Vatican diplomacy moves slowly and cautiously. The Pope is the spiritual leader of some 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, but he commands no armies and his statecraft runs mostly on moral authority. He and his representatives understandably prefer quiet, behind-the-scenes advocacy to public grandstanding. But from time to time, it becomes necessary for the Holy See and the Pope himself to throw down the gauntlet to worldly authorities that threaten the Church and her flock.

Such a time is at hand in Venezuela.

On Monday, Venezuela’s socialist thug-in-chief, Nicolas Maduro, called on prosecutors and the Supreme Court to investigate two Roman Catholic bishops for supposed hate crimes. Maduro didn’t name any specific prelates, but local media outlets have identified Bishops Victor Hugo Basabe of San Felipe and Antonio Lopez Castillo of Barquisimeto as potential targets. These bishops’ only “crime” is speaking out against the graft and socialist mismanagement that have transformed the country from one of the breadbaskets of Latin America into a basket case.

Bishop Basabe had recently prayed for Venezuela to be delivered from the “corrupt plague” that has forced thousands to dig “through the trash looking for garbage to satisfy their hunger.” Bishop Castillo elicited cheers from his diocesans when he expressed similar sentiments at a Mass. This wasn’t the first time that Venezuelan prelates had challenged the regime. The Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference in July tweeted a prayer asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to “free our homeland from the claws of communism and socialism.” Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, the archbishop of Caracas, hasn’t minced words, either. In September, he told the newspaper El Tiempo that “all Venezuelans, especially those who have a larger responsibility in society, have the obligation to defend their rights and everybody else’s. That’s what we do as the Catholic Church, and that’s the reason the government doesn’t want us.”

Yet Pope Francis’ response has been disappointing. So far, he has mainly offered bland, conciliatory words that seem to suggest a moral equivalence between the socialist regime and the opposition. This, even as Venezuela’s economic crisis has worsened and thousands have braved police-state brutality to protest Maduro’s dictatorship. The Holy See played mediator in a “dialogue” that went nowhere last year. At one point, the pontiff seemed to blame the opposition for the breakdown. “Part of the opposition does not want this” dialogue, he told reporters last spring. “Interesting, the opposition itself is divided and, on the other hand, it seems that the conflicts are increasingly escalating.”

Since those puzzling comments, the Vatican has issued at least one statement denouncing Maduro’s efforts to destroy the last vestiges of Venezuelan democracy. But the rhetoric from Rome remains tepid, and one gets the sense that the Pope’s heart isn’t in the struggle. Perhaps, as my former Wall Street Journal colleague William McGurn has written, the Pope still looks on world events through a Latin-American leftist lens, in which the bad guys are always capitalists, American corporations, and their local compradors. The Venezuelan situation doesn’t quite fit into that worldview. Rather, it reaffirms the truth that socialism and collectivism are the surest recipes for poverty and starvation.

Whatever its origins, the Pope’s hesitant posture is no longer tenable in light of Maduro’s latest attempt to intimidate the Church. Venezuela is an overwhelmingly Catholic country in an overwhelmingly Catholic region, and its regime has lost all legitimacy. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility. Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.

The Catholic Church cannot remain silent, nor can it equivocate, in the face of such abuse.

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