VATICAN CITY — When it comes to a Catholic-majority state coming into friction with the Church, Venezuela has been one of the world’s leaders in recent years. So when the country’s president, Hugo Chavez, met Pope Benedict XVI May 11, it was widely anticipated it would be an interesting meeting.

Despite Chavez’ expressed disdain for religious hierarchies, there were no fireworks at the meeting — but it wasn’t free of tension. The 35-minute, closed-door conversation in the papal library centered mainly on Chavez’ highly publicized concerns about poverty, an issue he sees as a great unifying force for Christians.

According to remarks afterward by the former military officer, the Pope showed “much interest” in his government’s social programs, which include policies to improve literacy levels, fight unemployment and share medical resources with Cuba.

But at the end of the meeting, the Holy Father in effect gave the socialist leader the papal equivalent of a dressing-down, presenting Chavez with a written list of Church concerns with his regime. In response to increasing fears among Venezuelan bishops about state interference in Church matters, the erosion of democracy and Catholic identity in the country, and an increase in corruption and secularization, Benedict sought a number of guarantees.

The Pope requested that the Holy See be allowed to nominate new bishops (Chavez impeded some earlier nominations) and that the Church-run University of Santa Rosa in Lima remain Catholic (the government has threatened to remove the title Catholic). And in light of other threats from the Venezuelan government against various Church interests, the Holy Father asked for retention of religious education in school curricula, for a commitment that public-health programs not undermine the right to life and for protection of the independence of Catholic media outlets.

In response, Chavez, a practicing Catholic who sees Jesus as a political revolutionary, offered assurances of his concern over Church-state tension and a commitment that his government would work to ease them.

Chavez’ post-audience rhetoric marked a sharp departure from the hostile rhetoric that preceded the meeting. Chavez once called the country’s bishops a “tumor” and “devils” for allegedly siding with Venezuela’s “coup-plotting” opposition and for ignoring his concerns for the country’s poor.

For their part, Venezuela’s bishops have repeatedly warned Chavez that not only is democracy slipping away under his presidency, but also that the oil-rich country’s uncontrolled public spending is fuelling corruption, patronage and unjust “populist” practices. Last year Venezuelan Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, a former senior Vatican official, charged that Chavez was leading the country towards a Cuban-style dictatorship.

But in a press conference after the audience, Chavez tried to tone down the differences, saying relations had “turned a corner.” Problems with the Church, he said, are with “certain personalities” whom he accuses of involvement in the 2002 failed coup against his government.

With other Church figures, Chavez said dialogue was “excellent,” citing good relations with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Assistant Secretary of State Archbishop Leonardo Sandri and the apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, Archbishop Giacinto Berloco.

The former coup leader offered assurances about the nomination of bishops.

“Who else can nominate bishops but the Catholic Church?” he asked.

However, although Church and state in Venezuela have been formally separate since 1964, the state maintains an informal veto whereby the president has one month after a bishop’s nomination to say if he considers the nominee “politically objectionable.” With respect to the nomination in 2004 of Cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino as the new archbishop of Caracas, Chavez delayed approval for a whole year before the appointment finally took place in September 2005.

“His politics is controlled and the media is suppressed, something that is of concern to others, including Catholics,” Cardinal Castillo Lara told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera May 12.

Skepticism

Among those in Rome’s diplomatic community, there was some skepticism about Chavez’ upbeat remarks.

“He’s trying to spin the situation so that … he can discredit the Church while at the same time make it look as though he’s not doing any harm,” said one diplomatic source. “I don’t think anything will change.”

In the Corriere della Sera interview, Cardinal Castillo said he would have preferred it if the meeting had not taken place at all, although he also said that he was pleased that Benedict had made his requests.

“Chavez is a dangerous despot,” said the cardinal. “His regime is dictatorial in the true sense of the word because he has concentrated power in just a few hands.”

The 83-year-old former president of Vatican City State said that Chavez wished to replace religious education with a program of “revolutionary Marxist-Cuban indoctrination.” His government, Cardinal Castillo said, “is the most nefarious in the history of Venezuela and has a populism that increases both poverty and corruption.”

The national assembly, the Venezuelan cardinal noted, was elected by only 9% of the electorate last December; 85% of potential voters abstained while the remaining 6% had no vote.

Further irregularities occurred during a 2004 referendum on the presidency of Chavez, who counts Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among his friends. Government workers who voted against Chavez were dismissed, while others suffered the loss of civil rights.

“People know that it’s impossible to have an election without fraud,” Cardinal Castillo said in the Corriere della Sera report.

Clearly, despite Chavez’ soothing words after his meeting with the Pope, good Church-state relations in Venezuela have some way to go.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.