Why did Francis really end the summit with the Russian Orthodox leader?

ROME — From the first moments after his election, Pope Francis has challenged conventional Vatican wisdom more times than even NASA supercomputers could calculate, from choosing not to live in the papal apartments to the titles he used.

In all fairness, the unofficial anthem of this papacy should probably be Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” It is a papacy, after all, for which to oppose tradition and court confusion in the name of gospel authenticity is essentially its modus operandi.

This context makes the pontiff’s recent response to an Argentinian journalist on why a possible meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in June was canceled truly baffling. It would have been their second meeting, following a historic encounter at Havana airport in 2016.

“Our diplomacy understood that a meeting between the two at this time could lead to a lot of confusion,” the pope told Joaquin Morales Sola of the Argentine newspaper. the Nation.

Really? Francis backed down because Vatican diplomats told him such a move could be “puzzling”?

He showed no such reluctance, for example, when critics warned that an openness to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics risked “confusing” Catholic teaching on marriage, publishing his controversial document Amoris Laetitia in 2016 anyway.

Indeed, it was the pope who, during his trip abroad to Brazil in 2013 for World Youth Day, got lost in his hometown. porteñothe Spanish dialect used in Buenos Aires, to incite young people to “make a mess” in their dioceses, that is to say, to shake things up, even if it leads to confusion.

What makes the Pope’s discretion all the more remarkable is that in the same the Nation interview, Francis said, “I’m ready to do anything” to try to stop the bloodshed. Surely, one might ask, wouldn’t an encounter with a hierarch who provided theological cover for Putin’s war be an example of trying “everything”?

So what gives?

One possibility is that Francis is sensitive to the fact that his refusal to name Russia or Putin as the aggressor is read in some circles as a sign of deference to Moscow, and he did not want to increase that interpretation. (He also addressed this criticism in the the Nation interview, saying that popes never condemn heads of state or entire nations, and insisting that a nation is a greater reality than anyone who holds political power at any given time.)

It is also possible that Francis thinks his risk tolerance must be lower in the event of war. It’s one thing to “cause havoc” when the worst that can happen is for a few conservative cardinals to stick their noses out; it’s another when innocent people can pay the blood money if a churchman with good intentions inadvertently escalates a conflict.

To this day, the Vatican is haunted by memories of what happened in 1942 when Dutch bishops publicly condemned Nazi human rights abuses. In retaliation, more than 400 Jewish converts to Catholicism were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, including the future Saint Edith Stein.

Another possibility is that the warnings of “confusion” are not just coming from anonymous Vatican diplomats, but from Ukrainians themselves, especially members of the vibrant Greek Catholic community in Ukraine.

Recently, the pontiff angered many of these Ukrainian Catholics by inviting a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman to carry the cross together in the Good Friday ‘Stations of the Cross’ ritual, with Ukrainians insisting that such symbolism blurs the distinction between aggressor and aggressor. victims.

Imagine how they might have felt when watching images of the pope kissing the very Orthodox hierarch blessing Russian troops en route to Ukraine. Francis may have decided he couldn’t risk alienating Ukrainian Catholics again, who have long felt betrayed by the Vatican Realpolitik.

Francis may also have heard, at least indirectly, from his close friend and ally, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, of the proposed summit with Kirill. The war in Ukraine has accentuated a long-standing struggle between Constantinople and Moscow for the soul of world Orthodoxy, and Bartholomew would doubtless not be eager for the pontiff to do anything that could be perceived as giving Kirill a additional credibility.

There is also a secular angle. A leading European NGO called “Human Rights Without Frontiers” recently called for Kirill to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for “inspiring, inciting, justifying, aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity”, which may have helped Francois decide this just isn’t the right time for a photo shoot.

(Russia is not a party to the ICC and therefore an indictment is considered unlikely, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences for Kirill in other places.)

There’s yet another, much more cynical possibility – namely that the Vatican never really intended to meet Kirill, suspending the prospect only to be able to withdraw it. The aim would be to underscore Kirill’s growing international isolation, a sort of ecclesiastical analogue of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the war.

The above is nothing more than speculation, as the real reasons for stopping the Pope/Patriarch summit are not yet known. What seems clear, however, is that for a Pope with a mile-long streak of Mavericks, the mere possibility of “confusion” doesn’t quite answer the question.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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