Mounting criticism of Pope’s silence on Venezuelan crisis

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 18, 2017

“As Venezuela burns, many Latin Americans ask: ‘Where is Pope Francis?’” The headline on a Catholic World Report essay by Samuel Gregg more or less speaks for itself. And Sando Magister of L’Espresso raised essentially the same question a week ago.

The Catholic bishops of Venezuela have been relentless in their criticism of the government led by President Nicolas Maduro. That government has led the country into a disastrous economic collapse, characterized by raging hyperinflation and severe shortages of food and medicine. Then, rather than acceding to popular demands for new elections, the Maduro regime (through the president’s allies on the country’s highest court) has suspended the nation’s parliament, effectively silencing political opponents. When that move prompted massive public demonstrations, the Maduro government sent troops to break up the protests—not gently. The death toll is rising, thousands of families are going hungry, and the regime is refusing to budge. The Venezuelan bishops have warned that their country is becoming “a totalitarian, militarist, violence, oppressive, police-state system.”

But from Rome—where Pope Francis last year accepted a plea for Vatican mediation in the country’s political crisis—the few public statements on the Venezuelan situation have been remarkably placid, betraying no sense of urgency about the developments there. In April, Pope Francis told reporters that he was still hoping that dialogue would resolve the problems in Venezuela, but “part of the opposition does not want this.” He did not mention the government’s responsibility for the breakdown in talks. In a letter to the Venezuelan bishops the Pope sounded the same forlorn hope: “I am convinced that the serious problems of Venezuela can be solved if there is the will to build bridges, if you want to talk seriously and adhere to agreements reached.”

Meanwhile Maduro is acting the demagogue, doing his best to whip up public sentiment against the bishops, blaming them for the country’s unrest. Gangs of his supporters have threatened bishops, vandalized cathedrals, intimidated priests. Perversely, Maduro has used the Pope’s public statements against his own country’s bishops, claiming that the prelates are out of touch with Rome.

On the subject of unrest in Venezuela, Gregg notes in his Catholic World Report analysis, the Pontiff’s reluctance to take a strong stand may have been influenced by his own political preferences. “It’s very hard for the pope to blame Venezuela’s problems on the tyranny of Mammon, financial speculation, free trade agreements, arms-dealers, nefarious “neoliberals,” or any of his usual list of suspects.” Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have styled themselves as leaders of “popular movements,” of the sort Francis had championed. In their fiery rhetoric the Venezuelan leaders insisted that they were working for the welfare of the people against the entrenched power of elites—again matching the Pope’s calls for radical social change. Gregg remarked:

Put another way: if Pope Francis was to criticize the Maduro regime’s populist roots, ideology and rhetoric, it would call into question the wisdom of seeing Latin American populism as an essentially positive force. That may be a step which Francis is unwilling to take.

“The fact is that between Pope Francis and the Venezuelan bishops, concerning the crisis that is ravaging the country, there is an abyss,” writes Vatican journalist Sandro Magister. He quotes another essay in the Italian daily Il Foglio, by the political scientist Loris Zannatta:

Reality, Bergoglio repeats, is greater than ideas. And yet, seeing his silence on the social drama in Venezuela, or in the country that with Chávez had set itself up as a model of anti-liberalism by invoking the stereotypes dear to the Pope, the thought arises that he too, like many, prefers his ideas to reality.

By the way, if Pope Francis can be legitimately criticized for failing to denounce the repressive Maduro regime, the same could be said about President Trump. “Venezuela is a mess,” the president told reporters last month. True enough. But a quick look at a map suggests that the Venezuelan “mess” could have an enormous impact on the United States. The chaos in that country will inevitably spill over into neighboring lands. And it’s only a matter of time before Venezuelan refugees, fleeing from a country where they are starved and oppressed, begin the trek north toward the Rio Grande and beyond.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: feedback - May. 20, 2017 3:56 PM ET USA

    71% of Venezuelans are Catholic and 17% are Evangelical Christians. I don't think that the Pope's involvement in this case would put Catholics at risk. Maduro himself was raised a Catholic, although in 2012 it was reported that he was a follower of Indian guru Sai Baba [source: Wikipedia]

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 20, 2017 10:51 AM ET USA

    Silence is certainly not the answer. But given the dire nature of the situation, anything coming from the Pope could put Catholics at mortal risk. No? Recognizing such potentiality, seems prudent the Pope uses time before responding. You know, there is much done in response to such situations hidden from us. Let's all exercise the virtue of Hope here.

  • Posted by: MWCooney01 - May. 19, 2017 6:48 PM ET USA

    This part of the essay says it all: "the Pontiff’s reluctance to take a strong stand may have been influenced by his own political preferences. 'It’s very hard for the pope to blame Venezuela’s problems on the tyranny of Mammon, financial speculation, free trade agreements, arms-dealers, nefarious “neoliberals," or any of his usual list of suspects.'" Only the usual list of suspects is capable of "rigidness" and evil intentions, I guess. Any slack should be directed only to socialists.

  • Posted by: Toddyo - May. 18, 2017 5:33 PM ET USA

    After watching the press conference with President Trump and Nobel Prize winning President of Colombia, it's heartening to see they have a real concern for Venezuela and its fall into failed socialism.

  • Posted by: Ken - May. 18, 2017 4:17 PM ET USA

    "Part of the opposition does not want this." Would that be the "part" that is starving?

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 18, 2017 4:05 PM ET USA

    Why is the silence of Pope Francis a problem? If he speaks his mind, it will further demoralize the Catholic opposition. His sympathies reside with the socialist dictators of South America. Does anyone expect him to change his mind about socialism? He has reminded us several times that he believes that Marxists and Communists can be good people whose heart is in the right place… just ask the Jesuit General, Sosa. Obviously, all problems have been caused by the Bush, and now made worse by Trump.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - May. 18, 2017 3:12 PM ET USA

    I understand why the word communism has never passed the Pope's lips, Phil, but I did expect you to mention it at least in passing.