2018 could be the year that Pope Francis makes a historic trip to Moscow. The cardinal secretary of state* would be the one arranging such an event, while two recent statements have confirmed the birth of a new diplomatic trend: the synchronicity between the Vatican and Vladimir Putin, in terms of foreign policy, is visibly growing. At the end of the year, the Russian president customarily sends a message of well wishes to all international leaders. In the message to Bergoglio [Pope Francis], Putin emphasized, “hope for continued constructive cooperation between Russia and the Vatican toward protecting peace and global human values and strengthening dialogue between civilizations and religions.”
The Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, stated in an interview with Ria Novosti, “… [A]t present our relations are distinguished by the growth of trust. President Putin's two visits to the Vatican, and his telephone conversations with Pope Francis have established a relationship of personal trust. There is mutual sympathy, which is based not only on ecclesiastical matters, but also on the main international issues.” This sort of sweet talk is the prelude to a likely visit from the pontiff. But what are these “international issues” that unite the positions of the Vatican with those of the largest nation in the world?
Jerusalem, first and foremost. Donald Trump’s decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv and to unilaterally recognize the Eternal City as the capital of Israel has raised concerns in both Rome and Moscow. In a phone call to Mahmoud Abbas, Putin maintained that the decision was “premature,” while Pope Francis – who, thanks to Cardinal Parolin’s strategy, has brought the Roman Catholic Church back into the international political scene – has reaffirmed the position of the Holy See on the Holy Land: preservation of the status quo, two peoples and two states.
The directives of Parolin’s Ostpolitik are peace, neutrality and multipolarism.** After his victory in Syria, Putin has no interest in participating in affairs that could trigger new tensions in the Middle East. The reasons for this unprecedented rapport can also be found elsewhere. In the interview-style book, “Final Conversations with Peter Seewald,” Joseph Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI] spoke about the Russian president.
“We have not had any deep discussions, but I believe that he – a man of power – is touched by the necessity of faith. He is a realist. He sees Russia suffering from the destruction of morality. Even as a patriot, as a person who wants to bring Russia back to the role of a great power, he understands that the destruction of Christianity threatens to destroy it. He realizes that man needs God and he has certainly been touched on an intimate level. Even when he brought the icon to Pope Francis, he first made the sign of the cross and kissed it...” Ratzinger said. In the international geopolitical arena, nobody represents Catholic traditionalism better than Putin. And the Holy See is somehow compelled to take into account the grip that the former KGB man has not only on Russia, but also on the rest of the people of Eastern Europe.
Then, of course, there is Syria. The Syrian issue has become his issue in spite of the fulcrum around which the majority of the international balances revolve. Atlanticism*** is certainly not always shared by Pope Francis, who, even in the last “Te Deum” prayer of the year, stressed how 2017 had been a year marred by wars.**** These are conflicts that, for a good part of the time, can be attributed to the past decisions of the United States. Syria is the most attributable of them all. The dreaded crisis of ultracapitalism, the Argentine pontiff’s undying anti-Americanism and the need of the other geopolitical poles to oppose U.S. supremacy make up the rest. Bergoglio and Putin, through a complex series of contributing factors, often end up on the same side.
Finally, Pope Francis continues to pursue the dream of the substantial convergence of the Christian churches. If the previous popes never went to Russia, it was mainly because of the opposition of the Orthodox Church. After the historic hug between the bishop of Rome and Patriarch Kirill, however, things seem to have become simpler. Pope Francis is in a hurry to go to Russia and Vladimir Putin is ready to welcome him with open arms. All these factors, in short, allow us to presume that 2018 may be a year marked by an unspoken partnership.
*Editor’s note: The cardinal secretary of state is the pope’s secretary of state and oversees the Holy See Secretariat of State, which performs all the political and diplomatic functions of the Holy See and the Vatican City. The current secretary of state is Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
**Editor’s note: As it pertains to the Vatican, Ostpolitik refers to Pope Paul VI’s policies toward the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states. The Vatican sought to improve the condition of Christians living in the Soviet Union during this time.
***Editor’s note: Atlanticism is a term used to refer to a belief in or support for a close relationship between the United States, Canada and Europe regarding political, economic and defense issues.
****Editor’s note: The “Te Deum” is an early Christian hymn of praise.