War in Ukraine: Religion and legitimacy

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On Sunday March 6, Pope Francis decried the war in Ukraine to crowds in St. Peter’s Square. As the war has escalated, Catholics have looked to the Roman pontiff for guidance in the conflict.

The Holy Father has decried the conflict from its outset, declaring a day of fasting and prayer for peace. According to Reuters, he quickly dispatched two prelates, Konrad Cardinal Krajewski and Michael Cardinal Czerny. 

Francis said, “The Holy See is willing to do everything to put itself at the service of peace.”

The Holy Father has called the conflict a war, though he did not assign blame. He has kept the emphasis on the horrors of war and the imperative for peace.

The Pope said: “In Ukraine, rivers of blood and tears are flowing. This is not just a military operation but a war which sows death, destruction and misery.”

This is consistent with many of Francis’ teachings, he focuses on human problems, giving little regard to political matters. Some have criticized a perceived failure to hold President Putin accountable for the invasion, but this is the modern strategy of the Holy See: condemning war but not taking explicit sides.

Pope Benedict XV maintained a similar policy in the First World War and Pius XII in the Second. This is a prudent measure on the part of the Church, recognizing the horrors of war without alienating one side or the other. In war, every side thinks that it is right, but oftentimes neither side is justified.

The Pope’s statement gives the Ukrainian conflict an interesting dimension: religious. 

Something central to the conflict is the Ukrainian identity as belonging to Eastern or Western Europe. The divide between Eastern and Western Europe has been drawn differently; some have used economic modernization, others have used political order, but the Holy Father lends the interesting measure of religion.

Both the Western and Eastern Churches are “catholic” in terms of being universal religions;  nonetheless, they are largely regional. If the prevalence of Orthodox Christianity or Western Christianity is the division between East and Western Europe, then Ukraine is itself divided.

About 10% of Ukrainians are Catholic, mostly in the Western parts of Ukraine, while the Orthodox are the majority, with the largest representation in Central and Southern Ukraine. The Eastern Donbas is only about 50% Orthodox but has a statistically negligible Catholic and Protestant minority. 

According to the Razumkov Center, the number of Ukrainian Orthodox who identify with the Moscow Patriarchate outside of occupied territories is comparable to the number of Catholics: the former represents about 12%,  the latter 10%.

This strikes to the very core of Russia’s claim of cultural ties to Ukraine. If Ukraine is culturally Russian so as to belong to the Russian Federation, how can it be that those religiously aligned with Russia are of similarly diminutive size as the Catholic Church and of similar size to Catholics and Protestants combined, according to the Razumkov Center.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, adding to the religious dimension of the conflict, has supported the war which Francis abhors. His stance will probably only serve to alienate all but the most hard-line members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Kirill said that the Ukraine conflict is “a struggle that has not a physical but a metaphysical significance.”

Kirill may be right that the Russian forces are fighting a metaphysical enemy. Though he has not addressed them, the Azov Regiment has featured in Russian propoganda which uses the neo-Nazi, neo-pagan group to call the leadership of Ukraine in Kyiv neo-Nazis and anti-Christian.

In this conflict, Francis has taken a kind of moral leadership, staying above the political fray. He has encouraged a largely Catholic Poland to take in refugees, he consecrated both Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and he has called for a “paschal truce.”

This paschal truce proposed would bridge the divide and bring peace, though the Orthodox celebrate Easter a week after the Western churches. The Holy Father proposed the truce at Palm Sunday Mass and meditated on the war in the context of Christ’s passion and suffering.

“Christ is once more nailed to the Cross in mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons. He is crucified in refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms. He is crucified in the elderly left alone to die; in young people deprived of a future; in soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters,” he said.

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