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Siobhan Heekin-CanedyJanuary 27, 2023
Russian recruits called up for military service walk along a platform before boarding a train in Omsk, Russia, on Nov. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Alexey Malgavko, Reuters)Russian recruits called up for military service walk along a platform before boarding a train in Omsk, Russia, on Nov. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Alexey Malgavko, Reuters)

It is no secret that ice dancing is a discipline long dominated by Russians. I am an American who was granted Ukrainian citizenship in order to represent my ice dance partner’s home country of Ukraine in the 2014 Winter Olympics. But I encountered many Russians during my competitive skating career and have been blessed to call some of them friends.

My exposure to Russian people and culture increased as I pursued an education and career in international affairs. When Russia began its all-out invasion of Ukraine last February, escalating the war that began with its annexation of Crimea in 2014, I was doubly heartbroken: first for the Ukrainians who were suffering, but also for the way this tragedy would affect my Russian friends.

One year later, many American Catholics are still grappling with a response to the Russian people’s support for the war. Although a recent report from British intelligence claims that public approval in Russia is dwindling, this comes after major Russian military setbacks; it hardly represents a mass moral awakening. Our response must incorporate an unflinching denunciation of Russia’s actions but also the humility and charity that our Catholic faith demands. Getting this balance right is vital, both to our mission as Catholics and to our participation in American civic life.

Our response must incorporate an unflinching denunciation of Russia’s actions but also the humility and charity that our Catholic faith demands.

First, we must call evil by name and be a voice of moral clarity. Ukraine has justice on its side, and our church and our country must stand in solidarity with Ukrainians. We might also examine the aspects of Russia’s culture and history that have led to support for the war.

Many Russians have been blinded by ideology and may have chosen loyalty to the “Russkiy Mir,” or Russian world, over the bonds of charity and common humanity. Based on my personal knowledge of Russian culture, however, I suspect that many Russians support the war not because they hate Ukrainians or love violence, but primarily because of the information they receive and the sources they trust. It is easy for Americans to say that Russians should know better than to believe that their country is fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine or engaging in a humanitarian mission of liberation. But I ask myself: Would I be better able to discern the truth in their place? Humans are morally responsible for their actions, but we must exercise humility and restraint in determining the extent to which individuals are guilty, especially when family relationships or friendships are at stake.

This means that I speak out in support of Ukraine, but I still consider some Russians who are sympathetic to Vladimir Putin as friends. I know that efforts to foster mutual understanding through public diplomacy have failed to prevent the current crisis, but I believe they have the potential to bear fruit in the long term. I sympathize with Ukrainians who have stopped speaking Russian, but I am trying to teach my 2-year-old daughter the language. To some, this might seem like hypocrisy or weakness; however, I believe there is something distinctly Catholic about this approach.

I know that efforts to foster mutual understanding through public diplomacy have failed to prevent the current crisis, but I believe they have the potential to bear fruit in the long term.

As G.K. Chesterton noted, Catholicism is a both/and faith. We believe in a God of both justice and mercy, a Trinity who is both one and three. We yearn for peace, yet we understand that wars can be just. We are tasked with upholding moral truth and calling sinners to repentance, but also with embracing humility, forgiving the sins of our enemies and removing the planks from our own eyes. To those with only a superficial understanding of the Catholic faith, the both/and character of Catholicism may seem confusing; in reality, it beautifully reflects the love of an all-powerful God who entered the world as a helpless infant.

Applying this both/and sensibility to Russia will look different for each person. For those who do not have strong ties to Russia, it may be largely an intellectual exercise. But for all Catholics, it is an opportunity to grow as followers of Christ and, following the example of Pope Francis, to pray for both Ukraine and Russia.

Our response to the evil of Russia’s war is an opportunity to mature as Catholics and as Americans.

This kind of witness is particularly needed in the United States, where the both/and approach has been largely abandoned. Many Americans shun friends with whom they disagree on important issues. Many of us make sweeping moral judgments of others without bothering to understand their reasoning. We argue fiercely with family and friends, only to belatedly discover that our disagreement was not a clash of fundamental values, but a difference in which newspaper we read that morning. The notion that decent people might disagree, even when presented with the same information, is no longer a mainstay of our supposedly pluralistic society. Putting the “both/and” of our Catholic faith into practice has the power to remind all Americans that we can be people of deep moral conviction while seeking to understand, and even see goodness in, those who do not share all our conclusions.

Americans’ attitude toward Russians is not the cause of this war, and getting our response right will not, in itself, end it. I do believe, however, that God brings good out of evil, and our response to the evil of Russia’s war is an opportunity to mature as Catholics and as Americans. So yes, I will continue to teach my daughter Russian, hoping against hope that there will come a day when Mr. Putin no longer reigns, when Russians rise up against the atrocities perpetrated in their name and when she can visit the places and people I love—and greet them in their own language.

[Read next: “Exclusive: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, U.S. bishops and more” with the editors of America.]

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