On the plane from Paraguay back to Rome, Pope Francis had much to smile about.
In his second official trip to his native continent, the Argentine pontiff was received as a homecoming hero. Millions thronged to catch a glimpse of the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires. His eight-day tour was a whirlwind of global media coverage for a pope whose humility and celebrity alike somehow seem to have no bounds. His allure was even tempting for two of the region’s most iconoclastic leaders: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who jostled to leverage his visit into implicit political endorsements. In the case of the latter, the attempt to appropriate the Pope’s left-leaning ideals involved a gift of questionable taste—a hammer and sickle-shaped crucifix (to which the Pope supposedly muttered back, “Eso no está bien“—that’s not ok).
As with almost all who try to shoehorn his messages of compassion and stewardship into their own political agenda, Francis danced around Correa and Morales’ overtures—with little more effort than it takes him to make a self-deprecating joke. The awkward crucifix photo-op aside, Francis left South America having likely accomplished everything he had hoped for. He had bluntly and honestly addressed economic, political, and social realities in the region—including sharp critiques of the “new colonialism” of unfettered capitalism and the “cowardice” of failing to fight climate change. He visited inmates at Bolivia’s largest and most infamous prison. Above all, his trip was a massive rallying cry for the Church in Latin America—a region home to almost 40% of the world’s Catholics but struggling to retain membership.
On the flight from Asunción, his meandering, hour-long press conference was—as usual—upbeat, conversational, and clearly unscripted. Yet for all of the Pope’s characteristic openness, he clearly ducked one question from the press: the possibility of further papal mediation in the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, going beyond the short-lived UNASUR talks the Vatican was involved with in 2014.
For Francis, this was a missed opportunity, although perhaps not a surprising choice. Among all countries in Latin America, Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela represents the most irksome challenge for the Pope’s particular brand of progressivism. Venezuela is particularly vexing for Francis, and not because it is less Catholic or in any other way less receptive to the Pope’s message. In fact, it’s the opposite. At face value, those who wholeheartedly embrace the Pope’s ideologically-ambiguous, anti-market ideals can risk coming off just a little too similar to Maduro’s similarly anti-market leftism. In more ways than one, Francis’ relationship with the ideological movements that swept leaders like Chávez, Maduro, Morales, and Correa into office is about as uncomfortable as he looked while accepting the “communist crucifix.”
This is not, of course, to similarly shoehorn the un-shoehorn-able Francis. Even beyond tone and tenor, the Pope is a far cry ideologically from Maduro and company. Their ends—combatting inequality, elevating the poor in particular, and fighting the sins of global capitalism—may sound the same, but the implied means could not be more different. This is why the Pope sidestepped Morales and Correa’s attempts to politicize his message and why, as of late, he has grown more vocal in his veiled critiques of populism and authoritarianism. As The Economist noted, his trip involved a blunt warning against “dictatorships, personality cults and the eagerness for sole leaderships.”
Yet this delicate balance between economic progressivism and political restraint is precisely why Venezuela is a critical test for Francis’ skills. Unlike Bolivia and Ecuador—both of which have stayed mostly stable under their left-wing governments—Venezuela’s “21st century socialism” teeters on the brink of disaster. Like many revolutions before it, Bolivarianism is quickly becoming a cautionary tale for those overly-eager to combat social and economic injustices. The question, “how do we fight for the poor without becoming Venezuela?” is an important and relevant one.
To the Pope’s credit, he has long advocated for renewed political dialogue in Venezuela—as far back as his meeting with Maduro in 2013. The UNASUR dialogue in 2014 may not have been fully successful, but the Apostolic Nuncio bolstered its legitimacy. Francis has at many points condemned violence and urged reconciliation between the government and the opposition. It’s not entirely clear why Maduro cancelled a trip to Rome and meeting with Francis in June, but it’s possible he was worried about what the Pope would say about human rights and political prisoners.
Just as importantly, in his advocacy Francis rarely expounds on specific policy solutions, especially towards the economy. Nor is it perhaps his place. His strongest claim is to morality and values; he leaves the details up to the politicians. The problem of how to not become Venezuela—and even the specifics of how to resolve the current political and economic crisis—is one for the rest of us.
All of that said, though, Venezuela remains a country where the Pope can and should follow through on his offer and use his political influence to help bring about change. It is difficult to imagine a positive outcome without some measure of dialogue between the opposition and the government, and he is uniquely positioned to facilitate that discussion. The growing humanitarian and economic crises have reached troubling proportions, presenting a prime opportunity for Francis to show how his sometimes radical progressivism is nuanced, pragmatic, and politically savvy. If he were to mediate a peaceful political transition in Venezuela—away from a social justice project that has only brought more suffering—his platform would gain even further legitimacy than it has now. He could show once and for all that many of the excuses for inaction on behalf of the poor, on the part of governments around the world, are straw men.
After all, care for the weak is not inherently wed to authoritarianism and distrust of markets does not have to result in economic mismanagement. If Francis’ political wizardry were successful in Venezuela, he could prove that compassion is an effective weapon against not only runaway capitalism, but also socialism gone awry.