Logo de Confidencial Digital




A Stain on the Pope’s Cassock

Why does Pope Francis, like Putin, only demand the surrender of the Ukrainians and not the withdrawal of the Russians?

Fernando Mires

25 de marzo 2024


 In the widely publicized interview granted by the pope on March 9, 2024, to Lorenzo Buccella, a journalist from Swiss Radio Television, later published in the magazine Cliché, the following question was asked: In Ukraine, some are calling for the courage to surrender, to raise the white flag. But others say that this would legitimize the strongest. What do you think?

And this was the discordant response uttered by the man most called upon to seek concord: the pope.

“It’s an interpretation. But I believe that the one who observes the situation, thinks about the people, and has the courage to raise the white flag and negotiate is stronger. And today, negotiations can be conducted with the help of international powers. They are there. That word ‘negotiate’ is a brave word. When you see that you’re defeated, that things aren’t going well, to have the courage to negotiate. And you’re ashamed, but if you continue like this, how many deaths will there be then? And it will end even worse. Negotiate in time, look for some country to act as a mediator. Today, for example, with the war in Ukraine, there are many who want to act as mediators. Turkey, for example… Don’t be ashamed to negotiate before things get worse.”

The public discord provoked by Francis’s words in the interview — evidently prepared for the pope to express his opinion on Ukraine and other wars — does not stem from the fact that he called for negotiation. Wars sometimes end with negotiations and sometimes not (World War II ended with surrender and the almost total destruction of Germany). There are others that end with negotiations involving third parties, as was the case with those that led to the end of the Vietnam War when the US, through Kissinger, sought talks with the USSR and, above all, with China.

The discord unleashed by the pope comes from the fact that, grammatically, negotiation comes second after surrender, meaning that, according to Francis, negotiation must result from the surrender of Ukraine, and not vice versa.

The astonishing thing is that the pope’s response coincides exactly with Putin’s position on the negotiation issue. In contrast to Putin and the pope, Ukraine’s position demands, as a condition for negotiation, that Putin withdraw his military forces because no nation can negotiate with another if its territory is occupied by an invader. So, note the difference: Putin demands the surrender of Ukraine, Zelensky demands only the withdrawal of Putin. The pope, in turn, by demanding surrender as a condition for negotiation, requires, whether consciously or not, the surrender of a large part of Ukraine to Russia. With all due respect to the faithful, I believe there is no other way to interpret that response.

The problem is serious. Why does Francis, like Putin, only demand the surrender of the Ukrainians and not the withdrawal of the Russians? The Vatican’s response suggests that the pope has definitively considered Ukraine lost, and by considering it lost, confers — amid a war that is far from over! — the status of victor to Putin’s Russia, a heavily armed country that in more than two years has only managed to advance a few kilometers since the invasion began. In other words: not between the lines, but directly, Ukraine must submit to the wishes of the dictator already crowned by Francis as the victor.

That Francis addresses only the Ukrainians and not the Russians is ethically and politically unacceptable, even more so when considering that, as in any war, there are two parties responsible, one of which, Russia, has not only been omitted but also absolved of all moral and religious criticism. This means that the pope assumes, once again, Putin’s version, propagated by so many scoundrels with media access, namely: that the blame for the war lies with Ukraine for allowing itself to be turned into a pawn of the US and the EU with the collaboration of the “fascist” Zelensky.

The pope did not say it in those words, but he did construct a radical inversion of reality: an interpretation that overlooks the objective fact that Ukraine was and is an independent and sovereign nation, recognized by the UN and the nations that make it up, including Russia until recently; in short, a nation invaded by an empire and that, unlike Russia, has never attacked any other nation.

Naturally, European countries do not collaborate with Ukraine for philanthropic reasons, but for weighty strategic reasons, all stemming from the fact that Russia, from 2006 to the present, is an empire in permanent warfare. Putin has proven this in successive massacres in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and today, to top it off, by supporting Hamas in the Middle East. By the way, why didn’t the pope ask the Palestinians who support Hamas to surrender to Israel? Or does Pope Francis have two standards for measuring international politics?

Looking from a European perspective, we see in Ukraine two parallel paths of war: a direct one, the legitimate defense of the Ukrainians against an invading empire; another indirect one, the also legitimate preventive defense of Europe carried out by Ukrainians with US and European weapons against a dictator, Putin, one who has violated all international law and who does not adhere to any agreement.

From a legal standpoint, Putin is not (for now) at war with Europe, but from a political standpoint, the war involves and concerns all of Europe. Furthermore: Francis should know that Putin is a leader who had everything to coexist amiably with European countries and even with the United States itself. Before Putin’s war on Ukraine, there had never been an aggression by any democratic country, neither de facto nor verbal, against Russia. NATO’s expansion, historically understood, was always a consequence of requests from neighboring countries of Russia feeling threatened, especially after the horrific punitive expeditions of Russian armies in Chechnya, Georgia, and even further afield, in Syria. Europe owes its growth, and even the rebirth of NATO, to Putin and no one else.

The pope will surely argue that his reasons are not political but humanitarian. Or that his words only seek to save the lives of the inhabitants of Ukraine because for a Christian, it is unbearable to see so much bloodshed without saying or doing something against it. Okay. But it is also true that a pope must know that in a war, at least two parties are involved and, therefore, a call to lay down arms must be made to both “parties”. However, Francis addresses only one, leaving the ugly impression that he is acting in favor of one against the other. That is precisely what we should not accept — Christians and non-Christians — from Francis: that he is a pope for whom the fundamental difference between invaders and the invaded does not matter, just as the difference between democracies and dictatorships does not matter.

It may not have occurred to Pope Francis that surrendering Ukraine to Russia is not a matter of honor but an act that could lead to the continuation of the war in other forms. It may also be that the pope does not understand Russian history and believes that the Putin of Bucha and Mariupolis is better than Stalin of the Maldoror (death by starvation of seven million Ukrainians). It may also be that Francis has not realized that Putin not only claims as his, but also continues, Stalin’s narrative, that not only culturally but also psychologically Ukrainians belong to Russia. It may also be that he has not heard of the deportations of Ukrainian children to Russia. It may even be that he has thought that the recent assassination of Navalny was not ordered by Putin, nor does it explain why Navalny has become a symbol of many Russians killed in the concentration camps of Siberia.

In short, it may be that Francis does not sense what a “Russian peace” would mean. But Ukrainians do; worse still, in the territories ravaged by Russia, they live it. “Russian peace” means for them persecutions, snitches, secret services, assassinations, concentration camps, just as happens today in Chechnya “pacified” by Putin, under the mandate of his attack dog, Kadirov. That is something Francisco should know before speaking of surrender. Francisco also knows nothing about the prisons and torture in Belarus after the Putin backed crushing of the democratic revolution? Surrendering to Putin means, from a Ukrainian point of view, choosing between two deaths: either dying on battlefields or dying in extermination camps. Or does Pope Francis imagine that Russians and Ukrainians would fraternize in a Russian and Russified Ukraine, drinking vodka and dancing to the tune of balalaikas?

Pope Francis is right when he says that surrender, under certain conditions, can be an act of courage, by choosing human lives without listening to false heroism. It could also be, I add, a political decision. But has Pope thought about the moral and political consequences that surrendering Ukraine would entail?

Let’s imagine for a moment that Ukraine is totally decimated, that European aid does not appear, that in the United States Trump has prevailed, and that there is no alternative but to hand Ukraine over to the Russians. What would that mean for international politics? It would simply mean that Putin has managed to impose himself on the entire political order of the world. Worse still: it would mean that Putin would have imposed his destructive desires over an entire international legislation that, since the post-war period, governs the relations between nations and states of the world, including within those states, the Vatican itself.

The Vatican pope is the spiritual guide of the Catholic world, but at the same time, he is the representative of a European state, on a continent tributary to the three traditional sources of Christianity, which according to Benedict XVI are the Jewish religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law. For Benedict XVI himself, who continues John Paul II on that point, there is an implicit alliance between the Church and democracy. Well, to that alliance, Pope Francis has been unfaithful. Worse still: he has remained silent in the face of Putin’s permanent violations, not only of the incipient democracy that existed in Russia before his arrival but also against many laws that break from international law.

Indeed, if Ukraine surrenders and Putin’s Russia emerges victorious, all the international law that has emerged since the bloodshed of two world wars will lose its validity, and all of Putin’s national crimes will not only go unpunished — as will probably happen — but also collective crimes, massacres in defenseless cities, and non-recognition of agreements signed by various nations of the globe will become legitimate acts, not only for Russia but for any dictatorship that wants to practice them.

Francis, as a representative of the State, is obliged to publicize Putin’s permanent violations of international law. The list is very long. Among them, let’s note the following:

  1. Violation of Article 2, paragraph 4 of the UN Charter, which prohibits the violation of international borders recognized by the world organization.
  2. Violation of the 1974 UN resolution defining any military occupation of foreign national territories as aggression.
  3. Violation of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki, regarding the borders of European countries, an act signed by Russia.
  4. Violation of the right to self-determination of peoples and nations and recognition of Ukraine as an independent nation, according to the terms of the 1991 referendum.
  5. Violation of the 1949 London Treaty.
  6. Violation of the guarantees offered to Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, signed by Russia, the US, UK, China, and France.
  7. Violation of the Minsk Treaty of 1991, according to which Ukraine handed over 5000 atomic bombs to Russia in exchange for its territorial recognition as an independent nation, signed by Putin himself.
  8. Violation of the founding document of independent states that obtained their independence after the collapse of the USSR, including Ukraine.
  9. Violation of the bilateral treaty between Russia and Ukraine of 1997, which stipulates mutual respect for national borders.
  10. Violation of the Minsk Agreements of 2015, which prescribe the use of weapons in the territories of Donbass, when Russia, after signing, doubled its military deployment in the region.

To this list, we must add the countless war crimes committed during the invasion of Ukraine. Now, after knowing this record, the burning question is: Should Ukraine surrender to this outlaw government, incapable of maintaining an agreement beyond a few months without violating it?

One possible answer could be that of an Orthodox Christian: Francis does not express himself politically or legally because the word of Jesus is not governed by the recognition of earthly laws but by a higher law, which is that of “love thy neighbor”. Well; let’s suppose that’s the case. But anyone with a minimum knowledge of the Gospels knows that Jesus demonstrates that God’s love, while situated beyond the law, is never against the law. Or as Benedict XVI explained, Jesus did not preach outside the law, but beyond it, and that beyond requires knowledge of the law. It was Jesus himself who also said to us: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17-19). Valid words, especially for an earthly Church, whose task is to preach its truth, but in a world ruled by men and not by angels.

In a second part of the interview, journalist Buccella induced Francis to speak about the white color of the papal cassock. An interesting conversation. The pope, perhaps according to the relationship between whiteness and the underlying darkness in Plato’s cave myth, spoke of white as the color of hope, joy, love, against the darkness of the color black. The journalist also mentioned the white color of the surrender flag, interpreted as the color of peace. But the pope, perhaps carried away by an unconscious association, argued that the color white attracts stains.

In the same sense of the symbolic language in which both interlocutors had engaged, it was impossible for me to think that the allusion to black stains on white color is true. In that interview, Francis’s responses are indeed stains, stains on his sacred investiture. And that may remain so afterwards: as stains attracted by the whiteness of the papal cassock.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


Your contribution allows us to report from exile.

The dictatorship forced us to leave Nicaragua and intends to censor us. Your financial contribution guarantees our coverage on a free, open website, without paywalls.

Fernando Mires

Fernando Mires

Historiador y escritor chileno. Profesor emérito de la universidad de Oldenburg, Alemania. Se diplomó como profesor de Historia y tiene estudios de postgrado en Historia Moderna. En 1991 recibió el titulo de Privat Dozent, el más alto grado académico que confieren las universidades alemanas.