The New York Times
August 01, 2008
CABIMAS, Venezuela — From a makeshift chapel in a schoolhouse where a portrait of President Hugo Chávez and revolutionary slogans from his government adorn the entrance, the bishops of the new Reformed Catholic Church of Venezuela welcomed congregants to Sunday Mass.
Missionary Bishop Simón Alvarado, 39, strummed a guitar and led the small congregation in singing hymns. Bishop Coadjutor Jon Jen Siu-García, 37, preached a sermon on assisting the poor while his wife, Hiranioris Calles, 24, smiled at him from her seat on a white plastic chair.
“The church of Rome is fearful that it could lose more priests like us,” Bishop Siu-García said. He is the son of immigrants, a Cantonese father and Colombian mother, who settled in this gritty city on the edge of Lake Maracaibo. “And it should be afraid, given its level of scandal over internal abuses and hypocrisy in combating poverty.”
The defection of a handful of priests and their formation of the Reformed Catholic Church, a breakaway church openly sympathetic to Mr. Chávez’s government yet oddly allied with conservative Anglicans from Texas, has raised the ire of Roman Catholic leaders in Venezuela. Since its founding in June, the infant church has fueled a fresh debate over the interplay of religion and politics in one of Latin America’s most secular nations.
“What they want to do is put an end to the Catholic Church, but they have not succeeded,” Archbishop Roberto Luckert, one of Mr. Chávez’s most strident critics in Venezuela’s Roman Catholic hierarchy, said in a radio broadcast denouncing the new church.
He was scathing in his criticism of the church. “They get dressed up as priests, conduct baptisms and confirmations — all paid for by the government — while the people go hungry,” he said.
The leaders of the Reformed Catholic Church, however, say their new church represents a fusion of the best of Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions. And though they adamantly deny receiving financing from Mr. Chávez’s government and insist that their church has no political affiliation, they do profess solidarity with Mr. Chávez, who has repeatedly clashed with the Roman Catholic hierarchy since rising to power a decade ago.
“I share the revolutionary project of President Chávez, since it is a socialist and humanist project for the masses,” said Enrique Albornoz, a former Lutheran minister who is principal bishop, the top leader, of the Reformed Catholic Church. The church says it has about 2,000 members in Cabimas and in other oil towns in Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous state.
At first glance, Zulia might seem an unlikely origin for such a breakaway church, imbued as the new church is with liberation theology, the school of thought that shook the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960s by advocating political activism to bring justice to the poor.
Governed by an opposition leader who ran against Mr. Chávez for president in 2006, the western state of Zulia remains a bastion of conservative opposition to the central government. Many of its residents are wary of redistributing wealth from the oil fields around Lake Maracaibo to poorer parts of the country.
But Zulia itself is a study in contrasts. It is home not only to rich cattlemen and oilmen but also to the places that actually produce the oil, like Cabimas and other cities. In those precincts, grinding poverty persists 10 years into Mr. Chávez’s rule and, with it, a fierce debate over social justice.
“Chávez is carrying out the work of God, and I hope our priests here do the same,” said Janeth Vicuña, 54, a housewife who attends the services of the Reformed Catholic Church. “The old Catholic Church claims to work on behalf of the needy, but what have they done for us in all these centuries?”
That kind of challenge has periodically shaken Venezuelan politics since the 19th century when the dictator Antonio Guzmán Blanco confiscated much of the Roman Catholic Church’s property and tried, unsuccessfully, to create a national church independent of Rome.
Venezuela emerged from that conflict as one of Latin America’s most secular countries, along with Uruguay and, in past decades, Cuba under Fidel Castro.
“This is yet another poke in the eye to the Venezuelan Catholic Church,” said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on Catholicism in Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University.
But the Anglican Communion, with about 77 million members, has refused to recognize the Reformed Catholic Church, despite its avowed embrace of Anglican traditions.
Instead, the fledgling new church, in search of credibility, secured the endorsement of a splinter group, the Conservative Anglican Church of North America. The group, part of which operates from Texas, disagrees with the liberalism of the mainstream Episcopal Church, which approved an openly gay bishop in 2003.
“We do not extend the privilege of inclusion lightly,” said A. Dale Climie, a Conservative Anglican archbishop who is based outside Houston. “The Roman Catholic authorities decided the best way to belittle them is to claim some sort of link to Chávez.”
The Reformed Catholic Church does not ordain female or openly gay bishops or allow gay marriage. “But we are not homophobes, since our services are open to anyone,” Bishop Siu-García said.
While the bishop and his colleagues talk of expanding not only in Venezuela but also to neighboring countries, Roman Catholic leaders have stepped up their criticisms of the organization. Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Caracas, denounced it as “a kind of chicken soup, a tossed salad, something that will not have any internal coherence.”
While the leaders of the Reformed Catholic Church praise Mr. Chávez’s antipoverty programs, they are hesitant to discuss why poverty remains so common in Venezuela at a time of record oil prices. And they merely smile when asked about Mr. Chávez’s religious thinking, like his assertion that Jesus was the first socialist.
“We never said we’re the church of Chávez,” Bishop Siu-García said. “But we just happen to share many of the same ideas as our president.”
Bishop Alvarado, one of the Roman Catholic priests who formed the new church, said a source of inspiration was Óscar Romero, a crusading archbishop in El Salvador who was killed by a right-wing death squad in 1980 after working to empower the poor during that country’s civil war.
Apparently the new church is liberating in more ways than one. In June, after 10 years as a Roman Catholic priest, Bishop Alvarado celebrated a church wedding with Astrid Torres, 23, his former assistant, with whom he has an 11-month-old daughter. “I’d say that 50 percent of Catholic priests in Venezuela secretly have wives,” Bishop Alvarado said.
He added, “It is our quest to free the poor from the yoke of others while having a fulfilling life of our own.”