Pope Francis’ peacebuilding on Ukraine may work…that’s not a good thing

15 May 2023, 0930 EDT

As a Turkey follower (I studied the country in grad school and wrote on it for my dissertation and first book) I’ve got thoughts on Turkey’s elections. But as someone not interested in hot takes, I’m going to wait until the election is over to provide some analysis.

Instead, I want to talk about Pope Francis’ “peace talks” between Russia and Ukraine. The Pope recently announced “secret” peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, although neither side seemed to be aware of this. His efforts have progressed, however, with Ukraine President Zelensky’s recent visit to Italy.

I should be a fan of this. I think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was, and continues to be, a war crime: it needs to stop. I study religion and international relations, and thus should welcome an example of religion’s power in the world. But I’m concerned, not because I think he’ll fail but because I worry he’ll succeed.

The issues with the Pope’s peace talks

My concerns have to do with the nature of the Pope’s current mission, and a past mission he conducted.

He is attempting to stay neutral in the conflict in order to find a middle ground between the combatants. Francis has been hesitant to call out Russia as the aggressor in the conflict while suggesting Russia was “provoked” into attacking Ukraine. He’s met with Putin supporters such as Viktor Orban of Hungary.

I can understand what the Pope is trying to do. Putin will never trust someone who condemns his actions, and–if the goal is peace rather than Russian surrender–this neutrality is the best way to achieve it.

But as I’ve argued before, peace at any cost isn’t really what Ukraine needs. Such a peace deal would likely give Russia some control over Ukraine, which is not acceptable. Ukraine needs a just peace that includes justice for the victims of Russian aggression, not just the end of fighting.

Most commentators believe Pope Francis’ peace efforts will fail…I worry they will succeed.

The Pope’s earlier peacebuilding in Syria demonstrates this concern. As I discuss in my forthcoming book with Cornell University Press, Francis opposed calls in 2013 for international military intervention in Syria in response to the Assad regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people. Some of this included explicit appeals to faith. Ultimately, Francis was successful in organizing a transnational coalition against intervention.

I was also opposed to military intervention in Syria. At the same time, I did not believe peace talks would cause Assad to start respecting human rights. And, unfortunately, Francis’ successful blocking of military intervention did not lead to a concerted effort to create a just peace for the Syrian people. Instead, it gave Assad the breathing room to crush his opponents. Some see this as a permanent stain on Francis’ legacy, and I worry his efforts in Ukraine will be as well.

Why Francis’ mission may succeed

Most commentary on the Pope’s Ukraine peace efforts seem to think they will fail. He is intervening in conflicts among Orthodox Christians, outside the Roman Catholic sphere of influence. Zelensky continues to receive support from Western leaders; he had a positive meeting with Italian Prime Minister Meloni, and both the UK and Germany have pledged military aid.

I think he may actually succeed.

In my forthcoming book I discuss why religious appeals affect power politics, by persuading leaders and resonating with domestic publics. I also discuss when they succeed or fail.

Pope Francis may not appreciate the immense power he wields.

The key variables are the credibility of the actor issuing the appeals and the material incentives facing their targets. A speaker credible on religious issues and targets amenable to their message leads to success. The absence of these conditions leads to failure.

Most situations in the real world, however, involve a mix of the two. Situations involve either a speaker with little credibility on religious issues but the ability to provide material incentives, or a credible speakers appealing to targets with disincentives to go along with their efforts. The theme of the book is that religious appeals have real impacts on power politics, but rarely in the manner intended by their wielders.

Pope Francis’ peacebuilding efforts are a rare exception. First, if anyone is credible on religious issues it’s Pope Francis. His ascension to the Throne of St. Peter was greeted by enthusiasm around the world, given the fact that he is from the Global South and has emphasized care for the poor and social justice. He has established (possibly problematic) religious ties with the UAE’s government. Even this proud Protestant, whose Lutheran ancestors had to flee the Palatinate because of the Thirty Years’ War, likes him. As seen in his work on Syria, he is able to mobilize transnational and inter-faith coalitions; he may do the same on Ukraine.

Additionally, everyone involved has material incentives to listen to him. Western backers of Ukraine are wary of being drawn into the war, and some worry about the drain on their military readiness from continued support. The war is not working out for Russia, and it’s not inconceivable Putin is looking for a face-saving out. Even Ukraine’s will may begin to wear down as this goes on.

Thus, even if Francis cannot bring Putin and Zelensky together, his efforts may spark a transnational social coalition that puts pressure on all involved states to end the war.

Why this suggests caution about religious peacebuilding

Again, if the goal was just peace–i.e. the absence of fighting–this would be good. But this sort of “peace” means Russia will not have to repair the country it devastated, while Ukraine will likely have to give up full control of its territory. Pope Francis’ efforts may succeed, but leave the people he’s trying to help worse off. This would not be a failure of his influence, but, ironically, an unfortunate success for religious appeals in power politics. Pope Francis may not appreciate the immense power he wields.