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The Holy See now looks diplomatically isolated

Most of Venezuela's neighbours boycotted Maduro's inauguration. So why did the Vatican send a representative?

Pope Francis chose multilateralism as the theme for his annual address to the diplomatic corps, delivered on January 7. Two days before that address a rather unexpected multilateral declaration was aimed at the Holy Father himself, faulting his diplomacy regarding Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Twenty ex-presidents of Latin American countries pointedly criticised, of all things, the papal Urbi et Orbi address, customarily one of the least controversial items in the papal diary. It would be like the Queen being blasted for Her Majesty’s annual Christmas address by former prime ministers.

In the Urbi et Orbi, Pope Francis had prayed for Venezuela that “all the members of society [should] work fraternally for the country’s development and aid the most vulnerable sectors of the population.” In regard to Nicaragua, the Pope asked that the inhabitants of the country “see themselves once more as brothers and sisters, so that divisions and discord will not prevail, but all may work to promote reconciliation and to build together the future of the country.”

It’s boilerplate Pope Francis, that all social problems are to be resolved through dialogue between brothers. But that boilerplate, invoked regardless of whichever situation is being addressed – Syria, Ukraine, China – can grate upon those who are faced not with a dispute among brothers, but ravenous wolves devouring the sheep.

“The call for harmony on the part of Your Holiness, given the current context, can be understood by the victimised nations that they should come to agreement with their victimisers,” wrote the former presidents.

The letter came from the Democratic Initiative of Spain and the Americas (IDEA network), and was signed by the following: Óscar Arias, Costa Rica; Nicolás Ardito Barletta, Panama; Enrique Bolaños, Nicaragua; Alfredo Cristiani, El Salvador; Felipe Calderón, Mexico; Rafael Ángel Calderón, Costa Rica; Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica; Fernando de la Rúa, Argentina; Vicente Fox, Mexico; Eduardo Frei, Chile; César Gaviria, Colombia; Osvaldo Hurtado, Ecuador; Luis Alberto Lacalle, Uruguay; Jamil Mahuad, Ecuador; Mireya Moscoso, Panama ; Andrés Pastrana Arango, Colombia; Jorge Tuto Quiroga, Bolivia; Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, Costa Rica; Álvaro Uribe, Colombia; Juan Carlos Wasmosy, Paraguay.

Óscar Arias, the two-time president of Costa Rica, organised the letter, which is notable, as he won the Nobel Peace Prize precisely for his efforts to resolve conflicts in the region. That he would judge calls for fraternal dialogue to be harmful indicates how serious the situation is in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and how the Holy See’s response underplays that.

Of course, it was not the Urbi et Orbi that earned the ire of the former presidents, but the whole of the Holy See’s diplomacy regarding Venezuela and Nicaragua. Not to put too fine a point on it, the former presidents find that the Holy See’s emphasis on dialogue fails to recognise that between the tyrant and the tyrannised there is a qualitative moral difference. Venezuela and Nicaragua are being ruled by tyrannical regimes, about which Catholic social teaching has quite a bit of reflection to offer. The Venezuelan bishops have been rather direct about bringing that tradition to bear, declaring in plenary assembly the day before Nicolás Maduro’s second term began that his regime was “illegitimate”.

In Nicaragua, the local Church has been at the forefront of the opposition to Daniel Ortega’s brutality and authoritarianism – and has suffered physical violence as a result. That the Holy See is pursuing a different line from the Venezuelan bishops was presented as a possible “good cop/bad cop” manoeuvre by some analysts. But neither the Holy See nor the Venezuelan Church is the “cop” here. A better description is that both are in prison, and the Venezuelans protest their innocence while the Holy See seeks to negotiate the terms of their unlawful confinement.

What the former presidents’ letter indicates is how isolated the Holy See has become diplomatically. Few countries sent representatives to Maduro’s inaugural ceremony, the diplomatic equivalent of a vote of non-confidence. The Holy See did send a representative, not a nuncio but a lower-ranking chargé d’affaires. But even that was seen as a concession to the regime by journalists, and in response the Holy See press office had to put out a defensive explanation about doing so.

The Holy See’s inability to speak clearly about what the entire world knows is going on in Venezuela is perplexing, given that the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was serving as nuncio in Venezuela when he was elevated by Pope Francis in 2013. The recently appointed sostituto, second only to the Secretary of State, is himself a Venezuelan, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra.

Maduro, noting the Holy See’s representative at his inauguration, praised his “bravery” for coming. What is more humiliating for the Holy See? Praise from Maduro or criticism from 20 former presidents?

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of