El Nuevo Herald
June 29, 2008
A new church in Venezuela is earning criticism from Roman Catholic leaders over its links to Hugo Chávez.
A church modeled in part after one in Miami but with a ''revolutionary'' spirit that praises Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is now at the center of a religious and social controversy in Venezuela.
Although it has adopted many of the symbols and rites of Roman Catholicism, the new Reform Catholic Venezuelan Church departs from traditional belief in some key ways.
For example, reformists consider that ''homosexuality and bisexuality are not sins in and of themselves.'' Divorce is allowed and priests do not take vows of chastity.
The church, which was publicly announced last week, also lines itself up squarely behind Chávez's ''Bolivarian Revolution'' and its socialist agenda.
Venezuelan Catholic leaders, who reacted sharply to the new church, claim Chávez is bankrolling it with petroleum proceeds.
But whether that's true or not, Reform Catholic leaders line up squarely behind the Venezuelan president.
''We completely support the socialist project led by Chávez,'' said Enrique Albornoz, one of the new church's first bishops -- a group that is to be ordained on Sunday.
The ordination of the bishops is scheduled to take place in Ciudad Ojeda, a small oil-rich town in the Venezuelan state of Zulia.
According to its leaders, the reformist church seeks to establish an institution that is ``inclusive, participatory and with a strong Bolivarian spirit that recognizes Jesus Christ as the Lord of History. He is present in the revolutionary process that is occurring in Venezuela.''
A former Roman Catholic priest, Jon Jen Siu Garcia, was elected coadjutor, and noted to the Venezuelan press that his mission is to ``liberate people from capitalist values.''
''We are learning to see the lower classes like Hugo Chávez, who has cared to attend to their necessities,'' said Leonardo Marin Saavedra, bishop of the Anglican Latin American Church. A resident of Canada, he was invited to Venezuela especially to attend the upcoming ceremonies. ``We are struggling against exploitation and the empire of the United States.''
The church's formation -- along with its pro-Chávez orientation -- immediately met with a severe response from the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Venezuela.
''It is a parallel church that Chávez has created, using Catholic priests of bad conduct that have problems with their ministries and are being paid,'' said Monsignor Roberto Lückert, archbishop and vice president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.
Lückert, in an interview with El Nuevo Herald, said he is certain the new church was financed in part with funds from the state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). He said that among the founders of the church are bishops who have arrived from Miami and several Latin American nations, such as Peru, Mexico and Costa Rica.
Among other religious organizations, Miami's own Catholic Apostolic Church served as a model for the newly established church in Venezuela.
''This church is lined in money from Chávez,'' said Roman Catholic priest Jose Palmar, who until recently was an active supporter of Chávez, but is now a strong critic of his administration.
Lückert also denounced the ''scandalous'' pasts of the Venezuelan priests who will be ordained as the new bishops of the reformist Catholic church. One, he said, ''lived scandalously with a woman'' and they have a son. Another had left his ministry to get married a long time ago, Lückert said.
Attempts to establish churches with political motivations are nothing new to Venezuela. In the mid 1940s several government leaders who had declared themselves anti-clerical decided to establish a Catholic Apostolic Church of Venezuela, by forging the ordainment of a bishop.
Lückert warned Chávez that the creation of this movement ''is a terrible political error'' that could have an electoral cost.
''It never occurred to Fidel to make such a blunder,'' Lückert said.