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
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
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
For their part,
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
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
“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.
Among those in
“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
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
“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