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Pope Francis vs. Venezuela: Historical perspective

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 18, 2017

Phil Lawler and Catholic World News have provided excellent coverage of the conflict between the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan bishops. You can search through the news archives to find steady documentation of the problems in Venezuela over the past several years. Recently, closer attention has been paid to what Pope Francis might or might not do to help. See, for example, Phil’s latest commentary: Mounting criticism of Pope’s silence on Venezuelan crisis.

When considering this sort of situation, will report to the best of its ability, but will always be modest in its own judgments. It is not uncommon for the world, and sometimes even the faithful in a given country, to perceive what they regard as a dearth of effective papal leadership. This was brought home to me during the past year as I read two very interesting books on Catholic action against Hitler (see Catholics confronting Hitler and Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler). During that conflict, the work of the Pope and the Holy See was often invisible, and yet there was tremendous activity behind the scenes.

You may be old enough to recall, more recently, the famous Ostpolitik approach to Communism created and followed by Pope Saint John XXIII and Pope Blessed Paul VI. This was a policy of conciliation. The Vatican muted all negative criticisms of the Soviet Union while trying to ease relations behind the scenes. The goal was to seek a way of living for Catholics and other Christians within the Warsaw Pact nations, rather than a way of dying. Ostpolitik was quietly discarded under Pope Saint John Paul II, who had good reason to know that it would not work against the Soviet Union. Still, during the pontificate of John Paul II, the Vatican was more often circumspect than not. Even more recently, we saw a similar pattern in Pope Francis’ handling of the crisis in the Ukraine.

There is, of course, no divine protection for the effectiveness of papal diplomacy. But insofar as the Holy See maintains formal diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible, without having any political power of its own, it seeks to make good use of the methods proper to diplomacy. And the first method of diplomacy is to work as much as possible behind the scenes, rather than emphasizing public criticism and condemnation. In addition, modern popes have been acutely aware that if they take too strong a line with despotic or totalitarian governments, it is not themselves but the Catholics in those countries who will bear the brunt of the reaction.

Communication with the bishops on the ground

This means that only very rarely will popes condemn by name this or that regime, and it will be fruitless for the faithful to expect them to do so. Under Nazism and Communism, in fact, many local bishops implored the popes not to be too aggressive in their denunciations. On the other hand, we certainly would expect that the bishops struggling under ruthless regimes would have excellent private communications with Rome, and would find reassurances and guidance from the pope through those communications. In addition to the nearly unstoppably sophisticated communications systems available in our time, the Catholic bishops around the world communicate with Rome through a highly-developed (and sometimes very secret) diplomatic correspondence system. The Church is fairly good at this: Intra-Church communications are seldom completely cut off, even when hostilities are very great.

Pope Francis is far more “off the cuff” than most popes have been, and he is also far less careful about what he says on the spur of the moment. In many ways this is an endearing quality, but the positives are often outweighed by negatives introduced through deficiencies of precision and consistency. Nonetheless, we cannot be surprised that we only very rarely find any pope speaking out publicly against a nation’s government. Again, as a rule, popes have been reluctant to issue decisive public statements against an evil regime, when those statements might endanger the Church in the country in question. In fact, it is far safer to comment on the deficiencies of those governments which do not respond to criticism by persecuting their Christian citizens than it is to condemn far worse governments that delight in such persecution.

Where does that leave us? Usually it leaves us frustrated because we do not really know what is going on. In just the same way, many Catholics were frustrated during World War II. Ordinarily we would not hear about the private communications of the Holy See to a particular government and, perhaps especially in the current pontificate, we may not be able to discern a consistent message in a pope’s statements. We are more likely to hear the Holy Father’s favorite generic themes, such as the recent admonition to ambassadors to promote a humane economy and resist fundamentalism—which Pope Francis has apparently redefined as the use of religion and God to gain power over others.

But there is one group which should never be in the dark about the Pope’s communications with a particular government, and that is the bishops in the country in question. What matters is that the bishops know what the Pope wants from them, and the Pope knows what the bishops need from him. This is essential if they are to work together for the same ends. If that is lacking, we have a serious problem, but how would we discern the lack without the personal testimony of those involved? When it comes to the Catholic side of such delicate and dangerous situations, what the journalists know wins third place in a field of two.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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