Saturday, April 09, 2005

Venezuela and Pope John Paul II

Today was the funeral of the Great Polish Pope. And what a funeral it was. Even this agnostic blogger feels compelled to recognize his admiration for the man who lighted the fuse for the downfall of the Iron Curtain. Even if I have had quite a few problems with his moral and social positions, I have to admit that at least you got what you saw and that his unquestionable moral fortitude and criticism of materialism, be it capitalist or communist, allowed him to accomplish so much. Never a Pope needed so few military divisions for the immense victories he obtained, to paraphrase Stalin whose "evil work" finally was undone in large part through the Polish Pope. No wonder Poles are lining the streets and streaming to Rome. He is their Simon Bolivar, to bring back in a way this thread to Venezuela.

The objective of this blog is not to write a panegyric to the dead Pope, but still it is a good opportunity to visit the religious issue in Venezuela and the problems that Chavez had with the Catholic church, problems that we can be sure will come back to haunt him.

Religion in Venezuela is a rather complex issue. First, although a nominally Roman Catholic country, many people ignore that "parallel" religions are very strong here. With Brazil Cadomble, Cuba Santeria and Haiti Voodoo, Venezuela holds the distinction to have a very strong pagan cult. It is not very known probably because contrary to the other countries it has not been used for touristy purpose. But the Maria Lionza rituals in Sorte have nothing to envy to what you will find at a Voodoo ceremony or a shadowy Bahian practice. Not to mention that public figures who consult astrologers or visit a witch doctor do not raise an eye brow when it is revealed.

In addition Evangelical missionaries have been working hard and their effect is now felt across Venezuela. Even modest San Felipe has a local Church of the Latter Day's Saint Temple, fairly sized for the city. Speaking of Venezuela as a Catholic country does not make much sense anymore when one observes semi empty churches with women inside during services while most men wait outside. Yet... Religious marriage, baptism of infants, communion are familial rituals that can not be ignored, even if the date might be consulted with the astrologer beforehand. All polls show the Catholic Church as one of the most respected institutions, and when Chavez tried to face the Church, well, he had to back down some.

Facing the Church is nothing new in Venezuela since the times of Guzman Blanco who declared that the only marriage recognized by the Venezuelan state was the civil marriage. In 1873! Divorce was added to the civil code in 1904! Chile barely allowed for some cases of divorce a couple of years ago...

But colluding with the church was also a sport sought. Though it seems that the Venezuelan Church since Guzman Blanco was not as tied up with governments as one could see elsewhere in Latin America. He set the precedent that the president could not be seen as a devout practitioner and none dared to stay publicly too close to church, even Christian Democrats who downplayed some of their Church attendance. As a matter of fact, even Chavez, whose connections to witch doctors is rumored, and who himself declared as belonging to more than one religion, did not dare to push for legalization of abortion in his 1999 constitution and retained some ambiguities, missing a great chance to clear up the air. Even today after years of conflict with the Catholic church, chavismo still subsidizes some Catholic charities though it seems that the final break up is around the corner.

The real problem between Chavez and the Catholic Church is that this one has clearly seen his game from the very start. The crass materialism of the chavista patchwork ideology, to give it a qualifier, and its connection to wanna-be atheist Cuba clearly spoke to a church that had been already lead by John Paul's anticommunist experience for 20 years. By the year 2000 the Catholic Church could be counted as an opponent to Chavez. And the rift shows no sign to mend. That many in the evangelical movement follow Chavez does not help much: the fire and brimstone style of Chavez appeals to that constituency, as well as the perceived anti Catholic stance.

But the Church is not going to be intimidated by Chavez. After all it survived the Inquisition, the XVIII century philosophers, the XIX revolutions, the XX century fascism and communism, and scores of other trials. The Church has eternity as time reference, it never forgets sic transit gloria mundi.

Unfortunately for Chavez, he has had two formidable opponents from within the church.

Rosalio Cardinal Castillo Lara, descending from an illustrious pedigree, became Cardinal due to his services in the Vatican administration, rising to some of the highest positions in the Church. In short, a Cardinal that had perhaps almost daily access to the Pope and his total confidence, a Cardinal that likely was very involved in the two visits of John Paul to Venezuela. In an unusual move Cardinal Castillo decided to retire to his ancestral home, in the remote village of Güiripa where he dedicated himself to social work. He could have stayed in Rome longer, or forever, in the glories of the Vatican, but he chose to retire to comfortable but distant dwellings. Unfortunately for his peace of mind that retirement coincided with the bolivarian riot. And Cardinal Castillo rose to the occasion, becoming a leading critic of chavismo while this one was unable to find a way to tarnish his image. After all, it is understood that a Cardinal deserves a nice retirement and when it is in the Venezuelan boondocks, people are impressed. At 80 plus years, what personal interest could a Cardinal seek?

Cardinal Castillo was the one directing the Venezuelan Church mass for John Paul. The mass, in Don Bosco Church of Altamira drew an immense crowd. And during the mass the Cardinal told us stories that illustrated how close he had been to the Pope, going as far as saying that he does consider him worthy of beatification. There is no doubt that the Pope was well informed on Venezuela descent into madness.

But that was not all. The Papal emissary to Venezuela, Monsignor André Dupuy, revealed himself to be an extraordinarily articulate moral light against Chavez, obtaining more than once unbelievable, not to say vulgar, criticism from Chavez. And Monsignor Dupuy never blanched, never raised his voice while Chavez was showing his true self, his ignorant "resentimiento social" dark side, not noticing that the Church of John Paul 2 was not the Church of the Inquisition anymore. Torquemada was now outside of the Pale of the Church.

Monsignor Dupuy is now leaving Venezuela after 4 years of service. His presence will sorely be missed. Honors are falling on him and his services must have been great as he goes to represent the Vatican to the European Community. He certainly was a great diplomat. And he certainly understood the creeping materialistic fascism that is besieging Venezuela. His parting salutation to Venezuelans was to tell them not to be afraid.

The coherence that existed between his words and his deeds [John Paul II's], what he beleived and waht he lived. Sadly,in our human life there is often a divorce of sorts between words and actions.
Needless to say that these general words had in fact a precise target.

Chavez has nothing to look for in the Vatican. Even with the Pope death Chavez lack of class showed. The delegation sent to the funeral is a joke of ex-guerilla and atheists. Compare this to Bush and Clinton praying together, or Zapatero going hand in hand with the opposition leader Mariano Rajoy. And to dig further his hole, Chavez convoked his own requiem mass in the Caracas Cathedral, a much smaller church that Don Bosco, where the military vicar presided the mass. Chavismo in full was there, alone.

Chavez probably wonders how many oil wells the future Pope will have.


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