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  Opinion   Columnists  10 May 2022  Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Ukraine poses a big crisis for ‘political’ Christianity

Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Ukraine poses a big crisis for ‘political’ Christianity

The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College, and the author of China in India.
Published : May 11, 2022, 12:18 am IST
Updated : May 11, 2022, 12:18 am IST

Political empires and the papacy of course don’t sail in the same boat any longer, as was the case in the Middle Ages in Europe

Pope Francis. (AP)
 Pope Francis. (AP)

The war in Ukraine poses a major crisis for the “political Christianity” of the West. How else would one explain the recent intervention of Pope Francis, who wields enormous influence as head of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the fact that the Vatican is no longer the custodian of temporal (worldly) power in the political arena. Was the Pope sending a message to the United States and the West, all of which are Christian-majority nations, though not necessarily professing a state religion?

Political empires and the papacy of course don’t sail in the same boat any longer, as was the case in the Middle Ages in Europe and some other times. But even today, if the Pope speaks on any global issue, particularly on inter-state conflict in Europe, the world is all ears.

What is one to make of the 85-year-old head of the Holy See proclaiming that “the real scandal of Putin’s war is Nato barking at Russia’s door”, which caused the Kremlin “react badly and unleash the conflict”? The Pope’s comments cannot be ignored or overlooked. The Holy Father deserves to be commended for his forthright, fair and frank views, going beyond the call of papal duty, to speak for mankind and try to transform negativity into positivity.

Since the widespread perception in the West and much of the world is that President Vladimir Putin is to blame for the current conflict, for launching the invasion of Ukraine and all that followed, natural justice demands that the points the Russian leader had raised are given due consideration before pronouncing verdict. What made Mr Putin do what he has done or is doing, which triggered the sanctions and other measures against his country? Has he lost his sense of judgment? This is what he had said: “Over the past 30 years we (Russians) have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the Nato countries on the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe. In response… we have faced either cynical deception and lies or pressure and blackmail, while the Nato alliance has continued to expand despite our protests and concerns. Its military machine is moving and approaching our borders.”

Mr Putin’s statement was on February 24. Pope Francis’ statement was on May 2, exactly 67 days after the beginning of hostilities in the heart of Europe, where in past centuries four fighting empires had met in battle: Vienna, Berlin, Moscow and Constantinople/Istanbul. Where all four had vied for political power, prestige, position, trade, territory and conquest — leading to ceaseless conflict.

Was the Pope then raising the flag for the US-led Nato alliance, and signalling them to resort to self-introspection, and chiding Moscow for its avoidable over-reaction?

The Pope’s point is piercing and poignant. It deserves a fresh look, for the possible fallout in the ecclesiastical as well as the temporal domain of political Christianity. Psychologically, the Pope appears distraught at the possible repeat of the European heartland’s white Christian versus white Christian conflagration escalating, imperilling the very existence of the West-led Christian world. From politics to the economy, from military to monetary domination, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) looms large. For the first time since the Second World War, blood is oozing out of two Christian belligerents, with the entire political white Christians’ developed world punishing Christian Russia. It’s like seventeenth-century Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan “war of all against all”.

Does it need revisiting past belligerents? The Germany of the two world wars, the Habsburgs’ Vienna and the Romanovs’ Moscow? Doesn’t the present scene resemble the age-old provocation-reaction-action history of warfare? In the same breath, isn’t the history of the Church too one of division and dispute? For that matter, can religions such as Islam and Hinduism claim a spanking clean record due to numerous intra-religious differences, disputes and discord? There wouldn’t have been centuries of conflict between Muslims and Muslims and Hindus versus Hindus all over. Religion, used for political dispute resolution or restitution, always took politics by storm, thus dragging the ecclesiastical, ethics-preaching priests into the vortex of violence and vitriolic virulence.

The history of endless intra-political Christian conflicts in Europe had led Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell to deliver his prophet-like verdict: “Unfortunately, as soon as Christians acquired political power, they turned their zeal against each other”. (A History of Western Philosophy) Russell’s twentieth century view was supplemented by the twenty-first century statement of another top Western scholar, Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his magnum opus A History of Christianity: “For most of its existence, Christianity has been the most intolerant of all faiths, doing its best to eliminate all competitors.”

The two European-origin world wars of the past century stand out as the direct and corroborative testimony to poignantly reveal, remind and reignite reality: the 2022 Russia-Ukraine conflict is proving the two great Western minds of Russell and MacCulloch as the best sample and example of their wisdom, which eventually compelled a deeply perturbed Pope Francis to come out of his ecclesiastical cloister to express his views and join the debate. The Church entered the State’s arena, despite the theoretical separation of powers between the two. The Holy See is well aware that despite Rome’s primacy, the Church stands divided today between East and West. Christianity, though born in the Middle East, went westwards after the rocky days of initiation towards Greece and Rome. Later, from the headquarters of the (Byzantine) Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople, there emerged the Eastern Orthodox Church of Russian Christianity.

Like in matters ecclesiastical, Western Europe’s polity too was usually at odds with Moscow, and vice versa. This then was the hiatus in every issue between the nations of Western Europe and the labyrinth centred around the Moscow landmass, which saw both Napoleon and Hitler first losing their way, and then getting buried under their own power play. The two mega-invasions of Russia — by France (1812) and then Germany (1941), and now the 2022 reverse conflict — prove there is little hope for a permanent rapprochement between the Washington-Brussels alliance and Moscow any time soon. Despite Pope Francis’ open criticism of the West and his willingness to undertake a peace mission to Moscow, which indicates the Vatican is ready to try for a resolution and bridge the gap between the Holy See and the Russian Church at a critical juncture, the power elites and arms merchants on both sides are in no mood to give the Hand of God a chance.

Tags: ukraine crisis, roman catholic church