A Papal Silence Would Be Welcome at Times

A religious leader should be very careful about spreading his thinking too thin; a pope is not an omniscient source of opinions about everything.

In an off-the-cuff remark to some young Russian Catholics, in which he encouraged them to appreciate their national culture, Pope Francis praised Czar Peter the Great and Empress Catherine the Great for the great imperial culture they promoted for the Russian Empire.

There was some pushback about the remarks. The Ukrainians under siege by a Russian army didn’t care for the whole “imperial” shout-out. They are aware that President Putin also admires the two historical figures and what they did for the Russian people, and that doesn’t go over well with a country fighting off invaders.

Inevitably, there was some backtracking. The official Vatican version of the pope’s talk didn’t include the remark about the two “greats.” The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, said that no one could ever reasonably accuse Pope Francis of being in favor of imperialism. Because, well, because he doesn’t even like imperialism. There have been a series of “explanations,” including the Holy Father’s own, given in answer to a question in the inevitable press conference on his plane coming back from Mongolia.

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It was not the pope’s fault that Ukrainians and others were offended by his holding up the two tyrants, Peter I and Catherine II. On the plane, he explained: “What came to mind is what they taught us in school. Peter I and Catherine II. Perhaps, it was not correct. I don’t know. But this is what historians told us.”

Perhaps the pope is correct in blaming the teachers he had as a schoolboy. I say schoolboy because of his phrase, “they taught us in school.” That does not sound like a critique of higher education, although later he switches from teachers to “historians.” Perhaps, said the pope, that was not correct. That sort of statement implies the doubt that maybe they were right and the pope’s critics are the ones who are wrong here.

I expect the teachers never told the future pope that Peter the Great liked to throw parties for some friends who called themselves “The Jolly Company.” Regular drinking parties were held that were jokingly called the Drunken Synod. Historian Robert Massie said that these banquets developed from drinking bouts to “more organized buffoonery and masquerades.” 

These included role-playing with a fake Polish king and other royal figures. “But,” continues Massie, “Peter’s parody of temporal power was mild compared to the bizarre mockery he and his comrades appeared to make of the church.” There was a mock “Prince-Pope” and his coterie of cardinals. The mock pope was dragged through Moscow during Christmastide on a sleigh pulled by 12 bald men. A similar procession was staged for Lent. 

As a result of these “games,” some Russians of a more conservative stripe became convinced that Peter was the Anti-Christ, and “they waited eagerly for a bolt from heaven that would strike down the blasphemer.” 

Peter has not been regarded by all historians as a paragon, although he is recognized as a very powerful ruler who set the course of Russian history for centuries. Massie, who wrote a 900-page biography of him, concluded, “He has been idealized, condemned, analyzed again and again, and still, like the broader issues of the nature and future of Russia itself, he remains essentially mysterious.” 

It is interesting to note that “although” Czar Peter “tolerated a wide variety of religious worship in Russia, there was one Christian order which he disliked: the Jesuits.” Massie says that Peter gave permission for Catholic priests to come to the only Catholic church in St. Petersburg “insisting only that they not be Jesuits.”

Empress Catherine the Great had a better rapport with the Jesuits. To frustrate the pope’s suppression of the Jesuits, the czarina did not permit the publication of the brief from the Holy See in what was called “White Russia,” most of which was acquired when Catherine engineered the partition of Poland. The Society of Jesus survived the papal suppression with the protection of the Russian autocracy.

Otherwise, Catherine wasn’t such a friend of the Church. A German Protestant princess, her claim to the throne came through her marriage to Peter III and her keeping the crown to serious intrigue. More European than most Russians, she was a patroness of Diderot, the famed French Encyclopedist who is said to have written, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” 

She was also a friend of Voltaire and an enemy of the Catholic Church in Poland. She brutally suppressed a Catholic revolt in that country. A Jesuit historian called her a “nominal Christian.” She had foisted an ex-lover onto Poland’s throne but eventually promoted the partition of the country into three sections, under Prussian, Austrian, and Russian domination. Perhaps the pope’s history teachers did not go into detail about the alarming private life of the autocrat.

The pope’s fondness for Dostoyevsky came up in his explanation of the imperial allusion. I think the Russian writer might have been surprised to be juxtaposed with the two Enlightened Despots. It is clear that the pope is uncomfortable criticizing Putin, however. Sometimes I think he has harsher words to say about EWTN and conservative American Catholics, but let that go for now. The pope’s fondness for Dostoyevsky came up in his explanation of the imperial allusion. I think the Russian writer might have been surprised to be juxtaposed with the two Enlightened Despots.Tweet This

The Ukrainian hierarchy supposedly spoke “frankly” to the Holy Father about his perceived pro-Russian bias. I have sympathy with Pope Francis’ role in promoting a negotiated settlement of the war between Russia and Ukraine. I even understand why he thinks there was provocation of the despicable Russian invasion. The incorporation of the Ukraine into NATO is certainly a problem. 

If Mexico or Canada decided to join a historic alliance that was founded to limit the power and influence of the United States, I suppose we could have more sympathy for Russia’s despotic heir to Peter and Catherine. The pope seems to be a needed neutral voice in favor of negotiation, while the West wants some kind of humiliation for Russia. That that humiliation would be a potential disaster seems to be ignored by all the “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” crowd, and that is dangerous.

Nevertheless, I cannot help saying that it would be a welcome change if we were spared some of the obiter dicta of the Holy Father. His plane press conferences and his table talk with the Jesuits in whatever country he visits inevitably cause consternation. “Loose lips sink ships” was a phrase my mother used frequently. We don’t have to know anybody’s every waking thought. Every day, there is an avalanche of data to process, thoughts to think through. 

A religious leader should be very careful about spreading his thinking too thin. You can have too much of a good thing (just like the opposite). A pope is not the Wikipedia, an omniscient source of opinions about everything (and neither is Wikipedia). I feel so much of the pope’s casual talk represents reactions to perceived criticisms or are even responses provoked by people who bear grudges against groups or individuals. 

The figure of the pope should be more reserved. No one can think while living on stage all the time. Sometimes less is more, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe insisted. Jesus Himself took the apostles apart from the crowds. The press machine around the Holy Father should be told to chill. We need leaders who think on their knees, not on their feet. 

[Image Credit: Getty Images]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

tagged as: Church Pope Francis

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