Pope Francis on Sunday broke his silence about the escalating persecution of the Church in Nicaragua.
“I am following closely, with concern and sorrow, the situation in Nicaragua, which involves both people and institutions,” the pope said.
“I would like to express my conviction and my hope that, through open and sincere dialogue, the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence can still be found,” he added.
The pope spoke about Nicaragua after Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa was arrested on Friday, along with 8 companions, and after months of intensifying persecution against the Church in the country.
His remarks also came after an unusually direct move: 24 Latin American former presidents and a former Spanish prime minister asked Pope Francis last week to speak out against the persecution of the Church in Nicaragua.
The list included a mostly right-leaning group of presidents, many of them considered close to the Church in their governments. Among them were Nobel Peace Prize winner Óscar Arias from Costa Rica; Argentinian Mauricio Macri, president during much of the first years of Francis’ papacy; Eduardo Frei, a former Chilean president who was instrumental in the coalition that defeated dictator Augusto Pinochet, former Spanish conservative Prime Minister Jose María Aznar, and Iván Duque, who just left power in Colombia a couple of weeks ago.
“We are concerned about what is happening in Nicaragua under the barbaric dictatorship of Ortega-Murillo, who, after persecuting and criminalizing political and social leadership and eliminating all freedom of speech and press, now is advancing to persecuting episcopal Catholic leaders, priests, and religious sisters, even expelling them from the country, as with the Missionaries of Charity,” the letter said.
“In particular, considering what is happening under the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship, we expect a strong position in defense of the Nicaraguan people and its religious freedom by His Holiness Pope Francis, head of the universal Catholic Church,” the letter read.
But even after Pope France spoke, not everyone was satisfied. One exiled Nicaraguan prelate, Bishop Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, seemed on Sunday to criticize the pope’s call for dialogue.
“It is necessary to ask for freedom. We must not negotiate with the person [Ortega]. We must ask for freedom because they are innocent,” the bishop said during a Mass offered in Miami.
In fact, the bishop is not the only one to raise questions about the pope’s remarks - or the appearance that he was reticent to offer them in the first place.
Across Central America, Catholics are asking why Pope Francis has been slow to criticize a Nicaraguan regime bent on persecuting the Church.
There are, broadly speaking, two opinions. One says the pontiff does not criticize the situation of the Church in Nicaragua because of his ideological or political affinities; the other that he might think that direct criticism can only make things worse.
On ideology, some influential critics of Pope Francis in Central America argue that the pope is influenced by some of the same social and economic ideas that, in theory, undergird the Ortega regime.
Some of his critics argue that while Pope Francis sharply criticizes the excess of capitalism, or rebukes governments placing limits on refugee resettlement, the pontiff stays silent about human rights violations in Nicaragua, and China, among other places.
And of course, the pope has said he enjoys a “human relationship” with Raúl Castro, Cuba’s retired dictator.
But while the pope’s critics sometimes malign him as a Marxist, the label doesn’t reflect what Francis has actually taught as pope about politics and economics.
To be sure, many of the pope’s social criticisms align, in broad terms, with some political priorities of the left in Western countries - and there is an argument that he is especially vocal about those priorities, in a way that seems to many Catholics selective.
But while his economic views are not close to those of the political right, that should not imply that Pope Francis shares an ideological affinity with the Marxist-Leninist views associated with people like Daniel Ortega, or a rapport with the dictator himself.
The pontiff has in the past criticized both Marxism in general and its application in some expressions of liberation theology in particular, saying that the theological approach is “clueless” about Latin American reality.
On the other hand, the idea that Francis is concerned about making things worse in Nicaragua might hold water.
According to local reports, an open line of dialogue was established last week between the bishops’ conference and the Ortega regime, while Bishop Álvarez was under house arrest. The goal was to negotiate the possibility of exile, rather than detention, for the bishop, whom the regime was determined to silence in one way or another.
Eventually, Bishop Álvarez refused to be exiled and was taken into custody. But it is reasonable to think that a strong condemnation of the regime from Pope Francis might have brought those negotiations to end even if the bishop had been hoping for an opportunity to leave the country, and possibly seen the bishop in a prison, instead of detained in a Managua residence.
The Church’s history in Nicaragua is instructive. In the aftermath of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, the Church initially showed some optimism toward the country’s new regime. After all, the 4-decade-long Somoza dictatorship had just ended, and some Catholic leaders hoped the change would provide an opportunity for the Church in the country.
But things got bad very fast.
St. John Paul II’s pontificate was marked by full-throated, unambiguous denunciations of Marxist regimes in various parts of the world — in some cases, especially in Eastern Europe, his approach led to revolutions, and eventually to the fall of the Iron Curtain. But in Latin America, the pontiff’s strategy was not always as successful as in his native Poland.
The former pontiff had a momentous 11-hour visit to Nicaragua in 1983, in the middle of the civil war between Sandinistas and Contras.
The pope famously wagged his finger in a reprimand of the country’s Marxist minister of culture – who happened to be a priest – Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, just one of the dozens of priests working in the Sandinista government, and causing headaches in the episcopal palace in Managua, and at the Vatican.
John Paul II then celebrated Mass in the city of León, and had to ask people chanting Marxist slogans to be silent, while his homily focused on telling Catholics to “beware of false prophets [that] present themselves in sheep's clothes, but they are ferocious wolves on the inside.”
The visit was largely seen as a pointed denunciation of the Sandinista regime, and indeed, that was the pope’s intention. It was bold, and widely hailed as a courageous expression of solidarity.
It was also followed by an intense period of persecution for the Church.
In 1984, the government deported 10 foreign priests who were critical of Sandinismo. Bishop Pablo Vega of Juigalpa was exiled to Honduras in 1986. Father Luis Amando Peña was the most famous example of the dozens of priests accused in the country of terrorism, treason, or conspiracy.
Pope Francis, facing the same people in power, seems persuaded that trying a different approach is the prudent course of action.
Right or wrong, a decision to try a different way is not prima facie evidence of ideological affinity with the Nicaraguan regime. And while a softer approach has not stopped the persecution against the Church in Nicaragua, the pope seems to think it’s his best option.
That perspective is likely compelling for the pope in recent months, given that Francis is without a diplomatic presence on the ground in Nicaragua.
Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua, was declared in March persona non grata by the Ortega and had to flee the country — a decision which the Holy See called “incomprehensible.”
Sommertag was known for being open to dialogue with the Nicaraguan dictatorship, and was seen as a mediating figure between differing approaches among the Nicaraguan bishops on how to deal with the regime, which made the government’s decision all the more baffling.
But his exile means that Francis might be especially concerned not to provoke a bigger crackdown on Christians, given that the pope has no presence to engage face-to-face with the government on the Church’s behalf, nor to feed the Vatican’s Secretariat of State information straight from the country’s capital.
But critics of the cautious approach say it fails to appreciate the Church’s obligation to speak prophetically against evil, and add that the power of the pope’s articulated solidarity and moral support can not be overestimated when Christians face persecution.
Some argue that diplomatic caution doesn’t usually mitigate the persecution of Christians anyway — they point to China, where the Holy See’s deal with Beijing has been seen to give the Chinese government a public relations victory, with few actual concessions afforded to the Church.
But supporters in Latin America say that prudence in diplomacy is not the same as actually striking a deal with a regime, as the Holy See has done in China
And there is evidence that a soft-spoken approach has been somewhat effective in a nearby country under its own dangerous regime: Venezuela.
Amid massive Venezuelan protests and human rights violations in 2014, 2017, and 2019, Pope Francis held back from criticizing Nicolás Maduro or his regime by name.
Of course, the pope has signaled his view: The Venezuelan bishops’ conference has vigorously denounced human rights violations in the country. In fact, most Venezuelan bishops are among the most outspoken critics of the Maduro regime.
Pope Francis, for his part, has said that his “voice resounds along with that of the Venezuelan bishops.”
That expression was taken as far too timid by some Catholics in Venezuela, but it hardly seems to indicate any ideological affinity to the socialist regime.
And the pope’s approach - prudent or timorous, depending on whom you ask– has left the Church relatively unscathed in an environment of widespread political persecution.
Aside from tough words, and an ugly case where a Venezuelan priest was almost jailed for denouncing extrajudicial killings, the Church in Venezuela faces far less persecution than one might expect in a socialist regime. And in fact, the Catholic Church generally appears at the top in polls of the most respected institutions in the country, along with the universities.
There are Venezuelans who argue that if Pope Francis had spoken harsher words to the Venezuelan dictator, the reality would be different, and the Venezuelan Church would be Nicaragua 2.0.
Those observers say that his relative silence has allowed the Church to remain moderately free and operational, and to play a role in the - thus far - failed attempts at negotiation between the government and its opposition.
So, why is Francis cautious with Nicaragua’s dictatorship. A plausible read is that the pontiff believes he will make things worse for the Church in suffering countries, and hopes to obtain at least some results with a moderated approach.
Of course, that view has its critics, who take the pope’s silence as timidity, or even, in the worst cases, tacit support.
But it is likely that Francis and his diplomatic advisors believe that after the grand role the Church played in world affairs under Saint John Paul II, and in an increasing environment of secularization and even rancid anti-Catholicism, the Church is to play a humbler, more practical diplomatic role: instead of largely symbolic condemnations, the pope would likely say he is trying to obtain feasible results, however small they might seem.
Is diplomatic caution the right approach - in Nicaragua, Venezuela, or elsewhere?
Only time will tell.