Caracas , July 18 2007 ( venezuelanalysis.com)– In an ongoing media row Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hit back on Monday at criticisms by Catholic Church leaders in Venezuela, who have questioned the proposed constitutional reform process, saying that the Catholic Church is interfering in Venezuelan politics, "They act as if they were a political party," he said.
The Catholic Church Episcopal Conference, Venezuela’s highest church authority, has accused the Chavez government of becoming increasingly authoritarian and criticised a committee appointed by the Chavez to draft proposed reforms to the constitution, reforms it says are being drafted behind closed doors without public participation.
"A constitutional reform done behind the country’s back or cooked up by a small group will be a failure," Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino argued in an interview with the newspaper El Nacional last week.
At the heart of the issue is the possibility of a proposed reform, which would remove limits to the number of times a person can stand for president, allowing Chavez to stand in the next presidential elections. The current constitution limits this to two terms in office.
"We are in an absurd situation in which one person tries to become the only, lifelong authority," Urosa Savino added.
However, Chavez accused Catholic Church leaders of lying about the proposed reforms and reiterated that any changes to the constitution would have to be ratified through a referendum.
Chavez, a Catholic, has also said in a speech on July 11 that the Venezuelan Catholic Church Episcopal Conference (CEV) represents an "elite" group within the church, and are "out of touch with reality."
According to an article by the Associated Press of July 13, Baltazar Porras, president of the CEV, “has also accused Chavez and government-friendly priests of trying to divide the clergy.” According to the AP, “Porras says pro-Chavez priests are attempting to use radical liberation theology to weaken and divide the Catholic Church. ‘This is part of a plan to debilitate the Church.’”
In contrast, pro-Chavez priest Father Jesus Gazo told the AP, “Many think that the church hierarchy has turned its back on the people … and the people are turning their back on the bishops.”
Chavez reiterated the view that the church hierarchy “has turned its back on the people” on Monday when he argued the influence of the Catholic Church is declining, "Everyday, there are fewer Catholics in the world, and this is a worry for us Catholics. The attitudes among Venezuela’s Catholic hierarchy are one of the causes."
This is not the first time that the Chavez administration has come into conflict with the Catholic Church in Venezuela since coming into office in 1999, both in ideological and practical terms.
Many high-ranking officials have openly aligned themselves with the opposition – the late Cardinal José Ignacio Velasco was present in the Miraflores Presidential Palace and tried to persuade Chavez to sign a resignation letter while rebelling military officers detained him during the during the failed coup attempt in April 2002. He [Ignacio Velasco] then signed a decree handing power to Pedro Carmona.
Additionally, in October 2005 Venezuelan Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara met with opposition representatives and was quoted as saying afterwards that Venezuelans ought to "deny recognition" to the Chavez government because it is, "ill-fated and dangerous." (venezuelanaylsis.com Monday, Oct 24, 2005 )
More recently, Chavez has come into conflict directly with the Vatican itself. During Pope Benedict XVI ’s tour of Brazil in May Chavez called on the Pope to apologize, on behalf of the Catholic Church, for the “holocaust” of the indigenous peoples of Latin America during the colonial era, and for the imposition of Christianity.
In addition to the proposed constitutional reform, Venezuelan Catholic Church officials, who have often criticised the Chavez government for reducing public funding to Catholic schools, are also concerned about upcoming education reforms, arguing that public schools could take on an "ideological and political orientation."
The proposed constitutional reforms are expected to be submitted for review by the Venezuelan National Assembly next month, before being put to a popular referendum.