Pope Francis has defended his decision to avoid directly naming President Vladimir Putin of Russia in his repeated condemnations of the war in Ukraine, also saying that he was ready to do “everything” so “there will not be one more death.” “A pope never names a head of state, much less a country, which is superior to its head of state,” Francis said when asked directly about it for an interview that was published Thursday by the Argentine newspaper La Nacion.
In the wide-ranging interview, the pope said that the Vatican’s behind-the-scenes efforts to stop the war were continuous.
“I cannot tell you the details because they would no longer be diplomatic efforts,” Francis said “But the attempts will never cease.” Francis has repeatedly expressed abhorrence of the war. On Feb. 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, he visited Alexander Avdeev, the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, to voice his concern.
Since then, Francis has used his weekly public speaking engagements — the Sunday Angelus prayers and general Wednesday audiences — to plea for a cease-fire, for renewed peace negotiations and for humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee besieged areas.
Francis has condemned the “violent aggression against Ukraine” for which there is “no justification.” During a visit to Malta this month, he blamed the war on a “potentate sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests.” In the Nacion interview, he said, “All war is anachronistic in this world and at this stage of civilization.” He has sent two of his top advisers to Ukraine to bring aid and to show his closeness to the Ukrainian people. But Francis has been criticized for studiously avoiding naming Putin, or even Russia, as the aggressor, and for not challenging Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church for his open support of the war.
The Vatican has defended Francis’ approach in opinion articles in its daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
In one, in March, Andrea Tornielli, an influential Vatican official, wrote that popes avoided naming aggressors “not out of cowardice or an excess of diplomatic prudence, but in order not to close the door, in order to always leave open a crack to the possibility of stopping the evil and saving human lives.” Pontiffs have also traditionally avoided choosing sides in conflicts, at least in the 20th and 21st centuries, said Alberto Melloni, the director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Sciences in Bologna.
Behind closed doors, though, “popes won’t hold back,” said Melloni. But in public, “they often speak in general terms,” he said.
In the case of the war in Ukraine, Francis has tried to carve out a role as a unifier and peacemaker, Melloni said, adding that the pope was not about to deliver “spiritual sanctions” on anyone.
This month, Reuters reported that Francis’ diplomatic efforts might include a visit in Jerusalem with Kirill in June after a two-day visit to Lebanon.
The Vatican has not officially announced the trip, although it has been confirmed by the Lebanese presidency. But in the Nacion interview, Francis said that while his relations with Kirill were “very good,” his plans to meet with the patriarch had been suspended. That was because Vatican diplomats “understood that a meeting between the two at this time could lend itself to many confusions.” It would have been their second meeting. Francis also spoke to Kirill last month in a video call, the Vatican said, a conversation that it said was motivated by a desire to promote peace.
On the flight to Malta, Francis told reporters that a trip to Kyiv was “on the table.” But in the Nacion interview, Francis said that he had not yet gone to Kyiv, as some Western leaders have, because he feared jeopardizing “higher objectives, which are the end of the war, a truce or at least a humanitarian corridor.” “What would be the use of the pope going to Kyiv if the war continues the next day?” he said.