CARACAS, Venezuela, JAN. 31, 2002 ( The Holy See is "distressed" by the constant attacks of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez against the Catholic Church, says this country´s ambassador to the Vatican.

In statements to the Caracas newspaper El Universal, ambassador Ignacio Quintana said: "There is distress in the Holy See. The highest authorities of the State Secretariat have told me so."

The last attack against the Catholic Church occurred Tuesday when the walls of buildings in central Caracas were covered with bills calling for a church "at the service of the poor." Members of the country´s Catholic hierarchy were described as "pharisees and hypocrites."

These same accusations were leveled against the Church a few days earlier by the Venezuelan chief executive.

On Sunday, Chávez accused the bishops of not being supportive of his "revolution." Last week, he publicly attacked the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Andre Dupuy, who had suggested that the president be prudent in his public statements.

"One must be careful with words," said the Venezuelan ambassador, a friend of Chávez´s who added that "loyalty implies sincerity."

"Instead of advancing, Venezuela is regressing," the ambassador lamented. "The function of a chief of state must be to harmonize, create balance, confidence, wealth. The function of the chief of state cannot be constant conflict. There must be peace and dialogue with businessmen, the media, the Church, and civil society."

The Venezuelan bishops refused to meet with Chávez on Monday, after the recent verbal attacks.

Although the president says he is a practicing Catholic, he had no reservations in describing the Church as a "tumor," and said the bishops "have gone astray from the path of God," because they do not support his policies.

In a statement of the episcopal conference, read by its president, Archbishop Baltazar Porras of Merida, the bishops said that the "recent denigrating acts, judgments and expressions of the president and some members of the government were totally inadmissible."

"Therefore, in conscience, and before God and our people, whom we serve, we believe that the conditions for dialogue are not present, the object of such a meeting being the common good of the Venezuelan people. Consequently, we decline the presidential invitation," the statement added.

Last Sunday, Chávez accused Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, archbishop of Caracas, and other bishops, of being members of the increasingly united political opposition, which the president blames for the evils suffered by this country of 24 million inhabitants.

Archbishop Porras, who in the past has criticized Chavez´s verbal "intolerance" and aggressiveness, said that the suspension of the meeting was not in "retaliation." The archbishop said that the hierarchy is not opposed to dialogue but that it is impossible, given the present conditions.

In his three years as president, Chávez, a retired military man with nationalist ideas, has clashed with businessmen, labor unions, the Catholic Church, political parties and the media.

Political analysts quoted by Reuters said that Chávez must demonstrate understanding and willingness to change, as well as tolerance toward the Catholic Church and business sector, if the dialogue is to be reactivated.