Pope Francis Endorses “Moral” Arms for Ukraine

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By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher

Since the start of the current phase of the conflict in Ukraine in February 2022, Pope Francis has expressed a variety of views on the appropriate response. This was to some degree an attempt at a PR campaign to project an image of the Catholic Church as an impartial channel for peace. However, as the conflict has progressed, Pope Francis has clarified his views on arming Ukraine.

During an interview on the return flight from a visit to Kazakhstan on Thursday, Pope Francis was asked whether weapons should be given to Ukraine. In response, Francis said:

This is a political decision, which can be moral – morally acceptable – if it is done according to the conditions of morality, which are manifold, and then we can talk about it. But it can be immoral if it is done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed. The motivation is what largely qualifies the morality of this act. To defend oneself is not only lawful but also an expression of love of country. Those who do not defend themselves, those who do not defend something, do not love it, instead those who defend, love.

In 2016, when the Pope met with Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, the two released a joint statement. This invited “all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace.”

In March 2022, when the conflict had entered a new phase, Francis had a remote meeting with Patriarch Kirill. At this meeting, the Pope was clear that peace should be the goal of both Churches. One the question of a just war, Francis was explicit:

There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed.

This sentiment aligns with the 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti in which the Pope, building on the traditional Catholic concept of a “just war”, nonetheless disavowed war as a solution:

We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. Never again war!

A footnote to the text further emphasized this change:

Saint Augustine, who forged a concept of “just war” that we no longer uphold in our own day…

At an audience in March 2022, the Pope explained that spending money on weapons was a scandal that tarnishes humanity. In an April 2022 essay, Francis stated bluntly that Ukraine had been attacked and invaded, but nonetheless warned against spending astronomical sums of money on rearming.

When the Corriere della Sera interviewed Francis in May 2022, his responses on Ukraine placed the blame for the “brutality” on Russia. The Pope said that he had visited the Russian embassy and asked them to stop in order send a signal to the world. Francis also dismissed Ukrainian actions in the Donbass as an “old issue” from ten years ago.

Despite this signalling, Francis repeated his concerns about the arms trade and claimed that weapons were being tested in Ukraine. The Pope even noted that “NATO barking at Russia’s door” might have facilitated, if not provoked, the Russian response. Asked explicitly about weapons for Ukraine, Francis answered:

I don’t know how to answer, I’m too far away, the question of whether it’s right to supply the Ukrainians.

This is not the only reference Francis has made to NATO. In June 2022, speaking to the heads of Jesuit cultural magazines in Europe, explained that he had met an unidentified head of state prior to escalation in the Ukraine conflict. This head of state had used the same terminology to warn the Pope that NATO was barking at Russia’s door. Francis maintained that he was opposed to reducing a complex situation down to a question of goodies and baddies, instead insisting that we need to think about the complex origins of the violence and interests at play.

In 2020, writing against war, Francis identified the rule of law as the way to prevent and resolve conflicts, as embodied by the United Nations:

‘To this end, there is a need to ensure the uncontested rule of law and tireless recourse to negotiation, mediation and arbitration, as proposed by the Charter of the United Nations, which constitutes truly a fundamental juridical norm’. The seventy-five years since the establishment of the United Nations and the experience of the first twenty years of this millennium have shown that the full application of international norms proves truly effective, and that failure to comply with them is detrimental. The Charter of the United Nations, when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace.

By the time of his interview on the way back from Kazakhstan last week, Pope Francis had dramatically shifted tune on the UN:

Here you touch on something else that I said in one of my speeches, which is that one should think more about the concept of just war. Because everybody is talking about peace today: for so many years, for seventy years, the United Nations has been talking about peace; they have been making so many speeches about peace. But right now how many wars are going on? The one you mentioned, Ukraine-Russia, now Azerbaijan and Armenia which had stopped for a while because Russia acted as a guarantor: a guarantor of peace here and makes war there… Then there is Syria, ten years of war, what is going on there for which it never stops? What interests are moving these things?

This newfound disregard for the capacity of the UN to resolve conflicts and endorsement of arms shipments places the Pope far closer to the NATO response to the conflict in Ukraine. By falling into line with the Western political aims of the conflict (despite protesting that selling arms would be immoral if it were done “with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed”), Francis risks alienating large segments of the Catholic laity.

Even as Francis champions the European cause against Russia, the majority of Catholics don’t live in Europe. The largest populations of Catholics are to be found in Latin American states such as Brazil and Mexico, and the Church is experiencing its fastest growth in Africa and Asia (which is also where it is recruiting many of its essential next generation of seminarians).

Both Brazil and Mexico have in fact presented mixed governmental responses to the conflict in Ukraine. Even as diplomats for the countries have condemned Russia’s actions, the political leadership has refused to do so (and in Brazil, Lula has also attacked Zelenskiy from the Opposition). An Ipsos poll from April 2022 found that only 40% of Brazilians and 35% of Mexicans felt paying more for fuel and gas due to sanctions was worthwhile to defend Ukraine. 35% of Brazilians felt that the problems of Ukraine were none of their business and that they shouldn’t interfere, a figure that rose to 52% in Mexico.

Pope Francis’ recent statement that providing weapons to Ukraine can be a moral decision puts him at odds with his own pronouncements on war over the years and represents a shift even closer towards the NATO position. More importantly, it also puts him at odds with a large chunk of the population of the Global South, now the population center for the Catholic Church, who do not share the same degree of media-backed enthusiasm for arms shipments as the Western political leadership.

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31 comments

  1. Tom Stone

    There are no “Just Wars” there is just War.
    And “Moral Arms”?
    One might as well speak of a “Moral” hammer or a “Moral” screwdriver.
    From these quotes it is clear that the Pope is a “Moral Coward”, just another politician in a pretty dress.

    Reply
    1. Steven A

      “To defend oneself is not only lawful but also an expression of love of country. Those who do not defend themselves, those who do not defend something, do not love it, instead those who defend, love.”

      Perhaps the Pope has not observed that, over the years, the world has become more and more armed, both in quantity and quality of weapons. If he would have asked, he would have been told by those possessing the arms that every last bullet is for defense. I am not aware of any country that has a Ministry Of Agression.

      Reply
    2. Michael.j

      The concept of a “moral war” and a “just war” can be flipped any direction anyone chooses, depending upon which tribe one belongs.

      I’m sure the people of Russia, Donetsk and Luhansk believe they are involved in a “moral war”.

      It’s interesting that religion is fundamentally based upon tribalism, as are all wars, yet the leaders of the same will never discuss it.

      Reply
  2. Zephyrum

    Any institution as big as the Pope is going to have factions, and apparently they are vying for their time at the mic. Not unlike the Biden administration.

    Reply
  3. Michael Ismoe

    The Vatican –
    Sponsored by Raytheon and McDonnell Douglas.

    Biden saving a nation’s soul while the Pope endorses his wars. It’s time to die.

    Reply
  4. Starry Gordon

    If they’ve gone to the trouble of roping the Pope, the PTB must be really desperate. But why? It doesn’t seem to me that either side is particularly going off the edge; either or both can still declare victory and go home. Something going on with China?

    Reply
    1. jsn

      In Diana Johnson’s “Fools Crusade” about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, she’s explicit about cooperation between the Pope and several Holenzolerns functioning in diplomatic capacities with the UN, and German Greens.

      Why does that seem familiar? Obviously, it’s not the Holenzolerns.

      Operation Gladio relied on a Catholic/Mafia nexus for CIA sponsored terror in Italy, almost certainly with Papal blessings.

      Reply
  5. DJG, Reality Czar

    I think that you get the tone of the Kazakhstan interview wrong. First, the list of countries that the pope gives isn’t a criticism of the UN. It’s an observation that real negotiation, a real commitment to peace, no longer seems to exist. And farther down, he says that war is always wrong.

    Here’s the pope a bit farther down from the “implied criticism” of the U.N.

    Io mi domando: non so se oggi noi siamo con il cuore educato per piangere di gioia quando vediamo la pace. Tutto è cambiato. Se non fai guerra, non sei utile! Poi c’è la fabbrica delle armi. Questo è un negozio assassino. Qualcuno che capisce le statistiche mi diceva che se si smettesse per un anno di fare le armi si risolverebbe tutta la fame nel mondo… Non so se è vero o no. Ma fame, educazione… niente, non si può perché si devono fare le armi. A Genova alcuni anni fa, tre o quattro anni fa, è arrivata una nave carica di armi che doveva trasferirle in una nave più grande che andava in Africa, vicino al Sud Sudan. Gli operai del porto non hanno voluto farlo, gli è costato, ma hanno detto: “Io non collaboro”. È un aneddoto ma che fa sentire una coscienza di pace.

    “Everything has changed. If you aren’t making war, you’re not useful. Then there is the manufacture of arms. It’s a murderous business.” Then he tells the story of the dockworkers in Genova who wouldn’t (and won’t) unload arms from ships.

    “They said, “I won’t collaborate.” It is an anecdote but it gives one the sense of a consciousness of peace.”

    [My translations, on the fly. “Coscienza” translates as conscience, consciousness, knowledge, rightmindedness.]

    And farther down, he speaks specifically of Latin America and its needs.

    Here’s the interview in Italian. He spoke in Italian.
    https://www.vaticannews.va/it/papa/news/2022-09/papa-francesco-conferenza-stampa-volo-viaggio-kazakhstan-ucraina.html

    I’ve been following these interviews, because Francis has been one of the few notable voices for peace and has caused plenty of controversy among the good-thinkers in Italy. I don’t find that he’s suddenly coming out for letting the Ukrainians do whatever they want (and call it self-defense). They have insulted him too many times for that–he wasn’t so keen on the caterwauling and drama-queenery from the Ukrainian embassy when he allowed the Ukrainian woman and Russian woman to carry the cross in the Holy Week procession.

    He’s savvier than that.

    Reply
    1. jsn

      He’s a complicated character, I’m with Zyphyrum above, he’s got major internal politicking going on within the Church and is stepping between tight ropes.

      Reply
      1. lyman alpha blob

        Riding around in the armored popemobile all the time no doubt focuses one’s mind as to why tightrope walking is necessary.

        Reply
    2. crantok

      Even without the extra info you’ve provided, DJG, I think the writer’s interpretation of the pope’s words is highly arbitrary. Mentioning three current wars and saying, “what the hell is going on here?” is not the same as switching support to the Ukrainians, especially when the US has a role in all three wars.

      Reply
  6. hk

    More crusading against Moscovite schmismatics? That’s been going on for a thousand years and probably the only “moral” crusade left in the West. Snark aside, it was going to be difficult for the Catholic West(ern world) to turn against Ukrainian nationalists, much the way the Vatican was more or less in favor of the Croats in Yugoslavia. There has always been the same religious undertone in the conflict in the Ukraine: (Uniate) Catholic West vs. (Russian) Orthodox East, with (Independent) Orthodox Center wavering, with the Ukrainian Catholics being heavily associated with ultranationalism, possibly from the very beginning (starting with the Union of Brest).

    Reply
  7. ChrisRUEcon

    Wow … they got to him, huh?

    Mid-week last week, RT was reporting heavily that his comments reflected a belief that Russia was provoked into war, and that arms shipments to Ukraine were solely for the purpose of encouraging more war. Now he does an about-face supporting “lethal aid” essentially. Heh. Noted.

    Reply
  8. Rip Van Winkle

    After attending more Catholic Masses than Cal Ripkin played ballgames, I completely gave up a couple of years ago after Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupisch became experts on politics, climate change and covid.

    Reply
  9. divadab

    A nice reprise of the Pope’s words and actions in WW2 in support of fascism. But now he’s on our side? Fascism is us, now?

    The NATO Ukraine operation certainly looks like a re-up of the hitler project for Ukraine….just flipping horrifying what is being done in our name.

    Reply
    1. britzklieg

      “La próxima guerra en Europa será entre Rusia y el fascismo, excepto que el fascismo se le llamará Democracia”. – Fidel Castro Ruz

      The next war in Europe will be between Russia and fascism, except that fascism will be called democracy

      Reply
  10. David

    I didn’t read the interview that way. He was clearly trying to answer some very awkward questions in the most diplomatic way possible, and he went on to make a plea for negotiations to end the war.

    Part of the problem is that I don’t think even the most pro-Moscow advocate would deny that Russia attacked Ukraine rather than the other way round. You can argue, and many do, that Russia was provoked, and that the war was a “just” one, in the modern, rather than the Augustinian sense, but that doesn’t change the reality, any more than you can change the fact that France and Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, rather than the other way round. So from the Pope’s point of view, and this is what he seems to be saying, the only question is whether the Russian attack was “just” or not, and on that he doesn’t give an opinion.

    Not an expert on Augustian theology, but my understanding is that Just War theory (or at least the jus ad bellum part), is essentially to do with the nation that started the war: whether the criteria (just cause, last resort etc.) have been met. By contrast, I don’t think anyone has ever suggested under Just War theory that a nation which is attacked doesn’t have a right to defend itself, nor to seek help elsewhere. Now note that this is a technical and ethical argument, and entirely distinct from an argument from political factors such as the nature of the Ukrainian government, the motivations of the West, the existence of an extreme nationalist influence in Ukraine etc. But in general, I don’t see how delivery of arms to Ukraine would be against the traditional Just War theory, and I think the Pope was trying to avoid taking a position. (It would be interesting to know what the original language of the interview was, by the way.)

    Reply
  11. Cristobal

    An unexpected commentator on the Agustinian concept of a just war is Scott Ritter. He wrote a long piece about It as appled to ukraine in march.

    Reply
  12. Otis B Driftwood

    But it can be immoral if it is done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed.

    The pope cannot rationalize this. The intention is obvious: prolonging this war has been the goal all along, highlighted most prominently during the spring peace talks that were sabotaged by Johnson and the neocons in charge of US foreign policy.

    Reply
    1. Polar Socialist

      The way I read that sentence is that while giving Ukraine weapons (and training) before the war may have been moral, definitely giving/selling/loaning weapons to Ukraine for the sole purpose of prolonging the war and just to kill more people can not be moral. What the West is doing now is mostly immoral.

      So I’m whit DJG and David here, although having been raised as an apatheist in a kinda Lutheran country, I haven’t followed the papal messaging that much.

      Reply
      1. hk

        I wonder how ambiguous the original Italian wording is: the English translations seem pretty vague and overly “diplomatic,” like the Pope is trying to appease too many sides. I don’t think I’m wrong thinking that there are powerful factions in the Catholic Church that consider the Ukrainian nationalism, with historical connections to the UGCC, as part of the “Catholic cause.” In face of such interests, Pope would need to be cautious and certainly would not be able to too openly criticize the Western role in the war.

        Reply
  13. The Rev Kev

    ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.’ Seems that there is no war that cannot be improved but by adding a religious dimension to it. It was not enough that DC helped form a Ukrainian Orthodox Church to help fuel a religious war but the Pope now goes wobbly about an ongoing war. Decades ago it was the Pope that would be helping try to resolve conflicts through negotiations. I guess that we will be calling it the 2022 Papal encyclical Tutti Frutti or something.

    But when the present Pope says ‘Then there is Syria, ten years of war, what is going on there for which it never stops? What interests are moving these things?’, that is being willfully ignorant. At least he did not say something like ‘mysterious are the ways of the Lord.’ He has full access to the Vatican intelligence service who would be able to give him chapter and verse what is going on. But to come out with a statement like that makes him either stupid or an accessory to what is going on.

    Reply
  14. julianmacfarlane

    How sad. All wars have a moral dimension. And, as the Pope says, people have a right to self-defense. But who is the aggressor in Ukraine? It is Western Ukraine attacking Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian speaking ethnicities in the West of this artificially created country attacking Russian speaking ethnicities in the East. So Russia is on the side of the good guys.The Pope is pimping for the American empire, as early Christians did for Rome. Still, that does not change the Winter Forecast — which is for the UAF to lose “bigly” and for the EU to freeze. https://julianmacfarlane.substack.com/p/ukraine-winter-forecast

    Reply
  15. Really_Brit

    The writer – McGregorski (?) – seriously weakens his case by ignoring the historic multi-Catholic dimensions and, perhaps ignorantly, only referencing comment in support of the theory.

    Patriarch Krill of the Russian Orthodox Catholics – which originally splintered from the Greek Orthodox back in the 800 to 900’s, but leaving a sizable community of Greek Orthodox in the Odessa area; is pi**ed off that the Ukraine Orthodox has itself recently split off from the Russian version.
    Particularly painful as the Russian Orthodox Catholicism’s foundation was in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

    To Krill, and many thousands of Orthodox Russians this therefore is a religious and therefore ‘just’ War to reclaim access to their roots. The Roman Catholic Pope’s comments could be construed as ‘butting’ in, apparently in support or at least not condemning the arming of Ukranians. Helping them fight back being ‘anti-Russian’.

    However the Pope’s equivalent in the Orthodox Church – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I – has come out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


    https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/orthodox-patriarch-denounces-atrocious-invasion-ukraine-83738849

    Reply
  16. T_Reg

    “Francis also dismissed Ukrainian actions in the Donbass as an ‘old issue’ from ten years ago.”. Well, alrighty then. Even though that “old” issue continues to this day, as the AFU shells the civilian center of Donetsk City.

    Reply

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