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VENEZUELA
Church may lose privileges
Andrés Cañizález
3/18/2002
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A new law would make religious denominations equal.

The Catholic Church could lose its privileged relationship with the Venezuelan state if the National Assembly passes a new worship law, which is currently being debated.

According to the Bolivarian Constitution approved in December 1999, the Venezuelan government must ensure equality and freedom of worship for all creeds, without favoring any particular denomination.

Congressman William Lara, president of the National Assembly, said the law is not meant as retaliation against church leaders who have opposed President Hugo Chávez’s policies, but is part of a new political and institutional framework for the country.

"It isn’t a religious issue; it’s a political and social issue. The National Assembly is taking up the constitutional mandate of freedom of worship in Venezuela and drafting a worship law that is in line with the new Constitution," Lara said.

The debate over the bill comes when relations between Catholic Church leaders and Chávez are at an all-time low. In late January, the president called the church hierarchy "a tumor on Venezuelan democracy" (LP, Feb. 11, 2002).

On several occasions, church leaders have harshly criticized Chávez’s authoritarian governing style. After the president launched a series of attacks on bishops during his weekly radio programs, the Venezuelan Conference of Bishops decided to postpone a meeting with him that was scheduled for Jan. 29.

The worship law would put an end to a series of privileges established in an agreement signed by the Vatican and the Venezuelan government in 1964. Under that accord, the government finances the construction of churches and subsidizes the Conference of Bishops. The subsidy for 2002 is budgeted at US$1.7 million.

The agreement also ensures that the Catholic Church is the only denomination present in some state institutions, such as the armed forces.

Lara, a close Chávez ally, said the government should not give preference to any particular religion.

"If the Catholic clergy receive a subsidy, then the state should do the same for all other denominations," he said.

Lara said that the harsh words exchanged recently between Chávez and some of the country’s bishops are a sign of "the clerical elite’s resistance to the process of change." He added, "The clerical elite has taken an opposition stance. That was clear even in 1998, before Chávez won [the presidency], but when his electoral strength was already evident."

Chávez was elected in December 1998 and took office in February 1999 (LP, March 15, 1999). In early 2000, when the new Constitution went into effect, Chávez called new elections, in which he won a six-year term, with the possibility of re-election for another six years. Since then, he has been promoting a series of political and institutional changes in the country, which he calls a "Bolivarian social revolution" after South American liberator Simón Bolívar (LP, Aug. 21, 2000).

According to Lara, Chávez’s victory demonstrated "the exhaustion of a political model based on agreements among elites." The breakdown of that model resulted from "the progressive displacement from power of the elites who had hegemonic control," he said.

"I’m not referring only to political, labor or business elites, but also to the clerical elite," Lara said, adding that he does not equate the church hierarchy with the Catholic faithful at the grassroots.

"The clerical elite used to be part of power deals in Venezuela," Lara said.

Mérida Archbishop Baltazar Porras, president of the Venezuelan Conference of Bishops, said the new worship law was aimed at the Catholic Church.

"It seems to me that the main objective is to give the Catholic Church a beating, rather than to benefit other churches," he said.

Porras said the Venezuelan bishops are calling for agreement on specific aspects of the relationship between church and state, open to debate by representatives of all denominations, rather than a new law.

Barquisimeto Auxiliary Bishop José Luis Azuaje, secretary of the Conference of Bishops, said that Chávez’s recent attacks on church leaders were an attempt to weaken the church.

By lashing out at "those who lead institutions, he seeks to break them. He has done this with attacks on media owners, labor leaders, business leaders and the Catholic hierarchy, especially the bishops who head the Conference of Bishops," Azuaje said (LP, Jan. 28, 2002).

Chávez dismissed his critics.

"They don’t understand that the country has changed and their privileges are gone. This is the hour of the people," Chávez said of his confrontations with unions, business leaders and church prelates.

Azuaje said that the deterioration of church-state relations was unfortunate, because the Catholic Church "has been playing a fundamental role in the country, not only in the spiritual realm, but also in human and social development. And whether or not people want to admit it, the church has been successful in that area."

The government’s dispute with the Catholic hierarchy is not new. Other confrontations have occurred over the past two years.

Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel, who has made efforts to close the breach with the Conference of Bishops, said in November that the bishops’ documents "appear to be written by the opposition."

Remarking on officials’ sensitivity to criticism, Porras replied that the government had "the skin of a debutante."

Chávez’s supporters insist that their differences are with the Catholic hierarchy, not the church as a whole.

"Many of us who are now political leaders are Catholic," Lara said. "Hugo Chávez was an altar boy. I studied in a diocesan school and am a practicing Catholic. I’m a member of the church, just like any of the bishops."


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