upmanship, forced to admit that Ukraine will only be saved through the destruction of a criminal system by a more powerful force. Can a pope support such a strategy? Let’s not answer for him. In any case, there is certainly one struggle that he can endorse: the struggle for truth against lies. We dare not capitalise those words: truth and lie. And yet the situation would seem to call for it, given the almost metaphysical dimension that Putin’s lies give to the Kremlin’s swaggering imposture. Far from any sentimentality, it may suffice here to listen to Vladimir Kara-Mourza, Putin’s opponent, who was sentenced on 17 April by a Moscow court to twenty-five years in a strict prison colony. His reaction after the verdict was almost a profession of faith: “I know that a day will come when the darkness that covers our country will dissipate. When black will be called black, and white, white […]. When war will be called war, when the usurper will be called the usurper, and when those who instigated and unleashed this war, and not those who tried to stop it, will be branded as criminals.” This was admittedly a very lonely voice on the Russian side. But it joins the heroic resistance of the entire Ukrainian people, that is being paid in blood. Their enemy not only wants to annihilate them, it is also doing its utmost to deceive minds by invoking pacifism. May Pope Francis serve the cause of peace by first serving the cause of truth.
Anne-Marie Pelletier, Ratzinger Prize 2014, coordinator of the book by K. Sigov, Le courage de l’Ukraine, 2023.
Translation by Voxeurop