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Pope’s Wariness of U.S.-Dominated World Shapes His Russia, China Stances

Pope’s Wariness of U.S.-Dominated World Shapes His Russia, China Stances #Popes #Wariness #USDominated #World #Shapes #Russia #China #Stances Welcome to Lopoid

ROME—In

Pope Francis

’ view, the war in Ukraine isn’t a straightforward case of good against evil.

The pontiff recently told a group of Catholic journalists that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t like fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood was good and the wolf was the bad guy. Here, there are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys,” he said.

Pope Francis’ reluctance to take sides in the conflict has raised eyebrows within and far beyond the Catholic Church. For weeks, while he deplored the suffering of the Ukrainians, the pope denounced the aggression in abstract terms without naming Russia as the perpetrator. He has more than once suggested that the West might have provoked the invasion.

Behind the pope’s stance lies a combination of his wariness of a U.S.-dominated world order, his reluctance to be seen as siding with the West in geopolitical conflicts, and his ambitions for diplomatic outreach toward major non-Western powers in a multipolar world.

To some extent, his evenhanded diplomacy follows Vatican traditions of neutrality in international conflicts. Francis’ predecessors Pope Pius XII and St.

John Paul II

were outspoken in condemning communism during the Cold War, but St. John XXIII and St. Paul VI took an approach of compromise with the Soviet bloc. Historians still debate whether Pius XII could have done or said more to protect European Jewry from the Nazis.

Pope Francis has in recent years sought a rapprochement with China, despite Beijing’s crackdown on independent religion. The Vatican’s openness to cooperation with China in appointing Catholic bishops in the country hasn’t been reciprocated by Beijing, which continues to harass clerics who reject state control of the church there, according to a U.S. government report.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2013.

Photo:

OR/Zuma Press

Last month, Hong Kong authorities briefly arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, a retired bishop and outspoken pro-democracy campaigner, under the city’s national security law. The cardinal faces a trial in September, along with five others, on a separate charge of failing to register a fund that offered legal and financial aid to antigovernment protesters.

The pope’s approach to Russia also reflects his personal geopolitical vision, in part stemming from his background as the first Latin American pope: He is seeking to keep his distance from the West and seeks to mediate among the world’s major powers, according to longtime observers of his career.

Pope Francis has “a multipolar vision of the world,” based on a recognition that “no one at this moment can think of having world hegemony, not even the United States,” said Massimo Borghesi, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia and author of three books on Pope Francis, including a study of the pontiff’s ideas.

Paul Vallely, author of two books on Pope Francis, said the pontiff “sees his role as pontifex—bridge builder—rather than as the issuer of moral condemnations.”

“Given the brutality of Russia’s behavior in Ukraine this is bound to look ill-judged at present. But I think the Pope is trying to look to position the Vatican for the long-term outcome, hoping it will later be able to play some constructive role,” Mr. Vallely said.

The pope has twice suggested in public comments that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have been provoked by enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic minority, responded earlier this month that anyone thinking such a thing “is either themselves in the grip of Russian propaganda or is simply and deliberately deceiving the world.”

In May, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, head of the Polish bishops conference, called the Vatican’s policy toward Russia “naive and utopian” and a step backward from a more vigilant posture under St. John Paul II.

Humanitarian aid is stored inside a Catholic church in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Photo:

IVAN ALVARADO/REUTERS

Massimo Franco, correspondent for Italian daily Corriere della Sera and author of three books about the pope, said the pontiff’s wariness of NATO, and by implication the U.S., reflects his Argentine origins. Latin America “is a continent colonized by the United States for years and years and so he tends to see it as the country of the military system and aggressive capitalism,” Mr. Franco said.

Mr. Vallely says the pope’s experience of U.S. economic dominance over Argentina instilled in him not hostility to the U.S. per se but a belief that “superpowers are bad for ordinary people in the rest of the world.” This belief, said Mr. Vallely, explains Pope Francis’ statement earlier this month that Ukraine was the victim of “a ‘superpower’ aimed at imposing its own will in violation of the principle of the self-determination of peoples.”

The U.S. wants to counter China’s influence around the world by providing everything from infrastructure to vaccines and green energy. WSJ’s Stu Woo explains how the plan, dubbed Build Back Better World, aims to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Photo composite: Daniel Orton

The pope’s overtures to Russia and China haven’t met with particularly warm responses.

Russia has rebuffed Pope Francis’ offers to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv. The pope has said he still hopes to meet this September with

Patriarch Kirill,

leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has vigorously supported the Kremlin on the war in Ukraine. After the pope’s warning in May that the patriarch “cannot turn himself into Putin’s altar boy,” the Patriarchate of Moscow accused the pope of adopting an “incorrect tone.”

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Meeting with the pro-war patriarch would merely play into Kremlin propaganda without meaningfully promoting relations between the churches or the cause of peace, said Thomas Bremer, a professor of ecumenical studies at the University of Münster, Germany.

Some of Pope Francis’ declarations about the war in Ukraine have been off-the-cuff, causing concern within the Vatican about his unpredictability. A senior Vatican official said the pope’s frankness and spontaneity are intrinsic parts of his popular appeal, but that they can be a diplomatic handicap.

The pope faces a decision soon on whether to renew the Vatican’s agreement with China on the appointment of Chinese Catholic bishops. The pact, which expires in October, allows Beijing to nominate bishops, subject to a papal veto. Since it went into effect in 2018, only six bishops have been ordained under its terms, while some 40 dioceses in China remain without a bishop.

A Christmas Eve Mass at a government-sanctioned Catholic church in Beijing.

Photo:

FLORENCE LO/REUTERS

A report published in March by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China said that Chinese authorities continue to detain and harass Chinese Catholic clerics in the part of the church that has resisted state control.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last month that “respecting and protecting freedom of religious belief is the basic policy” of China’s Communist Party and government and that “China is ready to continue constructive dialogue with the Vatican and implement the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops.”

According to Francesco Sisci, an Italian China expert who teaches at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, the deal has been disappointing for the Vatican but better than nothing, since the Chinese authorities have refrained from filling the vacant bishoprics unilaterally. Yet the wider aim of the pope’s overture to China, to build a relationship for the promotion of world peace, remains a distant one.

“The two powers which Francis approached as potential allies have revolted against him,” Mr. Franco said. “He’s criticizing NATO, and implicitly the United States, but actually the big problem for the pope is the refusal, both of Russia and China,” to reciprocate his desire for dialogue.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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