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BY John Norton
VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II defended the role of the Church in Venezuela, where Catholic leaders have clashed with President Hugo Chavez over the country's social direction.
In a June 11 meeting with Venezuela's bishops, the Holy Father encouraged the Church leaders to promote a climate of open and constructive dialogue with the country's government despite the difficulties.
The bishops were in Rome for their “ad limina” visits, which heads of Church territories make every five years to report on local conditions.
Since Chavez became president in early 1999, Venezuela's bishops repeatedly have criticized him for what they call abuses of power and an erosion of the credibility of democratic institutions. They also have criticized his social reforms, intended to be modeled on communist Cuba, as “exclusive and excluding.”
When Chavez was ousted briefly in April in a coup, Caracas' Cardinal Ignacio Velasco Garcia met with him and later said Chavez promised to make some changes to his policies in the country, whose population of 24 million is about 89% Catholic.
John Paul said poverty and even extreme poverty had sharply increased in Venezuela in recent years, a situation he said urgently needed addressing.
He said the Church there was called to help build a more just, peaceful and prosperous social order, especially by giving a voice to the poorest and weakest members of society — a mission he said did not put the Church in competition with the government.
Civil organizations “cannot overlook or ignore the considerable contribution of the Church in many aspects regarding the common good,” he said.
The Pope said he realized that the bishops' social efforts in Venezuela were difficult, given the climate of “misunderstandings, misrepresentations or proposals that are more or less openly partisan.”
“But this is not the ground on which the Church moves,” he said. The Church “wants precisely to promote a climate of open, constructive, patient and disinterested dialogue among all those who hold public responsibility.”
Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Merida, president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference, told the Holy Father the bishops were worried that Venezuela's fragile civil coexistence might break down.
He said the bishops also were concerned about the “weakened condition of the democratic system and state of law (in Venezuela), which has increasingly serious consequences of impoverishment, insecurity, desperation and hatred.”