Has the Pope betrayed progressives in favour of Putin?

Francis has been appealing to environmentalism since the beginning of his pontificate. He rejects the Enlightenment vision of reality. This is where his respect for the religiosity of pagan peoples, worshipping nature deities, comes from. Except that neither Peter I nor Catherine II had anything in common with the 'noble savages' the Pope praised. The Enlightenment impressed them.

And he was so cool, because he was progressive - one would like to sarcastically comment on the expressions of indignation over the words Pope Francis recently addressed online to Russian Catholic youth. Left-wing and liberal circles in Poland do not spare the current bishop of Rome any criticism, although even before 24 February 2022 they treated him like a hero. It was enough for him to make gestures interpreted in these circles as declarations of support for the LGBT movement, multi-culti and environmentalism, and he was elevated to a pedestal. He was held up as a role model for the Church hierarchy on the Vistula, who in turn were branded as gloomy, backward clergymen.

However, when Russia launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine, the pendulum swung to the opposite side. For Francis did not join the worldwide chorus of voices condemning Vladimir Putin's regime. What is more, in the papal statements on the war in Ukraine, one looks in vain for naming the culprits of the conflict, which is of course to the benefit of the Kremlin. Thus the Bishop of Rome, who in Poland was regarded as a progressive by leftists and liberals, has in their eyes become an ally of the Russian President. They see the Russian president not only as a war criminal but also - given that he is dressed up as a conservative - as a disgusting obscurantist. In this situation, they behave as if they had never admired Francis.

But let us return to what the Pope said to the young Russian Catholics. In his message, words were said which indeed sound shocking in the ears of Poles. Here is the incriminating quote: "Never forget your heritage. You are the descendants of great Russia; the great Russia of the saints, of the rulers, of the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, of that great empire, [the country of] great culture and great humanity. Do not ever give up this heritage. You are the heirs of Mother Russia, go forward with her. And I thank you for your way of being, for the way you are Russian."
Pope Francis at World Youth Day in Lisbon on 3 August 2023. The international gathering of Catholics was inaugurated by St John Paul II with the aim of revitalising young people in their faith. Photo: PAP/Abaca/ Anadolu Agency, Zed Jameson
However, it was not only in Poland that the quoted passage from Francis' speech provoked understandably angry reactions. The pope's statement was met with critical comments even among some German intellectuals. Among other things, accusations were made that Francis had no idea of the significance of Peter I and Catherine II for Russian imperial self-consciousness.

For obvious reasons, however, the position of Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, deserves particular attention. Let us recall that throughout history, it was members of this faith community, which recognises the primacy of the papacy, who were persecuted first by the tsarist regime and then by the Soviets. Archbishop Shevchuk did not leave a trace over the words of Francis, to whom, after all, he is subordinate. He stated outright that they could be seen as a vote of support by the Bishop of Rome for Russia's aggressive policy towards Ukraine.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the disapproval the Pope's statement was met with in the world was addressed by Holy See spokesman Matteo Bruni. He wrote that Francis "intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote everything positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to extol imperialist logic".

Unfortunately, such a vague and stretched explanation is unconvincing. Well, the milk has been spilled. The Pope has once again provided an argument for the thesis that he favours - if only unwittingly - the Kremlin. Only that in this case - and this is puzzling - Francis has in a way contradicted his previous worldview. But one step at a time.

First of all, it must be noted that the Vatican is not only concerned with the evangelisation of the world, but also - as a state - with foreign policy. And this inevitably means becoming embroiled in the game of great interests. In the past, for example, the Holy See sided with the aristocratic elite against revolutionary forces in Europe. As a result, it condemned the 19th-century Polish independence uprisings. But - and this needs to be pointed out in the context of the war in Ukraine - for Catholics, the papacy should be an authority on matters of doctrine of the faith, not on the Vatican's arrangement of international relations.

It is no revelation to say that the foreign policy of the Holy See during Francis' pontificate is influenced by the fact that the Pope is from Latin America. He adopts a perspective from which Russia appears as a state resisting US hegemony in the world. What we have here is a discourse against Western colonialism. During the Cold War, this discourse guided the Left (not only the Communists) in many countries, who looked favourably on the USSR's assistance to 'national liberation' Third World guerrillas fighting against the colonial rule of the Western powers.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE But how Francis views international relations is not everything. When reflecting on the Pope's message to Russian Catholic youth, one must also consider the Bishop of Rome's views on the philosophy of man. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has addressed issues that are taken up on the grounds of environmentalism (the 2015 encyclical 'Laudato si' can be mentioned here). He contests the anthropocentric, Enlightenment vision of reality and, by extension, capitalism as a product, built on rationalism, of Western civilisation. Hence his respect for the religiosity of pagan peoples who worship nature deities (such as the Andean cult of Pachamama).

Only that the Pope's words to young Russian Catholics are a manifestation of something that clashes with the anti-Enlightenment paradigm. Both Peter I and Catherine II had nothing to do with the 'noble savages' tributed by Francis. These monarchs wanted to implement brutal modernity in Russia (in this sense they were progressive), and the source of know-how for them was to be the West. The Enlightenment impressed them - also as a philosophical legitimation for the white man's colonialist policies. They saw the place of the state they led as being in Europe. Against the colonialism of the Western powers, therefore, they did not fight. On the contrary, they themselves were accused by Chuvniks, Slavophiles and Eurasians - i.e. representatives of the "patriotic" movements of Russian thought - of having put Russia at the mercy of the West.

And it is precisely for this reason that the Pope's message to Russian Catholic youth is astonishing. Another thing is that Francis' words simply echo the snobbish tone characteristic of various Western lovelies, for whom it is part of savoir-vivre to be enthusiastic about 'great' Russian culture. Those who do not fall to their knees before the poems of Alexander Pushkin or the ballet performances of the Bolshoi Theatre are considered barbaric by these people. By the way, this distinctive attitude of theirs is something the Kremlin has always made propaganda use of.

– Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Pope Francis with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a private audience at the Vatican, 25 November 2013. Photo PAP/EPA, Claudio Peri
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