What Is to be Done?

The question above has been proposed at various times in Russian history. Lenin raised it and believed the obvious answer was Marxist revolution; Tolstoy asked it and found in his efforts to help Moscow’s poor that there was no easy answer, perhaps no answer at all. It’s strange to be in and around the Vatican these days – as a major war is raging – something that hasn’t happened in recent decades and, therefore, puts the same question to inexperienced leaders, Catholic and not. Like poor Tolstoy, they don’t have many answers.

Pope Francis has been doing all he can. And the new ambassador from Ukraine to the Holy See, Orthodox by the way, just praised him in precisely those words. He’s passionately expressed his opposition to the war. And he’s made it clear that, whatever else eventually happens, the mayhem and the destruction must stop. Now.

The problem for the pope, who had little experience of geopolitical realities prior to being elected, is how to get from here to there. Indeed, he tends to reject geopolitics as they have been practiced, and always will, given our fallen nature both as individuals and a species. At his general audience a few days ago, he remarked: “Today we often hear about ‘geopolitics.’ But unfortunately, the dominant logic is the strategies of the most powerful countries to affirm their own interests, extending their area of economic influence, or ideological influence, and/or military influence.”

Francis has chosen not to name Putin and Russia as the primary malefactors in this conflict in order to keep open channels of potential dialogue. He’s allowed Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, to be more open about who’s to blame. But this denunciation of geopolitics as such gives the impression that all the players in the conflict are playing the same game. They’re not.

In fact, he said as much at the same General Audience:

After World War II, the attempt was made to lay the foundations of a new era of peace. But, unfortunately – we never learn, right? – the old story of competition between the greater powers went on. And, in the current war in Ukraine, we are witnessing the impotence of the Organizations of the United Nations.

This may be a common Argentinean perspective, but the Cold War – and its peaceful resolution with the fall of Communism in 1989 – the year St. John Paul II called the annus mirabilis – was not just a matter of the usual great powers and differing ideologies in competition. It was the triumph of an admittedly imperfect and ailing West over a radically atheistic and evil view of human beings and society.


And one of the reasons the United Nations is “impotent” is that it never was constructed in a way that could resolve major conflicts. The General Assembly, like the world at large, consists mostly of nations that are authoritarian, dictatorships, kleptocracies, and worse. It’s useless for serious conflicts. The Security Council, which includes Russia (and China) among its five permanent members, is only a talking post when great powers clash.

Pope Francis is right to lament that this is the world in which we live. But until Christ’s Second Coming, we should recognize – even as we do as much as we can – that ours is a world in which “wars and rumors of wars” are a permanent feature.

It’s important amidst all these complications to remain clear about who started the current war and why it’s continuing. Putin has been trying to make it appear – as the pope’s words could be made to suggest – that, in fact, the great powers are at war in Ukraine. And specifically that America is engaging in an act of war against Russia by providing arms to Ukraine and is even encouraging the Ukrainians to fight.

Over the weekend, Federico Rampini, an editorial writer for Italy’s Corriere della Sera (the Italian equivalent of the New York Times) argued in a TV interview that despite what many people – perhaps even the pope – may think, in fact, the opposite is true. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelynskyy has repeatedly asked for more arms than America and Europe are willing to give. And he’s right to do so, Rampini added, because it’s one of the principles of international affairs that nations undergoing assault should receive aid from other nations.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just showed concrete solidarity and personal bravery this weekend, in his quite open visit to Zelenskyy in Kyiv (almost too open in how they walked the city exposed to potential sniper fire). Pope Francis is also contemplating a personal visit, which he should make, if at all possible. Even if he continues to refrain from blaming Russia, a visit by him, like Johnson’s, would convey more than mere words about peace, dialogue, or negotiation to a horribly terrorized Ukrainian nation.

The pope’s continuing efforts to meet with Kirill, the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, are fully in keeping with his office as pontifex maximus– the great bridge-builder. (Just yesterday he called for an Easter Truce – a brilliant idea that may run afoul of another historical reality: next Sunday is Easter for the West, April 24 for the Orthodox.) But given Kirill’s total submission to Putin, it would take a major miracle for Pope Francis to change Kirill’s mind. Kirill was a KGB asset if not an outright agent, in the days of Soviet Communism. He’s remained compromised with the current Russian regime.

Some recent commenters have argued that the pope should declare a break-off of contacts with the Orthodox until things change. But ecumenism is a Western aspiration, not one to which the Orthodox are much committed – even among themselves. Indeed, when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople tried to organize a Pan-Orthodox “Holy and Great Council” on the island of Crete in 2016, the Russians boycotted the effort. 

Kirill and Putin will not cry themselves to sleep at night if “dialogue” is discontinued with Francis or other Western religious leaders. Indeed, they’ve been working the propaganda machinery hard to make Russian slaughters appear to be Christian resistance to “the anti-Christ” (i.e., the West). Many in Russia believe their lies. Sadly, some Christians among us do as well.


*Image: Pope Francis greets Ukrainian refugees during his general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican April 6, 2022. [CNS photo/Paul Haring]