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The Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow

A meeting between the current Bishop of Rome and the current Patriarch of Moscow would have been a meeting between a religious leader and an instrument of Russian state power.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb. 12, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis is undoubtedly grieved by the carnage in Ukraine. And when the Catholic Church’s chief ecumenical officer, Cardinal Kurt Koch, tells journalists he shares the papal conviction that religious justifications of aggression are “blasphemy” — a wicked use of the things of God — we may be sure that this, too, is Francis’s view of things.

Why, then, should Pope Francis meet with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, as some personalities and movements in the Church were once urging? Since the invasion of February 24, Kirill has repeatedly deployed religious justifications for Russia’s barbaric assault on Ukraine. Is Kirill not, then, a blasphemer?

Some of those promoting a second Francis/Kirill encounter were likely thinking of the “optics.” Two religious leaders meeting in wartime to pray for peace would, they imagined, vividly demonstrate the Christian capacity to rise above ethnic hatred and national passion in the name of Easter faith and universal moral norms. That, however, was fantasy based on fallacy.

Kirill Gundayev began his ecclesiastical career at the World Council of Churches in a job that would only be given to someone completely trusted by, and likely working with, the KGB, the Soviet secret intelligence service. During his years as Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill has promoted an expansive vision of the “Russian world” that falsifies the Christian history of the eastern Slavs and underwrites a revival of czarist and Stalinist imperialism. Kirill is also a mouthpiece in the Russian disinformation campaign proclaiming the tyrant Vladimir Putin as the savior of civilization against Western decadence — a lie that has duped too many Catholics.

A meeting between the current Bishop of Rome and the current Patriarch of Moscow would not have been a meeting of two religious leaders. It would have been a meeting between a religious leader and an instrument of Russian state power.

But, some might have replied, that’s the point. By continuing the personal dialogue with Kirill he opened in Havana in 2016, Francis would have empowered Kirill to have a tempering effect on Putin while positioning the Vatican as honest broker in arranging a negotiated peace in Ukraine.

That, too, is fantasy.

First, in the Putin-Kirill relationship, the patriarch has no real leverage. The tyrant-president does not look to the patriarch for strategic counsel, and he certainly doesn’t look to him for moral correction. He looks to Kirill for support and for cover. Which he gets.

For the sad fact is that its subservience to the state precludes the Russian Orthodox leadership speaking truth to Kremlin power or calling the post-communist czar to conversion. What Kirill and his associates (like his principal ecumenist, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev) do provide is a faux-religious justification for Putin’s imperial ambitions, while assuring the Russians who commit horrendous acts of violence against civilians that they are true patriots and sons of the motherland.

Second, the idea of the Vatican as global honest broker is based on a misconception of how the Holy See can exert influence in the 21st-century world. Today’s Vatican is not the early 19th century’s Papal States: a third-tier European power that nonetheless exercised leverage at events like the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. The Papal States no longer exist, and neither does the world of Metternich, Castlereigh and Cardinal Ercole Colsalvi, Pope Pius VII’s brilliant and effective secretary of state.

As John Paul II demonstrated, though, the Holy See does have power in today’s world: the power of moral witness, which begins by calling things by their right names. Vatican commentary in the Ukraine war’s second month used a more honest vocabulary than was displayed in the war’s first weeks. Still, as of Easter, the papal and Vatican voice remained more a voice of lamentation than a prophetic voice denouncing aggression and naming the aggressor. That flaw was compounded by imprudent words suggesting that no wars are ever morally legitimate, which is not true of Ukraine’s defense of its territory, and of the cultural and political transformation of the country that began with the Maidan Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv in 2013-2014.

By the wanton slaughter of innocents in Bucha, in Mariupol’, and throughout Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has stigmatized himself with the mark of Cain. Kirill has tried to mask that stigma. For the Bishop of Rome to have met with Kirill as if the Russian were a true religious leader would have bitterly disappointed Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainians, who would not unreasonably have regarded it as a betrayal; it would have depleted the Holy See’s moral capital in world affairs; and it would have contributed nothing to peace.

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About George Weigel 500 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. Pope Francis has said “the attack must be stopped”.

    The west must stop weaponizing the war-mongering, militarist-fascist regime in Kiev. Among other things Germany mustn’t be sending them “anti-aircraft tanks”.

    A group in the west must stop using the proxy-ized violence for gathering military intelligence at the expense of everybody else.

    The protraction of the situation by the west can eventually have fall-out effects. Among those, ISIS wants to capitalize on it and Turkey wants to lead them.

    Admittedly, Poles are known very intelligent people who don’t need to make special advertisement of it. Either way, in this issue, mental deficit is apparent.

  2. Am I the only one who is sick of corrupt ecclesial hierarchies (whether Orthodox or Catholic)? I used to be such a staunch defender of the hierarchy. Now I want nothing to do with any of them.

  3. Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Feb. 12, 2915. Was it a back to the future event? Both Kirill and Francis immortals? Or are these two mortals the possible key to an end to this terrible war.
    George Weigel gets the Havana rendezvous date correct. A blasphemer KGB like operative Russian Patriarch and an ill advised peacemaker Pope Francis who is allegedly out of his element in today’s world. No longer that of Papal States clout and Metternich’s political universe.
    Actually, the pope at the time of its collapse Pio Nono had as much political clout as a Junebug. With the loss of its temporal power the papacy did indeed become a greater moral force within the world of politics. I write in contradiction, to an extent, not that I entirely dismiss Weigel’s views rather to offer a different perspective that might have purchase.
    So, to begin, calling the attack on Ukraine blasphemy for using God’s things as such is a lengthy stretch. Sinful, egregious yes. Was the US then following this logic when it annihilated Catholic Chief Joseph and the Jesuit taught peaceful Nez Perce who fought encroachment on their lands blasphemous? Relativity does have meaning when we compare. And were there military, political encroachments within former Soviets [Poland, Moldavia, Ukraine, Belarus were all called soviets] that posed a threat real or perceived? Recall Yeltsin as well as Putin protested to the West when previous agreements on the neutrality of those former soviets were abrogated [beginning with Bush 41].
    A primary reason for the conflict is the initial request by Russia that Ukraine remain neutral and not fall into the sphere of Nato. That was all that was demanded and Zelensky refused. Is, then, a negotiated settlement feasible to end hostilities, or is it preferable to refuse any contact whatsoever with blasphemers and murderers? Is it better in context of Christ’s teachings to out of hand refuse conciliation and continue pushing militarily toward ‘weakening’ Russia and possible nuclear retaliation?
    I’m not a scholar, not a military strategist. I’m a priest with limited knowledge in those spheres and with a different set of principles, which in that context I make appeal to reconsider.

    • Points well made. But, three comments, and possibly another “perspective”…

      FIRST, I recall that Zelensky recently did propose a neutral Ukraine, not a full member of NATO but also with the protection that was assured when it surrendered its nuclear arsenal beginning in 1994 (, plus a time period to negotiate the southeast zone (I recall fifteen years?). Putin’s response? Is the issue really only one of “refus[ing] conciliation and continu[ing]” to weaken Russia, with the risk possible nuclear retaliation? Or, is it more between resolute action, by some definition, versus acquiescence and nuclear blackmail?

      SECOND, my hope is that your own “perspective” is not a really a “different set of principles.” But, instead, still one of exercising prudential moral judgment toward what is a layered and very convoluted situation. In an imperfect world, not “different.”

      THIRD, the backstory thickens. I also trouble over the historical run-up ( But, a run-up to a tank invasion clearly crossing the line to trample on national sovereignty, and on civilians in what is credibly charged as crossing another line as genocide.

      ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE, Weigel, for his part and with his informed (“neocon”) historical perspective, focuses here on Francis and Kirill. And since the article is specifically about Francis and Kirill, I wonder:

      IF the universal Catholic Church continues to muddle moral principles (e.g., marginalizing Veritatis Splendor and possibly the CDF, and coddling Germania), especially under some manipulable version of evolving geographic synodality…

      THEN is the day coming when non-papal/fragmented Eastern Orthodoxy–in Russia still a victim and tool of state power–will be replicated in a Church in the West that has hollowed, fragmented and surrendered its own historic and moral authority–to infiltration by Secularism?

      Who, then, other than pragmatists, will be eligible as a possible conciliator? What moral high ground? Back to your Pius IX who had “as much political clout as a Junebug”?

      • A welcome opportunity to elaborate, I recall the Zelensky proposal to negotiate the Crimea [in an approx decade time frame] and not certain of Russia’s response. Although Zelensky also affirmed to reporters that Ukraine will not surrender territory [as we’re aware Russia is determined to retain Donbas at least the independently declared sections].
        Although, I’m not a scholar in the area of historical politics [although in limited areas Aquinas in particular] I have sufficient knowledge, combined with the conviction that faith based principles require realpolitik adjustment to the conditions on the ground. In any event, I hold to the firm belief in the Christian character of a negotiated peace absent of surrender of human dignity, rightful claims [however there’s a requirement to forego claims to a degree on both sides].
        Yes. Third, the aggressive invasion and alleged barbarity, as well as actual, the bombardment and destruction of civilian areas and death toll, leaving civilians in desperation are a serious consideration.
        And, I do appreciate your description of Vatican “muddling geographic synodality”. What other diplomatic intervention can the Vatican offer when it’s jettisoned the best of John Paul II. Either John Paul or Benedict would putatively have had greater positive influence with Kirill and Putin. Patriarch Kirill actually had a fondness for Benedict. Apparently that was due to shared moral convictions, abhorrence to the global culture of perversity and death. As you’re aware Russia is again warning use of tactical nuclear weapons. I’m not convinced it’s all blackmail. This morning Niall Ferguson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford gave a convincing presentation on Fox that Vladimir Putin may resort to nuclear weapons if he’s faced with defeat in Ukraine and the repercussions for Russia.

      • A Junebug with a papal biretta is better than nothing. Besides I’d settle for Machiavelli if he could bring peace.

  4. Weigel poses a specific question here. Should the Pope go meet Kirill. Weigel gives the Neocon answer. SAINT Francis travelled on foot (and boat, presumably?) from Italy to Egypt to meet the murderous Sultan. And at CONSIDERABLY higher risk! That was the great Saint’s answer to Weigel’s question.

  5. King Saul , when hearing David playing the harp was blessed with deliverance from the demonic spirits ..the above image of the peaceful look on the Patriarch Kirill Gundayev seems such an occasion ..that ? first name G , ? German , meaning battle …to be countered by the peace of St.Francis ..esp. in the love of humility , poverty and its wealth of incalculable spiritual riches in the life of Beatitudes as the key to the Divine Will that the Holy Father has embraced , to be the antidote for the love of riches, as in the case of Vladimir Putin owning 200 billion, whose first name as mentioned in a recent Spirit daily article is – ‘renowned prince ‘ , of this world .. ? any of that money also from the medical slaughter house industry of the unborn ,in which his country is the ? ‘richest ‘.. thus of spiritual slaughter of families..and the ample fuel for the war .. – Exorcism as battle for ownership ..

    The Shepherd who is ever in search for the lost who have been grabbed by the lions ..who might have a heart tender enough to hear the silent cry of many in the land to desire to bring the Harp of The Spirit closer to them make possible the desire of The Lord for the reign of the Divine Will in our times ..

    ‘one soul ‘ can make a difference for the world ‘ – promise of the Lord to St.Faustina as a St blessed to live in the great goodness and power in the Divine Will ..
    The Holy Father too desiring to reach across borders and distances as is his loving responsibility ..
    May our prayers and gratitude for the efforts and intentions of the Holy Father make same more effective in the manner The Spirit guides him along with each of us for the particular occasions/needs, to hand over the victory to The Prince of Peace at the earliest !
    FIAT !

    • In deed! One soul can make a difference to the world. The beast example we have is our Lord Jesus. Pope Francis is a faithful disciple of Jesus. His faith, wisdom and appreciation of Jesus and the meaning of true discipleship is second to none. If he were to meet Kirill again with the hope of bringing to the fore the Christian that is in the Russian spiritual leader, then Pope Francis, the most trusted religious leader in the world – barring the bigotry of some evangelicals and western Catholics – will do so with the prayers of many people. The Pope always asks for prayers.

      • Edit:

        ….. B E S T …..

        Yes, I pray for the Holy Father and Fr. Benedict.

        When I pray for them I include asking God pardon for some of their bloopers and blurpies. I have to be polite on this part and not denigrating, so I also pray for me to have the strength to bear with it. And some of the right things they proclaim have no outlet or reception; yet (perhaps) they do not see how it is.

  6. “…the Holy See does have power in today’s world: the power of moral witness,…”

    Does Weigel not know what has happened in the Vatican since St. JPII? Benedict knew and communicated that his authority stopped at his office door; soon after Francis took office, Benedict informed of the sinking ship. What has Francis done to reinforce the crumbling rock?

    Let’s begin by observing reality. Then let’s use words to tell the truth.

  7. Intending no disrespect to the Holy Father or the Holy See, in this circumstance Patriarch Kirill is second to none in correctly recognizing where his moral obligation lay, and His Holiness Pope Francis may have been embarrassed at the meeting. So, that this meeting did not occur is probably for the best.
    Even though His Beatitude Patriarch Kirill is no doubt in schism with the universal Church, it was his sacred duty under these unfortunate circumstances to bless the crusade in the Ukraine. For, contrary to the lugubrious protestations of Catholic Wormtongues, and our own political establishment’s disinformation campaign—which ignored real (as opposed to President Biden’s fake) genocidal actions in the Eastern Ukraine orchestrated by the Kiev satrapy—the patriarch had an obligation to God in this circumstance to be “an instrument of Russian state power.” If President Putin will not fight the tentacles of a degenerated West, and so-called Enlightenment “values” centered around the deification of individual autonomy, who will?
    El Cid—I’m sorry, President Putin of Russia—is tasked in the absence of the Tsar, with caretaking the core of the Russian Empire as best as is possible, to undo the pernicious effects of Marxism on the people of God, and to hope in better days. This is not just a pedestrian duty, but a sacred one as well.
    As an aside, one wonders if Cardinal Koch would go so far as to condemn as “blasphemous” the religious blessings laid upon the endeavors of such men as Hernando Cortes, Francisco Franco, and Simon de Montfort? If so, must wonder at the religion he truly practices.

    • Dear Robert, where do you find our King Jesus Christ teaching the judgmental violence you are advocating? Is that not the Easy Broad Highway that leads to perdition?

      Without any equivocation, faithful Catholics and other Christians walk the Difficult Narrow Path that Christ has shown us:

      “Instead, love your enemies and do good, and lend without any hope of return. You will have great reward, and you will be children of God Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate as your Father God is compassionate. Do not judge and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned.” Luke 6: 35-37.

      How can that work in practical terms? In the same way that The Cross led to The Resurrection; that is, by deep personal, obedient relationship with God, endowing us with faith that ultimately overcomes even the most wicked and blasphemous hatreds.

      The choice is always before us.

      • One could refer to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Ch 21, or that of St. John, Ch 2.
        And of course, the righteous man is beset on all sides, but tries in his erring ways, to shepherd.

  8. Agree with George’s analysis especially his dismissal of the absurd “honest broker in a negotiated settlement” rationalization. What justification can there be for a negotiated settlement with an invading country which has taken innocent lives and destroyed cities? There is none.

    • “What justification can there be for a negotiated settlement with an invading country which has taken innocent lives and destroyed cities? There is none.”
      Agreed. How many millions upon millions of babies that would make up a huge city has the western nations murdered through abortion. Why do we look only at Russia’s sins? All of the western nations have lost any moral high ground decades ago. Secondly, if we still had the “Just War Doctrine” in this case, Ukraine has no possibility of victory. By this doctrine they should stop fighting and sue for peace. There must be the possibility for victory. In this case it is lacking. All we are doing is spilling blood. Killing off the Ukrainian people. It is immoral for the west to keep supplying weapons in a futile cause that could go nuclear. Lay down your arms. NATO has been instigating this conflict for decades. Why Zelinsky did not evacuate his cities to begin with is a failure on his part as leader. All he is doing now is killing off his country’s future generations. Live to fight another day. Putin will not be around forever. Look what happened to the Soviet Union in the 90’s without a shot being fired it collapsed. No one knows what the future will bring. We do know what will happen if we keep this going the way it’s going. More death and destruction.

  9. If Russia or China were doing what NATO has been doing, there would be a lot to complain about and “it would be immediately recognizable to everybody”.

    NATO has no divine-right fallback and in the Ukraine case NATO members have been the provocateurs and the aggressors; and they continue to be precisely that: unjust.

    You might think, Elias’ remarks are too reduced and they are not disposing to “negotiation”. Is that ONLY what my points are capable of imparting?

    The US Congressional approval for “lend-lease” for Ukraine, is a formula for globalization of this kind of warring; simultaneously, UK calls for “a global NATO”.

  10. “Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of Russian Orthodoxy, shares a KGB background with President Putin and leads a Church that, as a senior Catholic official once put it to me, “only knows how to be chaplain to the czar — whoever he is.” – George Weigel
    Make no mistake; Cheka/GRU/KGB/FSB nothing has changed in Russia.

    • Right-on, Douglas.

      When Putin was asked if he was a member of the Communist Party he answered: “I’m a military man.” Meaning, “Yes”, since all Russian military had to be Party members. The same surely is true of Kirill, as a former KGB officer.

      It seems to me that all of their ‘christianity’ is counterfeit; merely a convenient camouflage for their hidden allegiance to diamond-hard, world-dominating Marxism. As we can now openly see in Ukraine, what is actualizing is perpetrations of the cruelest, anti-human (and thus anti-Christ) evils.

      We might ask how is it that the good Russian peoples are so gullible in tolerating such hoax leadership? Surely it’s past time for a truly godly Russian Revolution? Let’s all pray for change in the leadership of Russia.

      Always in the grace & mercy of Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

      • The “diamond-hard, world-dominating Marxism” that infects the world spews today from Washington D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles, with their cronies currently ensconced in Western Europe… not from Moscow. That is in fact what Moscow is resisting.
        “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear…”

  11. It would seem that the reason Stoltenberg is saying NATO intends to be fighting (sic) in Ukraine for years to come, is that it will take a very long time to bring Ukraine up to par in terms of equipment and equipment training. See the SKY NEWS video link discussion with Air Vice Marshal Sean Bell, posted at THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC.

    Again, UNJUST -it fails to meet just war principle. Understand what this means, it is not a “concept”, it says that Zelensky and is party and Government, commits to destroy the people and the land in a bid to “hopefully” win the victory a long time away in the future; at which point a devastated Ukraine will also been made bankrupt.

    These minds at work are saying, that the war Ukraine waged against the people of the Donbass for 8 years was meant to proceed at any cost and to overflow -it matters not.

    There is a very sound non-militarist alternative strategy. And Ukraine is not at the center of it.

    It is one of containment. This gives a right proportion to the relative position of all nations within a wider framework, along with their responsibility in the format.

    Containment begins with strategic arms control and reduction; nuclear non-proliferation and reduction; forcing interim balance upon nuclear and tactical capabilities. This requires the two superpowers to ensure that lesser powers are kept to a diminished militarized arrangements. And it requires the lesser powers to submit.

    These are tried and tested ways that have proven themselves in the past. They need mature men of sound thinking, to flesh out their content.

    • It is to be seen that I have appropriated the word containment to my purposes, which are nothing like what “containment” meant in the North Vietnam theatre of war.

      I am not hanging everything on a word, better words might be possible. What I have in mind is objective diplomacy that is at once very tangible and un-bloody, that avoids concentrating on irrational focus and irrational points of reference.

  12. The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act 2022 passed the House yesterday 417-10, having come from the Senate where it was passed by voice vote.

    At the same time in the House, a motion to reconsider has been laid. With the number of votes involved this Act is likely – as things stand presently – to go to the President.

    In a press conference yesterday, John Kirby said that everything that calls NATO’s and the US’ actions into question, is “BS”.

    The following items suggest themselves to me.

    1. Suddenly there appears in Congress a very large majority which now tips the balance in all of the politics -not just to do with Ukraine.

    2. Who will be networking this grouping? Mitt Romney? John Kirby? Victoria Nuland? Eric Swalwell? Kamala Harris? Mike Pence?

    3. John Kirby’s press briefing yesterday came off staged (I think). He is saying all this is targeted at Mr. Putin “who is the aggressor” and the propagandist.

    He says he can’t speak on Putin’s psychology but he can say Putin is “depraved”; when, in effect, the press conference staging is a performance effort in marketing and psychological shifting.

    4. Meantime the reality is that the US is unveiling a new form of warfare can it is adapting for use by the Executive without a declaration of war by the Congress.

    The US seems to be saying it will enter into “partnerships” for the purposes of making war and for the purpose of not having to declare war in the formal mode.

    When the US will train other groups, beyond anything to do with Ukraine, to make them inter-operable, as it is attempting to do with Ukraine, is a function of timetabling and money.

    5. The particular majority is also a locus for the lobby groups involved and other lobby groups who can now jump on the bandwagon and construct their own “marketing viewpoints” too.

    6. The progress reports we are getting are really meant to buy time -same for Kirby’s press conference.

    7. I believe they have been reading CWR.

    • Edit -: the lend-lease Act was passed Thursday 29th April 2022 not “yesterday”.

      To note as well how NATO was meant to be a defensive alliance, but is being transformed de facto into a proxy-war machine without limits or accountability -activities that even defy unanimity within NATO, are contrary to norms, etc.

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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