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“Equilibrium” and ignominy

It’s impossible to take a “balanced position” on the “conflict underway in Ukraine” and, at the same time, passionately promote nuclear disarmament.

Pope Francis meets Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, at the Domus Sanctae Marthae at the Vatican Sept. 26, 2017. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

This past December 18, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the department of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, received an honorary degree from the Faculty of Theology of Apulia in Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast.  During his remarks on that occasion, Hilarion thanked the Holy See “per la sua posizione di equilibrio riguardo al conflitto in corso in Ucraina [for its balanced position regarding the conflict underway in Ukraine].” Did anyone in the Vatican blush in shame at that compliment? A lot of high-ranking Roman churchmen should have.

Once again, as he has often done in the past, Metropolitan Hilarion used an ecumenical event to carry water for Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and its war on independent Ukraine. Once again, the chief ecumenical officer of the Russian Orthodox Church misrepresented what is afoot in Ukraine, which is not a “conflict” but a Russian invasion and a low-intensity war, which has already cost more than 10,000 lives while displacing over a million persons and wreaking economic and social havoc in Ukraine’s Donbas region. And once again, Metropolitan Hilarion implicated the Holy See in that misrepresentation by praising the Vatican’s  “balanced position.”

But what is a “balanced position” in this situation? A refusal to pronounce the words “invasion” and “annexation” when describing the reality of what Putin’s Russia has done in Crimea? A studied disinclination to use the word “war” to name what Russia has been conducting in the Donbas for the past several years? That, surely, would be more accurately described as pusillanimity and appeasement, rather than balance or equilibrium.

This “balance” is not only an abdication of moral responsibility; it is badly undercutting other Vatican goals in world politics. Shortly before Hilarion’s speech in Bari, a Vatican conference urged intensified efforts toward nuclear disarmament. Well, what has been the single greatest blow to nuclear non-proliferation in recent years? The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. Why? Because Russia’s actions effectively abrogated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, according to which Ukraine agreed to give up all its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee (signed by Russia, the United States, and Great Britain) of its territorial integrity and borders. After Russia got away with its Crimean gambit, it’s a safe bet that no nuclear weapons power will give up its arsenal in exchange for paper security guarantees, for at least the next several decades.

In brief: it’s impossible to take a “balanced position” on the “conflict underway in Ukraine” and, at the same time, passionately promote nuclear disarmament. The former drastically undercuts the latter. Can no one in the Holy See connect the dots here?

In the face of what reasonable people will judge the Roman appeasement of its enemies, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine – the largest Catholic martyr-Church of the twentieth century – has been a model of fidelity to Rome: which is another reason why those responsible for Vatican policy toward Russia and Ukraine ought to have blushed in embarrassment at Metropolitan Hilarion’s compliment. No one would blame the Greek Catholic leadership in Ukraine for feeling, if not betrayed, then at the very least ill-served by the “balanced position” praised by Metropolitan Hilarion. Yet, under the most trying circumstances, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk and his colleagues, both clergy and laity, have gotten on with the New Evangelization in their war-torn country, providing a model of spiritual vitality and effective public engagement that a lot of Latin-rite Catholicism would do well to study and then emulate.

Here is one dimension of the Vatican’s ecumenical and diplomatic activity  that cries out for radical reform. It is long past time for a thorough reexamination of the default positions that govern thinking about Russia, Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Catholic-Russian Orthodox ecumenical dialogue in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State and at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The relevant officials in those Vatican offices might begin that reexamination with a close reading of Serhii Plokhy’s fine new book, Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation from 1470 to the Present (Basic Books). Among other things, the Harvard-based Plokhy explores the subservient relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church to Russian state power for over five centuries: a history that puts Metropolitan Hilarion’s latest propaganda exercise in Bari into its proper context.

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About George Weigel 490 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Re: the 3rd to last paragraph, I am sure that “the Vatican” understands and doesn’t care about the damage to future “written security guarantees” nor the damage to the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

    I guess by “the Vatican” we can get down to specifics and blame Cardinal Parolin – the Vatican Sec. of State. And we can of course add “his humbleness” PF.

    This is just another example of the tragic and frankly appalling priorities set by the “contemporary Church” when it demoted the Congregation for the Faith, and made the Sec. of State the highest priority congregation in the Curia. It speaks volumes about what matters most in “the contemporary clericalism.”


  2. I wonder what Mr. Weigel’s view is of the many statements by the the Papal nuncio to Syria condemning US support for terrorists in that land. Perhaps he has already written of what the majority of Christians in Syria think of their president Assad and their allies. I would be interested to know if he has.

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