Is it futile to fight overwhelming force?

That question (among others, of course) is raised by the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and has wider importance than might be realised. Our Lord seemed to advise that when military forces are significantly unequal and the weaker side seems unlikely to win, the stronger one should be appeased (Luke 14:31-32). British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has ‘gone down in history’ as an exponent of that policy. Nobody seems to have advocated its adoption by Ukraine, even though prima facie the Ukrainian military are outnumbered and out-gunned, and civilians have merely rifles and petrol-bombs. Sometimes a weaker side wins (as Goliath discovered: (1 Samuel 17), but the rarity shows the unlikelihood. In the present case, Ukraine seems to have far more ‘moral support’ than does Russia, but opinion makes no difference unless given appropriate practical form.

What does this have to do with religion?

On a geographically – ‘narrow’ level, it may affect the disunity of the relevant denominations. When ‘Russian separatists’ were beginning to change the status quo in Eastern Ukraine, Father Mark Drew, a specialist in theological discussion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, wrote that these ecclesial communities were “symbols and factors of differing political and cultural outlooks,” and that their own future would “depend to a greater or lesser extent on the outcome of the conflict” (“Catholic Herald,” 25th July 2014, p.8). He added (1)that the Russian Orthodox Church continued to be “a close ally of the Kremlin,” (2) that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (“considered uncanonical and schismatic by most Orthodox churches worldwide”) had “made significant inroads into Moscow’s flock in recent years,” and (3) that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which “fol1ows the same Byzantine rite and customs as the Orthodox but is in union with Rome”) is regarded by the Orthodox as a Papal “Trojan Horse, used by the Vatican to undermine Orthodoxy.”

Point (3), illustrated by a quoted comment from Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a Russian Orthodox spokesman for External Affairs, surely cannot be reconciled with Pope Francis’s clearly undenominational mind-set. Father Drew added (ibid.) that despite scepticism about the prospects of doctrinal unity, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill and Metropolitan Alfeyev “welcomed the opportunity to construct an alliance with Catholics against secularism and the abandonment of traditional Christian moral values.”

Nothing, wrote Father Drew (ibid.), unites a divided body more than a common enemy. Perhaps so, but surely that is dependent on (a) the common enemy being recognised as such; (b) agreement about battles which arise; and (c) a desire to fight. “Pope Francis has,” wrote Father Drew (ibid.), “shown that he is much less interested in campaigning [against secularism and the abandonment of traditional Christian moral values] than [were] his immediate predecessors.”

Yet did the campaigning by Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict on those matters have much recognisable effect on the Church in your part of the world? It did not in mine or, apparently, in other parts of which I have read. The thought of “enemies” and “battles” appears to be anathema to bishops and clergy, and incomprehensible to the laity. Of people whom you know personally, how many would you expect even to recognise – far less to explain clearly -consumerism, relativism, humanism, and secularism?

Mankind’s life is a battle; the whole of history has been a dour combat with evil, and this will continue until the last day (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 409). Have you noticed much reference to it in typical sermons and other statements from bishops and priests? Pope Francis bas said that he sees the Church “as a field hospital after battle” (Interview for Jesuit magazines -e.g. “America” magazine; America Press, 30th September 2013). Tending the wounded is, of course, necessary and meritorious. A television-journalist, reporting from Ukraine, showed a blood-donation centre and said that people wanted to help in any way they

could. It will help to treat sick and injured people, but not to win the war. If a battle focuses on moral principles, ecclesiastics should urge the (diminished) congregations to take part and give them intellectual equipment for engagement in it. Perhaps the ‘abuse-scandals’ are exploited as an excuse for silence (‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’), or for carefully ambiguous ‘understanding’ in regard to ‘different ways of looking at things’. We are more likely to be told ‘God can bring good from evil,’ and “[f]rom the greatest moral evil ever committed [He] brought the greatest of goods” (ibid., paragraph 312; at Easter, for example, we hear Original Sin described as “necessary,” because it gave occasion for Our Lord to redeem us), than to be told “[b]ut for all that, evil never becomes a good” (ibid.).

If people develop a belief that evil has its uses, they may think that, even if it is not good in itself, we should not be particularly concerned about it or try to resist it (Our Lord taught the contrary – Matthew 18:7; Luke 17: 1 ). British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is said to have believed “that the conflicts which face men and nations were really conflicts between good and good, not good and evil, [by which he meant] that both sides are pursuing something which they see as good, wrong as it may seem to the other side” (“Living Christianity,” Michael de la Bedoyere; The Catholic Book Club, London; 1953, p.156-157). This charitably-non-committal idea seems common among Christians, at least in ‘the West’. Such people cannot be expected to recognise spiritual enemies or the need to fight them. Thus, the power of sin in the world increases.

This is a malaise which seems endemic in a Church which co-exists quietly with systematic violation of its formal teaching. We are not brought up to recognise sin, except in a very vague form, or to hate it, or to join with other people in concrete action to oppose it; nor are many of us imbued with desire to get into positions of power and to use it in ways which uphold virtue and penalise vice (cf. “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 909).

There is a war against virtue. It is as real as the military war recently launched in Ukraine. The opposing sides in these wars are unequal in numbers and in resources, and there are different levels of visible moral support for the weaker sides. At the time of writing, the invaders of Ukraine have made surprisingly less progress than thought probable, but their immense strength remains to be exerted fully. In contrast, the war elsewhere against virtue (continuous for most of the lifetimes of the likely readers of this magazine) has made such progress that it has become the norm, and most people are content to live with it. For reasons such as those in the previous paragraph, the arousing of effective practical action to recover lost ground cannot reasonably be expected.

‘Underdogs’ must, therefore, wonder whether it is futile to fight overwhelming force. Experience in our lifetimes suggests strongly that it is. President Kennedy was, to some extent, correct in his judgment that “There is no sense in raising hell and then not being successful” (quoted in “America Past and Present,” by Robert A. Divine, T. H. Breen, George M. Fredrickson, and R. Hal Williams; HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, at p.896). One reason is that failure suggests that in a practical sense (i.e., having regard to the desired outcome) the effort was a waste of time. Other reasons are that defeat of effort is demoralising and that it can deter potential supporters. Yet the President was, according to his brother Robert, fond of quoting Dante’s comment that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality” (Foreword to “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy; Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1955/1956, p.11).

Neutrality is perhaps most often shown by neglect, omission to act. Edmund Burke is believed to have said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. It may not be much, but little is better than nothing at all. If mentally you are against evil but doing nothing to help to defeat it, stir yourself. Make enquiries. Link up with groups. Make donations. Use your pen. Do so even if for no reason other than that Dante may have been right.