October 26, 2007
Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara was a senior Vatican official for many years, but he will be mainly remembered in his native Venezuela as the retired cleric who dared to speak out against what he saw as the growing presidential authoritarianism of Hugo Chávez.
The President, a former special forces colonel turned socialist revolutionary, did not take kindly to being publicly criticised by a man whom he described on one occasion as a hypocrite and a pimp, who had the Devil inside him. The Cardinal, for his part, suggested that the President should be exorcised.
Rosalio Castillo José Lara was born in 1922 in San Casimiro, Aragua state, central Venezuela. His uncle, Lucas Guillermo Castillo, was a Catholic priest, who became Archbishop of Caracas. Castillo Lara joined the Salesian order in Bogotá, Colombia, and was ordained a priest in Caracas in 1949. He took his doctorate in canon law at the Salesian college in Turin, Italy, four years later, and taught there for a number of years, before pursuing further study at the University of Bonn in 1962. He was appointed archbishop in 1982 and created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in May 1985.
Castillo Lara was appointed Bishop of Trujillo, in Venezuela, in 1973. From 1975 he was secretary, and later president, of the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts, the Vatican's body in charge of revising the code of canon law. He served for almost a quarter of a century in Rome, occupying a number of senior posts in the Curia, including, from 1989 to 1995, chairmanship of the body that administers the property and finances of the Holy See.
Cardinal Castillo Lara retired to Venezuela in 1997, though for several years he continued to act as a papal envoy to various parts of Latin America. Soon after the election of Chávez as President in 1998 the Cardinal became alarmed at what he saw as his dictatorial tendencies, and said he feared that, although Chávez had been democratically elected, he had since lost his way and was taking Venezuela in the direction of Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Chávez was incensed at the criticism, which was echoed by several members of the bishops' conference, and he became convinced that the Cardinal was leading a Washingtoninspired conspiracy of bishops, political malcontents and “squalid oligarchs” to destroy what he proclaimed as his “Bolivarian revolution”, destined to lead Venezuela towards 21st-century socialism. In January this year Chávez told the bishops to go off and read Marx and Lenin, and reminded them that “Jesus was the greatest socialist in history”.
Some opponents of Chávez came to regard Castillo Lara as a symbol of resistance to oppression, on a par with Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty in communist Hungary. On one occasion, Castillo Lara summed up the state of his country as follows: “The basic principles of democracy are ignored or violated; human rights are often denigrated; freedom of expression is restricted and threatened by legal measures designed to encourage self-censorship; and dissidents are barely tolerated and frequently persecuted.”
Cardinal Rosalio José Castillo Lara was born on September 4, 1922. He died on October 16, 2007, aged 85