My fellow Crux contributor Father Raymond de Souza on Wednesday issued a plea for Pope Francis to intervene directly in Venezuela to mobilize international opinion against the dictatorial and discredited regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
The Holy See, he claimed, was “unsure how to proceed.” At risk was “its entire diplomatic credibility.” Without “a quick and dramatic intervention in favor of the opposition to Maduro, Pope Francis’s Venezuela policy will compromise his status as a serious player in global affairs.”
The days of the Vatican doing conflict-mediating are clearly over, he says; Maduro has played them for a fool; the regime is obviously not going to change, and meanwhile the Venezuelan people — as everyone can see — are in meltdown.
“Why would Pope Francis seek to remain neutral between such a regime and the suffering masses?” he asks.
I’m frankly amazed that de Souza has fallen right into the trap Maduro has laid and which his henchmen are currently exploiting, of a “left-wing” Francis versus “right-wing” bishops. Given that De Souza has elsewhere admonished Francis for what he thinks are his suspiciously socialist views, I guess this was a trap waiting for him.
But he couldn’t be more wrong. Francis is appalled by the Maduro regime and the Venezuela situation. And has said so over and over.
He is also a pope committed to a “healthy decentralization,” to synodality and collegiality, which means not undercutting local bishops or ignoring them but working in concert with them. And in this case, pace Maduro and de Souza, we have a coordinated strategy in which the Vatican and Latin America’s bishops are speaking in unison.
Francis has hardly been silent about the crisis: In April 2014, for example, he called on the country’s political leaders to desist from violence and respect truth and justice, and a year later deplored the killing of students who were peacefully protesting.
In October 2016, he agreed in principle to the Venezuelan opposition’s request to facilitate talks and in December his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, spelled out the conditions for those talks to take place: the government must call elections, restore the National Assembly, release political prisoners, and open a “humanitarian channel” to oversee aid and relief.
Later, the pope made clear those conditions had not been met and therefore the Vatican could not undertake that facilitating role.
In April this year, in his Urbi et Orbe, he deplored the killings and jailings in Venezuela, urged human rights to be respected, and called for “negotiated solutions to the grave humanitarian social, political and economic crisis which is hitting the people.”
He was echoing a statement by the Venezuelan bishops on March 31 that deplored the way politics was understood by the government as “conquest of power, forgetting the real needs of the people.” Faced with this situation, the bishops said, it was time to consider “civil disobedience, peaceful demonstrations, just recourse to national and international public bodies, and civic protests.”
It was a message in turn echoed by the Conference of Religious in Venezuela, which spoke of the government’s indifference to the suffering of the people, and called for the return of the rule of law, separation of powers, and the restitution of parliament.
The Society of Jesus made a similar call, for democracy with elections, freedom of political prisoners, recognition of the National Assembly, and receipt of international aid — all of which have been consistently called for by Venezuela’s opposition.
On April 16, Francis sent a message to Latin-American countries calling for peaceful responses to controversies over the establishment of democratic institutions, in full respect for the rule of law, and cited Venezuela. This was immediately echoed by different Latin-American bishops’ conferences — Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Chile — who in statements expressed solidarity with their fellow Venezuelan pastors and denounced in categorical language the violence, deprivation, and human-rights violations of the Maduro regime.
Which brings us to the continental gathering of Latin-American bishops in San Salvador earlier this month, when a united statement from the whole Church south of the Rio Grande deplored the lack of food, medicine, and basic freedoms in Venezuela.
This was, incidentally, a first for CELAM, the first time it has raised its collective voice to deplore the social and political situation of one of the Latin-American nations. And it won’t be the last time it speaks on Venezuela: CELAM members to appoint a monitoring group to check on developments.
The point, then, should be clear. The Catholic Church’s response to the crisis in Venezuela is a coordinated one, from Rome to Caracas and beyond.
The detailed communiqués are left to the local episcopates, while Francis validates and globalizes the core messages in overarching terms, so there can be no doubt about where he stands.
Which is certainly not neutral, as Parolin made clear on the eve of the visit to Fatima, when he said (again) that the solution to Venezuela’s crisis lies in free and fair elections.
But we’re still left with de Souza’s call for the Pope actively to come out in favor of — he doesn’t say which — all or some of the 17 parties opposing the Maduro regime.
Given that the opposition as a whole is calling for the very four demands the Pope has insisted on in order for the Vatican to be involved in facilitation, and given that those four demands have been echoed by the Church across Latin America, one might say simply that he has.
A more specific backing to particular parties would drag the Holy See directly into election rivalries between different groups, which would do more than anything else to destroy its diplomatic credibility, and compromise its legitimacy in the future.
According to the Vatican expert Luis Badilla, neither the government nor the opposition could give the guarantees the Holy See required for it to be involved in facilitating talks. All sides, he told Agence France Presse, have “used the pope and are not trustworthy.”
As Francis pointed out on the return from Cairo, the opposition is deeply divided, and some of the parties were opposed to any dialogue with the Maduro regime, which would make any facilitation by the Vatican impossible.
He wasn’t “blaming the opposition,” as de Souza claimed. He was explaining why the prospect of mediation has so far failed.
While insisting, in broad terms, on the need for elections and human rights and relief of suffering, the Vatican and Pope Francis have to remain supra partes in order to be able to insist, now and in the future, on what is in Venezuela’s best interests. It can’t do that if it becomes the tool of particular factions and interest groups.
Right now, what is in Venezuela’s best interests is that all agree to a negotiated way out of the crisis, or it will continue to spiral into fratricidal violence.
For the Church to back one party of the opposition against any of the others would be to escalate the conflict. It has to be a joint exercise if it is to have any chance of success.
That’s what Francis meant when he said that without the necessary guarantees “we are just playing childish games that lead nowhere.”
But he said things were happening and moving forward. I have no idea what he is referring to, but Parolin and the local bishops are continuing to press for all sides to agree to a negotiated way out, one that creates the conditions for a democratic future and a government of the common good.
That’s not neutrality. It’s the Gospel mandate.