ROME – Generally speaking, waving a white flag is how one ends combat, not starts it. Yet by invoking the idea of Ukraine raising a white flag in its conflict with Russia, Pope Francis has managed to start a war of words that shows few signs of abating, despite multiple Vatican attempts to walk things back.

While the chorus of protest from Ukraine and its Western allies, including the President of the United States, has been nearly unanimous, the incident may well be little more than another reminder that Francis simply does not see himself as a Western leader, nor the Vatican over which he presides as a Western institution.

The papal utterance came in an interview with Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS), which will only be broadcast in its entirety on March 20, but which is already a sensation because of advance portions released March 9.

Interviewer Lorenzo Buccella asked the pope: “In Ukraine, some call for the courage of surrender, of the white flag. But others say that this would legitimize the stronger party. What do you think?”

Here’s Francis’s reply, in an English translation provided by Vatican News:

“That is one interpretation. But I believe that the stronger one is the one who sees the situation, who thinks of the people, who has the courage of the white flag, to negotiate. And today, negotiations are possible with the help of international powers. The word ‘negotiate’ is a courageous word. When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, it is necessary to have the courage to negotiate. You may feel ashamed, but with how many deaths will it end? Negotiate in time; look for some country that can mediate. Today, for example in the war in Ukraine, there are many who want to mediate. Turkey has offered itself for this. And others. Do not be ashamed to negotiate before things get worse.”

Aside from the white flag imagery, which in the popular mind signifies capitulation and surrender rather than simply a willingness to negotiate, it was also the pontiff’s apparent suggestion that Ukraine has been defeated that stirred blowback.

Quickly, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk responded that “Ukraine is wounded, but not conquered! Ukraine is exhausted, but it stands and will stand!” The bishops of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine later put out a joint statement indicating that Ukraine cannot surrender because Putin’s objective isn’t simply some tactical gain, but the annihilation of Ukraine’s culture, history and identity.

The German bishop’s conference also released a statement calling the pope’s formula “unfortunate,” and indicating that it must be up to Ukraine – and, by implication, not the pope or anyone else – to decide when the moment has come for a negotiated settlement.

Negative reaction, however, has hardly been confined to the ecclesiastical universe.

As of this writing, U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, EU Ambassador Alexandra Valkenburg, Lithuanian President Edgars Rinkevics, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, and naturally, both President Volodymyr Zelensky and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, all have voiced dissent from the pope’s statements, either in their own voice or through spokespersons.

That’s the very dictionary definition of a diplomatic crisis, which explains why the Vatican twice now has attempted to tamp down the controversy, first with a statement from spokesman Matteo Bruni the night the advance portion of the interview was released, and again March 12 with comments from Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, to the effect that Russia should be the first party to cease firing, calling it the “aggressor” and the war “unjust.”

While that language likely will go some ways towards restoring calm, it won’t quell the underlying question of why Pope Francis spoke as he did in the first place.

It’s worth recalling that this isn’t the first time the pope has irked Ukraine and its supporters. Early on, he quoted an unnamed Latin American ambassador as suggesting that NATO’s “barking at Russia’s door” was partly responsible for triggering the conflict. Later, the pope praised “great Mother Russia” in a video session with Russian Catholic youth, paying tribute to Peter the Great and Catherine II as leaders of a “great, enlightened Russian empire,” in language critics found uncomfortably close to the Kremlin’s own rhetoric.

Such comments might be unthinkable escaping the lips of the leader of a NATO nation – other, perhaps, than President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey – but that’s just another way of saying that Francis represents the definitive end of the Cold War era in Catholic history, in which Pope Pius XII once was dubbed the “Chaplain of NATO” because of the Vatican’s hardline anti-Communist stance.

Instead, Francis is repositioning the Vatican, at least informally, as part of the “Non-Aligned Movement,” which is a forum of 120 nations that consider themselves independent of any major power bloc, meaning in practice they’re usually just as skeptical of the U.S. and West as they are of, say, Russia, China and Iran.

For Russia’s victims, both present and past, it can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Recently, Polish Dominican Father Pawel Guzynski, a former Solidarity activist who’s gone on to become a progressive thorn in the side of his country’s conservative hierarchy, said the white flag episode has made him miss St. John Paul II for the first time in his life, because the Polish pontiff “never would have said something like this.”

“Pope Francis absorbed suspicion towards the United States and the European colonizers of South America almost from his mother’s milk. He totally refuses to be the pope of NATO and the Western states,” Guzynski said.

“For this reason, he seems to idealize Russia’s aspirations as stifled by the West. And so, the pope’s statements appear closer to the Kremlin’s rhetoric,” he said.

Whether that evaluation is entirely fair, few would dispute that it contains a strong dose of truth. It’s striking that one of the few government officials to actually praise Francis’s remarks was Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who said the pope correctly was “asking the West to put aside its ambitions and admit that it was wrong.”

(Guzynski added that Poles today liken Francis’s line to that of Pope Gregory XVI, who condemned an 1830 uprising in partitioned Poland against the Russian Empire, despite the fact the insurrection was led by Catholic laymen and supported by Catholic clergy and bishops. Guzynski’s point is that from the perspective of peoples who’ve been occupied by Russia over the years, this isn’t the first time a pope has been on the wrong side of history.)

To be clear, however, Francis’s refusal to follow the Western anti-Russian script isn’t just a personal idiosyncrasy. Instead, it’s more akin to a reflection of Catholic demography: Two-thirds of the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world today live outside the West, a share that will be three-quarters by mid-century, and many of those Catholics share a robustly non-aligned perspective, including a refusal to demonize Russia or to idealize the West.

To return to where we began, therefore, the white flag invoked by Pope Francis would not appear to signal the end of conflict over the Vatican’s geopolitical perspective. Instead, it’s another reminder that the tectonic plates of church history are shifting, in ways that Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the NATO sphere may not always find entirely comfortable.