By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In any controversy, when parties begin comparing one another to Hitler and the Nazis, you know things have sunk about as low as they can get. Acerbic exchanges between Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chavez and the Catholic Church in recent days offer the latest confirmation of this truism.
Relations between Chavez and the church have never been rosy, despite the fact that Chavez claims his policies reflect the spirit of Jesus, whom he calls “the greatest Socialist in history,” and despite the fact that Chavez has his own court theologian, a Jesuit named Fr. Jesús Gazo, who serves as a chaplain at the Universidad Católica del Táchira. Gazo has said that Chavez has “a very strong theological formation.”
That’s not an opinion shared by many in the Venezuelan hierarchy, including Cardinal Rosalio Castillo,a Venezuelan currently serving as President of the Vatican City State in Rome, who has asserted that “80 percent of Venezuelans are against Chavez” and accused Chavez of the “Cubanization” of the country.
Even by these testy standards, however, the last two weeks have been unusual.
Things began on May 19, when Chavez commented on the opening address Benedict XVI gave for the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) six days earlier, in which the pope argued that Christianity was not an “imposition” on the indigenous cultures of the New World.
“How could the pope say that this evangelization was not an imposition?” Chavez asked during a communications conference in Caracas. “If that’s the case, why did our indigenous have to flee into the forests and the mountains?”
Chavez said that in his view, it was not Christ who arrived in the Americas with Christopher Columbus, but “the Anti-Christ.”
Building to a crescendo, Chavez asserted that the decimation of indigenous persons during the era of European colonization was “a Holocaust greater than that which happened during the Second World War.”
Four days later, Benedict elaborated his reading of history during a General Audience in Rome, acknowledging that the colonization of the Americas had been accompanied by “unjustifiable crimes.” Chavez graciously told reporters that he felt the pope had “wisely rectified” his CELAM remarks.
As it turned out, all this was merely round one. Round two opened when Chavez decided to shut down the popular Venezuelan television outlet RCTV, a move widely condemned around the world. Perhaps no one spoke more strongly than Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Mérida, Venezuela, who compared Chavez to Castro, Mussolini, and – inevitably – Hitler.
“The sectarianism of this government closes more space every day to those who are not totally aligned with it,” Porras said from Aparecida, Brazil, where he’s taking part in the CELAM meeting.
“This revolutionary system in Venezuela is a mixture of Marxism, populism, and many other things, akin to governments like Fidel Castro, and to positions adopted by Hitler and Mussolini in Europe,” Porras said. “Today, crime is defined as what in any other society would be considered a right – to disagree, to think, to express oneself differently from the government.”
tPorras also criticized negative statements from the Chavez government about the Catholic Church.
“They speak of supposed scandals, and they place the bishops among those who are conspiring against the government, which is absolutely false,” he said.
Needless to say, all of this would seem to augur further church/state tensions in Venezuela – despite the fact that, according to local observers, Chavez’s anti-globalization and anti-American rhetoric still plays well in more progressive circles of Catholic opinion.
Fr. Jesús Silva, a Uruguayan priest, has lived in the Caracas slum of El Valle for 26 years, and claims there is “no doubt” that Chavez is a committed Catholic. The country’s “eternally excluded and exploited social classes,” Silva said, today feel “they have a man in whom they confide.”
Gazo, the Jesuit who serves as a Chavez advisor, agrees.
“It makes me sad that the official Church has been deceived by the country’s minority,” he said recently, “a part that identified with the right and with the dominant economic groups.”