Weigel: “Many in the West would prefer if Russia returned to the forests from which it once emerged”

Published March 5, 2024


George Weigel previously publicly called the Russian Orthodox Church to stop spreading lies about the UGCC, and in the early days of the invasion in 2022 was one of the first to openly state that genocide was the goal of Russia’s war on Ukraine. In this exclusive interview with CREDO he reveals his own perception of misunderstandings between Ukraine and the West and addresses problems with Vatican policy and the vulnerability of the Western public to Russian propaganda.

After ten years of limited and two years of full-scale war in Europe it appears both the wider West and the Catholic Church have lost understanding of war as a theological and anthropological phenomenon. The expressed statements on the topic often resemble childish wishful thinking rather than serious estimation of the matter. Do you think the Vatican has effectively abandoned the millenia-old Catholic doctrine on just war? Is it somehow “no longer possible” to rationally determine whether a given war is a just one? 

— “The Vatican” is a complex entity, so it’s hard to say what “the Vatican” is thinking. It is certainly the case that prominent Catholic officials at the very highest levels of the Holy See do not demonstrate much understanding of what the just war tradition is, or why it remains eminently useful as a toll of moral analysis today. But it should be understood that the Catholic Church cannot abandon the just war tradition because that tradition is rooted in both revelation and reason and is the permanently valid method of moral analysis that Catholics should use in thinking through issues of war and peace. As for the claim that some make, i.e., that it is not possible to determine rationally whether a given use of military force is justified, that is nonsense. Anyone who imagines or suggests that Ukraine’s self-defense cannot be rationally justified on moral grounds is a moral idiot.

Two other points must be made, given comments one hears from Rome:

1. It is simply not true, as an empirical matter, that weapons or arms manufacturers “cause” wars. This is particularly true in Ukraine. Putin made his reasons for invading Ukraine quite clear, publicly, a few days before the invasion. 

2. It is also not true, as a matter of historical fact, that war never solves anything. If that were the case, Italy today would be a German colony.

— Is it due to the imperialist past or the trauma of two world wars that the West now tends to always see both parties to any war as equally guilty in some way? Are we incapable of discerning a conflict between imperialist powers from one between a clear aggressor and victim?

— No, I think it’s because of a collapse of reason, including moral reason, in Western elite culture, and the deterioration of politics into a kind of performance art. Then there are the effects of massive Russian propaganda and disinformation: these have penetrated far more into western consciousness than ought to have been the case. What is perhaps different now is that what Lenin used to call “useful idiots” are now found on the political right, where they were once primarily located on the political left. The odious Tucker Carlson is a good example of this shift of useful idiocy’s “location” on the political/ideological map.

— Vatican has notably adopted a stubbornly pacifist stance. However, it seems this stance also includes no real plan, lots of wishful thinking and moralizing posturing with a significant disconnect from reality. Cardinal Parolin has recently been horrified by some Western nations contemplating ground troops to aid Ukraine: is he equally horrified with Ukraine defending itself instead of a “bloodless” surrender?

— Whatever “the Vatican’s” stance is – and it seems to vary from day to day, depending on who is speaking – it isn’t pacifism so much as a limp, lame liberal internationalism married to a fideistic conviction that “dialogue” is the answer to every human problem, including geopolitical problems. I would also say that there is something in the Vatican Secretariat of State’s institutional DNA that blocks a clear understanding of the distinctive character of totalitarian regimes. This is true of current Vatican approaches to China, Nicaragua, amid Venezuela, as well as to Russia. It is long past time for a thorough reexamination of the premises on which Vatican diplomacy engages the world.

— One of Pope Francis’s favoured topics regarding the Russo-Ukrainian war is “arms trading”, which, he says, is both evil in general and particularly somehow one of the causes for this war. Are we (or, indeed, any victim of aggression) to defend ourselves with sticks and stones?

— In the United States and Great Britain in the 1930s, the notion that the “merchants of death” – arms manufacturers — “caused” World War I became quite prominent in public life. The Pope, I’m afraid to say, seems not to have learned anything from the falsification of the ”merchants of death” theory of causation by several generations of historians and political analysts.

— What is the cause, ultimately, of the lasting Western obsession with Russia? It seems Russia will always be excused for anything on account of its “great culture”. Are Tolstoy or Shostakovich a sort of indulgence for anything?

— Personally, I prefer Rachmaninoff to Shostakovich, but I take your point! Ever since the Maidan Revolution of Dignity, I have been writing that Russia is a deeply wounded political culture that has been living for centuries from a false historical narrative – that Russia is the sole heir of the baptism of the eastern Slavs. That narrative is one deep root of Russian imperialism. Westerners know very little of all this; foreign policy elites think religion has no impact on world affairs these days; and so we get incomprehension married to a fear of Russian nuclear weapons. As a matter of fact, though, I don’t think the West is obsessed with Russia; I think much of the West would prefer that Russia simply return to the forests from which it once emerged. But that isn’t going to happen.

— What do you think of Western obsession with the “good” Russia? Fawning over late liberal imperialist Navalny, including weird “icon” by James Martin SJ portraying him as a martyr? Insistence on the war somehow being “Putin’s war”, despite the screaming fact it is supported, applauded and waged by a significant majority of Russians under his command?

— I admired Mr. Navalny, who was a very brave man. Had he been in charge in Russia, there would have been no war on Ukraine – or Georgia or Moldova, for that matter.

— More specifically, what is the reason for this lasting perception of russia as a Christian conservative bastion despite obvious falsehood of this claim (Russia is noted for rampant divorce and abortion on demand, low church attendance, low belief in God etc)? 

— I’m afraid there are a lot of people, many of them quite ignorant, who are very susceptible to Russian propaganda. Putin is no more a defender of Christian civilization than Adolf Hitler or Genghis Kahn.

— Does the West realise the Russian Orthodox church has effectively been a state apparatus since abolishment of patriarchy and forced “synodalization” by czar Peter I? That after eventual destruction by communists it was reconstituted by Stalin as a KGB-run institution, and continues to be just that? Is this taken into account by ecumenists and dialogue fanatics of all sorts?

— I have been trying to explain this for over three decades. It seems to me quite clear that Patriarch Kirill is a blasphemer. But too many people are unwilling to face that – although I think Cardinal Koch, the head of the ecumenical office in Rome, has finally understood.

— Tens of ukrainian priests murdered or missing, including Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic, yet no Orthodox priests murdered by Ukraine – why is the West silent while peddling the bogus “Orthodox persecution by Ukraine” topic pushed by Moscow?

— I frankly don’t hear very much of this.

— To us it is clear there is also a lasting obsession with the “fratricidal war” and “brother nations” narrative (despite the whole “brother nations” concept invented by communists) in the Vatican: why do they persist, despite the Ukrainian Catholic Church being clear (in multiple statements, both public and non-public) it is both offensive, unproductive, and ungrounded in reality?

— You would have to ask the relevant people in the Vatican why they insist on misperceiving the reality of the situation. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has bled for Rome for centuries; it deserves better than what it has gotten in the past two years.

— How is it that since 2014 and especially 2022, there have been virtually no attempts by Western conservative media to contact Ukrainian conservatives and hear what they have to say?

— A friend of mine used to say, in what he called his variant of Ockham’s Razor, “When stupidity is a sufficient explanation, don’t look for a more complicated one.” However, I don’t think it’s true that western conservative media have been universally duped by Putin. The most prominent conservative magazines in the United States (National Review) and Great Britain (The Spectator) have been staunch advocates for Ukraine; so has the Wall Street Journal, the best newspaper in the Anglosphere.

— Previously Ukrainian conservatives felt Western conservatives including Carlson, Peterson et al to be their allies regarding pro-life and gender positions. Do US conservatives realise Ukrainian conservatives now feel stabbed in the back by their stance toward Russia and the war? How can we carry this thought to them? 

— I wouldn’t waste my time on Carlson, who is a self-serving hack. As for Peterson, I don’t know what his problem is, but I’ve never been as impressed with him as others have been. Perhaps we should get him together with Archbishop Gudziak!

— The Western reporting on the Fiducia controversy featured little to no reporting on strong Ukrainian reactions perhaps further contributing to the Western ignorance of the real Ukrainian society. What can we do to improve reach?

— I think the U.S. Catholic press made it clear that the UGCC took a very firm (and in my view, correct) position on Fiducia Supplicans.

— Do you have any idea of what the mood in Vatican is regarding Ukraine, in light of the war, disappointment with Vatican policy, reactions to Fiducia, recent inviting of dissident Cardinal Mueller to Lviv by Ukrainian bishops?

— No, I don’t.

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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