Nicaragua-A Church Divided

September 25, 2007

Nearly two years into the Nicara- guan revolutionary process, the Church continues to be an arena of conflict between the country's so- cial forces. While most sectors, in- cluding the Church, were united in the struggle against Somoza, the Church hierarchy has become less cooperative in the face of the San- dinista government's clear commit- ment to true social revolution. Last October, the bishops laid down an ultimatum to the three priests with government posts, at- tempting to force them to choose between the Church and politics. Expulsion from the priesthood was the penalty for the latter. The ultima- tum was part of a strategy aimed at thwarting the power of the progres- sive Church. The hierarchy's efforts to maintain the traditional power structure by bringing grassroots Christian organizations into line and challenging radical clergy, throws in- to relief the polarity of class interests encompassed by the Church. A predominantly Catholic and de- vout people, the Nicaraguans' fight against tyranny took sustenance from their faith. This incorporation of faith into the liberation struggle must be considered in light of the 1968 Bishops' Conference in Medellin which denounced the unjust distri- bution of wealth and victimization of the masses. The bishops called for a society where the poor were not ob- jects but agents of history, a radical transformation which had as its cor- ollary an alternative interpretation of Christian love. The virtues of stoi- cism, benign suffering and ability to forgive all were replaced by those of an active defense of the poor, a love expressed by commitment to and solidarity with the cause of the poor. Although the bishops' appeal was not accompanied by strategy for ac- tion against the ruling class, for many believers it sanctioned the struggle for change. Eleven years later, at the Puebla Conference of Bishops, the principle was rein- forced by the official proclamation of the Church's "preferential option for the poor." The concept of the kingdom of God, hitherto reserved for an afterlife where the poor would be rewarded and the rich punished, shifted to life on earth where, by means of structural changes, jus- tice and equality for all would be safeguarded. The impetus provided by this op- tion for the poor manifested itself throughout Latin America. Grass- roots Christian organizations sprang up in poor neighborhoods and peas- ant lay preachers were appointed in the countryside. Gospel teachings were interpreted in light of the daily experiences of an oppressed peo- ple. Social issues, such as the need for health facilities and education, became their focus. Grassroots Activism In Nicaragua, this radicalization of Christian practice was an essen- tial prelude to the struggle against Somoza and the National Guard. From the late 1960s, Christians be- came a dynamic force within the lib- eration movement, both ideological- ly and organizationally. They joined the other mass organizations- street defense committees, peas- 0, 0, 0, Co MaylJune 1981 45update * update . update * update ant, womens' and student bodies-- as mainstays of the guerrilla move- ment. In the early 1970s, a group of Christian students set up a com- munity in a poor Managua neighbor- hood, Riguero, based upon the twin principles of socialism and Chris- tianity. The group's integration into the community and commitment to its problems generated an ad- vanced degree of politicization, manifested in hunger strikes and church occupations demanding the release of political prisoners. Luis Carrion and other members of the group later became leading FSLN representatives. In Esteli, known for its radical diocese, clergy and nuns organized clandestine street com- mittees, supplying arms and com- batants, as well as giving refuge, passing messages and distributing food during the insurrection. In the countryside, peasants were also organized into Christian communities, served by lay minis- ters drawn from their ranks. The peasants' political consciousness was nurtured by the emphasis on a social interpretation of the gospel as well as the lay priests' participation in the peasant organization that was later to become the Rural Workers Association (ATC). This conscious- ness proved a prerequisite for coop- eration with the Frente during the guerrillas' entrenchment in the countryside. Cleagy Join Armed Struggle Many priests became radicalized by direct engagement between faith and social conditions. In 1977, priests and nuns, mainly of the Ca- puchin order, wrote to Somoza de- nouncing the disappearance and murder of 350 peasants in the Atlan- tic region. They also wrote to Presi- dent Carter asking him to cease mili- tary aid to the Somoza regime, a measure which helped isolate the dictator. Monsignor Obando y Bravo, Archbishop of Managua and a figure associated with the forces 4' seeking an alternative to the dicta- torship, acted as a mediator be- tween the Frente and Somoza. Members of the clergy joined the Frente, including internationally ac- claimed poet, Ernesto Cardenal, now Minister of Culture. Others took up arms in defense of the people. One of the few who sur- vived is the Spaniard, Antono San- jines who fought alongside Gaspar Garcia Laviana, a priest also of Spanish origin who was killed in combat. Of the discrepancy be- tween the armed struggle and Chris- tian doctrine, Sanjines says: "As a Christian and a priest, I never had any doubts about joining the Frente Sandinista and taking up arms in defense of the poor." For many, any remaining qualms about armed struggle were resolved by the bombings of September 1978. All attempts at mediation with Somoza in hopes of mitigating the suffering had failed. In preparation for the shelling of major cities, civil- ians were threatened with arrest if they appeared on the street. Houses, full of men, women and children were easy targets for Somoza's flying death squads. The bishops of Nicaragua issued a document in early June 1979 con- doning the armed struggle, based on what they called a "just war theory." First, war may be declared by an authority which is truly repre- sentative of the majority and not just of an elite group. Second, the lead- ers must have just intentions or goals leading to a more humane society, and not seek power to their own ends. Third, violence may only be used as a last resort when non- violent means have failed. The bish- ops emphasized that violence is in- stitutionalized in the third world and in using violence to do away with vio- lence, the good outweighed the bad. Although of marked significance to a religious people, the late appear- ance of the document, at the begin- ning of the final insurrection, indi- cated the hierarchy's begrudging support for the liberation movement. Bishops Join Bourgeoisie In the absence of a bishop of the stature of the late Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, the Nicara- guan Church hierarchy has, since the victory, adopted an at best cautious and at worst hostile at- titude to the revolution. In November 1979 they issued a document pro- claiming their "Christian commit- ment to the new Nicaragua," ap- plauding measures leading to better living standards for the destitute and linking the gospel to the reigning spirit of solidarity with the poor. They have, however, recently become in- creasingly critical of the Frente's socialist program. For many traditional clergy, the desire to eradicate poverty is based in paternalism and charity, senti- ments incompatible with the mass mobilization for structural change and self-determination taking place in Nicaragua. The replacement of mass subjection to autocratic rule by mobilization around a materialist idea transcending personalities and rituals is, by its very nature, threat- ening to a traditionalist church. And the potency of the Christian cham- pioning of the poor, as a rallying cry for grassroots Christians, reinforces the hierarchy's fear that control is slipping out of their hands. Opposition to the Frente's politi- cal program has taken the form of public criticism by the hierarchy, along with some sectors of the bou r- geoisie, of a new educational scheme. Called Escuela Campo (work study), the scheme is de- signed to introduce school children to productive work in industry or agriculture for short periods. As well as acquainting schoolgoers with working conditions, the plan rein- forces the contact between workers and students established during the 1980 literacy campaign. The project has been denounced by the bour- geois opposition as a subterfuge to undermine the nuclear family by "forcing" (in spite of the declared voluntary character of the scheme) NACLA Reportupdate * update . update * update children to spend part of their school holidays in government sponsored activities. Traditional elements within the Church share the fear that this work study program augurs the transfer of parental authority to the state. That the Church hierarchy, with CELAM (Conference of Latin Ameri- can Bishops) as its ideologue, should find a community of interests with the bourgeois "democratic" opposition is hardly surprising. The Latin American Church's predomi- nant identification with concentra- tions of wealth is legion, and Nicara- gua has been no exception. Since a popular church has become an or- ganized force in the continent, CELAM has become the reaction- ary counterbalance. By various means, the bishops have expressed their discontent about Nicaragua's development. They prevented Obando y Bravo from speaking at Puebla in March 1979 to raise sup- port for his harrowed country, and after the Sandinista victory, devised a plan of "aid" to Nicaragua, includ- ing an exhortation to pray for its sal- vation from totalitarianism. Recently, CELAM, acting through the Nicaraguan bishops, has taken more serious measures. Starting with the dismissal of Father Ortiz of Leon for alleged neglect of his flock, a campaign has been unleashed to remove progressive clergy from their posts. Priests and nuns in San Judas, a Managua neighborhood noted for its radical Christian com- munity, were given notice by the bishops of their transferral to other countries. After community pro- tests, the hierarchy backed down, at least in part. The nuns were rein- stated while the priests must leave when their assignments are com- pleted. Such tactics on the part of the conservative bishops are clearly aimed at disarming the grassroots communities. Monsignor Obando y Bravo, in a recently published article in the conservative Managua daily, La Prensa, accuses them of willfully MaylJune 1981 criticizing the hierarchy while "hyp- ocritically" appealing for church uni- ty. In other words, obey or face estrangement. The hierarchy's efforts to assert authority culminated in the ultima- tum issued to the three priests in government - Ernesto Cardenal, Minister of Culture; Miguel d'Escoto, Foreign Minister; and Edgar Par- rales, Minister of Social Welfare-to choose between Church and poli- tics. But once again, the hierarchy had to back down, failing to enforce the conditions of the ultimatum. The deadline, December 31, 1980, went by with no response by either side. At a meeting at the end of January, the priests and bishops agreed to re- fer the matter to the Vatican which is expected to approve the priests' continued participation in govern- ment. This capitulation to the pro- gressive forces within the Church is an implicit recognition of the support which they command in the popula- tion. Nicaraguan Christianity For members of grassroots com- munities who have both participated in the insurrection and in the pro- cess of reconstruction there is no doubt as to the compatibility of Christianity and Sandinismo. They have demonstrated that belief in this union overrides their allegiance to a traditional church. But the threat of a divided church is a dangerous one. While the revolution seeks a united church carrying out its mission in a spirit of communion with the political and ideological climate, a divided church can only serve imperialist in- terests as the hierarchy dissociates itself from its base, legitimizing the opposition's counterrevolutionary stand. The Frente's statement on reli- gion (October 7, 1980) reflects the unique breadth of the Nicaraguan revolution which embraces the Church as an integral part of the new society. In it, the vital contribu- lion of Christians to the fight for liber- ation and the construction of a revo- lutionary society is acknowledged. The Church's requirements-as laid out at Puebla and reiterated by Nicaraguan bishops in their post- victory document-for freedom to carry out their evangelical mission, to practice and teach their faith and its moral imperatives, have been guaranteed. "Our experience shows that when convinced Chris- tians are able to respond to the needs of the people and of history, their beliefs lead them to revolution- ary militancy," the Frente an- nounced, spelling out the common ground shared by Christianity and Marxism. The statement marks a turning point for both Christians and Marxists throughout the world. This challenge to the Church is an historic and transcendent one. As a spiritual and moral guide, it leaves no grounds for vacillation. The un- reserved commitment and energet- ic activity of its grassroots commun- ities is evidence that the new Nica- ragua provides fertile terrain for Christian values. But if the Church hierarchy spurns its popular base, obeying the interests of imperialism, it will not only isolate itself, but will also condemn itself to being an agent of alienation and abstraction, rather than a source of humanitar- ian values shared by the whole com- munity. -Jackie Reiter works with a Nicaraguan filmmaking collec- tive, Tercer Cine. She recently made a film on the Church in Nicaragua, "Thank God and the Revolution." (Editorial note: At press time, it ap- pears the bishops have decided to force a confrontation with the popu- lar Church. In early June they issued a Pastoral Letter ordering the priests in government to vacate their posts "as soon as possible." The bishops insisted their decision was based on a desire to "strengthen religious uni- ty" and was in no way politically motivated. 47update update update update "If the priests holding public of- fice and exercising partisan func- tions do not give up these responsi- bilities, in order to take up their spe- cific priestly ministry," threatened the letter, "we will consider them in an attitude of open rebellion and for- mal disobedience liable to the sanc- tions of Church laws." Within two days the priests re- sponded. In a joint communique they reaffirmed their commitment to the revolution and rejected the order: ". In accord with our be- liefs we have endeavored to serve our compatriots in the posts they designated and will continue doing so in whatever place our presence and service is necessary." Acknowl- edging the support that this decision received from various Christian groups, Archbishop Obando y Bravo said, "One must sadly admit that the Nicaraguan Church is divided.")

Tags: Nicaragua, Catholic Church, Revolution, liberation theology, oligarchy

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