Pope Francis’ Holy Diplomacy in Ukraine

Why Washington and the Vatican Don’t See Eye to Eye

Pope Francis greets members of the Ukrainian army at the Vatican, May 2019 Remo Casilli / Reuters

The Holy See and the United States once had a close partnership. Under U.S. President Ronald Reagan, for instance, the CIA provided regular briefings to Pope John Paul II, as the Vatican coordinated with Washington to support democratic change in Poland. Those days are now over.

Nothing exemplifies the decline of this special relationship like Pope Francis’ diplomacy in Ukraine. In the last year, U.S.-Russian rivalries have played out in that country through the division between factions of the Orthodox Church. In the last year, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church decisively split from the Moscow patriarchate, with the explicit approval of the United States. Francis did not follow the U.S. lead and instead cautioned Ukrainian Catholics not to meddle in the Orthodox proxy war. The pope has used his relationships with important players on all sides of the dispute—including in Moscow—to calm nerves. He has succeeded insofar as he has coaxed the antagonists into seeing one another’s humanity, which cut through the hostility in turn.

Francis’ discreet, behind-the-scenes mediation is of a piece with the approach to diplomacy he outlined in Evangelii Gaudium, his first papal exhortation, in 2013. In that exhortation, Francis emphasized four principles: that the whole is greater than the part, that unity prevails over conflict, that realities are more important than ideas, and that time is greater than space. Although abstract on first glance, the rules genuinely summarize his strategy, and reflect his desire to remain neutral among competing geopolitical powers, including the United States. This neutrality, in turn, is helping to restore the Holy See to its status as a major diplomatic player.   


Francis’ first guiding principle—that the whole is greater than the parts—can be seen in his reluctance to take sides within Ukraine’s religious conflict. Catholics make up no more than ten percent of Ukraine’s population, but they have long played an outsized role shaping national identity. The largest Catholic community is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic

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