Pope Francis must speak out on Venezuela
Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro is forcing the question: Will Pope Francis take a clear public stand in opposition to a leftist leader who styles himself as a populist?
For years Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, have used the Catholic bishops of Venezuela as their whipping-boys, charging that the Church is aligned with the traditional power structure. The rhetoric of Maduro’s latest statement is typical:
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the country has traditionally been allied to the sectors that held onto powers and privileges, and destroyed the country for almost a century.
The Venezuelan bishops have been firm and consistent in their opposition to Maduro’s campaign to consolidate his power. In recent months, with the country in the grips of a crippling economic and political crisis, the bishops have issued a series of urgent statements, warning against the drive toward authoritarian rule. In advance of a government-sponsored referendum (which was seen by most international observers as a rigged process), the bishops prayed that the Virgin Mary’s intercession might “free our country from the clutches of Communism and socialism.”
From the Vatican, however, there has been silence. And Maduro, a skillful demagogue, has not hesitated to call attention to that silence, claiming that while the Venezuelan bishops oppose him, the Pope does not. Until just this week, there has been no clear statement from the Vatican to prove Maduro wrong.
To appreciate the current challenge to the Pope, it is necessary to appreciate the background.
A year ago, Maduro asked the Vatican to mediate a dispute between his regime and the opposition, which controls the country’s parliament. The Vatican agreed, the terms of the negotiations were hammered out, and sessions were scheduled. But then the Maduro government failed to fulfill the conditions set for the talks (which included release of political prisoners and permission for humanitarian agencies to deliver food and medicine to Venezuela’s suffering poor), and government representatives failed to show up for the talks. Eventually the Vatican representative, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, pulled out of the process, indicating that he would be available if and when real talks took place.
In effect the Maduro regime had scuttled the talks. The Venezuelan bishops placed the blame for failed negotiations squarely on the government. But the Vatican, while issuing repeated calls for new talks, avoided taking sides in the dispute. So Maduro was able to issue his own propaganda, claiming that the opposition was balking at negotiations.
As conditions in Venezuela deteriorated, and Maduro’s heavy-handed methods prompted mass protest demonstrations, Pope Francis issued his own calls for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. But he too carefully avoided any language that would have indicated support for one side of the conflict. By June, the gap between the statements of the Pope and those of the Venezuelan bishops had become impossible to ignore. A delegation of Venezuelan prelates visited the Vatican, conferred with the Pontiff, and returned home without any major public statement. As one perceptive analyst observed, there were two ways to interpret that silence: either the Venezuelan bishops had failed to persuade the Holy Father to take a stronger stand, or they had actually asked him to maintain his silence, because they feared a clear papal intervention would be detrimental to their aims!
Bear in mind that Pope Francis has shown a special sympathy for “popular movements,” and that Maduro claims to be acting as a populist. As William McGurn observes in a fine Wall Street Journal column, Pope Francis has been harsh in his judgment of the sort of “populism” practiced by Donald Trump, but seems loathe to denounce the “populism” of a Latin American leftist.
Still the Vatican did side with the Venezuelan bishops this week, with a statement from the Secretariat of State opposing Maduro’s plan to set up a new national assembly and write a new constitution expanding his powers. The Vatican statement was not nearly as strong as the language used by the Venezuelan bishops, but it was clear enough: the Secretariat of State was warning against Maduro’s plan to seize power.
So how did the Venezuelan leader respond? He fell back on his old reliable rhetoric, claiming that the Vatican Secretariat of State, like the Venezuelan hierarchy, was in the hands of the old power establishment. Maduro still insisted that Pope Francis was on his side:
One thing is us, Catholics, the people of Christ; another is the trajectory of Pope Francis as a defendant of the peoples with his humility, and another very different one is the structure of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, the bureaucracy.
Maduro is playing a classic gambit of the would-be dictator: trying to sap the power of the Church while claiming that he represents the true spirit of Catholicism—that he, and only he, understands the future goals of the brave new Church led by Pope Francis. In a country that is still overwhelmingly Catholic, this rhetoric is helping Maduro to silence his Catholic opponents and expand his power.
The Venezuelan bishops have done their utmost; they need support. Another strong statement by the Secretariat of State won’t solve the problem; Maduro has already shown how he will explain it away. The word must come from the top; Pope Francis himself must speak out.
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