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Matthew Dal Santo’s “Theopolitics of Ukraine” (August/September 2023) is a welcome counterweight to “What Ukraine Means” from the May 2023 issue. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox church in Ukraine by number of parishes with more than 12,000. Before the start of the present conflict in 2022, the UOC was affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. But shortly after the war began, the Russian invasion was condemned by the UOC, and the church cut its ties with the Russian church. However, this has not been sufficient for the Ukrainian government. Legislation was pending in the Ukrainian parliament to ban the UOC. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Catholic denomination in Ukraine, opposed the bill, saying the measure is problematic in terms of religious freedom and would turn members of the UOC into martyrs.

So far, this has not deterred the persecution. The most visible indication of this, as of this writing, is the siege of the Kyiv-Pechersk Monastery, which was founded in 1051, then made into a museum in 1926 under Communist rule, and returned again to the UOC in 1988. The hundreds of monks residing there have been ordered to vacate the monastery, but many have refused to do so. The head of the monastery, Metropolitan Pavel, has been arrested. These things, together with the secularization of Ukraine which is being pushed by the West, as described by Dal Santo, do not bode well either for democracy or for true Christianity in that country.

Dimitry Zarechnak
silver spring, maryland

I got the impression that Matthew Dal Santo has written an eloquent apologia for Russia’s aggression. Dal Santo has concentrated solely on the threat of Western secularization and decadence, which leads one to a fallacious conclusion.

One of the weaknesses of Dal Santo’s essay is an absence of discussion of the real motives behind Russia’s war in Ukraine. He overlooks the history of Russian imperialism, its brutality, murder, torture, rape, plundering, willful destruction of property, and incalculable ecological harm, not to mention the three massacres perpetrated in Ukraine by Moscow in the last hundred years.

Dal Santo argues that Ukraine is in danger of “emerging as the newest province of the West’s empire of secularization.” Yet would it be better for Ukraine to become part of the Russian empire? Less than 3 percent of Ukrainians support the idea of annexation.

The Western decadence argument is not without foundation, but it is not an argument against helping Ukraine withstand the Russian invasion. There is little, if any, connection between US/NATO military aid to Ukraine and Western decadence. Ukraine should be able to get Western assistance without importing Western ideologies.

The antidote to Western decadence is not the Russian approach of forbidding or persecuting dissent. That doesn’t work. The only course is to have a healthy society that can enter into debate with the proponents of decadence and expose them as purveyors of falsehood. That takes a morally strong and free society. You can’t have that under Russian domination. Therefore, to fight decadence, you must have a free Ukraine. If you want a free Ukraine, you need Western aid.

Dal Santo may be unaware of the inherently conservative nature of Ukrainians. Reports show that they are more religious than Russians, and until the war, Ukrainians attended religious services more regularly than Russians and professed their religiosity more openly. These are deeply ingrained values that—war or no war—do not change overnight.

In conclusion, his argumentation suggests a moral equivalence between Russia and the West, a notion George Weigel debunked as “manifestly false.” (See “Just War, Just Peace, and Ukraine,” First Things, August 9, 2023.)

Jaroslaw Martyniuk
washington, d.c.

Matthew Dal Santo replies:

It is gratifying to read that Dimitry Zarechnak agrees with me about the dangers for the future of religion in Ukraine and the push toward secularization that Ukraine’s Westernization brings with it. It is of course saddening to be reminded of the Zelensky government’s continued persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

But one cannot help but be amazed that an argument such as Martyniuk’s can still be advanced without blushing in the third decade of the twenty-first century. What “free marketplace of ideas” is he talking about? It can only be the one that uses the authority of the state to disseminate the ideologies (multicultural, intersectional, LGBTQ) of radical secularism in public schools, convert the confusion of teenagers into a right to bodily self-mutilation and chemical castration, and reclassify any reasoned objections to the scientific and metaphysical absurdities of transgenderism as the crime of “hate speech.” He surely knows, too, that only fifteen years ago, the United States was “more religious” than Europe (indeed, it still is), and Americans attended (and still attend) religious services “more regularly” than Europeans. This has not prevented the United States and its government from being at the forefront of the rebellion against objective truth—and therefore against the very notion of the sacred—that has been carried out in the West and in its name beyond its borders during the same period.

America is proof that populations can continue to “be religious” long after they have lost all conception of the sacred. Alas, such continued “religiosity” (which fulfills all the criteria of Schmemann’s definition of original sin) is the best a Westernized Ukraine can hope for. (And the current “great unchurching” of America shows that even that is only for a while.) Once a society has abandoned the Platonic understanding of itself as an analogy, by obligation, of a transcendent cosmic order—in other words, once it has immanentized the search for truth in the merely commercial logic of the neoliberal “marketplace of ideas”—it hardly matters whether some or even many of the ideas available are religious. The underlying logic of such a society is already secular and anticosmic. And that in the long run is the destiny of a Westernized Ukraine—yes, of a Ukraine without Russia.

Let’s not be dramatic about the special wickedness of Russian imperialism when her allies in the last two world wars—the United States, Britain, and France—were all imperial powers with an ample record of “brutality, murder, torture, [and] rape” of their own. In short, Martyniuk’s argument has already been demonstrated to be a fallacy in the West itself.


Peter Leithart is an astute commentator on Bulgakov, as on so many other things. His elegant summary paper (“Seriously, God Is Love,” August/September 2023) covers a great deal of ground in relatively few words and ably demonstrates some of the power and the problems inherent in Bulgakov’s magnificent theological achievements. I was particularly struck by his observation that “many of [Bulgakov’s] insights can be retained without the distractions of Sophia.” This approach, what we might call “Sophiology without Sophia,” seems to me spot-on and the example he gives based around the principle of love is highly instructive. One cannot say everything in a short piece like this but it seems to me that he somewhat downplays the ongoing controversy surrounding Bulgakov. For instance, we have the statement that Bulgakov, after finding himself dissatisfied with abstract and philosophical terminology concerning God, “turns to Scripture for a richer account” and builds his Sophiology on the “hints” he finds there. I fear Bulgakov’s Sophiology was far from simply a matter of turning to the Bible and going from there. It came to him, rather, from a long tradition of Russian reflection on wisdom that was mediated to him principally through the beguiling figure of Vladimir Soloviev.

The constituent elements of this tradition are many and various embracing Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, German mysticism, Jacob Böhme, and a great deal more. Bulgakov certainly turned seriously and conscientiously to the Bible, and indeed to the Church Fathers, to bolster and ground his Sophiology but this turn was not at the proximate origin of his teaching. When it comes to the Bible, we might also note his gravitation toward the somewhat nebulous figure of Proverbs as opposed to the rather more concrete instantiation of wisdom confessed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:24. None of this, I should stress, is intended to detract either from the undoubted significance of Bulgakov as indeed one of the “titans” of twentieth-century theology nor from the quality of this truly excellent essay.

Marcus Plested
marquette university
milwaukee, wisconsin

The Word

Ephraim Radner’s “Canon of the Word” (The Back Page, August/September 2023) relates to a comment by Dietrich Bonhoeffer under “The Church and the World” in his book Ethics. Commenting on what he was observing at the time, Bonhoeffer wrote:

The deification of the irrational, of blood and instinct, of the beast of prey in man could be countered with the appeal to reason; arbitrary action could be countered with the written law; barbarity with the appeal to culture and humanity; the violent maltreatment of persons with the appeal to freedom, tolerance and the rights of man; the subordination of science, art, and the rest to political purposes with the appeal to the autonomy of the various different fields of human activity. In each case this was sufficient to awaken the consciousness of a kind of alliance and comradeship between the defenders of these endangered values and the Christians. . . . The children of the Church, who had become independent and gone their own ways, now in the hour of danger returned to their mother. During the time of the estrangement their appearance and their language had altered a great deal, and yet at the crucial moment the mother and the children once again recognized one another. Reason, justice, culture, humanity, and all the kindred concepts sought and found a new purpose and a new power in their origin. This origin is Jesus Christ.

Radner would agree that Jesus Christ, the Word, has been, is, and will be active in many of the cultures of the countries of this world. The Word was active in Africa (reported Radner) and in Germany (according to Bonhoeffer). And in America, we hope.

Paul T. Stallsworth
wilson, north carolina

Ephraim Radner replies:

The Rev. Stallsworth helpfully underlines how the values and truths that make for the protection and nourishment of human life have their “origin in Jesus Christ”; and just for that reason are rightly to be sought and engaged in cultures around the world, not only among Christians (let alone only Western Christians). His citation of Bonhoeffer is a powerful reminder of how Christians actually need to pursue such engagement for the sake of their own integrity and the welfare of others. Some basis for this pursuit and its goods can be located in the reality of what we have called the “natural law” and its divine source.

My own discussion would not wish to deny any of this, but its emphasis is a bit different: The encounter of the Christian gospel—in Scripture and Church witness—with the broad swath of the world’s cultures transforms aspects of their varying outlooks and wisdoms into something essentially Christian but also novel. Christians, in this case, are rightly seeing their own identity revived and carried forward by Christ in these refashioned forms; and the cultural enemies of the gospel are often relying, even in their critiques, on the Word’s gifts that they have appropriated, if misunderstood. As we seek to identify key texts and witnesses to the gospel for our teaching and formation, we need to locate them, not narrowly, but within the wide reach of the Word’s transformative intellectual and literary energy around the world.


Gerard Bradley declines to take at face value the stated intention of the majority justices in Dobbs v. Women’s Health, that they are basically disengaging our national judiciary from the ongoing struggles over abortion law. He argues that the justices have provided, whether inadvertently or intentionally, a road map toward the curtailment of elective abortions by judicial decree. He cannot be unaware that the various state laws nullified in Roe were expressions of the Christian convictions of majorities of Americans. Yet he does not acknowledge that the revival and standardization of those laws, by the Court, would have the justices themselves promulgating religious legislation on a very important and highly divisive subject.

In support of his program, he points out that the Dobbs majority, in one part of their opinion, implied that a fetus is a human person from the very moment of its conception. He infers that in doing so, they closed off all constitutional avenues to a right of elective abortion; and that, logically, they are called upon to follow Dobbs with a prohibition.

I do not see how this argument is tenable. The Dobbs majority could not effectively justify, constitutionally, a national prohibition of abortion by asserting the personhood of a fetus any more than the Roe majority could justify its abortion license based upon the contrary proposition. Our constitutional ethos is more complex than Bradley allows. The protection of innocent human life surely ranks very high among our constitutional values, but it does not pre-empt all other considerations. Prudence intervenes. In particular, the Framers of our Constitution prudently sought religious peace and civic amity through an extensive decentralization of religious authority throughout their new federal republic.

Article I Section 8 and the First Amendment point toward a very robust conception of religious liberty—the freedom of local communities, within one nation, each acting democratically, to differ quite sharply from one another, even as to fundamental and intensely controversial concerns. If Bradley were promoting the presentation of his brief to the many state judiciaries across the nation, I would applaud the nobility and the skill so plainly evident in his efforts. I cannot find that limitation in his article. In its absence, I lament his seeming readiness to advance the ongoing transformation of our highest court into a religious magisterium.

Scott Rutledge
richardson, texas

The Synod

In Michael Hanby’s engaging essay, “Synodality and the Spirit of Truth” (August/September 2023), he shows how much of the current ecclesial woes can be explained by Augusto Del Noce’s prescient analysis of neo-modernism. He also provided evidence to support Joseph Ratzinger’s assertion that the fundamental conflict we are suffering through in the Church today is not at the level of individual doctrines, but “in the realm of their philosophical presuppositions.” I am grateful for these insights.

Hanby quotes from Ratzinger’s Principles of Catholic Theology, which comes from a talk he gave in 1973. During Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, it seemed that the Church had moved beyond these debates, but alas, we are back once again with the same philosophical error manifesting itself in new personalities.

Long before the postconciliar debates between the Communio and Concilium schools framed this discussion in terms of the relationship between ethos and logos, praxis and theory, or reality and ideas, Romano Guardini saw the necessary priority of logos over ethos, and where the line in the sand needed to be drawn: “Any attempt to base the truth of a dogma merely on its practical value is essentially un-Catholic.”

Although not included in Hanby’s essay, the Thomists also sounded the alarm in the early part of the twentieth century. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange saw the growing ecclesial conflict in terms of philosophy, rooted in the error of how one comes to grasp truth: “The truth is no longer the conformity of judgment to intuitive reality and its immutable laws, but the conformity of judgment to the exigencies of action, and of human life, which continues to evolve. The philosophy of being or ontology is substituted by the philosophy of action, which defines truth as no longer a function of being but of action.”

Ratzinger warns in the above-mentioned work that we are living through a period of historical change that cannot be measured, “an epochal transformation for which there is no adequate comparison,” which only adds concern to the upcoming Synod. The growing resurgence in Thomism, with its epistemological realism and clear understanding of the superiority of speculative thought over practical thought, is a welcome and needed addition to the discussion.

Fr. Greg J. Markey
thomas aquinas college
northfield, massachusetts

This is one Protestant who wants to express his appreciation for Michael Hanby’s tremendous essay. While his immediate subject is the Catholic Church, the issues he discusses and clarifies apply to all people of faith, as the divide he elucidates is virtually universal. Hanby writes with exceptional clarity and logic to explain the incompatible visions within the Catholic Church (and, alas, Christianity in general). Doubtless out of a hopeful loyalty, he can’t quite indict Pope Francis, but it is unfortunately true that this pope embodies the belief system so compellingly critiqued by Hanby. The head of the institution has, for better or worse, influenced it and empowered his kindred spirits. That said, Hanby has written one of the finest things I’ve read in a long time, and I wish to be counted among those he notes who are dedicated to “what is believed everywhere, always, and by all.”

Richard K. Mason
altadena, california

Michael Hanby replies:

I am grateful to Richard Mason for his kind and generous words about my article. Though a Protestant, he is more perceptive than the progressive Catholics who have vindicated its argument by suggesting that I am part of some organized opposition to the pope and the Synod. Wrapping themselves in the authority of the pope, they insulate themselves from criticism by implying that criticism of their ideas, tactics, and behavior is really criticism of the pope himself. Mason is of course correct that my article does not criticize the pope, though he seems to regard this as something of a defect. I have my personal opinions about this pope, like seemingly everyone else in the Church, but they are of no consequence. I am a loyal son of the Church, and it is not a son’s place to pass judgment on his father. To have done so would have not only been impious, but it would also have played right into the hands of those who have spent the last decade reducing every question of truth into a test of personal loyalty and reducing theology and philosophy to party politics. Besides, this pontificate is unfinished. So too is the Synod which, however much its outcome may seem to be predetermined, remains distinct from the synodal process that has unfolded over the last two years. Both could still surprise us. My point was to try to make some sense of the synodal process and our present divisions by situating them within a broader historical context and the two great crises that define the problem of the Church in the modern world. The first is the disappearance of God from the horizon and the crisis of truth that inevitably follows, a crisis that is not external to the Church. The second is the corresponding anthropological crisis foreseen and penetrated by the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II, but which now, with the abolition of man and woman and the dawning of the brave new world, has exceeded the imagination of both.

I also appreciate the generous words of Fr. Greg Markey. I wholly agree with him about the importance of a resurgent Thomism—or perhaps I should say, Thomisms, some of which are quite creative and speculative. Nevertheless, it should also be recognized that the resurgence of Thomism is a factor in returning us to something resembling the pre-conciliar stalemate. This is particularly true of those Thomisms that regard Garrigou-Lagrange as their patron, and which tend to equate “speculation” with the assimilation of all philosophical problems to Thomistic categories. The target of the passage from Garrigou-Lagrange cited by Fr. Markey was Maurice Blondel. Yet there is a strong argument to be made that Blondel understood the problem of modernism, and the sort of Thomism represented by Garrigou-Lagrange, more deeply than Garrigou-Lagrange understood Blondel. As John Paul II said on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of L’Action,

This twofold fidelity to certain demands of modern philosophical thought and to the Magisterium of the Church did not come without its cost in terms of incomprehension and suffering, at a time when the Church found itself confronting the modernist crisis and the errors that were involved.

The reconciliation of being and history, knowing and making, contemplation and action, remains an unresolved problem. And these difficult problems will not be solved simply by an ever more precise (and adamant) repetition of the teaching of St. Thomas. I concur in the need for “epistemological realism” and a renewal of speculative thought, and I have little doubt that resolution of these problems will entail some new Thomistic synthesis. But that synthesis will likely include Augustinian and Dionysian elements neglected in the original synthesis, and perhaps insights from a Rosmini, Ravaisson, de Lubac, or Balthasar, and perhaps even from Blondel himself.

War and the Pope

Matthew Schmitz’s “The Pope of Peace” article (August/September 2023) offers a forceful defense of Pope Francis’s conduct in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Unfortunately, it is mistaken on multiple fronts.

The mistakes start with a “moral equivalency” that runs through the pope’s statements and conduct. Pope Francis dignifies the Kremlin’s view that considering Ukraine for NATO membership was sufficient provocation to justify an invasion. According to Schmitz, the pope goes so far as to imply that two imperiums are involved here—casting the war as little more than a conventional power struggle.

Here are a few large facts that Schmitz and the Holy Father choose to ignore. First, Ukraine has not joined NATO. Even today, sentiment within the alliance is divided as to whether this is a prudent geopolitical move. Second, NATO is not a traditional empire. It is a voluntary alliance of independent nations. Empires are collections of states dominated by a conquering center. NATO’s eastern enlargement involved the incorporation of clearly self-governing states who were eager to join. Many had suffered cruelly under prior Russian and Soviet occupation. Third, NATO is today, and always has been, a defensive alliance. It has never been offensively configured. How then is NATO an imperium seeking to conquer and control? By contrast, Russia under Putin pursues its imperial designs by fostering puppet regimes and deploying everything from cyberattacks and assassinations to all-out invasion to add to its frontiers. NATO expands because threatened nations clamor to get in.

The Holy Father and Schmitz make much of the human costs of the war. They posit these costs as justification for urgently seeking peace. In doing so, they ignore the “first use” issue. Ukraine is at war because Russia, under no military threat, chose to invade to overthrow a democratically elected government. Russia has also been indiscriminate in its tactics. They moved first to bomb civilian targets and level critical infrastructure, trying to break Ukraine’s economy and morale. The costs of war are so high because that is how Russia has fashioned its approach.

The pope may be decrying the costs of war, but the Ukrainian people know what awaits them if Russia’s assault is ratified by a “peace at any costs” outcome. They remember how Russia starved millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, shot returning Red Army veterans after World War II, and suppressed local culture and language through its Russification efforts.

Moral equivalence and “stop the fighting now” are perspectives that reward the ruthless. From the beginning, the Russo-Ukraine conflict has been characterized by a stark incompatibility in national objectives. Putin’s Russia is not seeking some border adjustment or a pre-emption of NATO enlargement. Instead, Putin’s goals are destruction of the independent Ukrainian regime and either its replacement with a puppet aligned with Moscow or outright incorporation of Ukraine. It was for these reasons that Putin sent his forces lunging for Kiev and sought Zelensky’s assassination. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians know they are fighting for national survival and the recovery of their internationally recognized borders.

That said, effective mediation awaits the right moment to reveal itself, and when it does so, it steps forward with realistic settlement plans in hand. Given today’s diametrically opposed war goals, what possible peace does the Holy Father have in mind? Both Putin and Ukraine think that their original war aims are still achievable. Both believe the other side cannot afford to concede the contest without triggering serious collateral damage or regime collapse. There is no moment here beckoning for mediation. Moreover, there is no shortage of potential mediators should a better moment appear. France, Germany, the UK, and the UN would all step forward in a heartbeat. So would the Biden administration. These players bring chips to the table that the pope lacks: security guarantees, rebuilding funds, control over Russian external assets, and military resupply. The missing ingredient today is not lack of mediation. It is that the two sides to this conflict have not yet exhausted their hopes of victory. In misjudging the moment, the Holy Father makes public statements which will not result in his playing a key peacemaking role, but which damage the papacy’s credibility as a trustworthy observer of who is responsible for evil.

Pope Francis has a curious history in this regard. He seems to go easy on autocrats who savage free political activity, treaty commitments, and constitutional government. Cases in point include his “compromise” deal giving the Chinese government significant control over bishop appointments, his abandonment of China’s nonofficial Catholic Church and of those defending Hong Kong’s autonomy, and his refusal to condemn the Maduro and Ortega governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Instead, the Holy Father saves his sharpest criticisms for those who would oppose such repressive regimes. This has caused many to suspect, as Schmitz notes, that Pope Francis is acting more as a representative of the Global South and less as a neutral go-between.

Good intentions are not enough. Effective peacemaking requires skill, timing, and the moral capital that this Holy Father, despite his good intentions, has been dissipating.

Stephen V. Arbogast
university of north carolina
chapel hill, north carolina

Image by Justin Henry licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.