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Why Pope Francis is Silent on Putin

“Pope Deplores the War in Ukraine but Not the Aggressor” was the headline in the March 18 edition of The New York Times. “Francis has studiously avoided naming President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, or even Russia itself, as the aggressor… Some analysts say that he risks complicating his legacy.”

Pope Francis “risks complicating” only the legacy constructed by the U.S. media, not the reality that he has cooperated with brutal dictators for almost half a century.

Argentine Junta

A military junta – led by General Jorge Videla Videla and Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera – tortured and killed approximately 30,000 Argentines from 1976 to 1983. This was in a country with a population in 1980 roughly that of Texas, according to Wikipedia.

It was called the Dirty War because people were captured and killed in secret. The disappearances, tortures, and murders were described in Rita Arditti’s book Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. “Fortunately, the vivid descriptions of the tortures (such as torturing children in front of their parents, torturing the fetuses of pregnant women and inciting guard dogs to attack) are mercifully brief.”

Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was head of the Argentine Jesuits from 1973 to 1979.

The junta “tended to see anyone who worked with the poor or who defended human rights as subversive,” explained Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s leading investigative journalists. “Around 1974, ’75, ’76, many Jesuits and other kinds of priests started abandoning the great congregations to go live in the poor neighborhoods called ‘misery villas.’ Bergoglio was adamantly opposed to that. He became the main detractor of that movement of priests, which denoted issues related to his close relationship with the dictatorship,” according to Fr. Eduardo de la Serna, a member of the “Group of Priests in Option for the Poor” of Argentina. 

On May 14, 1976, seven youths who were doing pastoral/social work in one of these shantytowns were kidnapped by Navy commandos. All were taken to the dreaded ESMA (School of Naval Mechanics of Argentina) where thousands were tortured and disappeared. None of the seven were ever seen again.

On May 23, 1976, more of their co-workers were kidnapped along the Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. All were taken to ESMA.

Yorio and Jalics were released five months later. They had been beaten, drugged and left in a suburb of Buenos Aires.

One of the youths who was tortured and killed was the daughter of Emilio Mignone, a devout Catholic and founder of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) “a non-governmental organization of Argentina founded in 1979, aimed at promoting and defending human rights and strengthening the democratic system.” Based on ten years of all-consuming investigations into his daughter’s disappearance, Mignone’s book, Church and Dictatorship: The Role of the Church in Light of Its Relations with the Military, was published in 1986.  

According to Mignone, the junta did not arrest a priest without first warning his bishop or superior. On some occasions, the bishop/superior gave their OK as a way to rid themselves of “troublemakers.” Because of various expressions heard by Yorio in captivity, it was clear to him that some criticism from his superior, Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, was considered an authorization to take action against him. Mignone thought Bergoglio’s criticism “served as part of the basis for the arrest, imprisonment and torture of Yorio and Jalics.”

Mignone wrote: “What will history say of these shepherds who delivered their sheep to the enemy without defending them or rescuing them?”

In 1975, Bergoglio gave administration of the Jesuit Universidad del Salvador to leaders of the Iron Guard, “an ultra-Catholic, right-wing, nationalist organization.” The university awarded an honorary doctor’s degree to Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera on November 25, 1977. Bergoglio, as provincial, still had oversight of this Jesuit institution and the event could not have been held without his approval. By granting an honorary doctorate from a Jesuit university, Bergoglio was signaling where he stood politically.

Roberto Pizarro, Dean of the Faculty of Economics of the University of Chile and rector of University Academy of Christian Humanism, thinks it was “inexcusable” for Bergoglio to have honored Massera, head of ESMA where “thousands of young Argentines were tortured and murdered in a reproduction of Auschwitz.” For Bergoglio to have “cultivated a relationship” with Massera is a “stain” on his record for which “Argentines, the Jesuits and the two hundred billion Catholic in the world deserve an explanation,” Pizarro wrote.

It is established history that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church supported the junta during the Dirty War. In 2012, a former leader of the junta, General Jorge Videla, made a statement in front of a video camera acknowledging the active collaboration of Argentine prelates. After Videla’s interview, Church leaders had little choice but to respond.

The bishops, headed by the now cardinal primate of Argentina, Bergoglio, issued a statement that could not have been issued without his approval. The statement, Los Obispos de la República Argentina, 104º Asamblea Plenaria, 9 de noviembre de 2012, denied the truth of Videla’s declaration and equated the barbarity of the dictatorship with an ineffective leftist guerrilla opposition.

Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis on March 13. 2013.

Bashar al-Assad 

Although the massacre of civilians by Assad had been ongoing since March 2011- including multiple chemical attacks – Pope Francis held a peace rally for Syria on Sept. 7, 2013, only after Pres. Obama proposed a limited air strike to deter the further use of chemical weapons against civilians. During the rally, the pope “spoke out against an attack in Syria … urging world leaders to oppose a military intervention in Syria.”

On April 7, 2017, “Pope Francis called the latest attack by chemical weapons on Syrian civilians ‘unacceptable carnage,’ but was careful to avoid anything that might be read as direct criticism of Assad …. Strikingly, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s top diplomat, took part Wednesday in an EU summit in Brussels on Syria, after reports of the chemical attack had already made the rounds, and never mentioned either the attack or Assad.”

During the ten years of Assad’s war, 494,438 people were killed including 159,774 civilians according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group with a network of sources on the ground.

“More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million fled their homes. Some 6.9 million are internally displaced, with more than two million living in tented camps with limited access to basic services. Another 6.8 million are refugees or asylum-seekers abroad,” bbc.com reported in March 15,2022.

Pope Francis has kept his silence as regards Assad.

Xi Jinping

Pope Francis and Xi Jinping came to power at the same time – March 13 and March 14, 2013, respectively. China has “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom” defined as “including torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons,” stated a 2017 U.S. State Department Religious Freedom Report.

“The Chinese government’s actions against people in Muslim minority groups in the country constitute crimes against humanity” a 2021 Amnesty International report stated. “The report details systematic state-organized mass imprisonment, torture and persecution against people in Xinjiang province, including Uyghurs and Kazakhs. It also details the extensive cover-up efforts by the Chinese government,” NPR reported.

Pope Francis has never criticized Xi Jinping. Instead the pope told Xi, “The world looks to this great wisdom of yours” in a February 2016 interview published by LaStampa’s Vatican Insider. He repeated that “the world looks to China’s wisdom and civilization,”

The next month, Pope Francis issued an invitation to Xi to come to the Vatican and said he was willing to go to China. Neither happened.

Two Catholic Churches

All religion was outlawed when the Communist Party took control of China in 1949 but could not be eliminated. So the government decided to accommodate five religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism – by putting them under control of the Communist Party. The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) was established but an underground Church remained loyal to the pope.

Both groups of Catholics had their own bishops. Those in the CPCA had been appointed by the government; those in the underground Church had been appointed by the pope. No pope up to now has ever recognized the CPCA as a legitimate form of Catholicism.

After more than four years of negotiations, China and the Vatican signed an agreement on September 22, 2018, ratifying an earlier agreement whereby  the CPCA would prepare a list of candidates for bishop and the pope would choose from among them. No other civil government in the world has been granted this authority by any pope.

Three days after the signing, Pope Francis gave an in-flight interview during his trip from Estonia to Rome. He was asked to respond to the accusation “of having sold the Church to the government of Beijing after so many years of suffering.” Pope Francis said: ““I signed the agreement …. I am responsible ….

I think of the resistance, the Catholics who have suffered. And, they will suffer. Always, in an agreement, there is suffering. The faith [of martyrs] of these people today goes ahead.”

 “The Vatican is giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It’s an incredible betrayal,” declared Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, known for his impassioned defense of human rights, political freedom, and religious liberty.

Pope Francis “has effectively given Xi Jinping a stamp of approval when the latter’s hostility to religious freedom couldn’t be clearer,” wrote Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, in December 2018.

Since the 2018 Agreement was signed, all bishops have been chosen by the CPCA with only a handful receiving the Vatican’s approval after the fact.

The pope’s prediction that “they will suffer” was accurate.

“After the Agreement, there has been an increase in persecution, especially against unofficial communities: there are bishops under house arrest, such as Msgr. Jia Zhiguo; bishops who have been cut off from water, electricity and gas, such as Msgr. Guo Xijinbishops who cannot be hosted by their own faithful, such as Msgr. Shao Zhumin; bishops subjected to political sessions and ‘brainwashing,’ such as Msgr. Zhang Weizhu,” reported asianews.it in May 2021.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of Christians has taken a disturbing new turn,” heritage.org stated also in May 2021. “Chinese Christians are being detained at secretive ‘brainwashing camps.’ Most of the prisoners held in these facilities have been taken from house churches that operate outside of state approval …. Officials use intimidation, threats, and beatings to force detainees to renounce their faith. The repression was so brutal that one prisoner testified, ‘After you’ve been in there a week, death starts to look better than staying there.’”

Yet there is no indication that Pope Francis has any regrets regarding his deal with Xi Jinping.  In fact, in a March 24, 2022, video message Pope Francis “encouraged Catholics in Hong Kong and in mainland China to be strong in the face of challenges, to be good citizens and to pray for him as he prays for them,” reported cruxnow.com.

Vladimir Putin

Pope Francis positioned himself as Putin’s ally early in his pontificate. “Pope Francis wrote to Putin when he was hosting the G-20 summit” just before the pontiff’s “peace” rally in September 2013 “and urged world leaders there to oppose military intervention in Syria,” TIME reported.

 “Moscow was pleased after Francis opposed a proposed U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, a key Russian ally.” Putin credited Pope Francis “for stopping the military action” against Assad.”

“Putin certainly regarded [Obama’s failure in Syria] as a major victory. He immediately began to flex Moscow’s muscles in Ukraine.” noted Father Raymond J. de Souza, a Senior Fellow at Cardus, Canada’s leading Christian think tank, on the cruxnow.com website.

Pope Francis had “quite a cordial and constructive meeting,” with Putin in November 2013, The Guardian reported. “The Russian president has continued to support al-Assad’s ‘extermination’ of his civilian population.”

On Feb. 4, 2015, the pontiff “called the conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists ‘fratricidal.’” Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, said the pope’s statement was “particularly painful for all the people in Ukraine” because Shevchuk said it was a foreign invasion. 

Putin was “not welcome at the June 7-8, 2015, G7 summit meeting thanks to his government’s continued incursions into Ukraine’s territory. But two days after the meeting of Western powers in Germany, the Russian leader had his second meeting with Pope Francis,” TIME reported.

Between Pope Francis’ first and second meetings with Putin, “some 1.2 million Ukrainians had been internally displaced according to the United Nations humanitarian office. Russia continues to deny that it is sending troops across the border or arming Russian-backed separatists, and international pressure mounts to address the crisis,” TIME stated. Meanwhile, “Pope Francis has been working to carefully move his relationship [with Putin] forward.”

A meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was held in February 2016. The meeting “could not happen without a green light from Putin … Putin has aligned himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), making [the] private meeting politically charged, especially when Russia is at odds with the West over Ukraine and Syria. Putin clearly sees the value of his relationship with the ROC and the ROC’s relationship with the pope,” stated religionnews.com.

“Did the pope just kiss Putin’s ring?” The Economist headlined regarding the pope’s meeting with Kirill. The Economist stated:

The meeting “is a diplomatic victory for Putin [and] helped to underscore Russia’s renewed standing as a global power…

Francis made clear in his interview before the meeting that on certain issues he agrees with Mr. Putin and disagrees with America and its allies…

The joint declaration issued after the meeting hewed close to the Kremlin’s positions on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine…

The joint declaration deplores ‘hostility’ in Ukraine, but omits any mention of Russia’s role, casting it as an internal struggle…

Miroslav Marinovich, vice-rector of the Catholic University in Lviv, said that the sections relating to Ukraine were ‘obviously written in the Kremlin.’”

The joint declaration also included a denouncement of same-sex marriage. Putin “also takes the position held by Pope Francis that ‘tolerance of gender choice results from a Western imperial ideology.’”

“The Foreign Office of the Moscow Patriarchate held an international seminar at the end of January [2017] during which the Orthodox and Catholic Churches jointly spoke out against abortion.” The seminar was “a direct result” of the pope and patriarch meeting.

As regards the current war in Ukraine, on March 16, 2022, Pope Francis spoke with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow who supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The pope said, “Today we cannot speak about ‘just war’. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed …War is never the way.’” The pontiff’s meaning is that the Ukrainians are not morally justified in mounting a defense.

“Pope Francis’ Russia policy has come under withering attack from his own partisans. Robert Mickens has called the policy one of “appeasement.” Massimo Faggioli has written that “in the hours before the invasion, Francis’s personal appeals for peace were timid and reluctant (contrast them to those he made at the September 2013 prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, while the United States was threatening action in Syria),” noted Fr. de Souza on March 22.

On March 24, Pope Francis called the decision by NATO countries to raise weapons expenditures “madness.” Four days later, Pope Francis again criticized NATO’s response: “The real answer is not more weapons, more sanctions, more political-military alliances, but a different approach, a different way of governing the world, now globalized, and of setting up international relations.”

Pope Francis’ response to the war in Ukraine “is perhaps the one most fraught with political consequences, not least the growing irrelevance of the Holy See on the world stage,” Vatican reporter Sandro Magister wrote on March 28.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.


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