The Putin enigma
It is hard to justify an offensive war.
Let me reiterate this point: It is hard for Christians in one nation to justify an armed attack on another nation. Caught between common sense and the Catholic moral tradition on war, Catholics who think clearly are hard-pressed to find a strong enough moral reason to open that exceedingly narrow crack which allows what we call “just war”.
I am talking about initiating a war through an armed attack. Obviously it is much easier to justify a defensive war. In this case, a government and a people which have a reasonable chance to repel an aggressor are morally justified in defending themselves, and in fact may be morally obliged to do so. Note, however, that where government is involved, even a defensive response is not a moral cakewalk. Governments must compel their country’s citizens to take up arms, and they can justify doing so only if, in broad terms: (a) They honestly believe resistance will not be essentially suicidal; and (b) They intend to enter into combat using moral means.
There are also prudential considerations about whether even a victorious effort will do more harm than good, but this has far less weight simply because there are so many kinds of harm, both short and long-term, that it requires an impossible judgment in any but the most obvious of cases.
One more preliminary point: Most of us tend to be more bullish about the wars our own country has participated in; and more bearish about the country or countries in opposition. We humans always find it difficult to be anything but poor judges in our own cases. So let me state clearly at the outset that not all the wars the United States has participated in have been just wars, and one can argue easily even that the American Revolution, or War for Independence, was not morally justifiable on either side. In such considerations, we must try to be aware of our biases.
But the USA presents a discussion for another day: I write all of this only to put into perspective Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Putin the Great?
Some Catholics in the United States, anxious to find a worldly power—any worldly power!—sympathetic to their own moral and ideological concerns, like to think of Vladimir Putin as a kind of Christian knight who is firmly committed to the Light. This is partly because Putin has been forthright in his condemnation of gender ideology and other moral evils exported from the West, and particularly from the United States. Our country, after all, continuously uses economic pressure to destroy the moral values of other nations around the world who hope to benefit from our largesse.
Putin knows it, and he has been effective in calling America out. I myself drew attention to the Russian President’s witness last October in Seeing the Church and world as they are, short of heaven. But Putin has a checkered past. He rose to prominence as a Communist KGB foreign intelligence operator and he is now, well, a politician. Even more than with most people, it is difficult to know when politicians really mean what they say. It is more difficult still to assume that because a politician favors one good thing he must also favor other good things.
Politicians usually seek to read the room. With regard to Putin, one thing to consider is the apparent lack of effort of any kind under his leadership to reduce the incredibly high abortion rate that was characteristic of Russia under Communist rule. So, while in 2020 Putin supported the Russian constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, he also insisted in 2021 that, for abortion, “the decision is up to the woman herself”.
My point is that Catholics desperate for a political icon need to beware of choosing Vladimir Putin. Moreover, when backing one political figure or another, it is far too easy to try to justify every evil perpetrated by those who say what we desperately want to hear. In this sense, Putin has perhaps become a kind of secondary Trump figure in the United States. He can do no wrong because—praise be!—he has actually said some very good things.
When it comes to choosing our idols, politicians are seldom sufficiently transparent, let alone sufficiently consistent. Genuine Christian goodness implies both an initial conversion and an ongoing effort to allow Christ to shape ideas and attitudes we haven’t yet exposed sufficiently to the light of His love. But to be a political rallying point typically implies something different. Catholics must beware of how they rally. In nearly every circumstance, we must rally provisionally, partially, and with wide-open eyes.
There are, of course, always political complexities. After the dissolution of the USSR, the United States promised Russia that NATO would not expand any closer to the Russian border. Yet in June of 2020, Ukraine joined NATO’s “enhanced opportunity partner interoperability program”. While this is not the same as becoming a member of NATO, it gives NATO a specific interest in Ukraine, and it is difficult to conceive that this can be anything but concerning to Russia, which cannot possibly welcome even an increased cultural pressure from the decadent West, let alone an increasing military and economic threat.
At the same time, Russia clearly declined dramatically in world influence with the dissolution of the USSR, and Putin may well see some sort of political re-integration of Ukraine both as important to Russia’s future and—far worse—as a step toward restoring Russia’s position in the world. There are undoubtedly significant political pressures, especially pressures associated with Russia’s self-interest and Russia’s self-image, which tend to justify the effort to expand Russia’s limited dominance once again. But the moral problem remains: Speaking from the standpoint of both natural law and Christianity, it is extraordinarily difficult to justify an offensive war.
Once begun, warfare has a way of spiraling out of control morally, not only in the ends pursued but in the means employed. There are already instances of this in the present conflict, but the following story is particularly striking: Ukrainian Catholic leader: We saw atrocities of Russians who put women and children on tanks. Catholics must avoid being caught up in the question of political intentions, which are seldom verifiable, in favor of looking unflinchingly at the personal, material and moral horror of armed conflict—and must keep a baleful eye fixed firmly on the aggressor. What would we think if this were happening in our own countries, and in our own towns?
It is too easy to accept a distant country’s plight as a useful experiment in testing Vladimir Putin’s Christian vision. Anything that might diminish the hegemony of the secular West! While I have not heard many Catholics singing that hymn, I have heard a few. It’s a bad song, because the world does not exist for our own theoretical amusement. To speak frankly, I don’t want to hear it again: It is extraordinarily difficult to justify an offensive war.
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Posted by: loumiamo4057 -
Mar. 07, 2022 5:45 AM ET USA
About 8 years ago I heard a Catholic priest in a US parish praising Putin. He was an American, a friend of the pastor, visiting and fundraising for his parish in Vladivostok, and his praise of Putin was in his supposed anti-abortion policy, comparing Putin favorably with the many disgraceful "Catholic" politicians we have here.
Posted by: garedawg -
Mar. 06, 2022 9:12 PM ET USA
People talk about Russia being spooked about Ukraine becoming a member of NATO. But after all that the Ukrainians have had to endure from Russia over the past 100 years, I'd say they've earned the right to be independent, free and clear, and not part of some Russian "sphere of influence".
Posted by: padrecatolico -
Mar. 06, 2022 8:42 PM ET USA
War is not a game, it is fueled by Satan to destroy as many children of God as possible. You say it well, the world is not for our theoretical amusement. We should all be praying for conversion and peace. Only turning to Jesus allows us to see reality.
Posted by: grateful1 -
Mar. 04, 2022 6:34 PM ET USA
"Some Catholics in the United States, anxious to find a worldly power—any worldly power!—sympathetic to their own moral and ideological concerns, like to think of Vladimir Putin as a kind of Christian knight who is firmly committed to the Light." Really? I do not know, and indeed have never heard of, any such "Catholic." I hope I never do.