Venezuela church-state clash grows

A new pro-poor break-away church vexes the country's Catholic leaders, who call it a Chávez ploy.

By , Staff writer

The fledgling Reformist Catholic Church of Venezuela describes itself as having a "preference" for the poor. But the Roman Catholic Church here dismisses the new offshoot as a political ploy to push the socialist agenda of President Hugo Chávez.

The clash is fallout from the cantankerous relationship between Mr. Chávez and the country's Catholic hierarchy and shares parallels with the cold war era, when "liberation theology" – a Catholic movement that sought to empower the impoverished – spread across Latin America against the will of the Vatican, which saw it as a front for communism.

Now, as a new crop of leftist leaders led by Chávez vows to put the needs of the traditionally privileged classes behind the needs of the poor, more breakaway churches like this one in Venezuela are cropping up throughout the region.

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"In Latin America there are interesting currents taking place, [in some cases] a revitalizing or re-energizing of liberation theology," says Manuel Vasquez, an expert on Catholicism in Latin America at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "It's part of the general leftwing tilt in Latin America."

The Reformist Catholic Church of Venezuela, which is comprised of Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, ordained its first three bishops last month and says that it has risen to help those marginalized in society, says Enrique Albornoz, who was the first ordained bishop and a founder of the independent church.

How the church was formed

The church was formed, says Mr. Albornoz, because the Catholic Church has not done enough to help the poor. Their mission is a "preference for the poor," the same mission laid out by liberation theologists decades ago. And like that era, he says, they are being inaccurately called "socialists."

"We support the social programs of the government because they are the kinds of programs that set people free from misery and poverty. When we talk about a 'Bolivarian spirit' we are talking about love of our country," says Albornoz, echoing Chávez's call for a "Bolivarian revolution," which refers to the regional liberation hero Simón Bolívar. "It is different than saying, 'we are Chavistas [the term used to describe supporters of Chávez].' "

Today the church, which had been active for the past five years but not consecrated, counts 2,000 members among six parishes, mostly in western Venezuela. They differ from the Catholic Church in that priests can marry, and they don't view the pope as the head of the church.

Catholic leaders have taken a dim view of their mission.

"The union of Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans shows that it's not a profound religious mission," says Baltzar Enrique Porras Cardozo, the archbishop of Merida. "It indicates a political interest, which is not new. This government has sought any way to legitimize itself seeking the support of any religious leader to confront the Catholic hierarchy."

Some Catholic leaders even claim the mission is intending to cause divides within the Catholic Church. On Radio Union, a Caracas-based radio station, Monsignor Roberto Luckert, one of Chávez's strongest critics, claimed: "They want to destroy the Catholic Church, and they haven't been able to do it."

Chávez vs. the Catholic Church

Mari Hernandez, a lifelong Catholic who supports both Chávez and his social missions, says her church in Barlovento, on the coast of Venezuela, has always supported the poor. "Our job is to contribute," says Ms. Hernandez, who on a recent Sunday carried a box of sugar, flour, and bread with her to mass for a food drive.

But politics has dominated Chávez's relationship with the church, with name-calling and finger-pointing that seems to be at an ultimate low.

Recently the Catholic Church condemned a so-called "blacklist" to disqualify some 275 politicians, many of them opposition candidates, from local elections in November, calling it in a statement "a measure that tarnishes the democratic environment."

Many blame the rocky relationship on the Catholic Church, not on Chávez. Leonardo Marin Saavedra, bishop of the Anglican Latin American Church based in Canada, who has guided the Reformist Catholic Church of Venezuela and was in Venezuela for the consecration, says it is the Catholic Church that is playing politics in the country. "The Catholic Church wants all of Venezuela to hate Chávez, they are the ones politicizing," he says.

This is, of course, not the first time that liberal leaders have fought with the church.

During the height of liberation theology in the 1970s and 80s, priests in Nicaragua came under fire for sharing sympathies with the Sandinistas. The same controversy emerged in El Salvador, during that country's civil war.

Mr. Vasquez says he believes liberation theology helped lay the foundation for the leftist tilt in Latin America, with many current leaders, such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, influenced by its teachings.

The starkest example is Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, a former Roman Catholic bishop known as the "bishop of the poor," who was recently elected president of Paraguay. "The general spirit of liberation theology has become part of the civil discourse in Latin America," says Vasquez.

Many expect the confrontation between church and state to pick up steam. Nikolas Kozloff, author of the "Revolution! South America and The Rise of The New Left," calls it inevitable. Unlike other Latin American countries, the Catholic Church in Venezuela never fully embraced the tenets of liberation theology. Yet today, Catholics and Protestants across the country have signed onto Chávez's message. "If you go to these [social] missions, you see a lot of people supporting Chávez, placing a big emphasis on social work," Mr. Kozloff says. "There is an overlap."

Many say this is long overdue. "The Catholic Church only attends to the needs of the rich. It is our spiritual mission to work with the poor people of Latin America," says Mr. Marin Saavedra.

"I am not a socialist," he adds. "But I do personally admire that [Chávez] has helped the poor."

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