Ukraine, World War III And Pope Francis’ Roadmap For The Church

The prophetic words of Pope Francis came true this year: We live not only in an era of change, but also in an era of changing eras. Pope Francis has long spoken of our time as a “fragmentary Third World War”. Now even the press secretary of Vladimir Putin says that the Third World War has begun.

A new geopolitical map of the world is being formed, a new world order, a new moral climate in international political, economic and cultural relations. A new chapter in history begins. Since the beginning of this millennium, the Western democratic order has undergone a series of increasingly difficult tests of resilience, durability and credibility: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the financial crisis, Brexit, the populist Donald Trump administration, the global coronavirus pandemic—and now Russian aggression against Ukraine is a cynical destruction of international law system established in the decades following World War II.

The blindness and naivety of European politicians, who until now were guided only by economic interests, contributed to the transformation of Russia into a terrorist state. Russia has excluded itself from the civilized world by the occupation of Crimea and the current genocide in Ukraine and now it is blackmailing and threatening this world. We do not yet know how international isolation, poverty and humiliation will affect Russian society. We do not know whether this will stimulate a weak democratic opposition or on the contrary, awaken a fanatical nationalist-fascist movement, as happened in Germany after the First World War. The only thing that is certain is that even after the end of the hot war in Ukraine, the world will not return to the form it had at the beginning of this year.

If the West is unwilling or unable to provide Ukraine with sufficient assistance to stop Russian aggression and defend its national independence, if the West sacrifices Ukraine on the basis of the false illusion that this will save world peace – as happened in the case of Czechoslovakia on the threshold of World War II war – then it will become an encouragement not only for further Russian expansion, but also for all dictators and aggressors around the world.

Putin is so interested in the capitulation of Ukraine, because he is well aware that this will demonstrate to the whole world the weakness of the West and will become the actual capitulation of the entire system of liberal democracy. In the end, this system stands or falls on the capital of trust that people invest in the effectiveness of democratic institutions; that trust has already been shaken and any further weakening could be fatal.

Vladimir Putin has succeeded, against his will, in turning Ukraine into a resolute and cohesive political nation that treats the notion of belonging to Europe not just as a cheap rhetorical phrase but as a value for which thousands of people give their lives. Ukraine signs its application for accession to the European Union with its own blood. Ukraine today is more “European” than many of the so-called heart regions of Europe.

Mr. Putin has also managed – against his will – to a certain extent to unite the West. However, the challenge remains for the West to turn its unity against a common enemy into a deeper, more positive unity. In order for the process of European integration to continue in a democratic spirit – which is not only desirable, but also necessary – a European demos, a community of values ​​for which we are ready to sacrifice a lot, must be formed. This is a cultural, moral and spiritual task.

Today’s war in Ukraine teaches the whole world a valuable lesson: even the plans of a nuclear superpower can fail if they are opposed by the courage and moral strength mobilized by leaders with personal authority, a willingness to extreme self-sacrifice and a gift for persuasive communication. Is there a political leader in the West today who can mobilize moral force like Volodymyr Zelensky?

Secular society underestimated the power of religious language, symbols and rituals. Secular language is often unable to convey strong emotions in crisis situations. As a result, religious terms spontaneously appear in the language of politicians – even those who are very far from personal faith and religious ethics – as they call to mind images from the collective unconscious of society.

But religious language, symbols and rituals can be used both constructively and destructively. Islamic extremists have succeeded in using the potential of religious energy for their own purposes. What spiritual potential does secular Western society have? What role can Christianity play in the West? Have the Christian churches recovered enough from the revelations of the crisis of sexual violence, the pandemic, and the latest wave of secularization (or, more accurately, dechurching) of Western societies?

From the experience of theologians on the fronts of the First World War, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., and Paul Tillich, a new theology arose, a new conception of God and the relationship between God and the world. Will a new spiritual energy arise from this war with new inspiring visions of the future shape of the world?

Relationship between religion and politics

It seems that we must again ask the question of the relationship between politics and religion. Some dictators and leaders of authoritarian regimes deliberately use religion for political purposes. When Stalin realized that the peoples of the Soviet empire (especially Ukraine) were not ready to fight for communism when Hitler’s troops invaded the country, he reframed the conflict as the “Great Patriotic War” in which Orthodox priests, holding icons, marched at the head of the Red Army troops.

Mr. Putin, a great admirer of Stalin, has also realized that the “Greater Russia” he aspires to needs spiritual nourishment and therefore he is trying to use the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of the leaders of the church are his former KGB colleagues. Russian propaganda specifically targets conservative Christians who may sympathize with Mr. Putin and seeks to portray him as the new Emperor Constantine who will save Christianity from the corrupting influence of Protestantism and Western liberalism.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and some of Poland’s leaders also portray themselves as the saviors of Christian culture in their criticism of the European Union. As prime minister, Mr. Orban proclaims (and implements) a model of “illiberal democracy” that is close to Mr. Putin’s “managed democracy”; in fact it is a front for an authoritarian state. In Poland, the alliance of populist-nationalist politicians with certain circles in church leadership—together with the exposure of shocking levels of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse by clergy—has led to the current dramatic loss of confidence in the church, especially among the younger generation. This alliance between conservative Christianity and nationalism hurts the church much more than half a century of communist persecution; Poland is currently experiencing the fastest secularization process in Europe.

Is there any form of Christianity in the world today that could be a source of moral inspiration for a culture of freedom and democracy? We must look for a form that would not be a nostalgic imitation of the past, but would respect the fact that our world is not and never will be religiously or culturally monochromatic, but, on the contrary, radically pluralistic.

The concept of religion (religio) etymologically comes from the Latin verb religare, “to reunite”. Religion was understood as an integrating force in society. This role was largely filled by pre-modern Christianity within the medieval Christianitas. But this chapter in the history of Christianity is long over. It was followed by the era of modernity, during which Christianity became just one of many “worldviews”. Then Christianity was seen as a religion, divided into different denominations, represented by different churches. Today this form of Christianity is in a serious crisis.

The relationship between religion and politics has hitherto been seen mainly as a relationship between church and state. However, in the course of globalization, churches have lost their monopoly on religion and nation-states have lost their monopoly on politics. The main competitor of organized religion today is not atheism or secular humanism, but non-church spirituality, on the one hand and religion as a political ideology, on the other hand. In the course of secularization, religion did not disappear, but underwent a profound transformation. Its role in society and in people’s lives is changing.

The role of religion as an integrating force in society has been absorbed by other social phenomena in the process of globalization in late modernity, especially the global market for goods and information (including the media). Today, the process of globalization, together with the existing political and economic order, is undergoing profound upheavals and changes. There is no global unifying force. If the current unity of the West was based only on defense against Russia, it would not last long. Similarly, if the process of world unification is to continue, we cannot rely solely on the economic aspects of globalization. Healing the world requires inspiring spiritual power.

To heal the wounds of the world

Pope Francis put forward the vision of the church as a “field hospital”. Such a church does not remain in “splendid isolation” from the modern world and does not wage a priori lost “cultural wars” in it. If the church is to be a field hospital, then its therapeutic ministry also presupposes the ability to competently diagnose the state of our world.

I suspect that religion in the future will be more like the meaning of the verb re-legere, “to read again.” It will offer a “rethinking”, a new hermeneutics: a specialty for “spiritual reading” and a deeper interpretation of both one’s own sources (in the case of Christianity, this is the Bible and tradition), and “signs of the times.” The views of the media, politicians and economists need a supplement that offers a contemplative approach to our world. I see a valuable inspiration for today and tomorrow in the social teachings of Pope Francis. I am convinced that Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti (including the chapters on the new culture of politics) can be as relevant to the 21st century as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to the 20th century.

Today, I see Pope Francis’ call to transform the church from a rigid clerical institution into a vibrant communal path as parallel to other periods of change in the church and the secular world. Just as the democratization of the church during the Reformation once contributed to the democratization of society, so the principle of synodality (syn-hodos, “common path”) can inspire the Catholic Church not only to practice openness to ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural cooperation, but also to a political culture of coexistence in a pluralistic world.

Now the world is at war, but we must think about the post-war world. We must not repeat old mistakes and underestimate the spiritual energy of world religions.

Throughout history, Europe has been the mother of revolutions and reforms, the focus of world wars and the process of globalization. Europe has been at the origin of many cultural, scientific, economic and technological achievements that have spread throughout the world and left significant light and dark marks in world history. Today, the dream of a united Europe “breathing in both lungs”, East and West, is threatened by dangerous tumors of nationalism, populism and fundamentalism in both lungs. It is necessary to develop the therapeutic and not the destructive potential of religion. A time of crisis is always also a time of new challenges and opportunities.


Tomasz Khalik is aprofessor of sociology at Charles University in Prague, president of the Czech Christian Academy and university chaplain. During the communist regime, he was an active member of the underground church. He is a laureate of the Templeton Prize and an honorary doctorate of the University of Oxford. Versions of this essay have also been published in Polish (Gazeta Wyborcza) and Ukrainian (Zbrucz).

Source: Украина, Третья мировая война и «дорожная карта» Папы Франциска для церкви – Baznica.Info / Международный экуменический портал