CARACAS, Venezuela — Headlines began questioning the ego of the president of Venezuela after a rambling Aug. 16 speech in which, according to Reuters, he “anointed himself president for life.”

Andrés Oppenheimer, the noted Latin American analyst of The Miami Herald, once said that Hugo Chávez’s ego grows proportionally to the price of oil.

Time seems to be substantiating not only Oppenheimer’s law, but also the corollary postulated by Venezuelan Bishop Baltazar Porras: Chávez’s Catholicism diminishes as his ego expands.

In fact, not only has the Catholic Church become the primary target of the Venezuelan leader’s frequent diatribes against his perceived opponents, he now is renouncing his Catholic identity.

In 1998, Chávez described himself as a “practicing Catholic,” who refrained from taking Communion only because he was divorced and remarried illicitly.

But this June, he described himself quite differently. “I believe in Christ and his social doctrine and just like Fidel [Castro], I believe that a socialist project can be built out of Christian principles,” he said.

“I do not pray; I just make the Sign of the Cross, but I don’t believe in the Catholic Church, especially in some of its most absurd dogmas, such as the Resurrection, heaven or hell,” he added during one of his weekly radio and television shows, “Aló Presidente.”

In mid-July, he took direct aim against Venezuela’s Catholic bishops and at a major Catholic institution.

“Do you want to know where all the anti-revolutionary vipers come from?” Chávez asked. “Look at the site of the bishops’ conference and at the Andrés Bello [Catholic University].”

Critics of Chávez suggest he is targeting the Church because of its refusal to accept his constant efforts to expand his authority.

“The president is frustrated because his dream was to control every source of power or influence in Venezuela, and he has been incapable of controlling or even silencing the Catholic Church,” said Fermín Marmol, a former minister of justice.

A source at the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, who asked to remain anonymous, said that a century-old agreement between Venezuela and the Vatican still allows the president to veto Rome’s appointment of a bishop. And while that veto has not been exercised by a Venezuelan leader for more than 60 years, “Chávez threatened to use it as a way to force the Holy See to appoint friendly bishops,” the source said.

This threat may have been one of the reasons why it took 16 months to name a replacement to Cardinal Ignacio Velazco as archbishop of Caracas after Cardinal Velazco died in July 2003. And Chávez likely believed that the outspoken cardinal’s successor would be, if not sympathetic, at least not so openly critical.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino, installed in November 2005, was indeed reluctant early in his tenure to criticize Chávez. But the president’s constant attacks against the cardinal’s fellow bishops eventually provoked a response.

In early August, Cardinal Urosa commented on a state-controlled television station that “the president’s road to the 21st century’s socialism starts to look too similar to the 20th century communism.” (Chávez has dubbed his governing philosophy “21st century socialism.”)

Another frustration to Chávez’s hopes of exerting control over Venezuela’s bishops came with the appointment of Reinaldo del Prette as the new archbishop of Valencia.

Installed in June, Archbishop del Prette was widely viewed as an uncontroversial priest with a quiet and effective pastoral record.

But little more than a month after his installation, Bishop del Prette joined his voice with other Church leaders in denouncing Chávez’s habitual attacks.

“To see the Catholic Church as an opposition party is a childish and clumsy way to see things,” the archbishop said in late July. “The Church has been repeating the same truths for 20 centuries about the human person, and we repeat them now because we love Venezuela. … Is that what [Chávez] calls an opposition party?”

Chávez has reacted with mounting hostility to the continued unity of the Venezuelan bishops.

“The Venezuelan Catholic hierarchy is one of the fiercest defenders of the past, of injustice, of immorality and of the powerful. It does not stop in shamelessly acting against truth and decency,” said Chávez in one of his most recent verbal volleys against the Church.

After he closed down the last TV station opposed to his regime in May, Chávez portrayed the bishops as opposed to the rank-and-file Catholics whom he claimed supported him.

But his latest attacks have been directed at the Church as a whole, after the National Council of the Laity harshly criticized the president’s anti-democratic policies and supported the bishops in a July 21 statement.

Said the statement, “The constant aggressions against our bishops are unjustifiable and express a worrisome tendency to intolerance.”

Alejandro Bermúdez

is based in Lima, Peru.