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Pope Francis makes puzzling remarks to Italian daily about Ukraine

For all his talk about listening to people on the margins, Pope Francis also shows a remarkable unwillingness to do just that.

Pope Francis is pictured during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 4, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There’s been a bit of chatter about Pope Francis’s most recent interview in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera newspaper, but not as much as he or the folks at the Corriere probably wish there were. To be perfectly frank, that’s probably for the best. There’s a good bit in it that could damage the Holy See – especially the Holy See’s diplomatic credibility – and a lot in it that could damage the Holy Father personally.

Take, for example, his insistence on going to Moscow before Kyiv, even though Kyiv is the seat of an autocephalous Catholic Church and Russian President Vladimir Putin is the aggressor in a war that has seen Russian forces invade Ukraine: “To Kyiv, for now, I am not going,” he said. “I sent Cardinal Michael Czerny (late of the Section for Migrants in Pope Francis’s prototype superdicastery for human development, now prefect of the same) and [papal almoner] Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who has been there four times.”

For himself, Pope Francis says: “I feel I cannot go. I must first go to Moscow, I must first meet Putin.” He adds: “But, I’m [only] a priest, too, what can I do?” and then, almost plaintively, “If Putin would only open the door.”

That, coupled with his insistence that he is “too far away” from the situation in Ukraine and “do[esn’t] know how to answer the question whether the international community ought to be resupplying Ukraine,” was more than enough to raise eyebrows. The line that really garnered headlines, however, was the pope’s insistence that “NATO’s barking at Putin’s door” perhaps had something to do with the Russian leader’s decision to invade his neighbor. 

That adds a tinge of bitter irony to Francis’s other oft-quoted line, to the effect that Russia’s Patriarch Kirill, who has been a vocal supporter of Putin and Putin’s war in Ukraine, ought not “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.” Leave aside that Kirill doesn’t have very far to go. Pope Francis’s insistence that senior Church leaders “not be clerics of state” is difficult to square with his copious praise of Italy’s top leaders. Former President Giorgio Napolitano is “a great man,” according to Francis. The pope said he “very much admires” incumbent Sergio Mattarella, too. Francis also verbally doffed his zucchetto to Italy’s pro-abortion paladin, Emma Bonino.

Pope Francis also wondered – aloud and very much on the record – whether Ukraine’s handling of Russian activity in the embattled Donbas region “almost ten years ago” may be somehow and in some measure to blame.

It is unthinkable that one free state should attack another free state,” Pope Francis said. “In Ukraine, it was others who sought conflict,” he continued. “The only thing that can be imputed to the Ukrainians is that they had responded in the Donbas, but we’re talking about a decade ago,” he said. A decade ago or not, the Donbas is an integral part of Ukrainian territory and the Russians were actively supporting Russian separatists waging war there. If the Ukrainians were wrong to defend themselves then, well, what about now?

All that makes it hard to see how the Holy See is supposed to bill itself credibly as an honest broker in crisis situations anywhere, while – credit to Charles Collins for noting it on Twitter – heads of state and government may well think twice before sharing sensitive information, after Pope Francis appeared to divulge information he received in late April from Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán, regarding Russia’s war plans and schedule.

For all his talk about listening to people on the margins, Pope Francis also shows a remarkable unwillingness to do just that. Explaining the recent contretemps over plans to have a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman read a rather too even-handed prayer at the recent via Crucis on Good Friday – the organizers eventually decided to put the prayer in File 13 and have the women bear the Cross in silence — Pope Francis said:

[W]hen for the via Crucis there were two women, one Russian and the other Ukrainian, who had to read the prayer together, they [the Ukrainians] made it a scandal. So I called Krajewski who was there and he said to me: “Stop, don’t read the prayer. They are right, even if we don’t fully understand.

The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, had said as much, but that was just the “proud” Ukrainians – Pope Francis’s word – making a stink, to hear him tell it. Pope Francis needed to hear it from his friend, Cardinal Krajewski. While we’re on the subject, it is worth mentioning that there is one thing Pope Francis could have done do to show support for the Ukrainian people and especially for Ukrainian Catholics: He could have sent Cardinal Krajewski with a red hat in his luggage for Archbishop Shevchuk. That would have been something.

The really bad thing about all this, is that there’s no spinning it. This is straight from the horse’s mouth, on the record, in the books. There’s no Scalfari to blame, no clarification to offer (or not), no ambiguity about a timeline or source material.

If Vatican beat journalists grouse a bit about the Corriere’s decision not to publish the interview as a straight Q&A, they’re well within the bounds of reason. Nevertheless, the Pope tends to say many words while finishing very few sentences. Getting pull quotes is not always a straightforward proposition. This time, one gets the impression that any attempt to clarify, revise, extend, or otherwise add to the pope’s remarks would only serve to keep the story alive – and that’s likely the very last thing anyone wants (Pope Francis possibly excepted).

If you want to gauge the damage Pope Francis’s interview has done, consider that it took much of the world a full 24 hours to notice it. This interview may be a slow burn, of the sort that smolders until it is an inexorable conflagration. More likely, it will crackle a bit and then quickly wane.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 163 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

36 Comments

  1. I have read many reports about this interview that featured this attack by Moscow and this one here is the only one that said that “puzzling remarks” were made by the Pope. Why was I not surprised by the author’s opinion? Well, one gets used to it over time. None of the sites – secular, Aljazeera, Catholic- even went close to calling this interview puzzling.
    It was what I expected the Pope to say and do. World Catholic News tells us that Pope Francis was seeking the possibility to meet Patriarch Kirill in Moscow. “He cited the 40-minute conversation via Zoom on 15 March last and the “justifications” for the war cited by Kirill, and returned to the missed appointment in June in Jerusalem.
    “I listened,” said Pope Francis in the interview with Corriere della Sera, “and I told him: I completely fail to understand this. Brother, we are not state clerics; we cannot use the language of politics, but that of Jesus. We are pastors of the same holy people of God. That is why we must seek ways of peace, stop the fire of arms. The Patriarch cannot become Putin’s altar boy.”
    So why does our Pope want to visit Russia urgently? He believes that Russia have a plan. “So, one would also understand the celerity of the escalation of these days. Because now it’s not just the Donbas, it’s Crimea, it’s Odessa, it’s taking away the Black Sea port from Ukraine, it’s everything. I am pessimistic, but we must make every possible gesture to stop the war.”
    Let us pray that his efforts help in bringing about peace.

    • We desperately needed someone to challenge the western narrative and he has done it and I’m very thankful today. We are dangerously close to nuclear war and people are unaware and have been misled. The mainstream media is trying to prevent this story from being heard because they want war as much as anyone and they have built a house of cards. Hoping the world will hear his message soon and there will be peace in Ukraine!

  2. I THINK THE STORY ABOUT POPE FRANCIS WAS DONE BY SOMEONE WHO IS TRYING TO THROW FRANCIS UNDER THE BUS AS A CAREER MOVE…IT’S THE TYPE OF TIMID AND FAKE COVERAGE TO PROTECT HIS CAREER…THE POPE WAS FOR ONCE VERY CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS…THE WRITER SEEMS TO PRETEND HE IS HELPING THE POPE WHEN IN FACT HE’S TRYING TO STAY A FRIEND OF THE WORLD OF WESTERN NEWS MEDIA…I PERCEIVE AN INSINCERE WRITE UP ON POPE FRANCIS HEREIN THIS BLOG…

  3. I HOPE I CAN SAY A BIT MORE I DIDN’T MEAN TO END MY OUTRAGE AT THIS INSINCERE CAREER MOVING ARTICLE BY CHRISTOPHER ALSO I AGREE WITH EVERY WORD OF POPE FRANCIS OBSEVATIONS. MOST OF THE WORLD DOES ALSO EXCEPT NATO EUROPE…CHINA, INDIA, THE ISLAMIC STATES, LATIN AMERICA AND MANY OTHERS SEE UKRAINE WAS BEING USED AS A LAUNCH PAD TO ATTACK RUSSIA….WOULD THE USA ALLOW CHINA TO PUT MILITARY BASES NEXT DOOR TO TEXAS ?
    THE WRITER IS A PRAGMATIST TRYING TO SELL HIS WARES…I DON’T EVEN BELIEVE HE BELIEVES HIS STRATEGIC RESPONSE TO POPE FRANCIS…I CAN PERCEIVE THIS WRITTER WAS VERY NERVOUS IN PUTTING HIS ANTI REALITY RESPONSE TOGETHER….IM NOT BUYING IT !!!!
    FRANCIS WAS SPOT ON !!!

    • David! Mal!

      I’m not sure what article you’re reading, but once again this pope’s statements seem to me to be muddled, confusing, and even contradictory.

      As a church, as a world, we need the pope to offer decisive moral guidance about the Ukraine situation, not more of his equivocal and ambiguous caviling.

      Obviously, this pope, this man, is not a clear thinker.

  4. As I’ve said numerous times already, Francis is woefully over-exposed. Francis advocated that young Catholics “make a mess” of things in the Church. He’s taken far too much of his own advice. The end result as I predicted a long time ago is that Catholics (and others) will stop paying any attention at all to the pronouncements of any Pope. We should credit that to the McCarricks, the Tobins and the Cupiches in the Church who have helped usher in the denouement of the Church.

  5. “hard to see how the Holy See is supposed to bill itself credibly as an honest broker”?
    Is this the Catholic world report or a protestant (etc ) Catholic bashing enterprise?

  6. Americans should appreciate Putin’s efforts to bring Ukraine back into the Russian Federation. After all, Lincoln found a horrible, bloody war to bring the Confederate States back into the union. Lincoln has become a hero. So, why is Putin a villain?

    • George, the fact that Putin allows his soldiers to tie the hands of civilians behind their back and then proceed to execute them renders Putin a villain. I am quite certain that Lincoln never authorized such murder.

  7. While respecting the right of others who disagree, I am in full agreement with Mr. Alteri’s analysis and commentary as well as with yesterday’s WSJ op-ed (“The Pope Blames NATO”) in which it described the Pope’s comments as “a terrible moral signal to send to dictators.”

  8. Anybody who covers the Ukraine crisis as though it is a black and white situation where those who are clearly good guys are fighting those who are clearly evil, is either a liar or naive.

  9. Taking into account ethical principles and the particular facts, Russia is in the right.

    The US/West/NATO expanded to Russia’s borders, multiplied its membership (30+ countries), violated its own defensive principles by attacking Serbia, engineered a coup in Ukraine in 2014, filled Ukraine with modern weaponry, funded and directed bioweapon labs in Ukraine, trained with Ukrainian troops, encouraged, funded and helped to develop the Nazi Azov Battalions, encouraged Ukraine to break the Minsk accords, and encouraged Ukraine’s ethno-cleansing war against the Donbass Republics (10-15,000 civilans killed). The Donbass Republics appealed for help and Russia responded.
    Russia’s cause is just.

    • Nations’ interest in joining NATO is precisely because ‘bears’ like Russia are threatening to THEM. Not sure why this has to be s-p-e-l-l-e-d out to the mental elites.
      Of course, without USSR/Russia’s snorting and growling, there wouldn’t have been need of a NATO. So now who’s really to blame? Of course we could blame Hitler or Napoleon or Ceasar if you want to keep going with the historical causation game. But if you want to deal with the here and now, look at who’s raping whom (note the present tense).

    • Russia has No Right to invade another country.
      Oh my, the mighty bear was so scared!
      Go read a book, maybe a history book.
      If you ever looked at a map Russia owns half the worlds land mass.
      I guess they just gave their nuclear weapons to Russia because their 40 million people had an upper hand.

  10. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/251114/cardinal-dolan-talks-ukraine-refugee-relief-russian-invasion

    Good to have come across the news about Cardnl Dolan’s recent visit to
    Poland & Ukraine , his appreciation for the way in which the refugees are being treated in Poland ..calling the war ‘raw evil ‘…on the idolatry of nationalism , agreeing with the similar warning from the Holy Father ..
    The Holy Father’s desire to go to Russia – to help bring down those idols – as St.Joseph did in Egypt…for the people and powers in Russia that need to hear the truth , that there were alternatives to meet with their ( mostly paranoid ) fears ..the contempt in the media about the desire of the Holy Father to deal with issues through respectful dialogue – ? did same undermine the trust to instead choose war .. to add to the debts of not being able to free own people from the slavery – as a nation that has become used to Satanic sacrifices of the innocent .. the related hardness of hearts likely the true root ..

    Holy Father who is also named after St.George , desiring to drive out the dragons that have enslaved the nation ..would be good for us to join him in good will .

  11. Catholic journalists today are quite fortune. Their opening sentence almost always writes itself: “Pope Francis makes puzzling remarks to/about _______ [fill in the blank].”

  12. Pope Francis’ so-called muddled responses on Ukraine reflect his view that no war can be justified. Everybody who makes and sells weapons that kill civilians, or gives them to either side in a war, has blood on their hands, the pope has several times emphasized. If anything, his potential as peace broker is heightened by refusing to be a cheerleader for Ukrianian resisters who may in the end also have the blood of their own people on their hands. In this war, ironically. both Russia and Ukraine can claim. “To save the country we had no choice but to destroy.”

  13. Anyone can poke the bear to get a reaction, even NATO. Might does not make right. If Moscow or China placed troops or nukes in Mexico we would have a fit. What makes it right for us to slowly encircle Russia? Why did we not reach out to them when the Wall came down. Instead we slowly built up around them. This does not justify the invasion, especially war crimes. But read WWI and it’s causes. It was stupidity that started it. WWII was caused by American President Wilson’s stupidity in how he dealt with the Germans after WWI. We really need to work for peace. The alternative is nuclear destruction of most everything. This isn’t 1900, it’s the high tech age with high tech death and destruction. It will be the slaughter of our young people first, then of entire civilizations. And the living will envy the dead. We need to negotiate and not arm. These weapon systems are evil in their construction. Peace is the only way forward. Treaty’s written in human hearts. Our Lady of Fatima gave us the last to means to save us from all this destruction, Devotion to Her Immaculate Heart through the 5 First Saturday Devotions and the Daily Rosary for the conversion of sinners and peace. Only these two ways will save us.

  14. Yep. Chris Collins reported on Twitter: “…the pope revealed what a head of govt told him in a closed door meeting,…”

    In the USA, orthodox Catholics remember another instance of Francis wielding his power-brokering head-of-state papal authority. Biden said the pope said Biden is a good Catholic. Biden said the pope said Biden should continue to receive Holy Communion. The pope said nothing.

    What credibility Francis lost due to this latest Ukraine-Russia glitch is not much; it measured very little from the get-go. With each passing day, as Francis digs his dirt ever deeper, orthodox Catholics endure more, yet pray Romans 5:4 more, and we are at peace.

  15. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/29/let-us-dream-by-pope-francis-review-the-holy-father-of-fraternity – ‘Let us Dream’ -a book seemingly well guided by St.Joseph as one can read through same as though sitting in the company of the beloved Father .. Hopefully, many of the CWR readers have already read the above ; having received same as a gift a while ago, thought it was a summary of what we read about the views of the Holy Father in the ‘Catholic’ web sites , had put it away with intent to look through same as time permits ..Glad that the ‘good spirit’ helped to start reading through same , gladly finding a book that is rich in many many aspects – answering the doubts/ accusations ..the good that has been and is to be expected in the Synodal process ..the distortions in the media , in conveying the truth about the Synods of the past.. answering the ( obsessive and accusatory ) questions that are raised in decisions from related occasions .. constant reminder and lessons as to what the Holy Spirit does versus the bad spirits ..
    essential and even a must read for all who might have been fed from the wrong hands , to thus pray more deeply for all such occasions and persons too , along with The Mother as she certainly does for all and in whom we have the ‘brotherhood ‘ as well …
    The Ignatius Press custom of sending free books with orders – hope same can be substituted by some means of helping more persons to read the above book .
    God bless !

  16. Catholic teaching existed prior to Francis and will survive when he is gone. Whether millions of Catholics love, respect, or idolize his words or deeds is not at issue. Catholic truth does not contend for a popularity prize nor for majority vote.

    There is the sin of “human respect.” Catholic Culture has a good article about it.

    Jesus taught that His followers are not of the world because he chose them out of it. When the world hates Christ’s followers, they understand why. Conversely, Christ’s followers understand the truth of the world when it claims to love.

    • Although you say here that whether our Pope is loved and respected is not the issue, but you earlier insisted: “What credibility Francis lost due to this latest Ukraine-Russia glitch is not much; it measured very little from the get-go.” Yes, you made it an issue.
      It is indeed true that the world hates Christ’s followers but Jesus came to save us while we were still sinners. He wants his true and faithful disciples to do likewise.

      • A dictionary may help. One’s moral authority, credibility, and integrity are not synonyms for love and respect. We love and respect flowers and pets; to speak of their moral authority would make no sense.

        The City of God differs from the city of the world. There is a SIN of human respect. Francis receives gives and gets plenty of that; no moral authority is necessary.

        I can recommend more reading if you are still confused about all this. If you don’t like to read, perhaps you can pray.

        • Actually, you are the one is who is confused. You made a baseless claim that Pope Francis had little credibility. I just do not agree with that. There are his detractors who want us to believe that he has lost moral authority, but their futile efforts will fail.

    • “Catholic truth does not contend for a popularity prize nor for majority vote.”

      Very well said, and completely true!

  17. Francis’s needs to realize that if he cannot say anything smart or constructive, it would be better to just keep quiet.

  18. People should not distort differences of governments between Western NATO countries and the East. Don’t distort who is aggressors.
    First it was only about Crimea, but we see Russian pattern.
    Ukraine gave up Nuclear Weapons, agreement’s were made.
    If they didn’t, would things be different?
    They just wanted a Free Society.
    People need to open a history book.
    Maybe look at old maps.
    My grandfather came from a border town in Poland, only later to become a province of Russia.
    Bottom line is Russia only wants that port for nothing more than control and power.

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