Pope Francis Mixes His Messages in Latin America

(Bloomberg View) -- With all its pageantry and scale, a papal visit is never just a Roman Catholic affair. Not least for Pope Francis, the politically adroit pontiff, who has used his global pulpit to broadcast all manner of messages, and not always to his audiences’ delight.

It was no different in Colombia, where even as Francis was enthusiastically welcomed for a five-day visit last week, his encomiums to tolerance and forgiveness fell on a divided country. Colombia, after all, is still roiled over last year’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the insurgents who waged the longest war in the western hemisphere, which took more than 220,000 lives and displaced millions. Former President Alvaro Uribe called that agreement a “surrender” and slammed the government’s recent ceasefire with another rebel band, the ELN.

And so it has often been when Francis has landed in his native Latin America, home to Roman Catholicism’s largest and perhaps most politically demanding flock. Given the delicate path he has to walk, the politics of Francis’s homilies in his home region can sometimes be hard to parse.

True, in some of his travels, Francis has taken forthright and unequivocal stands against injustice and human misery. In Bolivia he made time to visit the country’s worst prison; in Mexico, he decried corruption as he stood beside Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto; in the U.S., he pointedly championed it as a haven for immigrants.

Yet Pope Francis’s sometimes nuanced take on Latin America’s raging controversies and crises has also often frustrated the region’s rebels even as he has raised their expectations. The pope fostered Cuba’s rapprochement with the U.S. and celebrated Mass in Havana in 2015. However, his failure to speak up against human rights abuses, or even meet with dissidents under Raul Castro’s regime, was a letdown to the island’s muzzled democrats.  

Likewise, Francis’s may have been one of the early voices for a nonviolent solution to Venezuela’s political crisis, and he took time during his Colombia trip to meet with a delegation of Venezuelan bishops over that country’s gathering social emergency. However, the Vatican’s appeals to negotiation and its avoidance of any outright criticism of the authoritarian methods of the government of Nicolas Maduro rang hollow to the country’s suffocated opposition.

Popes don’t normally stump for partisan causes or turn a homily into a harangue, of course. “It’s much easier for a spiritual leader like Francis to take a Christian stand on peace than to take a political leader to task,” historian Robert Karl, a Colombia scholar at Princeton University, told me. Indeed, within the tradition-laden confines of his mission, Francis has done a great deal to bring the symbolic weight of his pastoral office to bear on some of the most urgent questions of his time.

As anodyne it may sound, calling for Colombians to drop their quarrels in the midst of an uncertain peace and forgive their transgressors -- whose recently revealed illicit fortunes are an added affront -- is as daring a statement as it is a political gamble. Consider the 1.3 million worshipers Francis drew for his parting mass in Medellin, the former stronghold of Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s most powerful drug lord. A pope’s blessings may not be enough to mollify a polarized Colombia, nor sweep former Colombian chief peace negotiator and presidential hopeful Humberto de la Calle into office next year. But the pope’s pitch is difficult to miss.

Francis’s Latin American pilgrimages -- six countries visited in 29 months -- show he is not just politically astute “but a political animal, himself,” in the words of Argentina historian Federico Finchelstein, of the New School for Social Research. Even his recent admission that as a younger Jesuit cleric he had undergone psychoanalysis in the care of a Jewish therapist seems crafted for public consumption. “Whenever Francis speaks he is staking out a position,” said Finchelstein. “He’s saying he’s an ecumenical thinker and a modernizer, who from the beginning has made a point of taking on some of the old ways in the Vatican and church.” Witness his pronouncement near the end of his trip granting local bishops more authority to translate the liturgy as they see fit; that’s a crucial pivot from the positions taken by several of his more backward-looking predecessors, and a potentially strategic play for Rome as it competes for souls with more lively and aggressive Christian evangelical orders.

Pope Francis’s attitudes toward secular politics may sometimes lack clarity -- what’s a priest without an enigma, after all? And yet the forward-looking path on which he intends to shepherd his flock isn’t hard to divine.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

To contact the author of this story: Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net.

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