It's a Question of Transcendence

Amid the generalized political turmoil of recent days, this Holy Week has been anything but holy. Here's a few things you should know about Venezuela, religion and politics.

Holy Week has become synonymous with Spring Break: rest and relaxation and beachside holidays.

However, for us Catholics, Semana Santa is the most intense liturgical moment of the whole year. We celebrate the institution of the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of the Priesthood (two of the seven Sacraments). We also remember the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, masterfully narrated in Mel Gibson’s famous film “Passion of the Christ” (2004).

Amid the generalized political turmoil of recent days, this Holy Week has been anything but holy. Here’s a few things you should know about Venezuela, religion and politics.

Most Venezuelans define themselves as Catholics

9 out of 10 Venezuelans report believing “in God, or in their most explicit formulation, the presence and importance of God in life”.

In turn, “we Venezuelans tend to define ourselves as Catholics when asked about our religious faith, even if we are not practicing Catholics… believers of the religion of María Lionza and the religion of Santeria confess themselves as Catholic”.

Although the relative number of Catholics has declined, by 2011 about 71% of the population defined themselves as Catholic -practicing or not-, equivalent to 20.5 million Venezuelans.

While many Catholics don’t practice to the letter, most claim to go to mass on Sundays, celebrate Christmas and attend Holy Week processions.

The procession of St. Paul’s Nazarene and political polarization

One of the fundamental traditions of Catholicism in Caracas is the procession of the Nazarene of St. Paul. For Caraqueños, on a Holy Week Wednesday it’s common to see people dressed in purple garments on their way to the Basilica of St. Teresa, to accompany and  worship Saint Paul’s Nazarene and pray for economic, social and health welfare of family and friends. It’s been a longstanding tradition accompanied by a Mass celebrated by the the Archbishop of Caracas.

Last Wednesday, April 12, political polarization arrived at the Mass of St. Paul’s Nazarene celebrated by Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino.

There are two versions of this story: El Nacional reported that “government backers attacked opposition members in the Basilica of St. Teresa“, while government funded Alba Ciudad reported “Cardinal Urosa and opposition leaders politicized the Mass of St. Paul’s Nazarene seeking to cause disorder“.

At the core of this confrontation are the the constant statements made by the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference and Cardinal Urosa Sabino, in which the Church has denounced the gravity of the country’s political and economic crises, and has made objective criticism of the dire conditions Venezuelans live in.

The recent Communiqué of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of March 31st was released in response to the decisions issued by the Supreme Court at the end of March, and was read in the churches at the Sunday Mass of April 2.

Does the Catholic Church have the duty and the right to speak out on Venezuela’s current crisis?

The Church considers itself responsible for transmitting the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for defending the dignity of the human person where it may be violated.

For this reason, the important Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes points out: “It is only right, however, that at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach its social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it. In this, it should make use of all the means—but only those—in accordance with the Gospel and which corresponds to the general good according to the diversity of times and circumstances”. (Nº 76)  

For the hierarchy of the Catholic Church it is a matter of moral conscience and responsibility to point out when a certain political conception is contrary to the rights of the people. A prudent judgement of conscience (according to the moral good) leads the Church to speak up and set a stance on the moral crisis that permeates societies and the political, economic or social crises that violate human rights.

The Church has always centered its message around the value of the person. For example, in the Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life warns: “The Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person. Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle, for otherwise the witness of the Christian faith in the world, as well as the unity and interior coherence of the faithful, would be non-existent. The democratic structures on which the modern state is based would be quite fragile were its foundation not the centrality of the human person. It is respect for the person that makes democratic participation possible. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the protection of «the rights of the person is, indeed, a necessary condition for citizens, individually and collectively, to play an active part in public life and administration»”. (Nº 3)

In short, and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads, “social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him” (No. 1929).

The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference and the current crisis

On the third paragraph of its most recent Communiqué, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference says:

The exercise of power is distorted in Venezuela. It would seem that everything revolved round politics, in the sense of clinging to power, ignoring that people’s real needs demand a different perspective of power. The government’s inability to provide a solution for shortages and price gaps of food and medicines, rampant violence, the call to hatred and the ignorance of elemental rules for peaceful cohabitation are, among other things, the causes of this debacle that clouds understanding and progress.

It also references the need for respect others:

Disregarding those around us and their rights is, quite simply, destroying any possibility of plural and democratic cohabitation. It is disheartening to witness the abuses against fundamental rights that all governments should guarantee as a priority. Instead, we need to promote brave gestures and innovative initiatives to instill hope against all odds (Cf. Rom. 4,18), to build a free, fair and fraternal cohabitation; that is a task that involves us all, each one according to their skills. It is an unavoidable responsibility, because we cannot be mere spectators in the face of evil. Our call is to become protagonists of the present and the future of our beloved nation (CEV’s communiqué, January 2017.).

Given the specific situation of the country, the Communiqué makes very important proposals for Venezuelans:

We are close to the Holy Week. For us Catholics, commemorating the abuses against Our Lord Jesus Christ is an urgent to become aware and take peaceful but action before the assaults of power. We cannot remain idle, cornered by fear or hopelessness. We must defend our rights and the rights of those around us. Now is the time to seriously and responsibly consider the validity and adequacy of civil disobedience, peaceful protest, fair complaints before national and/or international public powers and civic demonstrations.

Of course, such statements from the Catholic Church have become troubling for the Government, because it is exposed by an institution beloved and respected by most Venezuelans.

What is more, having the current crisis pour into the procession of St. Paul’s Nazarene with insults and violence, is very much contrary to our traditions and idiosyncrasy and most likely rejected by the massive Venezuelan Catholic community.