The Australian Catholic Church, the Bishops, the Catholic Weekly and Russia and Ukraine

Dr Robert Tilley,

Catholic Institute of Sydney 

30 May 2022

I want to make it clear that though I work at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, the opinions expressed herein are mine and not, as far as I know, shared by the Institute or for that matter anyone else who works at the Institute. The opinions and arguments are mine and mine alone

A week or so ago, the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies site published a piece by Dr David Daintree which touched upon Russia in the Ukraine (‘Some Thoughts on Eastern Europe’ 13/5/22). It concluded on the note that Russia is an “evil empire,” possibly borrowing the term from Ronald Reagan who used it to describe the Soviet Union. In answer to this I entered into some correspondence with Dr Daintree by way of defending Russia and the Special Military Operation (SMO). To be more specific, I argued that he had followed the script of the main stream media (MSM), a script that can be called the Putin-is-the-Devil explanation for the events in the Ukraine. The gist being that one fine day Putin woke up and, being evil, decided on a demonic whim to attack Ukraine. In my correspondence I noted a number of points leading up to Russia’s actions which may or may not in the minds of some (though they do in mine) justify these actions, but what they do show is that the SMO was not an arbitrary action which came out of nowhere but follows on from a long series of decisions and events made by various geo-political actors and groups, not least by NATO. Indeed, I noted that even in the MSM prior to the SMO there had been, over the years, a number of articles to the effect that NATO’s actions were dangerous and could provoke a serious reaction on the part of Russia. Since at least 2014 this would seem to be something along the lines of what Basil Fawlty would call ‘the bleeding obvious’ especially in light of the failure of the two Minsk accords. As recently as 1/2/22 The Australian ran an opinion piece by Michael Sexton (‘NATO overreach has triggered the crisis over Ukraine’) arguing along these lines. Nevertheless, since the SMO those views and facts have been whited out, we might even say effectively silenced in the MSM. Putin is evil and that’s all there is to the matter. What’s more if you tried to access Russia Today or Sputnik then unless you knew your way around the necessary technology, you were blocked. And this even when we are told that the war in the Ukraine is about freedom; the freedom of speech and freedom from tyrannical censorship. We do freedom; Russia does censorship. The irony being that Zelensky’s censoring of opposition media and groups was likewise suppressed by the MSM. 

Perhaps none of us should be surprised by this silencing, especially after the MSM’s constant misrepresentations of Trump, the Russia hoax, the refusal to examine in any serious fashion the claims of a stolen election, and, of course, the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story, to name only a very few instances of deliberate disinformation and suppression. And yet, when it comes to current events those who had been rightly sceptical of the MSM not only forget the events that led up to the SMO, they also, I suspect, forget how and why they had been sceptical of the MSM. 

Here I want to acknowledge that others may well find the facts regarding the lead up to the SMO as not being a sufficient justification for Putin to launch the SMO. Fair enough, I think they are wrong and clearly they think I am wrong. This, however, is not my point. My point has to do with the unanimity of opinion coupled to an apparent forgetting of historical events, which unanimity is in accord with what might be called, for convenience’s sake, the NATO line. I think it reasonable to ask, then, if the promulgation of this line in the media follows what we know has been the case, both in more recent years and very much so since the 2WW and the Cold War, which is to ask, do we see here evidence of the influence of Intelligence Agencies (‘Intells’ for short) shaping the news (and the broader cultural environment)? 

Of course, asking such a question risks being charged with being a conspiracy theorist, but I think that by and large such a charge has, let us say, rather lost its charge in light of more recent revelations concerning the role of Intells in the MSM. More seriously making such a charge requires a degree of evidence which, by the very nature of the enterprise, is hard to come by, until, that is, those involved publish their memoirs and at a lot later date the official histories of the Intell concerned is written and some things can now be acknowledged. Hence, many might have suspected Quadrant in its early years was getting funding from the CIA, but this was not confirmed until investigative reporters did a bit of digging. So too, the official history of ASIO allows that yes, the press was used and reporters were, let us say, made into assets back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. We also learn from long time reporters with established reputations in the establishment media, not least the Times and Guardian, that reporters and newspapers often entered into long and complex relationships with the Intells and were (and are) often led to push the latest NATO geo-political line. None of this is particularly controversial, indeed the evidence points to things being a lot worse and a lot more compromised than the brief summary given above intimates. Nevertheless, this in and of itself does not establish this is what explains the unanimity of the MSM and, to a degree, the more critical outlier journals and sites in respect of Ukraine. However, it does justify being suspicious and looking for patterns which may or may not confirm one’s suspicions, not merely of compromise but even of corruption. Which is to say the corruption of the ostensible ideal that the media is meant to embody. 

I want to explore this matter not in respect of the MSM but in respect of an area that is rarely addressed, at least in Australia. It is an area which is of the most profound significance, both theologically and politically.1 ‘Theologically’ because it has to do with the Catholic Church, which is the Body of Christ the seat of the preeminent Apostle St Peter and his successors the Popes. It is the locus of apostolic authority and it is the means by which Our Lord saves and perfects the creation. ‘Politically’ because even if one does not believe the claims of Rome, thinks them so much nonsense, nevertheless (to the chagrin of many) the Church still wields a lot of influence both culturally and thus politically, for this reason it has been the object of attempted appropriation and subversion by Intells, politicians, and other interested parties who wish to bend her to their wishes.  

As the Church is composed of both a spiritual and an earthly nature then politics in all its forms is very much a part of her life. It is simply so much spiritual Gnosticism to think that politics is per se corrupting and the Church ought to be above it all. To be human is to be political, for good or for bad. A good example of the foregoing was how, a couple of days prior to the recent federal election, the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, had himself photographed with Albanese and Plibersek in what the media (here The Sydney Morning Herald) saw as being a clear endorsement of Labour. Whether this was wise or not is a question the Church has had to ask herself through the centuries. Glib statements to the effect that there should be a total separation of Church and state are just that, facile clichés which often serve to prevent a true assessment of what can be done for the best of the Church and, thereby, for the best of the State.  

By reason of the foregoing, there must be for the Church, as for the secular world, a constant critical analysis of the political decisions made. It’s why we hold the freedom of a truly independent press to be so important as it can serve as a means of this critical analysis. The point is that the Church in respect of its politics is not immune from criticism, indeed because it bears an awesome responsibility for the salvation of the world it ought to command more critical analysis in this sphere, and not just by the secular world but by the faithful as well.  

I stress this is not about critiquing Her dogmas, revealed to Her by Our Lord, nor is it about adopting whichever political fad is in fashion. What it is about is making sure those who hold office in the Church, especially those who are the successors of the Apostles, namely the Bishops, are accountable for how they conduct themselves politically. Do they compromise the dogmas of the faith by their political decisions? Do they by these same decisions aid schism in the Church and among the churches, instead of attempting to foster unity among believers? Do they honestly represent the Pope and not undermine him and his efforts, doing so by way of their political decisions? All Catholics, of course, ought to examine themselves in light of these questions, but it applies more so to the clergy. As Our Lord made clear to the Apostles, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Which is to say, that greater honour is to be given to those in clerical office, but of them is expected greater diligence for they have the greater responsibility. Their fall will be the greater than it would if a comparable sin were committed by a member of the laity, for their fall will occasion greater damage to the Church.  

These probably seem rather esoteric matters to many readers and perhaps tempted by impatience will think this piece is little more than an in-house theological squabble, one in which they have no interest whatsoever. But I think you will find it interesting, and if Catholic, then rather disturbing and deeply troubling. For things have come to a head, we might say, in the Church’s response in Australia to the events in the Ukraine. Politically so, I mean, and, for that reason, theologically so as well. This is because the political has, I want to argue, deeply compromised the theological. 

Where to begin?  

Let’s begin with a recent statement made by the Australian Catholics Bishops Conference (ACBC), in a letter from its President Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge (dated 20/5/22). Coleridge writes on behalf of the Bishops of Australia to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk in Ukraine. Shevchuk being the head of what might be called for convenience’s sake, the Catholic Church in the Ukraine. 

Here a word or two about matters ecclesiastical might be in order. There is a Ukrainian Church which is in full communion with Rome, it is what we might call one of the Eastern Rite churches. These churches have their own liturgies and cultural expressions, even at times married priests. But they recognise and come under the authority of the seat of St. Peter in Rome, which is to say the Pope. We are told by some that the Ukrainian Catholic Church makes up 10% of the population. Whether or not that figure is correct others can decide. The Ukraine is, of course, largely Orthodox. There are a number of permutations of Orthodoxy, but for our purposes the most important is that between those Orthodox churches which come under the headship (or Patriarchate) of Moscow or under that of Constantinople. The long and short of it is that in 2019 there was what might be called a schism in that a large part of the Ukrainian Orthodox communion split from Moscow and sought instead to come under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Many might quibble at what I just wrote and say there are things I have missed out, such as questions of autocephaly and like matters, but the issue at hand is the separation from Moscow, which is, theologically and politically speaking, a very big thing indeed.2  

We might first note the political aspect to this split. From anyone’s perspective this separation fits in with NATO’s desire to have the Ukraine separate herself politically and economically (via the EU), as well as culturally and religiously from Russia. In this the theological and the political, for good or for bad, are inextricably entwined by way of the dominant geo-political currents informing contemporary events. The split follows on from the events of 2013-2014, which is to say the events of the Maidan, then the deaths in Odessa, Russia’s ‘taking back’ Crimea, and, of course, the low key (comparatively speaking, I mean, for many thousands have died there in the last 8 years, indeed one of the reasons given by Putin for the SMO was the increased shelling of Russian speaking regions prior to this operation) conflict in the Donbass region. All of which events follow on from those that began in the early 1990s and the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent expansion of NATO eastwards (and in some cases membership in the EU trading bloc).  

Apologies for the digression but it is necessary if you are to understand the significance of what follows. 

Back to the letter from the ACBC by way of the hand of Arch. Coleridge to Arch. Shevchuk. The letter opens saying how they, the Australian Bishops, look on in horror at “an invasion based on lies and injustice…” This is a battle, so the letter reads, of freedom against slavery; truth against falsehood; democracy against autocracy; life against death; and good against evil. For this reason in such a battle “the Church cannot remain neutral,” hence the Bishops promise their “unqualified solidarity.” What this solidarity looks like I am not too sure, but among other things it means (I suppose) promoting the cause of Ukraine to the powers that be, though it seems all parties in our political spectrum are already on the same page. So it is that Archbishop Coleridge writes that his and his fellow Bishops’ heartfelt prayer is that the Mother of God, through Her Son Jesus Christ would “surround the Ukrainian people to crush the powers of darkness that now threaten, so that truth, freedom, and life may have the victory.” Whatever one thinks of the letter it is clearly of both a political and theological character. 

I think the position taken here is pretty clear, and to belabour the point it is one that fits in perfectly with that of NATO and the MSM. Perhaps the Bishops have thought long and hard about the historical build up to the SMO and came to the conclusion, through much debate among themselves, that this history is one that does not justify Putin’s actions. Indeed, if the letter is anything to go by they appear to hold any such justifications to be a “lie,” a “falsehood,” and expressive of “evil.” One certainly does hope that in making these judgments they had done their research.  

Perhaps they had, it’s just that going by the Catholic media there is little evidence to this effect. Like the MSM they seem to settle for the Putin-is-the-Devil line of thinking. To give what I think is a prime example of this I want to focus on the official paper of the Sydney Archdiocese, namely The Catholic Weekly (though it has a wider distribution than just the Sydney Archdiocese). The Archdiocese of Sydney is the oldest and the principal diocese in Australia and its Archbishop, at the moment Anthony Fisher, has a traditional pre-eminence among the Bishops in Australia (though in more recent years some have begun to question this). 

First, let me note something of some importance. As was told me a few years ago by the editor of The Catholic Weekly (CW), Peter Rosengren, when Anthony became Archbishop of Sydney he dismissed the board which previously had oversight over the Weekly and did not replace it. It can be said that the Weekly (and thus Rosengren) answers directly to the Archbishop. This is important for what follows as it says that the overall editorial line reflects the views of the Archbishop. Hence, the views are to be taken as expressing those of the pre-eminent diocese of the Catholic Church in Australia. Views, which given what we read earlier, are shared by the ACBC.  

All quotes are taken from the CW over the last few months. At times the articles from which the quotes are taken are syndicated ones from the Catholic New Service (CNS), an American agency of the American Bishops Conference. Here I want to assure the reader that I have not left out what might be called competing views – for there were none. Indeed, even though the Pope at times expressed a more nuanced approach to the war in Ukraine, when he called for prayer and peace the CW (and CNS) presented his actions in ways which gave a contrary impression. Here too I want to point out that in saying things like this I only quote what the CW has written. I am presenting things in the way the CW presents them. 

There has been no mention of prior NATO actions or of other circumstances (such as the existence of far-right militias inspired by Nazi era sentiments, of which the Azov battalion or regiment is only the best known and which formed one of Putin’s claimed justifications), except in one instance which, as we will see, is rather telling. In other words, the CW has exactly mirrored the approach of the MSM.  

On 6/3/22 the CW ran a story about the Pope visiting the Russian ambassador to the Holy See. ‘Pope pressures Russia’ ran the headline (p.3). This being a syndicated news article from CNS. Thing is the article itself said nothing of the sort. In fact, we do not know what was said apart from the Pope’s expressions of concern for those caught up in the war, especially the sick and suffering. The article, however, explains that Russian backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk have prior to the present events been “killing and maiming thousands.” The article doesn’t say the Pope said this, but the implication is that it would have informed what it was he said to the Russian Ambassador. On its own the statement is an outright misrepresentation, for all commentators, including those opposed to Russia, acknowledge that the killing in those areas prior to the SMO had been on both sides. Despite the headline, the article does not in fact give any information to the effect that the Pope “pressured” the Russian ambassador. (Elsewhere in the same edition of the CW the Archbishop said that Pope Francis went in person to the “Russian embassy in Rome to call Russia to account” p.3). 

A few weeks later Pope Francis called on the Bishops of the world to consecrate both Ukraine and Russia to the care of Our Lady. The CW ran with an account from CNS entitled ‘Entrusting the world to Mary’s Intercession’ (CW 27/3/22, pp.14-15). The reported speech of Francis did not single out any one player. This was not good enough, it seems, for the CW article went on to quote the Ukrainian Ambassador to the Holy See who said this is “the devil’s war.” It also quoted Archbishop Shevchuk (whom we met earlier) who said it was not possible to “make a deal, to cooperate with this evil that emerges from Russia today.” A sentiment which certainly does not chime with those of the Pope and certainly not with the events of which the article was supposedly giving an accurate record.  

The consecration was returned to in the CW edition of 10/4/22 (p.17). It reproduced an article entitled ‘Consecration was an ecclesial earthquake’ and was by a certain Fr Raymond de Souza. It had first been printed in the American magazine The National Catholic Register (not to be confused with The National Catholic Reporter which is a liberal theological magazine). The National Catholic Register has the distinction of having been one of the leading voices in the international anti-Pope Francis push among the self-designated conservative and traditional Catholic community.  

Fr de Souza writes that the consecration was an earthquake because “Russia was explicitly mentioned.” A word of explanation: for many who self-define themselves as true Catholic conservatives and/or traditionalists it has been held that the consecration of Russia to Our Lady was not properly done under John Paul II in 1984 because Russia was not explicitly named, hence it had been ineffective. So the fact that Russia was now named was very significant. Fr de Souza is so exercised by this fact that he adds more to the occasion than Pope Francis did! The goal of this consecration, he intimates, is not only peace but “the fall of Kirill”! Patriarch Kirill is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill, Fr de Souza helpfully informs his readers, has been “deeply compromised” and thus he has “ceased to be a religious authority worthy of respect.” He goes further, not just Patriarch Kirill but the “Moscow Patriarchate” itself “is no longer granted the respect and influence” it might once had had. “Russian Orthodoxy is no longer a credible ecumenical partner.” The good Father then assures us that in Rome Kirill’s “concerns are simply not deemed worthy of consideration.” Strong stuff! 

Clearly, Fr de Souza must be of some importance such that he can rule out any continuation on the part of Pope Francis to seek an ecumenical rapport with Russian Orthodoxy, an accord which has been a theme of his pontificate. What’s more, according to Fr de Souza, there is now no way that Francis can seek to discuss matters with Kirill. But Fr de Souza is not quite as important as he might think, and by all reports Francis has been trying to keep dialogue open with Kirill and even with Putin himself. The Pope must be a brave man to defy the wrathful authority of Fr de Souza. According to some reports Putin has rebuffed the attempts at a meeting with Pope Francis. This raises the question if, perhaps, Putin thinks comments like those of Fr de Souza’s actually do represent the thoughts of Pope Francis. After all, I guess that’s the intention of the article that the CW reproduced (as it might be said of the general tenor of all the articles the CW has been publishing, and, it might be added, those articles originating from the CNS and the American Bishops Conference). Among Intells this kind of thing often goes under the name of disinformation. For others, we might simply file it under ‘deliberate misrepresentation’ or more simply ‘lies’.  

But Fr de Souza’s is not the only voice the CW has published damning Patriarchate Kirill and Russian Orthodoxy. There’s George Weigel. Weigel’s is a syndicated Catholic column and he is one of the biggest stars among the ‘conservative’ right of the Catholic Church. He is an American who publishes a good deal, and regularly offers up his take on international politics while pronouncing upon what position it is that the Church should adopt on current geo-political matters, especially wars. Most famously he has supported every American/NATO intervention from at least the second Gulf War on down today. He was also a significant figure in the anti-Francis movement.3 There is much to say about Weigel and little of it good, in my opinion. In his column published in the CW on 13/3/22 (p.23) titled ‘Please explain, Patriarch Kirill’, he tells us (as he has done umpteen times before) that Kirill has from early on his career been a KGB agent, and has become increasingly wealthy under both the Soviet Union and Putin. Evidence? Well, there is no direct evidence but one piece Weigel often brings up is that Kirill was the Russian Orthodox representative to the World Council of Churches in the early 1960s, and everyone knows you had to have been specially selected for this by the KGB.4  Weigel’s point in this column is that since the early 1960s the Vatican has been “infatuated” with the idea of an “entente with Russian Orthodoxy,” and this is little more than a “fool’s errand.”  

In case Rome had not heard and taken to heart Weigel’s comment he returned more pointedly to this theme in a column printed in the CW for 1/5/22 (p.23) entitled ‘Meeting now would harm’. Pope Francis, Weigel writes, should most definitely not meet with Kirill (this because the Pope was wanting to do so, thereby defying Fr de Souza). Kirill is a “blasphemer” for defending the SMO. Again, Weigel lets us know that Kirill “likely” began his ecclesiastical career working for the KGB (it seems that now Weigel qualifies slightly his allegation by the use of ‘likely’). But worse still is that now Kirill is associated with the “lie that has duped too many Catholics,” this being to the effect that Putin is the saviour of civilization against Western decadence. Putin, Weigel tells us, “has the mark of Cain.” (It’s always odd when people use this phrase as the mark was given to Cain by God to protect him from those who would have vengeance on him for his killing Abel (Genesis 4:15). Who knows, perhaps Weigel is warning us that Putin is protected by God – though I suspect the mistake is simply down to ignorance.) Why can’t Rome see this? Asks Weigel. After all, as he writes in another column published in the CW of 22/5/22 (p. 27) titled ‘The corruption of language and of ideas’, no less than President Biden and Nancy Pelosi “have cut through the smog of Putin’s propaganda.” Rome, it seems, should be listening to Biden and Pelosi, both very smart people who happen to be leading the NATO push against Russia (though their promotion of abortion is a little tricky). 

For Weigel, Putin’s is no mere earthly propaganda – by no means! Thus in a column the CW published on 10/4/22 (p.23), entitled ‘Salem and the smoke of Satan’ we are informed that “Satan is not necessary to explain the evil Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine. But that evil has opened more cracks through which the Great Tempter takes advantages of our vulnerabilities.” Thus, Satan uses the “deliriums of conspiracy theorising that befog moral judgment.” Presumably this being the fog that sensible people like Biden and Pelosi have cut through. Weigel is lamenting the way in which too many Catholics think there’s more to the story of Russia in Ukraine than the MSM is letting on.  

Back in the earlier column, the one titled ‘Meeting now would harm’, Weigel criticised the Vatican as it has “remained more a voice of lamentation than a prophetic voice denouncing aggression and naming the aggressor.” What’s more, contrary to what Francis had said, some wars are morally legitimate, and this includes Ukraine’s defence of its transformation which began at the Maidan revolution. A revolution – though Weigel and the CW do not mention this – that was aided and abetted, if not originated from America (as Victoria Nuland the then Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, famously bragged and then handed out muffins to the demonstrators at the Maidan). A revolution which ended in the ousting of the legitimate government of the day, a government which coincidently happened to be veering a little too much to the East and to Russia. 

But enough of Weigel. It might be thought that the CW only runs his column because it is good to have alternative views, but the views of Weigel on all things Ukraine are very much those of the CW, hence the Archbishop and, one suspects, the ACBC if Archbishop Coleridge’s letter is anything to go by. 

Before we expand upon and corroborate the point just touched upon another word of explanation is needed. There is a presence of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Australia, its ecclesiastical centre being in Melbourne (so I am told) but perhaps the more significant parish is in Sydney, to be precise in Lidcombe, this being St Andrews Catholic Ukrainian Church. Since 2019 it has attracted a number of young men whom one might not have expected to attend a Church foreign to their experience. Some have done so for the same reason more traditionally minded Catholics attend, say, Maronite parishes. Others, I suspect, because it has become something of a centre for Australia’s geo-political stance towards Russia, on the religious front that is.  

It is with the foregoing in mind that a piece written by Fr Justin McDonnell who has been based at the Lidcombe church is of interest. His piece appeared in the CW of 6/3/22 (p.13) entitled ‘Spiritual roots of a crisis’. He begins by allowing that church schisms are spiritual divisions and are expressive of the vice of indulgence. However, in the course of his piece he argues that the splitting off of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Moscow Patriarchate is not such an indulgence. Rather, the splitting off was expressive of the same desire seen in the “2014 Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan,” which demonstrated how Ukraine has the desire to “embrace what I would regard as the best European ideals of freedom, of liberty, of dignity, of respect for difference.” Ideals which are opposed by Moscow and the Russian Church. Moscow is not about freedom, but about “crushing” those under its power, and as for the Russian Church it “exists in a kind of hermeneutical loop, a terrarium of [its] own creation,” and this especially since Patriarch Kirill became its head. As for those Orthodox outside of Russia who still recognise the authority of the Russian Church, well now they are in “a kind of marriage made in hell.” Now they are tied to Putin who is a “violent dictator, the last of the soviets,” he is like a “goon” from the “Brezhnev era.” Fr McDonnell sums up the likes of Putin and Kirill as being “dinosaurs and support for them can have no place among us if we wish to call ourselves Catholic Christians.” 

Not to be outdone, the Editorial of the CW for 27/3/22 (p.25), presumably by Peter Rosengren though reflecting the opinion of the Archbishop, wrote that “the Moscow Patriarchate is a stain on the face of Christianity, contributing to the disfigurement of the face of Christ in our time.” 

A later article in the CW of 1/5/22 (p.16) entitled ‘Aussie Theologian remains in Ukraine’ is of especial interest as a kind of companion piece to the above. This is by one Adam Wesselinoff who enjoyed a distinguished career working for the Guardian newspaper in Australia. At one time he entered into the seminary to become a priest under the Roman rite but changed to training for the Catholic Ukrainian rite, and is based at St Andrews in Lidcombe. He has married and become a major reporter for the CW. The article is an interview with a lecturer in theology in the Catholic Ukrainian seminary in Drohobych in Ukraine, a Dr Andrew Quinlan. What is of interest is that he tells us that in 2014 his seminarians went to Kyiv and joined in the Maidan protests. Indeed, they helped to feed the protestors, making sandwiches and coffee. Who knows, perhaps they met Victoria Nuland when she was there handing out muffins. But what is of greater interest is that Dr Quinlan tells us that “The Catholic Church played a key role in supporting civil society actors during the revolution and fostering a new understanding that Ukraine’s Churches, typically State-sympathetic Orthodox jurisdictions, must be with the people.” For, the events of 2014 “began as a debacle over a Ukraine-EU agreement” which “quickly exposed the rot at the heart of Ukrainian politics, leading to the Revolution of Dignity.”  

There is much that could be said of these statements, not least that what is missing is that the so-called Revolution of Dignity brought Ukrainian politics into line with the wishes not just of the EU but of NATO as well, it also led not only to great bloodshed but the division of the country and the rise and rise in power and influence of real-life Nazi admirers. Oh, and it was also attended by sniper fire which killed a number of people. Then there was the burning alive of pro-Russian demonstrators later in Odessa. All of which things, and more besides, Mr Wesselinoff is very well aware and so too Dr Quinlan. But that to one side. What is pertinent for us is that much is made of the role of the Catholic Church of the Ukraine in playing a role in having the Orthodox Church separate itself from its Russian connections. A process that met with success in 2019 in the splitting off from the Moscow Patriarchate.  

In a talk given on 6/3/22 at St Andrews, Lidcombe (reported in the CW of 13/3/22, p.3), Archbishop Anthony Fisher detailed what were the motives informing Russia’s actions. First he observes that since the 1960s there have been “various deadly skirmishes in Europe (and elsewhere) since then but the community of nations signed and has mostly abided by non-aggression pacts.” But Putin doesn’t “regard himself as bound by such undertakings and now Europe is again at war.” This is an odd comment to make and one that appears to forget a rather different history to what he appears to suggest. First, the US has not bound itself to as many international treaties as one might think, not least by reason of what is called by friend and foe ‘American exceptionalism’. For this reason the US has felt itself able to act unilaterally, even ignoring those treaties it has either signed or given the impression it agreed with. Then, of course, there were the bombings of parts of what was once Yugoslavia in the late 1990s by NATO forces. As for the parenthetical reference to “and elsewhere”, one assumes this means countries like Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan (obviously), Yemen, Somalia, and then there’s the American backed forces in Central and South America, and, well it gets a bit tiresome to list these ‘elsewheres’ which, I guess, feature less because they are not ‘Europe,’ though one might have thought Yugoslavia would have been included under ‘Europe’.  

Perhaps reminded of these things the CW of 27/3/22 (pp.18-19) ran a two page spread entitled ‘Wars, Famine, Drought, Floods: curses of our modern world’, reproduced from CNS, the media arm of the American Bishops Conference. The article listed various other trouble spots in the world which we ought not to forget. Among these were Syria, Afghanistan, Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, and Yemen. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the article was that it nowhere mentioned how America (and often other NATO forces) have been complicit in the destruction of these countries. Indeed, noticeable by its absence was even a mention of Libya. Why might that be? I guess even for the CW and CNS Libya was a little bit too embarrassing in light of how NATO’s actions ended up creating a failed state. As for Afghanistan, the absence of America (and Australia for that matter) is astonishing. Not least any reference to the way in which America has been withholding monies in the billions which belong to that country and which could alleviate the poverty and the famine that now threatens. As for Syria, it was due to Russia’s intervention on the side of Assad that prevented that country being taken over by jihadi groups like ISIS.  

To return to the speech at St Andrews by the Archbishop. The Archbishop like many others who hold to the same line as the above sees what is happening as “a clash of worldviews, philosophies, moralities.” That the Maidan Revolution of Dignity “was built upon respect for human life, dignity and freedom,” and it was supported by the Ukrainian people “but also by their Greek Catholic Church.” (He is referring here to the Catholic Ukrainian Church.) Indeed, Putin, he tells us, cannot abide a “responsible and accountable democracy” on “his doorstep” which is what led to his “first invasion of Ukraine” (that is, in 2014). What’s more, in respect of the present second invasion it is motivated by the “independence that Ukrainian Catholics and most Orthodox claim from the Moscow Patriarchate.” In short, the Archbishop recognises what is intimated in the Wesselinoff article, that the Ukrainian Catholic Church has been working to help separate off Ukraine from Moscow and this involves helping and encouraging the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in splitting off from the Russian Orthodox Church. For this reason Putin invaded Ukraine. So it is, that the Sydney Archdiocese and St Andrews Lidcombe plays its small, but perhaps not insignificant role in current geo-politics and a war fuelled by the Church encouraging Ukrainian Orthodox to separate off from the Moscow Patriarchate. Well, to be more precise, by certain groups within the Church for it does not, as far as I know, seem to be the policy of Pope Francis. 

But things are not quite happening in the way they should, and one notices a note of frustration in the things the Archbishop is reported as having said.  

On page 2 of the 6/3/22 edition of the CW, Archbishop Anthony is recorded as saying at St Mary’s Cathedral that it was “with horror that the world was watching” a sovereign democratic country “being overrun by a rapacious imperial power.” Later, on pages 8-9 we have an edited text of his homily, and this is presented with a large photo of demonstrators holding pictures of Putin with bloody hand prints over his face. The Archbishop opines “how deceitful words can be and how empty,” and he adds with some force that, “Many would say this of the recent propaganda of the Russian President and of the huffing and puffing of world leaders.” The reference to the “huffing and puffing of world leaders” evidences the Archbishop’s frustration at the inaction of NATO and the UN. This is made clear in a talk given a couple of weeks later, ‘From the Archbishop’, as recorded in the CW of 27/3/22 (8-9). The Archbishop touched again on the theme of the emptiness of the world’s response when he told a meeting of younger folk how power can be “as rapacious and domineering as the Russian dictatorship invading Ukraine, or as evasive and ineffectual as the UN and NATO looking on.” These sentiments were reflected in an editorial in the CW 6/3/22 which asked how long “will the world allow Putin to have his way?”  

What can the Archbishop and the CW be asking for?  

After all, pundits on either side of the argument agree that if NATO should interfere in an openly military manner with its own troops on the ground and its own planes in the air this could spark WW3, which is to say a nuclear war. Something the Pope has been resolutely trying his best to have the world avoid. Something we all hope all leaders involved are trying their best to avoid. As not a few commentators have noted, things can get out of hand very quickly. Hence, it might not be wise for the pre-eminent cleric of the pre-eminent diocese of the Australian Catholic Church to call for “less huffing and puffing” and more action.  

At the same time it might also be wise for the CW and the Australian Bishops to pull back on the rhetoric and not insult in so offensive a manner Russian Orthodoxy and its Patriarch. It might also be wise for the Ukrainian Catholic Church to consider where it is she is positioning herself for what might follow. One might also think it wise for Australian Bishops to counsel prudence in this regard. It is easy to be in “solidarity” with fellow Catholics in Ukraine when, really, if things get bad they are not going to suffer the results of their belligerent and insulting jibes against Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church. Given that the CW tells us that Putin is evil and a man who has little concern for human life and freedom, or for truth or for goodness, then is it really wise to provoke him by publicly boasting that the Ukrainian Catholic Church has been in the forefront of dividing off the Orthodox from Russia? If Putin is such a malignant even demonic force then might there not be reprisals?  

If there is payback from Moscow directed at the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and if ecumenical relations between the Russian Church and Rome are set back years and this results in the persecution of Russian Catholics (for yes there are Catholics in Russia), then the Australian Bishops, especially Archbishops Anthony Fisher and Mark Coleridge might reflect a bit on their responsibility. St Andrews Lidcombe might pride itself on future martyrs in Ukraine but, it is hoped, those like Fr Justin McDonnell, might ask themselves if they contributed in some small way to these members of the faithful having become martyrs. More seriously, if there is a thermonuclear war and a part of that reason – maybe a very small part, but a part nevertheless – is that the Church has encouraged the Australian government in turn to encourage NATO to attack Russia, well is this really what any Christian would want to be remembered for? 

The Archbishop said in the homily noted above, “how deceitful words can be and how empty,” which is of course true, but we know in Catholic moral theology that the deliberate exclusion of what ought to be included, both in respect of deeds and words, can be as sinful and deceitful as what we do include. For this reason I would suggest that at the very least some acknowledgement be made, some information given, to the effect that there is a history behind Putin’s actions, indeed behind Kirill’s support of the SMO (though he does do so with regret). Whether one agrees or not with the idea that this history justifies Russia’ actions is a matter of sincere debate. There might also be a little more honest presentation of what Pope Francis has done and said. And here I want to finish by referencing something I alluded to earlier. 

I noted above that the CW has not mentioned anything of the history leading up to the SMO which might mitigate to some small degree Putin’s actions. But I did say there was one occasion that they did report something along these lines, albeit buried in a small side column. In the CW of 15/5/22 (p. 21) entitled ‘I want to meet Putin, says Pope’ in, as I said, a marginal side column we first of all read how the Pope is reported as having said to Kirill that he shouldn’t become “Putin’s altar boy.” Only it is what comes after this derogatory comment. If people read a little further then they will find that the “Pope suggested that Western leaders bear some responsibility for the war in Ukraine, saying that ‘NATO’s barking at Russia’s door’ had prompted Putin to ‘react badly and unleash the conflict.” Perhaps a full reporting on these remarks in the body of the magazine not to the side, might have helped. But I guess these remarks by the Pope don’t quite fit with the mainstream media narrative nor with that of the Australian and it seems the American Bishops. 

All told, it appears that the geo-politics of NATO have dictated to theology, rather than the other way round. I for one am not too sure that is a good thing. 


(1) Though the matter cannot be entered into here there is, in fact, something of a crossover between the MSM and The Catholic Weekly. In particular with The Australian. One pertinent example is The Catholic Weekly reprinting an article from The Weekend Australian in the edition of 20/3/22 (pp.14-15) entitled ‘The Faith at the Heart of Ukraine’s Heroic Resistance’. The article is by Angela Shanahan and she writes how many on the West “have been very confused, even shocked, to see Putin himself and Russians from oligarchs to opposition leaders participating in Orthodox rituals and making the sign of the Cross.” Why shocked? Because the fact is the Moscow Patriarchate was a tool of the Soviet regime and now it is being used to prop up Russian nationalism. Shanahan clearly knows a thing or two about Christianity, is something of a theologian, and thinks fit to demand that certain people ought not to be allowed to make the sign of the Cross! Anyway, she tells us that this is why Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine is “turning to the West, as is the country itself.” The need is to “transition to a more open and tolerant society,” hence the desire to join the EU. A society in which people will be allowed to make the sign of the Cross. What’s more, Shanahan tells us, religion is “part of the push by Ukraine to get out from under Moscow’s thumb.” The relevance of this last remark will become a little clearer in the course of this present essay.

(2) In The Catholic Weekly of 13/3/22, in a side column (p.15), we are told that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has told CNN Turkey that “the whole world is against Russia.” That this is a “new period of the Cold War,” and this is widening the distance between Russia and the Western world. So NATO and the EU will be happy, I guess.

(3) On Weigel and his neo-con positioning, see Eric Sammons ‘The Dangerous Weigel Script’ in Crisis 17/5/22. What is of interest here is that Crisis was also one of the leading lights in the anti-Francis campaign. Another falling out over events in Ukraine can be seen in Weigel’s column published in the CW of 20/3/22 (p.27) entitled ‘Prelates’ gone off the planet’. This has to do with Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, once a leading light in the anti-Francis campaign and a prelate whom Weigel extolled to the skies. The problem now being that Viganò had published a declaration (‘Declaration of Msgr.  Carlo Maria Viganò on the Russia-Ukraine Crisis’ March 6, 2022) defending Russia’s actions and that in a lengthy well-argued piece. Weigel is of the opinion that someone else wrote it for him, an opinion I tend to share as it is far better argued than Viganò’s rants against Pope Francis. As might be expected Weigel resorts to the go-to response to any systematic argument that takes issue with the MSM narrative and says Viganò is just voicing Kremlin propaganda. If this means that the anti-Francis movement is further splintering then at least something good has come from this whole debacle. On this point another article in Crisis is significant. Published on 18/4/22 by Jerry Salyer and entitled ‘The ignored views of Cardinal Sarah on Russia and the West’, it relates what Cardinal Sarah had to say in his interview-book The Day is Now Far Spent (Ignatius Books, 2019). In his book, and quoted by Jerry Salyer, Cardinal Sarah said this: there is a “deep hatred on the part of the post-Christian elites of the West, not only vis-à-vis Russia, but also against the Russian Orthodox Church and, by extension, against Orthodox Christianity itself. The overtly political attack that aims to pit Ukraine against the Russian Orthodox Church.” Sarah later added (again quoted by Salyer) that the “West seems happy to see its churches turned into gymnasiums, its Romanesque chapels fall into ruin, its religious patrimony threatened by a total descralization. Russia, on the contrary, is spending considerable sums to restore the treasures of Orthodoxy.” The funny thing is that on the back cover of Sarah’s book there are a number of praises for the book, one of which is by none other than George Weigel! Could it be that Weigel was himself taken in by Putin’s propaganda? Given that at the time he was gloating over the Ukrainian Orthodox split with the Moscow Patriarchate this seems unlikely. It probably means that Weigel didn’t actually read the book, though perhaps he did and fell asleep in the parts just quoted.

(4) The editorial in the CW of 6/3/22 (p.21), presumably by Peter Rosengren, engages in a little bit of what might be called historical revisionism when it says that the Soviets were so hated at the time of the 2WW that it was “little wonder that when Nazi Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941, Ukrainians welcomed them initially with flowers,” only to discover that the Nazis thought them inferior. The implication being the Ukrainians then kept themselves aloof from the Nazi forces. Is that right? One might argue that point, and yet allow that many Ukrainians fought alongside the Nazis in the invasion of Russia, and that Ukraine does not have, let us say, the brightest reputation in respect of engagement in the Holocaust. Indeed, Ukraine since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before the rise of the Soviet Union, had a rather nasty recent history of pogroms. It is for this reason that not a few critics (including at one time those who wrote for the MSM) were worried by the presence of openly Nazi sympathetic militias fighting for Ukraine, indeed coming to have a rather important presence in the Ukrainian military. But the editor is concerned with more important things. He goes on to write that Putin is “an exceptionally dangerous and corrupt former KGB officer determined to reimpose Russian tyranny.” The editor then asks plaintively, “Will the world allow Putin to have his way?” As for Catholics, they cannot “adopt the Western model of indifference.” Presumably this means Catholics in general should follow the lead of the CW and call for a more proactive response by NATO (and the UN) so that Putin will not “have his way.”