On the one hand, the Pope backs the Venezuelan bishops. On the other, he's keeping the Holy See neutral. What's going on?
Pope Francis’ recent letter to Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro confirmed the Holy See’s position on the Venezuelan crisis, while demonstrating that Maduro has become an increasingly isolated global figure.
While the Holy See has long maintained its diplomatic ties with Venezuela, and for this reason a papal representative to Caracas took part in Maduro’s swearing in for his second term on January 10, Pope Francis and the Holy See’s diplomacy has always been on the Venezuelan bishops side, and backed their efforts to restore social peace, relief the population and call for new and free elections.
The pope’s letter, however, showed that Maduro’s request for a mediation can take place only under some specific conditions.
This is the reason why the letter was not leaked by Maduro’s entourage, but from other sources that gave it to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. The Holy See Press Office limited itself to saying that it would not commentc on a private letter, indirectly confirming that the pope might have actually written the letter.
The letter, two pages and a half long, is dated February 7, 2019, and it is addressed to “Excelentismo señor Nicolas Maduro Moros, Caracas” (To Most Excellent Mister Nicolas Maduro Moros).
The pope did not refer to Maduro as president, and in that way his letter backed the Venezuelan bishops. Gathered for their 111st plenary assembly on January 9, the bishops said that “Maduro’s claim to start a new presidential mandate on Jan 10 is illegitimate at his roots, and paves the way for the unrecognition of the government, as democratic foundations on justice and right are lacking.”
In the letter, Pope Francis reminded Maduro that the Holy See has been committed to mediation in the past, but in all of the attempts “what had been agreed in the meetings was not followed by concrete action to carry out the accords,” and that “words seemed to delegitimize the good propositions put into a written form.”
Pope Francis also stressed that he did not back “any kind of dialogue,” but only “the dialogue that takes places when all conflicting parties put the common good above any other interest and work for unity and peace.”
Pope Francis also recalled a letter by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of State, that set the conditions for a dialogue: liberation of political prisoners, re-establishment of the constitutional assembly, open access for humanitarian aid, free political elections.
Those conditions are still in effect.
The letter is tailored in a perfect diplomatic style.
On one hand, Pope Francis takes the bishops’ position. On the other hand, he places the Holy See in the middle between two positions: that of the US and Europe, eager to recognize Juan Guaidó as interim president; and that of China, Russia, Turkey and Iran, who are on the opposite position.
As a diplomatic habit, the Holy See never breaks diplomatic ties. Papal ambassadors are called to stay on the ground as long as it is possible, to support the bishops and to carry on institutional dialogue that can resolve into an aid for population.
For example, the Holy See never broke diplomatic ties with Cuba, not even when Castro regime persecuted Christians. In fact, ties stayed because there was an ongoing persecution.
Read through this lens, the Secretariat of State’s decision not to meet at an institutional level the delegation Guaidó sent to Italy for talks with Italian government on February 11 should be no surprise.
The Holy See makes no interference in domestic policies, and the meeting with Guaidó could have been instrumentalized. The delegation reportedly met with Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, deputy to the Secretariat of State, who is Venezuelan. The meeting was framed as a meeting of a Venezuelan that works in Secretariat of State and his concerned for his country and some representatives coming from his country.
Pope Francis’ statements on the matter have always been prudent. Coming back from Panama on Jan. 28, Pope Francis told journalists that it is not his role as a pastor to pick political sides, and said he is terrified of the possibility of a bloodshed there.
However, the narrative that presents the pope on a different side from that of Venezuelan bishops is not correct at all.
It must not be forgotten that Pope Francis, after a visit from the presidency of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, said his voice “resounds in the voice of the Venezuelan bishops.”
Pope Francis’ followed each step of the Venezuelan crisis. On April 10, 2014 he addressed an appeal to political leaders of Venezuela and asked to respect truth and justice. On March 1, 2015, the Pope condemned the death of some students involved in pacific protests.
The Holy See accepted to conduct a facilitation of the dialogue in October 2016, and on Dec. 2, 2016 Cardinal Parolin stressed the four conditions. Coming back from Egypt on Apr. 29, 2017, Pope Francis denounced that the government did not accomplish these conditions.
On April 30, 2017 after the prayer of Regina Coeli, Pope Francis spoke of the “dramatic news” on Venezuela and “the worsening of clashes there, with many people reported dead, injured and detained”, and appealed “to the government and all the members of Venezuelan society to avoid any further forms of violence, to respect human rights and to negotiate solutions to the serious humanitarian, social, political and economic crisis that is exhausting the population”.
The action of bishops moved along with Pope Francis’ declaration. This combined action encouraged all the local and regional Catholic realities of Latin America to take a common stance: the Conference of Religious Brothers and Sisters in Venezuela, the Jesuits of Venezuela, but also the Colombian, Ecuadorian, Uruguayan, Chilean and Bolivian bishops conference took strong stances on the Venezuelan crisis, which weakened Maduro position.
Despite the will to keep a diplomatic neutrality, also the Holy See diplomacy was very active.
Cardinal Parolin, who was nuncio to Venezuela from 2009 to 2013, stressed on May 13, 2017 that “the only solution for Venezuela is elections.”
On Aug. 4, 2017, the Pope sent via the Secretariat of State a communiqué asking “all the political actors, and in particular the government, to ensure the full respect of the human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as of current Constitution; to suspend initiative like the new constitutional assembly that, instead of favoring reconciliation and paz, foster a climate of tensions and confrontations; to create conditions for a negotiated solution”.
It is also noteworthy that, in his urbi et orbi message of Christmas 2018, Pope Francis included Venezuela among the countries that are enduring serious humanitarian crisis, on a par with Yemen, Syria and Nicaragua: the decision turned out to be prescient.
The pope also spoke about Venezuela on his new year speech to the diplomatic corps, and said that he wishes “that peaceful institutional means can be found to provide solutions to the political, social and economic crisis, means that can make it possible to help all those suffering from the tensions of recent years, and to offer all the Venezuelan people a horizon of hope and peace.”
The pope’s letter to Maduro comes at the end of a path that the pope and the Venezuelan bishops have been following since the beginning. The Holy See will never break diplomatic ties, and will always seek dialogue and reconciliation. But, on the other hand, bishops on the ground are backed in supporting the population and to work for the common good.
This is, in the end, how the pontifical diplomacy works.