Catholic Church, Italy, War in Ukraine [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Giulio Ercolessi, an Italian journalist, writer, essayist, a former president of the European Humanist Federation, and a former member of the Board of Directors of the European Liberal Forum (ELF). They talk about the Catholic Church and the Pope in the context of the socio-political situation in Italy and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Leszek Jażdżewski: Let us start with the current Vatican stand on the war in Ukraine. We have seen some controversial statements from Pope Francis regarding the fact that everyone is to blame. Why is the Vatican so hesitant to call the aggressor ‘the aggressor’ and the victim ‘the victim’?

Giulio Ercolessi
Giulio Ercolessi

Giulio Ercolessi: First of all, there is quite a practical reason for this stance, because the Catholic Church wanted to offer itself as a mediator. Of course, they cannot play such a role because they have no agency over the situation in Ukraine, as the Catholics in Ukraine are just a minority. Now they face a very difficult situation with the Russian Orthodox Church, much more than with other Orthodox Churches, beginning with that in Constantinople (as they still refer to it).

This was a practical reason. In order to be accepted as a mediator at the beginning of this war, they did not want to directly blame Russia. But there is another more profound reason for this situation. Throughout the decades, the Catholic Church has developed a very strong pacifist attitude.

Such a stance, however, is characteristic not only of the Catholic Church. If you remember Bertrand Russel who had been a conscientious objector in World War I and went to jail because of this, he later became the supporter of the war against Germany in World War II. After the war, in the face of the nuclear threat, he became a total pacifist. He was one of the people who established an international pacifist network, because he believed that the war has worse consequences than any potential results. This was an attitude that was very popular in the 1980s and 1990s, when people said “better red than dead”.

Now, in Italy, there is a number of former leftists and extreme leftists who say that the Pope is the only leader that we have in the left in the country. This is because they had developed an utterly pacifist non-violent attitude, which has caused them to refrain from any possible use of arms, even in self-defence.

This attitude is new in the Catholic Church. The first elect that you can call a pacifist in the Catholic Church was Erasmus from Rotterdam – there was nothing like that before, and almost nothing like that afterwards. There has been very strong development of this attitude in the last century, and everybody now remembers the attitude of Pope Benedict XV during World War I. However, mind you, only in the third year of war, 1917, he said that it was a useless slaughter. And now you have a lot of historians who say that he was the only one who discovered the real meaning of World War I.


This was just three years after the Great War had broken out. And just a few years before, in 1911, when the short war between Italy and Turkey broke out, when the Italian state conquered Libya. There was a sort of embarrassing enthusiasm from the Catholics because they saw it as an opportunity to evangelize a country of a Muslim origin. At that time, the Vatican Secretary of State issued a statement, according to which the war was an utterly political affair and, therefore, the Vatican and the Catholic religion was to remain neutral on the matter.

This means that until 1911 this sort of attitude excluding any kind of war was outside the cultural horizon of the Catholic Church. In fact, the theory of war itself has been existing until very few years ago in the mainstream thinking of the Catholic Church. It was just during the World War I that this idea started to develop.

It was very embarrassing for the Catholic Church having catholic countries fighting against each other. There was, on the one hand, Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was almost entirely Catholic, and, on the other hand, the French, the Italians, the Belgians, and the Bavarians in Germany – these groups were also Catholics. Therefore, it posed a big problem for the Catholic Church – having military chaplains playing on each side of the front as if God was with their own army. By the way, in Italy, it was not the first situation when the priests were somehow associated with the Italian state, which was born against the will of the Vatican.

Therefore, this sort of an attitude went on during the years and, for example, at the 1938 Munich Conference, the Vatican, I think it was the Pope himself, said that the result of the Conference had been a gift for the humanity, because it helped avoid a new world war at the time.

The reference to the Munich Conference is really interesting today, because I frankly do not know what my attitude could have been in 1938. Only 20 years had passed since the end of that horrible slaughter that was the Great War, so I can very well understand the attitude of the French and the British, who wanted to do whatever was necessary to avoid the history repeating itself.

This means that we should use history to help us not to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past. I, personally, would have been somewhat uncertain as regards the appeasement policies of the West towards the Nazi Germany in the 1930s, because I know to what consequences it led. Nowadays, we should be very careful not to fall into similar traps and understand that dictators are willing to stop only when they are made to stop.

No liberal political family has any doubts in terms of how necessary it is to support the Ukrainians today with any means necessary. But for the Catholic Church it is totally different – and particularly for the current Pope. He is the first pope who does not come from a properly western country. He does not see the world divided between the West and the East, but rather between the North and the South.

He is the offspring of the so-called ‘liberation teology,’ which tried not to mix the Christianity with Marxism, but at the same time was very much in favor of a lot of policies that were shared by Marxists or strongly socialist parties at the time. He is also said not to have done much to help the Jesuits who were persecuted by the Argentinian dictatorship.

In this light, he behaved in a way that is very similar to the actions of Pius XII toward the Jews in that period. It was much more diplomatic than acting on the basis of the ethics of conviction, to use this distinction from Max Weber, in this affair now. The ethics of conviction is a kind of attitude in which you do what you think is right, no matter the consequences, because the consequences are the matter for God to decide on.

Contrary to the Max Weber’s idea, the ethics of responsibility state that you have to act in a way that you should consider the consequences of your actions. Now, the religious ethics is more easily associated with the ethics of conviction, as is the case in Islam. They do what they think it is right and it is up to God to decide the consequences of their actions. In the Western civilization, we are more implied to use the ethics of responsibility. It is what we do that has a direct consideration of what the consequences of our actions are.

From our point of view, we have a completely different attitude also because the Pope will never be called to answer for the consequences of his actions. When the Pope was also a king, he had to behave on the basis of the ethics of responsibility. Now, it is no longer the case, now that as far as for example the policies of the Church inside the different countries, even in Italy, stems the time of his predecessor Pope Ratzinger, has been that the national episcopate conference has to decide on the policies of the church inside the state, which was a rule almost everywhere in the world but in Italy until Ratzinger changed it and Ratzinger decided that also in Italy it could have been the episcopate conference to decide on matters related to Italian interior affairs, such as the laws that have to be introduced, for example of euthanasia or abortion and so on. Whereas I remember that in year 2000, the year of the catholic jubilee, you had Pope John Paul II that had decided that the world pride that was organized in that year in Rome was very hard offense to the Catholic Church, and he did it to himself.

Now, in theory, the practical things that relate to each single country are a matter of competence of episcopate conferences, and the central administration of the Church and the Pope himself only deal with principles and with the diplomatic positions of the church. But they don’t grasp that many of these statements that they take only on the basis of the ethics of convictions have horrible consequences in terms of responsibility of consequences of their actions. Even more so, if you consider that for example in the Italian debate that today we can see every day on the Italian television, there is a lot, on the one hand, of the former leftists, and, on the other hand, those populists that have received a lot of money from Putin’s regime in the last years, beginning with the North and the former North and another lead of Salvini and similar movements that have suddenly become pacifists.

Salvini was the one who always advocated for the freedom of carrying weapons for self-defence. He was the one who said that whatever happens… If you are the victim of any aggression, you should have unlimited possibility to respond by shooting any aggressor even if it was obviously not so dangerous as one could imagine. And now suddenly he has become a pacifist and like him a lot of those who had very good relationship with Putin.

By the way, I remember that a few years ago I took part in a regional parliament to celebrate the Europe Day. I made a comparison on the new kind of illiberal democracies. I remember that I said that Putin is a representative of this idea and there was an indignant reaction from all the right wing at that time and a very conscious silence from the central left because they said that we could not put Putin on the same level as Islamic dictators.

That was the attitude until just a few years ago, so they are extremely embarrassed now. Salvini was the one who wanted to wear a t-shirt with Putin with a military helmet on his head. Now, of course, it indeed poses a real problem for his movement. However, this attitude has somehow survived and, of course, it suddenly assumed the form of utter pacifism. This has also been the case of the Pope, as result of Pope’s policies in today’s Italy.

Unfortunately, this attitude has been somewhat successful. Just yesterday, a poll revealed that a tiny majority of Italians supports the idea of sending troops to Ukraine because they want the war to end as soon as possible no matter the consequences. This is the same attitude that most Europeans had in 1938 at the time of the Munich Conference. When Daladier came home, he saw from his aircraft enormous crowds that were waiting for him at the airport in Paris. He thought that he was about to get lynched. On the contrary, the masses wanted to thank him for the outcome of the Munich Conference.

For Putin Donbas is exactly what the Sudetenland was for Hitler. He had hoped that Ukraine would have gone the same way as Anschluss in Austria – with people giving flowers to the troops. In reality, his invasion of Ukraine had been more like the invasion on Czechoslovakia. In his mind, Moldavia could possibly be something like the Memelland, which he conquered in spring 1939. And I think he will not stop unless we stop him now.

But for the Pope it is something unacceptable because it is based on the ethics of responsibility, whereas he says that what the consequences are is a matter for God to decide and not for us.

LJ: I think that in this case, what is important is that the Italian situation is aligned with the moral cause of supporting the victim against the aggressor. Perhaps this is the reason why the response from the free world, at least the Western world, was so strong. At the same time, the is almost no support for Ukraine from other countries (South America, Brazil, India, or even South Africa), which are unwilling to commit to help Ukraine. In Italy, it seems that influential people in the media are either criticizing the United States or trying not to take sides. Perhaps this is the explanation why Italians are so divided in this issue? Is it because of this kind of old U.S.-related  prejudice that it is the only country that makes imperialistic wars and Russia cannot because it is the former antifascist but socialist/communist country? Or do you see some other reasons?

GE: It is not so much the attitude toward Russia, as much as a very critical attitude toward Western values. It is very difficult for many people (both in the former leftist groups and in the left wing of Catholics) to appreciate what the West is doing and what the Western values are. We observe a kind of villainization of the West due to consumerism and capitalism.

There is more to this than merely a positive attitude toward Russia. Of course, it can be somewhat true in the case of the elderly who had some sympathy for Russia until it was a communist country. However, you have to be a senior citizen nowadays to have this kind of attitude.

There are two different ways to be critical of our countries. One is to criticize them on the basis of the Western values, and another one is being critical because you do not want free individualistic society. Individualistic is a key word from this point of view because it has always been the common ground for socialists, the Catholics, and the fascists. The idea that freedom of the individual is wrong has always been quite easy to mix with a very strong attitude toward an idea that equality is more important than liberty.

For example, during the times of Pope Leo XIII, in a matter of two years there appeared the libertas encyclical, which was the most severe rejection of liberal principles. And just a year after that, in 1888, Libertas, and, in 1891, the Rerum Novarum. It was the encyclical in which the Pope for the first time elaborated the social theory, a social doctrine of the Catholic Church.

If we also consider the fascist side, there has always been some sort of diffidence from the side of very strong nationalists in Italy against those who killed the Italian state in the 19th century. They said they were not real patriots, they just wanted to enforce the individualistic and liberal principles in Italy. And they saw that the way to do that was fighting for a unified and independent Italy, hence it was the only reason they did it.

That was the attitude that had led to fascism after World War I. It was a ground where one could always find convergence between these three main attitudes – more than the political cultures that have always lived in the minds of Italians who were either nostalgic of fascism or strongly Catholic. But those who really were Catholics, in a strong integralist way, had this anti-individualistic, antiliberal attitude in common with the communists.

This is why, cunningly, the communist party in Italy had never been anti-religious. Since the end of World War II, they had always tried to find some common ground and so they were in favor of all the possible ways of finding conciliation between communism and Catholicism. The liberation teology has more socialist and Marxist tendency, which is why Leonardo Boff in Brazil was popular. I think in no other country it was so popular as in Italy. We had a liberal democracy after World War II basically because the Americans won in Italy, but also because all those who killed the new political system did not want to repeat what happened during the fascist period.

Therefore, for this practical reason, Italy had a more or less liberal constitution, liberal democracy etc. But the communists feared the Christian democrats and the fact that they were backed by Americans. All those who were not communists were afraid of the communists. Many people feared that inside the structures of the state there were a lot of fascists.

Having a liberal state, at the time, was much more an insurance against one group being the victim of the other, rather than a mature alignment with the liberal principles. Step by step, of course, liberal principles became accepted as a backbone of the Italian politics, but it was not adopted as well as it was in the case of Germany after 1969.

After 1969, Germans decided that they had to face the German experience in the 1930s and  during World War II. There was a national rethinking of what their nation should be. Italy never had something like that, because, according to the former ideology, Italy was oppressed by fascists for 20 years, and, as soon as it was possible, Italians resisted the fascist regime.

The resistance movement was not a mass movement, but it was just a matter of a strong minority. Inside of that strong minority, there were a lot of communists who wanted a different kind of totalitarian regime at the time. Even the communist party had a very remarkable revolution since the mid-1970s until the end of communism.

LJ: I would like to ask you how you see the liberal values being reshaped or renewed? Do you think that this is the call of rejuvenation of the very basic liberal principles? Or do you think it could be much more complicated? Do you think that something of a kind of the former Cold War alliance or a new kind of alliance might emerge? Or do you think in some countries in western Europe the very basic principles of freedom might find more support than the other issues that we were discussing? Or do you think that basically we are coming back to some kind of old discourse that we had before with exception of some peripheral eastern countries?

GE: I think that the Soviet Union and its system was the key reason for the need to bring about a Western liberal attitude during the Cold War. The example that we had from the Soviet Union was the one against which, even in Italy, we built societies that had to be totally different from what we have seen. Kennedy speaking in Berlin was the obvious example for this phenomenon. Throughout the years, people wanted to make sense of it all.

Recently, there had been a less obvious difference between liberal democracy and dictatorship. We have seen illiberal regimes emerge, which accept the majority principle, on the one hand, and which had Italian structures of the former government, on the other hand. I hope the war in Ukraine will not last very long, but it became clear that the shock that it caused could be a way for all of us to go back to our principles.

I think the cultural consequences of the current situation make me, paradoxically, less pessimistic than I was before. Provided that next year, or in a couple of years, we do not lose America again – as this might become a huge problem. As long as there is a democratic president and administration in the United States, building a common Western identity as a living alliance would be possible.

If we had another Trump as a president in a couple of years in the United States, it would be a totally different story. At that point, we would be left alone in the world, because it is difficult to be the only surviving liberal democracy that is attached to liberal principles. Even without a working political system (and, so far, in Europe we do not have a fully working political system) we do have something between an international organization and a quasi state in the EU. This, however, is not enough to form a European society.

Unless there is also an American pillar of the West, we shall no longer have a guarantee that theUnited States, a fully liberal democracy, will remain our long-term ally. What happened during the Trumpian era could happen again. And it is a big problem because the way we select our political leadership is less and less consistent with the survival of liberal democracy. Instead, we observe a segmentation of the public arena, which is typical of today. Here, we are talking about the reduction of political debate to mere advertising.

Authoritarian populists – both on the right and the left of the political spectrum  – skillfully use this situation, which poses a significant challenge to our societies. Paradoxically, the shock brought about by the war in Ukraine is a development that could once again provide a sense of building a society that is totally different from the authoritarian regimes – or the societies where the boundaries between the liberal democracies and authoritarian attitudes are no longer as clear as they were in the past decades. 

The podcast was recorded on May 23, 2022.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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