Pope Francis’ journey to Ecuador, which kicks off on Monday, “is to cultivate the virtues of the people and not to politicize his presence,” Quito Archbishop Fausto Trávez said late last week in public remarks.
Good luck with that. President Rafael Correa has spent weeks appropriating the pope as his government’s very own 21st century socialist icon. So unless the Holy Father finds a way to signal Ecuadoreans otherwise, the visit is likely to leave the impression that the church is in solidarity with the repressive Correa machine.
That would be bad. But it could get even worse, depending upon what transpires during the pope’s visit to Cuba in September.
In early June, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega declared that there are no political prisoners on the island. That offended Cuba’s human-rights community, which estimates that the regime holds some 70 prisoners of conscience. The church doesn’t seem to want to know about them.
Last week, in yet another sign that the church wants to distance itself from the Cuban struggle for justice, a Catholic priest banned the women’s human-rights group known as the Ladies in White from attending Mass at his Cienfuegos parish dressed in white on the grounds that other parishioners object.
These events came in the same month that Francis hosted Raúl Castro at the Vatican. Castro used the photo op, which went viral, to claim legitimacy for the bloody 55-year-old dictatorship.
Now the Holy Father is walking into a political mine field in Ecuador—the first stop on a nine-day tour that includes Bolivia and Paraguay. In Ecuador he will celebrate open-air Masses in Guayaquil and Quito, have lunch with a Jesuit community, visit the Catholic University, and make a private visit to a historic Jesuit church.
The pope will also meet with Mr. Correa, who undoubtedly will have plenty of photographers on hand. In a republic that protected civil liberties, the meeting would be seen as nothing more than standard protocol. But in Correa’s Ecuador, where the government rules through intimidation and is increasingly unpopular, the meeting will be used for politics. This means that it is likely to overshadow the rest of the visit, possibly damaging not only the pope but also the church.
As Archbishop Trávez indicated, the trip has been framed by the Vatican as part of its mission of evangelization. Most South Americans are nominally Roman Catholic but the number who practice is much lower than it once was. “The joy of the church is to go out to seek the sheep that are lost,” Pope Francis said in a homily in Rome in December.
But this pope is very political and his politics, if we take him at his word, favor statist solutions to poverty. In terms of appearances that puts him on the same side of many policy debates as the region’s socialist tyrants.
The populist Mr. Correa smells opportunity. In the lead up to the visit, he posted billboards in Guayaquil and Quito featuring his government’s logo encircling a photo of the pontiff next to what appears to be a Francis quote that reads “one must demand the redistribution of wealth.” State television and radio delivered a similar message.
Of course there’s a world of difference between church teaching that we must strive for a generous heart and a politician preaching that it is virtuous to use the state’s monopoly power to take property away from rightful owners.
Mr. Correa wants to conflate the two. Yet Catholics understand very well that one does not grow closer to God by endorsing tyranny, even if it promises a more equal distribution of material wealth. The Holy Father will have the opportunity to bring moral clarity to the matter if he wishes.
Others are hoping he will speak against repression. Over more than seven years in power, Mr. Correa has collapsed what few democratic institutions there were and he has destroyed the free press. The owners of the surviving independent media and the journalists who work for them operate under continual threat of imprisonment or fines that would ruin them financially.
In a July 5 letter to Pope Francis, the Inter American Press Association says that Mr. Correa has silenced all who deviate from his “official truth.” The president “has shut down and punished the media and has imposed a culture of fear which has cut off public debate and the right to freedom of expression for members of the public.” The letter asserts that church teaching supports “the role of free expression, communication and media in modern life.”
The government says the economy will grow by less than 2% this year and investment is plummeting. Mr. Correa has good reason to want to gag civil society and to try to gain an endorsement for his authoritarian populism from the Holy Father. If Pope Francis is so used, it will be only because the Vatican allows it.