Church Involvement Bodes Well

David Smilde

A note in the Washington Post suggest that Chávez seeks to improve relations with the Catholic Church. It would probably be more accurate to say the Church has sought to reestablish relations with both the Chávez government and the Capriles campaign, and has succeeded. This is no small achievement and could have a significant impact in the coming months.

On Tuesday, Vice President Elias Jaua met with the Hierarchy. He delivered a letter from Chávez to the Hierarchy and received two for Chávez-one from the Hierarchy and one from the Pope. Jaua said they were determined to keep open a channel to the Church but also revealed the complexity and tenuous nature of the relationship. “As the majority of us in the government are part of the Church, we have always supported it in faith and sentiment, and have maintained an attitude of respect for its authorities. Now we have reestablished an institutional relationship and it will continue to the degree that there is mutual respect and each side occupies its corresponding role in society.”

Chavez, in reference to the meeting, said “It would be great if we could establish a good relationship with the Hierarchy and work together for the benefit of the country. The Church can contribute a lot to the fight against poverty, misery, delinquency and other ills we face.”

Yesterday candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski also met with the Hierarchy and said that if he is elected it would mean a new stage in relations between the government and the Church, and promised renewed government support for Catholic education.

The verbal sparring and outright conflicts between the Chávez government and the Church Hierarchy are well known. However, they mask a more complex relation. When Chávez was in jail from 1992-94, it was the Church and individual priests that visited him and made sure his human rights were respected. While the Church Hierarchy’s collaboration in the 2002 coup is still the subject of speculation, some of the most courageous opposition to that coup came from sectors of the Church. Strong Chávez critic Mikel de Viana immediately turned around and unequivocally criticized the exclusionary nature of the Carmona interim government. And Jesuit broadcasting network Radio Fé y Alegría played a singular role in breaking through the media blackout organized by the coup leaders.

Chávez’s relation to the Church is also more complex than is normally assumed. Despite vigorous attacks on the legitimacy of the Catholic Church he has always defined himself as Catholic, and at key moments has recurred to the Church. Despite obvious signs that the Church might have been involved in the 2002 coup, he sought the private council of Cardinal Ignacio Velasco while in custody on Orchila Island.  More recently, he sought the Church’s blessing in his fight against cancer. 

This rapprochement is not primarily due to a new openness by Chávez but rather a change in tactics in the Church. Monsignor Diego Padrón was elected in January to the presidency of the Episcopal Conference and has brought a new style. He has worked to establish behind-the-scenes contact with the government rather simply engaging in public critique through the media. Probably the second most important position in the Church in Venezuela-the Rectorship of the Jesuit Universidad Católica Andres Bello-is now occupied by Pd. Jose Virtuoso. Building on a lifetime of work for social justice in the popular sectors, he has played an important moderating, de-polarizing role throughout the Chávez period, and is doing the same from the UCAB.

In an uncertain and combustible environment, with a paucity of institutions that could mediate conflict, the role of the Catholic Church could hardly be more important. It is the world’s original international NGO and while it has many this-worldly interests, at key moments it brings an alternative discourse of universal values and ultimate ends that can get parties to put their best foot forward.