Patrick Goodenough and Leandro Prada
Plans to amend the constitution to push Venezuela further along a socialist path have put President Hugo Chavez at odds with many of the country's church leaders. Their opposition may reflect a weakening of the hold that "liberation theology" has had on the region. Catholic bishops have been among the most outspoken critics of the amendments, while many Protestant evangelicals also are concerned about the changes, which include the elimination of presidential term limits.The "reforms" have split the country and led to street protests, some of them violently disrupted. A national referendum on the proposed constitutional changes is scheduled for December 2. In recent months,
Chavez has attacked the bishops for voicing concern about the amendments,
calling them variously "Pharisees," "hypocrites" and supporters of tyrants.
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, said in a television interview that the
changes would leave no room for any ideas other than socialism, and would put an
end to "freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression
[and] economic freedom."
Inspired in part by Marxist analysis, liberation theology promoted the idea that
the church should help the oppressed by challenging political power. It spread
in the 1960s in Latin America -- home to almost half of the world's one billion-plus Catholics -- with outbreaks in the Philippines, Africa and elsewhere.
The late Pope John Paul II challenged the view of Christ as a revolutionary,
"subversive" figure, telling Latin American bishops during a visit to Mexico
early in his papacy that that notion "does not tally with the church's teachings."
But Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of
Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., says liberation theology in Latin
America has been weakened by factors including the globalization of markets and
the rise of a different breed of church leaders. "Many of the more recent appointments have been men of sound theological formation, men who have seen the divisiveness of liberation theology, and men who have less of a tendency to see
politics as a cure for what ails their continent,"
Sirico contended that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of those
more firmly committed to the ideology changed tactics and rhetoric, focusing on
issues like radical environmentalism and conflicts between indigenous people and
Olson said liberation theology has gone onto the "back burner" and does
not have a strong voice in Venezuela.