In Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's pursuit to consolidate his country's political power in himself, he has found the Catholic Church to be his most stubborn wall of resistance. So, after unsuccessfully trying to denigrate the Catholic bishops in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, the former paratrooper recently decided to try another strategy: create his own "reformed" Catholic Church.

Splinter "national" churches have surfaced occasionally in Latin American history. Several dictators in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador tried creating their own "national" version of the Catholic Church to counterbalance, usually with little success, the influence of local bishops.

Even Venezuela had its own version of a national church in the mid-20th century, when Gen. Juan Vicente Gómez, the country's dictator, angry at the independence and courage of the local episcopate, founded the short-lived "Venezuelan Catholic Apostolic Church."

The "Reformed Catholic Church" (RCC) was founded in the Venezuelan state of Cabimas in 2007 by former Catholic priests Simón Alvarado, 39, and Jon Jen Siu-García, 37; Enrique Albornoz, a former Lutheran who serves as the church's leader; and Leonardo Marín Saavedra, a self-proclaimed Anglican "archbishop."

The two Catholics and the Lutheran were ordained "bishops" in early July by an Argentinean pastor who claimed to be an Anglican bishop. But the Anglican church, both in Venezuela and in Argentina, denied in an official statement having any relationship with the consecrating "bishop" or with the RCC.

It wasn't until early June this year that the RCC made major headlines locally and abroad after announcing its full support for Chavez's government. Since then, it has become popularly known as the "Chavista church," the name people use to refer to it even in the media.

"It is sad that they not only separated themselves from the real Church but decided to become a political instrument of the government to hurt the same Church that received and formed them," Archbishop Roberto Luckert León, vice president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference, told Our Sunday Visitor.

"They literally have been bought out by Chavez, and now they are in his pocket," Archbishop Luckert added.

Government support

According to the archbishop, the total compliance of the RCC to Chavez's demands "is part of a strategy to undermine the local Catholic Church."

"Chavez's effort is not a new one, since the dictatorship in 1945 also founded the Venezuelan Apostolic Catholic Church, which was also a failure," Archbishop Luckert said recently during an interview with Union Radio, one of Venezuela's last independent stations.

"What they are trying to do failed in the past, and I think that during this election year this is going to cost rather than gain them votes," he added. In November, Venezuela will be holding local and regional elections.

Siu-García, the most outspoken member of the RCC, claims that they are not a "Chavista church," and that they only support Chavez's politics because they found it "extremely consistent with Christianity."

"We are not in Chavez's pocket as many claim," he said. "We just try to be in connection with the people, and the poorest like and revere our president."

But Church sources point out the claims don't stand up under scrutiny. While there is no paper trail showing that the RCC receives money directly from the government, "the growth of mostly empty churches in the state of Cabimas is hard to explain without some steady source of money," said a bishops' conference source. "And that money can't just come from their tiny number of followers, most of them from the lower middle class."

Besides, the source added, "all state-controlled radio and TV stations are forced to run free advertisement to (RCC) events. ... We hardly get time to announce key events of national interest, while their most irrelevant event receives ridiculously prominent coverage," the source said.

'Heresy and schism'

But most importantly, according to Archbishop Luckert, the RCC is seeking to name military chaplains with government support. "If they haven't moved forward faster, it is simply because they have no ministers to offer right now," he said.

The military plays a key role in Venezuelan politics. Chavez was himself an army colonel when he attempted a failed coup in 1992 and has been trying to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church, which for centuries has accompanied soldiers in barracks, military hospitals and on the field.

Meanwhile, Bishop William Delgado Silva of Cabimas -- where the two former Catholic priests live -- issued a statement in early August explaining to local faithful that Siu-García and Alvarado are "in a state of heresy and schism ... for adhering to a movement that tears apart the communion of the Catholic Church."

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino of Caracas also has stated publicly that "the alleged new status of priests who pretend now to be bishops based on an invalid ordination is fake, empty and a scandal for the faithful."

Despite the advertisement campaign from government outlets and the flurry of criticism coming from Catholic officials, by late August the RCC seemed to have fallen back toward oblivion.

"We know the group have made some news even on The New York Times, but here they have become quite irrelevant pretty quickly," says Archbishop Luckert. "Despite the support of the government ... they have disappeared from the scene and their churches are empty."

And according to Cardinal Urosa, "the government seemed more enthusiastic with the RCC in June, when it thought they could help give the impression that the Catholic Church in Venezuela was divided, and that there was a big split going on ... but now even the government media seems to be bored and not interested in them."

"Catholics in Venezuela know better," the cardinal said. "They can see the bird flap, but they don't see it flying."

Church purification

Venezuela's bishops initially would say little about the priestly service of the two Catholic priests who broke away to found the "Reformed Catholic Church." But when one of them, Jon Jen Siu-García -- a son of a Chinese immigrant and a Colombian mother -- came out saying the group's purpose was to reject the "corrupted" Catholic Church in Venezuela, the outspoken vice president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference, Archbishop Roberto Luckert, decided a little context was necessary.

"Jon Jen Siu-García was first a military officer from the National Guard that requested to become a priest for the military diocese. Less than nine months into the priesthood, he started living with a woman, with whom he had more than one child," he said.

The local bishop asked him to leave the priesthood and get married by the Church, find a job and "try to be a good Catholic." But Siu-García replied that he did not know another trade and was not willing to go back to the National Guard.

Alvarado left the Catholic Church a few years ago, after falling in love with his former assistant, Astrid Torres, 23, with whom he eloped.

"We tried to deal with these issues confidentially, with great respect for their privacy and the best interest of the faithful," Archbishop Luckert explained.

"If we are now providing some of the information regarding their life, it is because we have been forced to by their public statements," he added.

Siu-García told The New York Times that "the Church of Rome is fearful that it could lose more priests like us."

But Archbishop Luckert bluntly retorts: "We have no problem whatsoever getting rid of priests like him. Actually it purifies the Church."

"Of course, this is a sad source of scandal, and leads us to be more careful in selecting our vocations. But if there is a priest incapable of [living] his vocation, it is better to let him go," he said.

Alejandro Bermúdez writes from Peru.