Pope Francis has staked a position on the war in Ukraine that puts him more in line with Beijing, New Delhi, and Brasília than Washington, London, or Brussels: He wants to end Ukraine’s armament by the West and negotiate an immediate cease-fire. Earlier this week, Francis vaguely alluded to a mission he was working on to end the conflict. Yet he seems to have alienated many of the actors whose support he would need to do so.
“Never in the last sixty years,” wrote Marco Politi, a journalist who has covered the papacy since 1971, “with regard to a matter of such international importance has the Holy See found itself in such a marginal position.”
Still, Francis’s actions are neither arbitrary nor irrational. They are a deliberate response to how the Catholic Church is changing—and will continue to change—in the 21st century. More Catholics than ever before live outside the West and don’t see the war in Ukraine on the same terms as Europe and the United States do. Understood in this light, Francis’s position previews the future of the Church as a geopolitical force, one that will be far less acquiescent to the West.
Western leaders have any number of reasons to be upset with Francis’s response to the war. In addition to criticizing the West’s efforts to arm Ukraine, he has implied that NATO deserves blame for the invasion, often quoting an unnamed diplomat who accused NATO of “barking at Russia’s door.” Though Francis has condemned Russian war crimes and sympathized with Ukrainians’ suffering, he hasn’t condemned Vladimir Putin. Rather, Francis has praised him as a man of culture and even suggested that the Russian president has been acting on legitimate security concerns.
From the June 2023 issue: The counteroffensive
This represents a dramatic break with the Vatican’s traditional philosophy. Historically, the Holy See has practiced what academics call the “great power” model of diplomacy, attaching itself to the superpower of the day. Over the centuries, that’s meant de facto alliances with the Holy Roman Empire, the French monarchy, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. For most of the 20th century, Rome attached itself to Western powers, so much so that Pope Pius XII, the pope during the Second World War and a ferocious anti-Communist, was dubbed “the chaplain of NATO.”
No modern pope has practiced great-power diplomacy as effectively as John Paul II. By the time he celebrated his 10th anniversary as pope some 35 years ago, he was one of the most consequential leaders on the planet—not merely a spiritual figure, but a political one, leading the Cold War fight against Communism. Accumulating such influence would have been unthinkable without the West’s support.
Nowhere was John Paul’s geopolitical power more apparent than in his native Poland. The first Polish pope helped restore democracy to his country by supporting Solidarity, the national opposition movement to Communist rule. Solidarity’s massive labor strikes, which John Paul catalyzed, forced the regime to open talks with the opposition that eventually led to Poland’s liberation from Soviet rule. This was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, and John Paul’s part in its demise was crucial.
The contrast between John Paul’s outsize role in global affairs and Pope Francis’s role in them today is hard to overstate.
As Francis completed his tenth year as pope in March, a contest between Russia and the West was once again being waged on a proxy site in Eastern Europe. Now, however, the pope is at odds with Western powers, instead of operating in concert with them.
Francis has embraced what might be seen as the Vatican’s first multipolar geopolitical strategy. Instead of hewing to the Western consensus, Francis has sought nontraditional allies in his pursuit of a solution in Ukraine, such as Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in part to avoid antagonizing Russia. In this vein, the pope and his top aides have called for a 21st-century version of the Helsinki process, a diplomatic effort to reduce tensions during the Cold War that brought together a diverse set of Eastern and Western nations.
From the January/February 2023 issue: The reinvention of the Catholic Church
One reason for the Vatican’s geopolitical realignment under Francis is biographical. As the first pope from Latin America, Francis came into office feeling the same ambivalence about the United States and the other Western powers as many Latin American leaders, given America’s history of interference in the region.
But the principal reason is demographic.
In 1900, there were roughly 267 million Catholics in the world, more than 200 million of whom were in Europe and North America. At the time, the makeup of the Church was not much different from what it was in the 16th century.
By 2000, there were nearly 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, but only 350 million of them were Europeans and North Americans. The overwhelming majority, 720 million, lived in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. More than 400 million lived in Latin America alone. By 2025, only one in five Catholics will be a non-Hispanic Caucasian.
This is the most rapid, and most sweeping, demographic transformation of Roman Catholicism in its 2,000-year history. Perhaps the only real comparison is to the first decades of the Church, when Saint Paul left Asia Minor to evangelize Greece and Rome, thereby transforming Christianity from a sect within Palestinian Judaism into a transnational religious movement.
The Vatican is always slow to respond to such changes. As the old saying goes, if you hear that the end of the world is coming, head for Rome, because it will get there last. Francis’s papacy—and his position on Ukraine in particular—represents the beginning of the Church’s pastoral and political expression of its new demographic realities.
The best way to make sense of Francis, then, isn’t in terms of left versus right, or even East versus West, but North versus South. Across the global South, the conflict in Ukraine is seen largely as a European affair, one without an obvious hero or villain. The pope’s call for a halt to arms transfers, an end to the fighting, and negotiations that all sides could support coincides with the majority sentiment among Catholics who don’t live in NATO member states.
The Catholic Church is not a democracy. But Western critics have for centuries demanded that it become more responsive to the will of the people over whose souls it claims jurisdiction. Perhaps, therefore, observers jarred by Pope Francis’s position on Ukraine might pause for a moment to consider whether Francis is simply reflecting the instincts and desires of his base, to use the political jargon.
For better or worse, the worldviews of his constituents will move further and further from the conventional political wisdom of the West. Should we be surprised when he rejects it?