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Pope Francis on Imperialism: Is Russia a Special Case?

Pope Francis on Imperialism: Is Russia a Special Case?

COMMENTARY: The wounds from the Holy Father’s recent comments will not heal in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and other lands subjugated by imperial Moscow.

A month after Pope Francis spoke in favorable terms about Russia’s imperial past, the diplomatic ramifications still reverberate. Last week, the Holy Father received the credentials of the new Russian ambassador, a rather routine encounter, though with a Vatican statement about how friendly the meeting was.

A few days later, on Friday, the Holy Father received the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See in a private audience, which is absolutely not a routine encounter. Ambassadors to the Holy See get two meetings with the pope, both pro forma — one when they present their credentials and another upon departure. Otherwise, they meet with officials in the Secretariat of State and, in particularly grave moments, with the secretary of state himself.

But given how disappointed Ukrainians and other Central and Eastern Europeans have been with the Holy Father’s comments regarding Russia, it was likely thought necessary to get the Ukrainian ambassador in immediately in order to forestall any further deterioration of relations.

The Holy See can ill afford another August crisis.

Ukrainian independence day is Aug. 24. Pope Francis chose that day in 2022 — the first year of the full-scale war — to lament Russian “innocents” killed in the war. That brought forth the most thundering denunciation in the recent history of papal diplomacy. The Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, said that Pope Francis could not tell the difference between the “rapist and the rape victim.”

That the Holy See meekly accepted that startling rebuke, and didn’t send Yurash packing, was itself an acknowledgment of how frustrated Ukrainians had become. It can be presumed that the rapist-raped remarks were discreetly ignored at last Friday’s audience. Yurash brought a teddy bear to symbolize the plight of Ukrainian children.

This August brought another crisis. Pope Francis addressed Russian youth by video link the day after Ukrainian independence day. He encouraged them to look to Peter the Great and Catherine the Great for a model of an “enlightened empire of great culture and great humanity.”

It is likely that the wounds from that papal comment will never heal in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and other lands subjugated by imperial Moscow.

Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia noted that Pope Francis has a popularity rating of only 6% in Ukraine after 18 months of war. Vladimir Putin would be the only world leader less popular in Ukraine than the Holy Father. That is both shocking and deeply distressing — especially less than 20 years after the death of St. John Paul II, perhaps the most admired Eastern European in the last century, if not millennium.

The Holy Father attempted to explain his comment by saying that when he spoke of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great he really meant to praise not the imperialism of Russia but the cultural legacy as represented by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was born nearly a century after Peter the Great died.

The painful sting in the Russian “enlightened empire” remarks was in what the Holy Father has not said. There have been other empires. Has the Holy Father encouraged American youth to look fondly upon the imperial adventures of the United States in the Philippines or the Caribbean, for example?

The Russian empire comments landed so heavily in late August because of what Pope Francis said in early August. In an interview given to the Spanish news agency Vida Nueva, released while the Holy Father was in Portugal for World Youth Day, the subject of imperialism was addressed. Spain and Portugal were the great Catholic powers with overseas empires. Did Pope Francis take the occasion to encourage young Spaniards or Portuguese to take pride in their imperial past? To the contrary.

“Imperialism is very strong, and America is the victim of empires of all kinds,” the Pope said. “I speak badly of any empire, of whatever sort. For this reason, I know that I am a stone in the shoe [for some].”

Pope Francis visited Hungary in April of this year. The Habsburg dynasty was the largest European continental empire in history, the seat of Catholic power in Europe for centuries. Did the Holy Father encourage Hungarian youth to look fondly upon the history of the Austro-Hungarian empire? If he desired to do so, he could have been fully briefed by Hungary’s current ambassador to the Holy See, Eduard Habsburg. There was no need for that.

American empires, Catholic empires — far from being praised, they have been implicitly criticized, as in the Vida Nueva interview. That just a few weeks later the Holy Father would praise Russian imperialism makes his earlier remarks — “I speak badly of any empire, of whatever sort” — appear to be false.

The special audience for Ambassador Yurash, following extended meetings with Ukraine’s bishop earlier this month, is part of the push to recover from the praise for Russian imperialism. That the Holy Father should not have said it is now clear to all. But the questions remain — especially in the lands formerly conquered by Moscow — whether it is what Pope Francis really thinks.

With that in question, the new Russian ambassador began his service on what he would regard as a positive note.

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