Pope Francis’ Russia Stance Angers Catholics in Central Europe

Pope Francis shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at the Vatican, May 13, 2023. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS  (via REUTERS)
Pope Francis shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at the Vatican, May 13, 2023. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS (via REUTERS)


The pontiff’s recent praise of the 18th-century Russian empire that subjugated Ukraine, and his stance on the current conflict, have alienated many.

Pope Francis’ views on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine are alienating many Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe, who believe that the pontiff is understating Russia’s historic expansionism in the region and the threat it poses today.

The pope’s recent praise of the 18th-century Russian empire that subjugated Ukraine stirred outrage well beyond Ukraine itself.

“Central Europeans—people from Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic—we are shocked," said Michal Klosowski, a Catholic journalist in Warsaw and the author of a recent book about Francis, referring to the pope’s recent comments. “The pope has no idea about the history of Central Europe and about the history of the Russian Empire. The nations of Central Europe were enslaved by the Russians for many centuries."

In late-August remarks via video to a gathering of young Russian Catholics, Francis called the Russian empire under Czars Peter the Great and Catherine the Great a “great, enlightened empire of great culture and great humanity."

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, said Francis’ words caused great pain among the faithful and great disappointment among Ukrainian society at large.

Shevchuk, who knew the pope when they both served as bishops in Buenos Aires, said in June that Francis’ background helps explain his conciliatory stance toward Russia, since “one of the inherent characteristics of Argentine culture is a profound mistrust of the North—that is, of the United States and Europe."

The pope told reporters on Sept. 4 that he had been urging the young Russians to embrace their cultural heritage, exemplified by 19th-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. “I wasn’t thinking of imperialism when I said that. I spoke of culture, and the transmission of culture is never imperial," Francis said.

Two days later, the leaders of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church met Francis at the Vatican for what Shevchuk described in a statement as a “frank conversation" in which they “expressed the Ukrainian people’s pain, suffering and a certain disappointment."

Shevchuk said they told the pope that statements by himself and the Vatican since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have been “painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding for their dignity and independence."

The pope has frequently deplored the suffering of Ukrainians since the start of the war but has avoided explicitly blaming Russia or President Vladimir Putin for the conflict, and has suggested it was provoked by the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe’s east.

The Vatican has sought to play the role of a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, although neither Kyiv nor Moscow has shown any interest in mediation. The pope told foreign diplomats in May that Vatican neutrality in conflicts was a diplomatic asset in mediation efforts and didn’t mean ethical neutrality.

That hasn’t satisfied Catholics in Europe’s east, however.

“We would have wanted the pope to unequivocally take the side of Ukraine," Shevchuk told Ukrainian media in June. “We would have wanted him to say clearly who was the aggressor and who was the victim."

Francis’ remarks about NATO enlargement have struck a nerve in Lithuania, which was under Soviet rule until 1991 and joined the U.S.-led alliance in 2004, said Irena Vaisvilaite, a former Lithuanian ambassador to the Holy See.

“It was definitely thought that the pope was repeating Russian propaganda," Vaisvilaite said, adding that, after last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the common feeling in Lithuania was “if not for NATO, it would be us."

Vaisvilaite said Francis’ stance was disappointing to majority-Catholic Lithuania in comparison with St. John Paul II’s strong opposition to the Soviet empire: “The general public, I would say, mostly because of the memory of John Paul II, was expecting the pope to be on the right side, to be partial" when it came to Ukraine, she said.

In majority-Catholic Croatia, where many liken Ukraine’s predicament to their own struggle with Serbia in the 1990s, Francis’ approach to the current conflict has been compared unfavorably with John Paul’s moral clarity, said the Rev. Ante Vuckovic, a professor at the Catholic Faculty of Theology of the University of Split.

“John Paul II knew to distinguish the aggressor and the victim," Vuckovic said. “We have been surprised by the lack of this distinction on the part of Francis."

Some Croatian Catholics nevertheless continue to view Francis as “the best spokesman for Christianity" because of his concern for refugees, the poor and the environment, Vuckovic said.

In Poland, Francis’ stance on the war has inspired an unusual consensus between the church’s conservative and more liberal wings, said Tomasz Terlikowski, a prominent Catholic writer and commentator based in Warsaw.

“More conservative-minded Polish Catholics have long viewed Francis’ actions with considerable distrust," Terlikowski said, whereas progressives “often looked to Francis with great hopes, and his stance on the war in Ukraine seriously disappointed them."

By itself, the pope’s stance on Ukraine is unlikely to lead many Polish Catholics to leave the church, said Edward Augustyn, a journalist for the Krakow-based Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny.

“People who believe and practice regularly may disagree with him, but this does not prevent them from remaining in the church," Augustyn said. “The pope is not an authority on politics, diplomacy or the history of Eastern Europe. So, for believers, his words will not interfere with their faith."

Write to Francis X. Rocca at

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