The Holy See declared itself on Friday against the brutal regime of Nicolas Maduro, capping an extraordinary few months of masterful maneuvering by the bishops of Venezuela. They have preserved the integrity of the Church’s witness in the face of a tyrant that has starved his people and refused to permit foreign aid to help them.
The statement of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State calls on Maduro to abandon his plans to hold a “constituent assembly” to rewrite the constitution in his favour. It calls again for human rights to be respected, and refers to earlier calls for political prisoners to be released and new elections to be held – which, presumably and hopefully – would lead to the end of Maduro’s regime.
Venezuela has been plunged into a lethal crisis by a communist government that has doubled down on totalitarian measures to tighten its grip on power. The collapse of petro-communism in Venezuela is now more severe than the Great Depression in the United States, or the economic decline of Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But it’s wrong to blame falling oil prices, which in any case have recently stabilized. There are no other petro-states in which the citizenry is without food or toilet paper, fleeing as refugees without papers because the government no longer has the capacity to print passports.
Venezuela has descended rapidly into starvation poverty because during the boom years the regime of Hugo Chavez ran up record debts to plug the holes in its failed, corrupt economic policies. Now under his successor, Nicolas Maduro, there is nothing left in the exchequer and little new borrowing to be had. The economic catastrophe has undermined the regime’s support, which is why Maduro has resorted to lethal violence, rampant thuggery and totalitarian measures to change the constitution to preserve his hold on power.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s vote for Maduro’s new constituent assembly – boycotted by the opposition – the government seized opposition leaders and continued its killing of protesters in the streets. The Venezuelan bishops stood with the opposition, and with the protesters. Indeed, one extraordinary photo shows Venezuelan priests facing armed government forces in the streets, pleading for them to allow medical care for a young man they had shot. The government forces let him die.
The country’s bishops made clear by name the cause of Venezuela’s agony, tweeting on Sunday a prayer to “free our homeland from the claws of communism and socialism.” It is not a matter of a clumsy bureaucracy, or of squabbling factions, or unfortunate economic shocks; Venezuela has been brought low by a failed ideology.
The Venezuelan Church now stands squarely in solidarity with the opposition and the people in the streets against the Maduro regime. In the weeks ahead, we might hope for something like the happy ending of the People Power revolution of 1986 in the Philippines, when the Filipino Church was at the forefront of the protests that brought down the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.
However matters play out in Venezuela, the leading bishops of the country have ensured that the Church’s witness will not be ambiguous. Even a few months ago, the role of the Church was confusing in Venezuela, with the astonishing phenomenon of Maduro repeatedly insisting that the bishops drop their opposition to him out of obedience to Pope Francis, who called repeatedly for dialogue but would not clearly criticize the Maduro regime, as he did yesterday.
Defenders of the previous papal strategy considered it an attempt to keep the lines of communication open, preserving the capacity of the Church to act as a mediator. Critics of the strategy thought it foolish to call for dialogue as between the predator and his prey, when the only path ahead for Venezuela was for Maduro and his socialist/communist regime to go.
Worse, given the very warm Vatican welcomes given to Cuba’s Raul Castro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales – Maduro’s socialist allies – it appeared as if Pope Francis’s determination not to criticize Maduro meant that Latin American leftists were exempt his frequent and passionate appeals for economic justice. The curious diplomacy of the Holy See on Venezuela looked like a case of ideology being more important that the reality of the suffering poor.
Whatever the reason, the pope’s aloof and ambiguous statements about Venezuela gave some plausibility to the view that the Holy See preferred a softer line on Maduro than the local bishops did.
Hence the Venezuelan bishops faced a challenge as protests filled the streets beginning in April – and were put down by Maduro’s forces with murderous violence.
They had to stand in solidarity with their people, signal their support for the opposition to Maduro, advocate for peaceful protests, insist on the illegality of the regime’s attempt to rewrite the constitution and illustrate that the Vatican was not undermining them by pursuing a different line. For good measure, they also had to attend as best as they could to the material needs of those who were starving or dying for lack of medicine.
They have accomplished all this, most strikingly on the Vatican front with Friday’s statement.
A key turning point came in June, when the leadership of the Venezuelan bishops flew uninvited to Rome and demanded a meeting with Pope Francis to insist that Holy See diplomacy get on the same page with the local bishops. The best reporting on that unprecedented initiative was published in two interviews with Crux’s Ines San Martin.
An indication of the mindset that the Venezuelans faced in Rome was later given by the now infamous essay by Father Antonio Spadaro and Pastor Miguel Figueroa in La Civiltá Cattolica. The papal confidants wrote of the approach Pope Francis takes to political disputes in general:
The pope does not want to say who is right or who is wrong for he knows that at the root of conflicts there is always a fight for power. So, there is no need to imagine a taking of sides for moral reasons, much worse for spiritual ones.
That kind of thinking would be music to Maduro’s ears, but after the Venezuelan bishops returned from Rome, unshackling themselves from such moral neutrality, they made it abundantly clear where they stood. And while the Holy Father went silent on Venezuela altogether for weeks after the bishops came to Rome, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, ratcheted up his call for free elections to effect regime change.
One clear example of Parolin’s bolder talk: When the archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, had his Chrism Mass interrupted by Maduro thugs during Holy Week, the Holy See said not a peep about his being roughed up in his own cathedral. In July though, when Cardinal Urosa was under siege in a church together with his people, Cardinal Parolin protested that specific offense.
With Friday’s forthright statement, the heroism of the Venezuelan bishops has clear support in Rome. That is not only critical for the Venezuelan people, but also for Vatican diplomacy. Despite what Spadaro and Figueroa write, the Holy See cannot remain neutral between good and evil in the affairs of nations.
Next month, Pope Francis will travel to neighboring Colombia, now inundated with refugees from Venezuela’s “economy that kills,” to use a favored papal expression. It would have been impossible for the Holy Father to greet those refugees with an exhortation to return home for further dialogue with the tyrant who had driven them from their homes.
Venezuela has entered this week into a yet more perilous stage. How much more damage the regime will do to Venezuela’s peace and disappearing prosperity remains to be seen. But it is now clear where the Church stands, a stalwart witness to truth and leader in the fight for justice.