Venezuela Church-State Clash Grows

Article excerpt

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 Chavez.

The clash is fallout from the cantankerous relationship between Mr. Chavez 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 Chavez 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.

"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 Chavez's call for a "Bolivarian revolution," which refers to the regional liberation hero Simon Bolivar. "It is different than saying, 'we are Chavistas [the term used to describe supporters of Chavez].' "

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 Chavez's strongest critics, claimed: "They want to destroy the Catholic Church, and they haven't been able to do it. …

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