Venezuela, one of the most curious recent cases in Vatican diplomacy, continues to grow more curious still. The visit two weeks ago to Rome of the leading bishops of Venezuela may well have been unprecedented, a highly public visit aimed at, apparently, clarifying that the pope was on their side, and not that of Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro.

The address of Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See’s representative at the United Nations, on Tuesday at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Mexico, reiterated the need for free elections in Venezuela, presumably so that the people can throw out Maduro’s regime, which is literally starving its people.

The Auza intervention ended a remarkable fortnight for the Holy See regarding Venezuela, one in which it appears that Pope Francis himself has decided not to speak any further on the situation. And it is possible that that is exactly what the Venezuelan bishops asked for – or the best that they could get.

On June 8, Francis received in an emergency audience the leadership of the Venezuelan episcopal conference, together with Venezuela’s two cardinals.

It clearly was not a Vatican initiative for them to come; the meeting did not appear on the pope’s weekly schedule, which had to be hastily reshuffled when the Venezuelans arrived in Rome. They decided on their own that it was necessary to come en masse to see the Holy Father to clear up confusion on the Vatican’s position in the Venezuelan crisis.  

Cardinal Balthazar Porras of Merida had already been to see Francis at the end of April, but apparently that audience did not achieve what was intended. Hence the Venezuelan show of force in Rome.

It is hard to recall a similar meeting. It is not unusual when a crisis develops somewhere in the world for the Vatican to invite – or summon – the local bishops for consultations, or to express the Holy Father’s solidarity with the peoples afflicted.

But for the leading bishops of a country to rush off to Rome uninvited in order to get the Holy See on the same page as the local Church is something altogether different.

Venezuela’s bishops have been leading figures in the opposition to the Chavez-Maduro regime’s anti-democratic measures and human rights violations for a long time.

The recent economic crisis, where petro-socialism has collapsed along with the price of oil, has exacerbated the regime’s brutality, brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets, and ratcheted up the murderous violence Maduro has unleashed against the opposition, including the Church.

As I wrote earlier, the lack of clear condemnation by Pope Francis of the Maduro regime, at a time when the local bishops had been so courageous, was compromising the credibility of the Holy See’s diplomacy. It appeared that leftist Latin American autocrats were immune from the fierce language the Holy Father routinely uses for financiers or arms traders.

My colleague Austen Ivereigh replied that, in detecting a gap between a supposedly aloof Francis and a passionately engaged local Church, I had fallen into a trap set by Maduro himself. According to Ivereigh, Francis was following a master plan that just needed time to bear fruit.

The “trap” set by Maduro – to claim that the pope was taking his side, calling for dialogue, rather the Venezuelan bishops’ position of clear opposition – took in quite a few people.

For example, The Economist commented after the June 8 meeting:

The country’s bishops have consistently challenged abuses of human rights and democratic procedure by the regimes of the late Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. But to many Venezuelans, the pope himself has been too willing to give Mr Maduro a free pass. Last October, for example, the Venezuelan strongman turned a meeting with Francis into a propaganda coup. To this day, Mr Maduro claims that by taking such a critical stance, the country’s bishops are out of step with their own pontiff. He blames the local prelates for the stalling of a political “dialogue” which he wants to conduct on his own self-interested terms.

Just what you might expect from a libertarian magazine of the right? How about a long profile on the situation in Venezuela from the liberal Catholic magazine, America:

Mother Church has grown to extend her protective wings over her people… The Venezuelan bishops, supported by the Holy See, themselves calling for the people to “not be intimidated,” but instead to “rebel against the dictatorship peacefully and democratically” because “never before have so many Venezuelans had to eat garbage” as the message that was read recently from pulpits across the land stated. I would be remiss if I did not also recognize that there have been missteps along the path of resistance. The Catholic Church is after all a political organization, just as it is a spiritual one. Pope Francis’ attempts to pull the church into stillborn dialogues with the narco-communists who govern Venezuela only shore up the regime’s legitimacy and hand another bitter disappointment to the nation’s citizen-warriors.

Above all, it seems that Venezuela’s own bishops have fallen into the “trap” Ivereigh described, sensing that Maduro’s attempt to enlist Francis in favour of his “dialogue” to rewrite the constitution was gaining some traction in world opinion.

Hence the visit to Rome. Before and after the meeting, the bishops laid out their case in interviews with Ines San Martin of Crux. They reported that they presented the Holy Father with a dossier of human rights abuses and killings by the Maduro regime. After the meeting, they insisted that there was no distance between their position and that of the pope, and that they had his “full trust.”

In support of which Francis has, for two weeks, said nothing. The Holy See Press Office made no statement on the content of the audience. In the pope’s Angelus and general audience appearances since, Venezuela has never been mentioned.

What happened at the meeting? There are three options.

First, that the bishops flew over urgently to commend how the pope was handling the situation and asked for more of the same, which is implausible on its face.

Second, that the bishops asked for a clear, unambiguous condemnation of the Maduro regime and support for their own demand for regime change through free elections. If they asked for that, they did not get it.

Third, the bishops could have asked the pope simply not to say anything more on the issue, leaving themselves to take the lead, claiming papal support. If they asked for that, they got it.

After the meeting on June 8, Archbishop Diego Padron, president of the Venezuela bishops, spoke of a letter sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, to the government and opposition last December.

Referring to the letter as the “Magna Carta” for resolving the crisis, Padron listed the four elements the letter insisted are necessary: A humanitarian corridor to allow foreign relief supplies to enter, re-establishing the full powers of the National Assembly, the release of political prisoners, and free elections.

What happened the next week illustrates the problem the bishops were attempting to overcome. Maduro wrote a public letter to Francis, again asking him to intervene against the Venezuelan bishops’ opposition. It is also hard to recall another occasion where a tyrant wrote to the pope to enlist his support against the local bishops.

Parolin, for his part, wrote a letter at the same time to six former Latin American presidents who are trying to resolve the Venezuelan crisis, restating the points of his “Magna Carta” letter. Auza took up the same points this week in Mexico.

As the crisis deepens and the brutalization of the Venezuelan people continues, the curious case of Vatican diplomacy continues. The pope goes silent. The secretary of state repeats what he said six months ago. And the Venezuelan bishops go home, having achieved something minimal, but important, from their emergency visit to Rome: Let the Vatican do no harm.