Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe has spurred the pope to demand its cessation. So greatly has he inspired the Kremlin’s victims and their western champions, even Russia’s dictator observed the conflict has seen a sea change that “would have been impossible without the pope.”

That imperialism was, of course, Soviet-imposed communism in Poland; the Catholic pontiff was John Paul II; and the Russian leader was Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Things have changed in the Vatican since 1989. Swiss broadcaster RSI’s partial release of a recent interview with Pope Francis demonstrates just how much. 

Discussing Ukraine, Francis suggested “the strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates.” He went on: “When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you have to have the courage to negotiate. Negotiations are never a surrender.”

After such talk of white flags and defeat, it’s hard to imagine Ukrainians — among them 16,000 immigrants living in the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area — finding that last part reassuring. The pope’s words will meanwhile hearten Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Francis’s latest declaration amplifies the Russophilia he has occasionally spouted throughout Russia’s unprovoked assault on its neighbor. While belatedly lamenting Putin’s war crimes, the pope lauded the “cultured” autocrat, celebrated Moscow’s czarist past, opposed western Ukraine aid, and obliquely excused Putin’s aggression. Francis sensed the tyrant’s “anger” was “facilitated, maybe” by “NATO barking at Russia’s doors.”

Whatever (weak) case Putin may have against NATO, he has no valid claim upon any part of Ukraine whose citizens don’t want to live as his subjects. Amidst the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, most voters in every region of Ukraine — even in the Crimean peninsula that Russia would illegally annex in 2014 — voted for independence in a referendum. Last September, Putin orchestrated border-area plebiscites purporting to show popular support for integration with Russia, yet no objective observer regarded these elections as free or fair. 

Before again rebuking Ukraine’s self-defense, Francis might acquaint himself with his church’s own just-war doctrine. It blesses a military response if “the damage inflicted by the aggressor… [is] lasting, grave and certain;” if other solutions are “impractical or ineffective;” if there are “serious prospects of success;” and if “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” don’t arise resultantly.

And before again chastising a young democracy besieged by a flailing empire, the pope ought to reflect on the legacy he betrays. John Paul, speaking on Corpus Christi Day in 1977, called for unequivocal recognition of basic human rights in his native Poland. When a hegemon refuses to honor them, he insisted, the victims deserve no blame for resisting oppression. 

“Human rights cannot be given in the form of concessions,” he said. “Man is born with them and seeks to realize them in the course of his life. And if they are not realized or experienced, then man rebels…. There is only one road to peace and national unity, and that is through unfettered respect for the rights of man….” 

Former Polish President Lech Walesa credits the late pontiff’s encouragement of the former’s Solidarity trade-union movement with that effort’s survival. Cold War historians including John Lewis Gaddis and Timothy Garton Ash view the pro-democracy campaign, and John Paul’s embrace of it, as indispensable to the fall of Soviet communism. 

Unlike John Paul, Francis addresses a war begetting hundreds of thousands of casualties. The current pope could therefore claim his entreaties mean only that he wants peace. Even so, John Paul’s reflections during Solidarity’s emergence contain a lesson Francis should heed: Durable peace rests upon humane conditions. 

“Peace and the drawing together of peoples,” John Paul said in Warsaw in 1979, “can be achieved only on the principle of respect for the objective rights of the nation, such as: the right to existence, to freedom, to be a social and political subject, and also to the formation of its own culture and civilization.”

What “negotiations” between Ukraine and Russia can achieve these terms without affirming the former’s independence? 

Despite reluctance among a loud minority of American lawmakers and their cheerleading pundits, renewed commitment to a Ukrainian victory can ensure success. As the Jamestown Foundation’s Janusz Bugajski noted in this newspaper days ago after returning from Kyiv, Russian forces are failing to hold sizable Ukrainian territories and have lost half their professional military personnel along with vast portions of their land, sea and air fleets. Ukrainian sabotage and drone strikes are also severely weakening Russia’s energy industry and defense production.

Still, Ukraine’s ultimate triumph will depend on the resolve of eloquent free-world dignitaries. Pope Francis should reverse himself and emulate John Paul in showing that resolve.

Bradley Vasoli is a writer and media strategist in Pennsylvania.You can follow him on X at @BVasoli.

2 thoughts on “Bradley Vasoli: Pope’s ‘white flag’ comment betrays John Paul’s legacy”

  1. Perhaps the Pope has forgotten the Holodomor applied to the Ukrainian people during the Stalin era. Even though Stalin should not be considered the archetypical Russian, his policies were carried out by them, sometimes with gusto. The Pope doesn’t seem to realize that negotiation only occurs between parties that have relatively equal power. For on side to have the other side at a disadvantage, is not a negotiation, but a diktat. Good examples would be Germany’s surrender after the Armistice ending WWI. Another would be the negotiations between France and the Viet Minh, calling for a free vote to unite Vietnam. We know how that worked out. I believe the relative strength of the Ukraine versus Russia in technology and manpower reserves is problematic and getting Russia to seriously negotiate even more so. Stalin is famously quoted as saying “the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” I think that between Stalin and the Easter Front during WWII, Russia accepts this concept and will be willing to exchange lives for advantage, before any negotiation.

  2. Most headlines intentionally misrepresent what Francis said, and the context in which he said them.
    A white flag signifies to all that an approaching negotiator is unarmed, with a desire to communicate. Persons carrying or waving a white flag are not to be fired upon, nor are they allowed to open fire. The use of the flag to request parley is included in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. He has a right to inviolability, as well as the trumpeter, bugler, or drummer, the flag-bearer, and the interpreter who may accompany him.
    “I think that the strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates,” Francis said, adding that talks should take place with the help of international powers. Francis also reminded people that some countries have offered to act as mediators in the conflict. “Today, for example, in the war in Ukraine, there are many who want to mediate,” he said. “Turkey has offered itself for this. And others. Do not be ashamed to negotiate before things get worse.” Throughout the war, Francis has tried to maintain the Vatican’s traditional diplomatic neutrality, but that has often been accompanied by apparent sympathy with the Russian rationale for invading Ukraine, such as when he noted that NATO was “barking at Russia’s door” with its eastward expansion.
    Ukraine remains firm on not engaging directly with Russia on peace talks, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said multiple times the initiative in peace negotiations must belong to the country which has been invaded.

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