But the pope’s messaging about the war, even to some supporters, has also been head-scratching.
He has conspicuously avoided condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin as the aggressor. He has criticized the West’s sanctions and defense spending. And in an interview published this month by an Italian newspaper, Francis appeared to echo a Kremlin talking point, describing the “barking of NATO at Russia’s door” as one of the triggers for Putin’s wrath.
For Francis, 85, the war has become a second epochal event, after the pandemic, that has come to define the agenda of his pontificate. And while he was widely recognized for his clear-eyed take on the coronavirus — the isolation it engendered, the dangers of inequitable vaccine distribution — Francis has spurred a debate within the church about his approach to the war and whether he is being too cautious toward Russia and too bent on maintaining ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
“There are people, like me, who think how he has acted so far is not enough,” said Thomas Bremer, a theologian at the University of Münster, who argued that both Russia and the Russian church have become too compromised to merit an attempt at maintaining good relations. “There is no ‘business as usual’ possible right now. It can’t be like it was six months ago.”
Defenders of Francis’s strategy say the pope is maintaining a neutrality that has long been at the center of Holy See diplomacy. Francis has said it’s not the role of a pontiff to call out a head of state. And in contrast to World War II, when Jewish communities accused the church of turning a blind eye, Francis is highlighting the suffering that is happening.
The pope has positioned himself in a way that could, in theory, make the church a credible player in any mediation — something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said would be “appreciated.”
“He’s neither acting like Putin, calling other people Nazis, nor like Biden, saying that Putin should go,” said Marco Politi, a papal biographer, who argues that Francis is wisely avoiding making the conflict personal.