Ukraine: A great lesson in thinking like a Catholic.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 27, 2015

The current competition for sovereignty in Ukraine is apt to bring out the worst in armchair quarterbacks. I’ve heard Catholics rant on all sides of this issue, but every position seems to me to be determined by preconceptions. The clearest thing about the conflict in Ukraine from a distance is how little we know and how much less we are in a position to understand.

We know little of the history, little of the motives at work, little about what might be best for those involved—assuming, which is doubtful, that everyone will be best served by the same solution. Moreover, if we are honest, we realize how little we really want to take any of this into account anyway.

We would rather decide according to a grand vision. Pick one: (a) Russia is an imperialist nation which has never abandoned the rapacious appetites manifested under Communism, and so clearly Ukraine must be protected from Russian encroachment; (b) Russian leaders are now far more moral—indeed, far more “Christian”—than their equivalents in the West, and so the increased influence of Russia and the decreased influence of the West in Ukraine is to be welcomed.

What any of this has to do with the lives of the real people on the ground remains a mystery.

We do know, of course, that the Ukrainian Catholic Church is firmly opposed to Moscow. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk has been trying to convince the world that Ukraine is suffering nothing less than a foreign invasion, and it is fairly obvious that reincorporation into Russia would weaken the Catholic Church in that region. Shevchuk has a legitimate role in representing Catholic interests; we should take him seriously. But at the same time Catholic interests are only one part of a larger whole.

Catholic ecclesiastical interests, that is: The full Catholic interest is really the common good.

And so we must also ask: Is it really the role of a Catholic Archbishop to lay a moral responsibility on the people to be “united together” so that they can more effectively “resist aggression” by an “attacker”? Are we to imagine that the Ukrainian people are incapable of making their own judgments about what political arrangements make most sense going forward, or whether any of the arrangements on offer are worth significant sacrifice?

I get especially nervous about “Catholic” socio-political discourse when it is being led by bishops. Within the broad moral parameters taught by Jesus Christ through His Church, this is the province of the laity. The contrary is an inversion of Christian responsibility. Moreover, it is the kind of inversion which very fairly invites suspicion of the Church.

We may be excited about all this for reasons that are quite irrelevant. We may harbor a secret desire to pronounce on the matter definitively. We may insist that our own largely ill-formed inclinations represent Catholic judgment at its finest. We may even be angry at Pope Francis (as is Major Archbishop Shevchuk) for what we regard as uncharacteristic caution in the matter.

But we just don’t know, do we? Thinking like a Catholic does not mean making sure we grab hold of one side or the other, decisively joining the right political team. In prudential matters, thinking like a Catholic means admitting—first and foremost—what we do not know.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 03, 2015 3:33 PM ET USA

    I totally agree with your article. There is much to learn about what is really happening in Ukraine. Unfortunately, we cannot trust our news outlets in this country nor our government or biased citizens to speak the truth. Lies have become common in the world thanks to politics. The focus of our priests and Bishops must be on moral and spiritual warfare. Their effectiveness in this can only be decreased by entering the political world of lies.

  • Posted by: cchapman3385 - Mar. 03, 2015 11:39 AM ET USA

    Dear Jeff, I am sorry, but you are way off on this one! You are the one making this into an abstraction and ignoring the clear reality that Russia is invading a sovereign country! A good Ukrainian friend of mine is hardly as detached as you are in this matter. The first and second commenters are dead on. Unfortunately in this case - you are usually more on target -you are the one doing the arm-chair quarterbacking and it sounds condescending and cruel given the circumstances on the ground.

  • Posted by: Gregory108 - Feb. 28, 2015 6:31 PM ET USA

    Sviatoslav speaks primarily as a Ukrainian, who feels that his people deserve to have their own nation and deserve self-determination rather than subjugation. Ukraine’s not a "region of Russia" that’s recently decided they wish to be free, but a nation of people at least as old as those around Moscow, that became Russia. To suggest that Ukraine would do better under the Russian boot, where they lived through the Communist Era, is absolutely ridiculous! It is worse than that, in fact! To suggest that his flock, our brother and sister Catholics, would be well-served as part of Russia, so “the truth of the situation is unknown to us, so we can’t take sides” is total lunacy, please excuse me! One can see what the Russians did to the Catholic Church in Crimea when they took over. We may not know every detail of the situation, but certainly both the Ukrainian Orthodox and the Ukrainian Catholic primates taking the same side against Putin’s invasion should give us a clue. The thousands of unneeded Ukrainian dead, who’d be alive if Putin had not invaded, should be another clue! And the lies from Putin as his troops invaded Ukraine should be yet another! And don’t look now, but the recent killing of Putin’s adversary in Russia may demonstrate that you can put a cross on a chain around your neck, but you can’t take the KGB out of the heart!

  • Posted by: - Feb. 28, 2015 3:09 PM ET USA

    Having known people in my past life who fled the Ukraine at the end of WWII when the Iron Curtain was falling and also a person I met here in AZ convinces me that we in the West need to come to the defense of these dear people who have suffered for 80 + years. Not only did people there starve to death while the produce of their country was taken but the church was also persecuted.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Feb. 28, 2015 2:41 PM ET USA

    Good one, Jeff. I, too, get "nervous" when bishops are too involved in politics. It's sort of like the illegal problem at the Mexican-Arizona border. All three of our bishops weigh in with one accord on what should be done, advocating political solutions when my belief is that they should be leading the laity in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.