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Turning an enemy into a neighbor: How Catholics are responding to the war in Ukraine

A panel of Catholic leaders and experts recently discussed how to ethically respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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Faithful display Ukrainian flags during Pope Francis’ Angelus noon prayer in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022.

Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press

Catholic leaders and scholars convened for an online dialogue last week on the Catholic response to the war in Ukraine. Hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, the event explored the morality of violence and how to respect the dignity of all who are involved.

A Catholic response to the war has to be nuanced and must consider the humanity of all parties, said Laurie Johnston, associate professor of ​​theology and religious studies at Emmanuel College. The “roots of Catholic ethical teaching on war,” she said, are “based on trying to follow two of Jesus’ commandments at the same time — the commandment to love our neighbor and the commandment to love our enemies.” 

Respecting both commandments at once is challenging, and following the latter, which forms the basis of international humanitarian law, is especially difficult, said Johnston. But because the two commandments are deeply linked, it’s crucial that the international community do so.

“We have to think about defending those neighbors in ways that don’t undermine the fundamental human dignity of the attacker in hopes of overcoming that enmity and transforming the attacker into a neighbor,” she said.

However, loving one’s enemies does not require staying silent when they do wrong, Johnston added. There are actions “that are never permissible because they’re simply crimes against humanity that have to be condemned,” she said, noting that Catholics — and, perhaps, other people of faith — who want to engage ethically with the conflict must figure out how to walk all those lines at once. 


Pope Francis, center, poses for a photo with the Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Andriy Yurash, fourth from right, and a group of Ukrainian mothers and children refugees at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at The Vatican, Wednesday, March 30, 2022.

Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

Ukrainians’ resistance to the Russian invasion can be understood as an expression of their dignity, said Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the metropolitan archbishop of Philadelphia for Ukrainian Catholics in the United States.

“For decades, the Ukrainians’ identity and story has just been secondary — it’s what Russians say or what maybe some people think Americans say or what Europe says — and today Ukrainians are saying, ‘We are also created in God’s image and likeness,’” he said.

People in other countries must remember the dignity of Ukrainians as they work to help those fleeing the violence, said Cardinal Michael Czerny, who leads the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. He urged listeners to not think of refugees as a faceless mass and instead remember that they are individuals with individual needs.

“We don’t welcome (refugees) as a million. We welcome them as one, two, three, five, 10, and I think if we would drop the statistics, it would help us to stay focused. So I would plead for that. Let’s focus on the people,” said the Rev. Czerny, who recently visited Ukraine and nearby countries on behalf of Pope Francis.

He and other panelists also discussed the importance of truth and the role accurate information plays in being able to engage ethically with the war in Ukraine. The Rev. Gudziak said that, when weighing what to do, people must consider the truth. 

“I want to return to something that the cardinal (Czerny) said: In war the first thing that goes out is truth. Before you answer the complex question of what should be done, the nature of the problem should be understood,” he noted. 

Calling truth “the first casualty” of war, Gerard O’Connell, America magazine’s Vatican correspondent, said that because Russians are victims of misinformation, it is “difficult for them to respond” to their country’s attack on Ukraine. 


In this Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, file photo, Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, during a private audience at the Vatican. Zelensky said during a video conference with the Italian parliament, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, that he had talked with Pope Francis earlier in the morning.

Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press

Panelists also urged the public not to forget about other struggles that are occurring around the world. Pope Francis never “speaks about the war in Ukraine without mentioning the other wars,” the Rev. Czerny said.

“There are much longer wars, much bloodier wars, and there’s a dozen of them going on on the planet right now. ... They are as forgotten as the Ukrainian one is front and center on our screens. That has got to change. If there are 12 wars we have to be 12 times as concerned, not just one,” he said.

Turning a blind eye to conflicts is part of what has brought us to where we are today — at the brink of a world war, O’Connell said.

“I think we need to wake up and realize that if we don’t solve problems — and there were problems (between Ukraine and Russia) eight years ago — if we don’t solve problems today they will come to haunt us tomorrow,” he said.