- Bolivian President Evo Morales presents Pope Francis with wooden crucifix laid atop hammer and sickle
- Unclear whether Pope told Morales, "That's not right," or simply said: "I didn't know that"
(CNN)The look on the face of Pope Francis says it all.
Why am I being presented with a wooden crucifix laid on a hammer and sickle, the Communist symbol conceived during the Russian Revolution?
The Pope received the gift from Bolivian President Evo Morales on the latest stage of his South American tour. He later celebrated Mass with nearly 1 million Bolivians in Santa Cruz.
The links and battles between Communism and the Catholic Church are an extremely sensitive subject in Latin America, the Pope's home continent. While he was an archbishop in Argentina, Francis tried to strike a delicate balance between championing the poor and avoiding class warfare.
According to reports, Morales told Francis that the "Communist crucifix" was modeled on a design created by the Rev. Luis Espinal, a politically active priest murdered by right-wing paramilitaries in Bolivia in 1980. The Pope stopped and prayed at the site of the shooting on Wednesday evening.
Above the noise of photographers' cameras, it's unclear exactly what the Pope told Morales in Spanish. According to some translations it was: "That's not right;" to others: "I didn't know that."
In any case, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi had the final word: "Certainly," he told reporters, "it will not be put in a church."
He added that the Pope was unaware that Espinal was involved in the design of the crucifix, which was conceived as a symbol of dialogue. "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, according to the Washington Post.
Bolivia's communications minister, Marianela Paco, defended the gift as symbolic: "The sickle evokes the peasant, the hammer the carpenter, representing humble workers, God's people."
"That was the intention of this gift, there was no other," she told Radio Patria Nueva.
But theologians accused Morales of trying to use the Pope for political ends. Rev James Bretzke, a theologian at Boston College in Massachusetts, said: "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," he told the Associated Press, according to The Guardian.