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Rebellion in the Cathedral

Facing the innovations of Pope Francis, the Church in Venezuela is not monolithic. The only Venezuelan Cardinal, Jorge Urosa Savino, has been exposed as a dissident of the reforms coming from Rome. His stance divides the clergy and leaves the conservative side in bad position for his succession as Archbishop of Caracas. At the same time, paradoxically, they reinforce the progressive sector of a church that until now has acted as a containment wall against Chavismo.



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"The Church is a spiritual family and the family is a small Church". This is how Pope Francis sees the institution he leads since March 2013. If this mirror image between Church and family is taken literally, then it should not be surprising that the changes that Francis, as patriarch, tries to promote in the family, generate disturbances and discomfort among its members. In fact, some of these discomforts, which could be expressed as open dissensions, can be seen in the Venezuelan Catholic Church hierarchy.

The aggiornamento that Francis - who turned 79 this Thursday - impulses from Rome in matters such as communion for the divorced and remarried, acceptance in faith of the children of unmarried couples, and some arrangement that naturalizes homosexual couples, has found resistance in Venezuelan shores. Perhaps the most important, and sort of concealed until then, was felt in August when, just weeks before the second part of the Synod of the Family in the Vatican began, a group of cardinals from four continents published in the United States - originally, in English; one month later a Spanish edition appeared in Spain - the book Eleven cardinals speak about marriage and family, in which they stood up to Francis' ideas. The document was a great surprise to the Venezuelan bishops, since among the authors appears the Archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, the only Latin American in the group.

"We didn't know about that initiative, which of course put us in a difficult position, because it was interpreted as a questioning of the Pope's stance, even some Italian bishops asked us if that was the position of the Episcopate", admitted a source of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference (CEV), which recalled that "the Cardinal is certainly the highest representative of the Church in Venezuela, but he is not the head of the Church in Venezuela, but an advisor to the Pope. The voice of the Church in Venezuela is the CEV".

Urosa, in any case, denied being opposed to the Pontiff and attributed everything to a misinterpretation of the media. "In the book I defend the position that Saint John Paul II left in his document Familiaris Consortio, which states that people who have had problems with ecclesiastical marriage and who have contracted another marriage or are living in concubinage cannot receive communion unless they live in sexual abstinence; that is, as siblings. That is what the catechism and the Church's doctrine dictates, which states that whoever is divorced and has sexual intercourse outside of marriage is committing sin", he explains.

Urosa's clarification, however, did not counterbalance the weight of another gesture of his: he also subscribed a letter to Pope Bergoglio in which several cardinals criticized the Synod's proceedings. The letter was broadcast by the media in the midst of debates and caused another controversy. "Some journalists have given it an air of protest and revolt (...) they have exaggerated too much, they have tried to make a storm in a tea cup", he said.

In the premises of the CEV they assured that the letter made noise in the Vatican. "The Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, knew about the letter and spoke with several of those who were going to sign it but failed to convince some of them not to do so and let others go ahead, obviously to expose them", indicated a confidant. Parolin, Bergoglio's right-hand man in the Vatican bureaucracy, was for a long time Nuncio (ambassador of the Pope) in Venezuela and knows full well the local church.

A 'sotto voce' rumors

Is the Venezuelan hierarchy against Pope Bergoglio? No. "It is unthinkable that the CEV and the Pope be on separate lines of thought and action, on the contrary: I believe that the CEV has been one of those that have succeeded in subsuming into its last documents the thought and point of view of Francis. I see many bishops committed to the message of Francis and most importantly the priests, who have made their own this message of leaving the comfort of the office and going to the people", said Father Carlos Boully, rector of the Universidad Católica Santa Rosa (Ucsar).

In similar terms, the former president of the CEV and archbishop of Mérida (capital of the state of Mérida, Andes of southwestern Venezuela), Monsignor Baltazar Porras, pronounced: "None of those who signed this book represent their Episcopal conferences and the Synod gives reason for this, because there is a positive evolution towards the Pope's proposals, which were approved by a qualified majority".

Despite the unanimous statements, other prelates and religious, who asked to remain in anonymity, assure that Urosa and other allies, such as the newly elected bishop of Margarita (territory of the island state of Nueva Esparta, on the Eastern Caribbean of Venezuela), Monsignor Fernando Castro, who is the second of Opus Dei in the country, don't approve the proposals of the Argentine Pontiff, considering that they undermine the doctrine.

Bergoglio reserved one of the Synod's 45 chairs for Baltazar Porras. Porras, who has had a close relationship with the Pontiff since they coincided in the Latin American Episcopal Conference (Celam), of which the Venezuelan was vice president for two periods, joined Urosa and Monsignor Diego Padrón, president of the CEV, in the debates that took place in the Vatican.

"The Pope called on his allies around the world to carry out his proposals and in Venezuela one of the strongest allies is Porras", said the informant, who did not rule out that in the future the prelate will be called to occupy a position in Rome.

The reappearance of Porras on the Vatican horizon reveals the crossed tensions to which the Venezuelan church is subjected these days. Although the positions on the Pope's reforms seem to constitute two sides within the Catholic hierarchy, it in turn takes a different stance on the local political conflict of the last 17 years. Porras, described as counterrevolutionary by the ruling party, thus passes as a leading reformist figure in the doctrinaire controversy.

'Arriverderci' to the old guard

Will Urosa's alliance with cardinals like the former archbishop of Madrid, Antonio Rouco Varela, considered one of the most conservative in Europe, take its toll? One of the informants said yes. "The Cardinal's position, who doesn't have good relations with the Secretary of State and former Nuncio in Venezuela, Parolin, didn't go down well in Rome, but we will see the real repercussions in the future, especially if he succeeds in influencing the election of his successor".

Urosa, 73, Archbishop of Caracas, has less than two years left in his post. Then, when he turns 75, according to the Code of Canon Law, he must present his resignation before the Pontiff. Anticipating this scenario, several colleagues say, Urosa is making arrangements for a Coadjunctor Bishop to be named, with the purpose of continuing to exercise along with his successor.


Leaked in the middle of the Synod's debate, a letter appeared endorsed by 13 cardinals, which showed doctrinal differences with the Pope. Among other cardinals, the Mexican Norberto Rivera Carrera denied having signed the letter, so the archbishop of Caracas is the only Latin American who recognized being within that group. Photo: Perfil.com

Inside the CEV they assured that the only Venezuelan Cardinal wants that his successor to be the current Archbishop of Valencia (capital of the State of Carabobo, center of Venezuela), Monsignor Reinaldo Del Prette, and not the other two candidates that resound among the prelates to appear in the list of candidates that the Nunciature must send to the Vatican at the time: the current Bishop of Barinas (capital of the State of Barinas, western plains of Venezuela), Monsignor José Luis Azuaje, who was Executive Secretary of the CEV during the Presidency of Porras between 2000 and 2006; and the Bishop of La Guaira (State of Vargas, central Caribbean coast), the Salesian Raúl Biord, nephew and collaborator of the deceased Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, who, as President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State - a sort of Governor -, came to have great influence in the Holy See during the pontificate of Juan Pablo II.

Monsignor Jesús González de Zárate, meanwhile, despite being one of Urosa's closest collaborators, has ceased to appear in the pools, since, according to the informants, his name is now mentioned to succeed Monsignor Padrón - who is about to resign, also for age reasons - in the Archdiocese of Cumaná (capital of the state of Sucre, northeast).

But not only Urosa or Padrón will have to leave, many of the bishops who had a rough relationship - when they had it - with the late Hugo Chávez will have to leave too. Among them are the pugnacious archbishop of Coro (capital of the state of Falcón, western coast), Monsignor Roberto Lückert; or the archbishop of Maracaibo (capital of the state of Zulia, northwest border of the country) and former president of the CEV, Monsignor Ubaldo Santana. Even Porras himself, anointed for his closeness to the Supreme Pontiff, is in retreat, when the self-proclaimed "Bolivarian process" is, albeit weakened, still underway in Venezuela.

The castling moves that are being prepared before the next wave of retirements could favor Mario Moronta, predict the sources. The current bishop of San Cristóbal (capital of the state of Táchira, border with Colombia) was removed from the center of political action - he served as Auxiliary Bishop of Caracas at age 40 and then in Los Teques - and exiled to a distant region in times of John Paul II. At that time in the Vatican there was little conformity with the sympathy that Moronta professed towards Chavismo.


Next to Urosa, the newly elected bishop of Margarita, Monsignor Fernando Castro, stands out in the conservative wing of the Venezuelan clergy. Photo: Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.

'Eppur si muove'

The Synod of the Family was the first battlefield where Francis' renovating gestures were put to the test. Considering how it developed, it is difficult to determine which side emerged victorious. It was a tense appointment. The Pope himself pointed out in his closing speech, on October 24, that some participants had used "methods not entirely benevolent" to defend their theses. In fact, the final document looks like a neutral gibberish that doesn't allow observing significant advances in which the Church describes as "difficult situations" (divorcees, unmarried couples, homosexuals). A victory for the conservatives?

"We are not where we would like to be, but we are no longer where we were", is the response of Father Boully, rector of the Universidad Católica Santa Rosa (Saint Rose Catholic University). "The Pope has awakened consciences, stirred up the fire of reflection on these themes. The mere act of calling the Synodal Fathers, of calling to reflection some minds that remained frozen for a long time, is an advance. The Synod is not a light switch that you turn on and everything changed, no! Just now, it's only starting to generate reflection among the bishops, priests and laity, and then we eventually will see the fruits. Francis had the courage to convene this Synod to address issues that others did not dare".

In similar terms, Porras declared: "The Synod advanced and opened a series of possibilities that will have to be developed prudently, but with a firm step forward at the level of the Episcopal conferences" and sent a message to the "immobilists": "Putting the doctrine first is putting the law first and it has to be the other way around, it is life itself that points out what should be regulated for the greater good of all the communities".

To calm the parishioners from the frightfulness that could be produced by the sight of a church in diatribe, Monsignor Ovidio Pérez Morales, who presided over the Plenary Council of Venezuela, recommended that everyone stop echoing about schisms and divisions: "You have to get used to the debate within the Church".

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