The Vatican and Bolivia both insist no offense was intended or taken when President Evo Morales gave Pope Francis a "Communist crucifix" as gift during his visit to this South American nation.
The Catholic blogosphere was buzzing Thursday about what Morales, a socialist who has attacked the church in the past, meant by giving the crucifix carved into a hammer and sickle to Francis, who was surprised to receive it — a reaction clearly visible in footage of the encounter.
Video from the exchange appears to show Francis telling Morales "That is not right" when the world leader hands him the crucifix.
Bolivia's government said the gift wasn't a political maneuver of any sort, but rather a symbol that Morales thought the "pope of the poor" would appreciate.
"It was really from great affection, a work designed by the very hands of Luis Espinal," Communications Minister Marianela Paco said. The Rev. Luís Espinal was a Jesuit activist assassinated in 1980 by suspected paramilitaries during the months that preceded a military coup.
Francis, a fellow Jesuit, stopped his motorcade on Wednesday to pray at the site where Espinal's body was dumped.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope had no idea Espinal had designed the crucifix when he received it. Some reports suggested the pope told Morales, "This isn't good." One of Francis' friends sent a tweet quoting him as saying such. But Lombardi said it wasn't known what the pope said.
Lombardi said Espinal designed the crucifix as a symbol of dialogue and commitment to freedom and progress for Bolivia, not with any specific ideology in mind. Lombardi said he personally wasn't offended by it.
"You can dispute the significance and use of the symbol now, but the origin is from Espinal and the sense of it was about an open dialogue, not about a specific ideology," Lombardi said.
He noted the context in which Espinal was living: as a priest working for social justice in Bolivia during a period of instability that preceded a right-wing dictatorship known for human rights abuses.
However, one of Espinal's friends and fellow Jesuits, the Rev. Xavier Albo, said Espinal's intent was for the church to be in dialogue with Marxism. He said Espinal had altered his crucifix to incorporate the Communists' most potent symbol: the hammer and sickle.
"In this he clearly wanted to speak about the need to permanently dialogue not just with Marxism but with peasants and miners, etcetera," Albo told The Associated Press earlier this month.
The Vatican launched a harsh crackdown on "liberation theology" in the 1970s and 1980s, fearing Marxists were using its "preferential option for the poor" to turn the Gospel into a call for armed revolution.
The Rev. James Bretzke, a theologian at Boston College in Massachusetts, said there is no church legislation that addresses whether Christian imagery is sacrilegious since Christian art is often portrayed in a variety of ways.
But, he added: "Is this in good taste? Does this seem to be using the crucifix for political agenda? And I would say the answer is probably yes. Therefore, I would judge it personally in bad taste and especially manipulative to present it to the Holy Father in a situation like that where it clearly hadn't been cleared ahead of time."
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome, said it all boils down to Espinal's intent in designing the cross and Morales' intent in giving it to the pope.
"I'd suppose that, given Morales' warm welcome and Espinal's personal convictions, the intent was not to offend but rather to indicate potential for dialogue and even synergy," Gahl said in an e-mail.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.