Chavez-Church Clash Raises Questions About Influence of Liberation Theology

By | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - Plans to amend the constitution to push Venezuela further along a socialist path have put President Hugo Chavez at odds with many of the country's church leaders. Their opposition may reflect a weakening of the hold that "liberation theology" has had on the region.

Catholic bishops have been among the most outspoken critics of the amendments, while many Protestant evangelicals also are concerned about the changes, which include the elimination of presidential term limits.

The "reforms" have split the country and led to street protests, some of them violently disrupted. A national referendum on the proposed constitutional changes is scheduled for December 2.

In recent months, Chavez has attacked the bishops for voicing concern about the amendments, calling them variously "Pharisees," "hypocrites" and supporters of tyrants. At the same time, the president -- who is himself a Catholic -- has used classic liberation theology language to describe Jesus Christ as a revolutionary and a socialist.

Venezuela's Catholic bishops, in a recent statement, voiced concern about the potential for further violence and appealed for calm.

But they also defended peaceful demonstrations, rejecting claims that protests are part of a conspiracy to destabilize the state.

Archbishop Roberto Luckert, vice president of the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference, has accused Chavez of "picking a fight with everyone."

Another top church leader, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, said in a television interview that the changes would leave no room for any ideas other than socialism, and would put an end to "freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression [and] economic freedom."

Savino said the bishops were not taking a partisan position, but "have the duty to speak out with the light of the Gospel and of the church's social teaching about what is happening in the country."

Catholic leaders beyond Venezuela's borders also have waded in. Peruvian Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani called the Venezuelan leader arrogant and disrespectful, and in a significant development last week, the leaders of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Latin America (CELAM) sent a letter expressing solidarity with the Venezuelan bishops, in the face of attacks by "certain sectors."

CELAM represents 22 episcopal conferences across Latin America and the Caribbean.

A spent force?

Inspired in part by Marxist analysis, liberation theology promoted the idea that the church should help the oppressed by challenging political power. It spread in the 1960s in Latin America -- home to almost half of the world's one billion-plus Catholics -- with outbreaks in the Philippines, Africa and elsewhere.

A leading opponent in the Catholic hierarchy was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1980s, Ratzinger issued documents critical of liberation theology, which he called "a singular heresy."

The late Pope John Paul II challenged the view of Christ as a revolutionary, "subversive" figure, telling Latin American bishops during a visit to Mexico early in his papacy that that notion "does not tally with the church's teachings."

Critics like conservative Venezuelan theologian Felipe Aquino say those who promote liberation theology have the mistaken view that they are the only ones who defend the oppressed.

"The church in its more than 2,000 years has always helped those in need, but it never needed to grab onto strange ideologies for this," he wrote earlier this year.

Few would argue that liberation theology is heading for extinction. Signs of life include the fact that many Catholic priests support Chavez; leftist Catholic Ecuadorian president and Chavez ally Rafael Correa is a proponent; and a prominent liberation theologian bishop is running for the presidency in Paraguay, in defiance of the Vatican.

But Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., says liberation theology in Latin America has been weakened by factors including the globalization of markets and the rise of a different breed of church leaders.

"Many of the more recent appointments have been men of sound theological formation, men who have seen the divisiveness of liberation theology, and men who have less of a tendency to see politics as a cure for what ails their continent," he said on Tuesday.

Sirico said, however, that in rural areas in particular "the legitimate and necessary call to defend the needs and rights of the poor ... is easily converted into a screed against the opening of markets and free trade."

"Chavez is using this kind of rhetoric to construct his socialist utopia but is being confronted by a brave and prudent hierarchy of men who appear to have a clear grasp of the need to limit power -- the state -- while increasing authority -- the church, society, tradition -- in society," he said. "This appears to drive Chavez nuts."

As for liberation theology more broadly, Sirico contended that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of those more firmly committed to the ideology changed tactics and rhetoric, focusing on issues like radical environmentalism and conflicts between indigenous people and "colonizers."

Fr. Pedro Trigo of the Catholic University Andres Bello in Caracas is author of a book on liberation theology and a board member of a Jesuit-run center aimed at "transforming Venezuela from its roots into a more fair and humane society"

Trigo said Tuesday that whatever one may think of liberation theology, it is not dead.

He noted that in the book he has written on the subject he compiles material from more than 80 books and 200 articles. "So if we talk about it, it still exists."

"What we must do is reformulate the concepts to adapt them to the times we live in, because times have changed from the time when the theology was originated across Latin America, in the early 1960s," he said.

Even so, Trigo criticized Chavez' proposed constitutional changes, saying the president was setting the agenda rather than change starting from the ground, as it should in "a true democratic culture."

"Chavez has gotten us to dance to his tune. He proposes the topic of discussion and we discuss about this. This is no way to have a real democracy."

Trigo said the situation has become so politicized that the referendum has become a vote on Chavez -- who is seen either as a savior or a demonized figure -- rather than on the proposed changes.

Evangelicals too

The proposed constitutional changes also worry many Protestant Christians in Venezuela.

Evangelical Alliance of Venezuela head Rev. Samuel Olson said Tuesday that the organization, which is part of the World Evangelical Alliance, put out a statement at the weekend that gives "an idea of the concerns of a sizeable part of the evangelical world."

"Far from creating the unity of the people, [the planned amendments] have deepened the division in the people and family in Venezuela," the statement said.

"God has blessed man granting him inalienable and non-negotiable rights," it said. "The right to be informed, the right to freedom of speech and to voice one's ideas, as well as the guarantee of due process -- which are all already in the current constitution -- should be strengthened, instead of being weakened."

Olson said liberation theology has gone onto the "back burner" and does not have a strong voice in Venezuela.

"Our president has referred to it several times, and there have been a few public events where it has been one of the main themes - but it is "home" to a relatively few who actually know about it," he said.

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