In two pace-setter Catholic nations for the Church in Latin America — Brazil, the country with the world’s largest Catholic population, and Venezuela, often the front line of the Church engagement with the continent’s leftist force — Catholic leaders today find themselves trying to cope with dramatic cycles of civil unrest.
In several Latin American countries, Catholic bishops have raised their voices recently to protest violence. They include Mexico, where bishops asked for journalists to be protected after a sixth one was killed this year, to Colombia, where a bishop now has to say Mass protected by bodyguards after he put his life at risk calling for an end to bloodshed.
Yet nowhere is the voice of the bishops becoming the voice of the people as much as in Brazil and Venezuela.
Although there are key differences between the two crises, there are core issues in common: Protests in the streets being dispersed by the army, with civilians being attacked (in Venezuela’s case, over 60 people have been killed); corruption overshadowing the governments; and two presidents struggling to hold on to power.
Both conferences of Catholic bishops have called for democracy to be protected, and both have expressed concern regarding the current governments of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and Michel Temer in Brazil.
Demonstrations against the Venezuelan government have been going on for over two months now, with people out in the streets protesting Maduro’s call to rewrite the 1999 constitution, in a move that has largely been described as a coup.
In the case of Brazil, the nation was shaken by a political earthquake last week when the digital version of national newspaper O Globo revealed that Temer had endorsed a large payoff for the silence of a former parliamentary leader, who’s been sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption.
Temer took over the presidency after former Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff was impeached for corruption. He was the vice-president, and from his position pushed for the suspension and conviction of Rousseff.
Last week, the Brazilian bishops released a statement saying that they were following with “horror and indignation” the allegations of political corruption presented to the country’s Supreme Court.
In a statement that came after a meeting of the conference, titled “For ethics in politics,” the bishops wrote that accusations of corruption against members of the government demand a rigorous investigation, and, once the facts are investigated, the authors of any illicit acts must be held responsible.
Signed by the heads of the conference, including its president, Cardinal Sergio da Rocha of Brasília, the note quotes the Brazilian constitution, which states that every public servant must behave with integrity and that failing to do so would result in leaving office.
The text also says that “a new way of doing politics is urgently needed, based on the values of honesty and social justice” and urges communities to participate “responsibly and peacefully” in political life.
The bishops also call for ordinary Brazilians to get involved, saying that the “vigilance and political participation of our communities, social movements and society as a whole can greatly contribute to the elucidation of the facts and defense of ethics, justice and the common good.”
They also warned against the “contempt of ethics” that leads to a “promiscuous relationship between public and private interests,” which they defined as “the first reason for the corruption scandals.”
Urging the Brazilian people to participate in the country’s political life “responsibly and peacefully,” and to pray for the future of the nation, the bishops also note that the solution to the crisis has to be found respecting the Democratic state of law.
In the case of Venezuela, the bishops have become one of the steadiest voices against the government of Maduro, though by their own definition they’re not the opposition but standing with the people.
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino has been among the most outspoken prelates. On May 21, during a Mass he celebrated during a Day of Prayer for Peace in Venezuela held around the country, he called for the end of repression of the people who are protesting the government. He also urged human rights to be respected, “in particular towards political prisoners,” and the respect of democratic values.
As he’s done many times before, he urged the nation to apply the Christian model in working towards peace, defining it as the only way out of the crisis.
“Observance of the commandments: To love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves,” he said, according to Agencia Fides.
“Based on the current and conflicting situation, characterized by a serious social, economic and political crisis, there is the lack of fulfillment of the commandments: The search for profit, the craving of power, arrogance, selfishness, corruption, crime, finally, a whole series of problems I do not want to repeat in this homily.”
At a time when the security forces are being accused of abusing power, with military courts trying civilians and both the army and the police using all the means necessary, including the tear-gassing of children, to stop the protests, Urosa called on them to be “proponents and guarantors of respect for the Constitution.”
He also urged them to live their vocation to “first and foremost” guarantee peace and the healthy coexistence of the Venezuelan people.
Urosa said that those who carry out the acts that lead to violence, wounded and death bear “moral responsibility” for their actions, which he defined as an abuse of authority.
“In our country, the pronouncement of the martyr of America, Blessed Oscar Romero, is relevant: In the name of God and of this people who suffer, please, I beg you, I order you, to stop the repression,” he said.
Talking to reporters last week, Urosa said that state security organs cannot “launch tear gas against people,” and to stop arming the paramilitary groups that shoot at people. “Everyone has seen in the videos, all this should cease immediately.”
Showing alignment with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Urosa said that the only constitutional way to leave the crisis behind is to call for elections. He also urged the Maduro administration to respect the National Assembly and to free the political prisoners, “such as Leopoldo López, Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma.”
This, he ventured, is what the government must do to see an end of the protests.