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  Number 30 | Diciembre 1983
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Nicaragua

The Catholic Church In Nicaragua And The Revolution: A Chronology

The church of Nicaragua became once again a topic of controversy because of incidents that occurred on October 30th in several parishes of Managua and the subsequent expulsion of two priests. Meanwhile, according to “La Stampa” of Turin, the Archbishop of Managua declared that “Sandinism has declared war on us” although “we are still not experiencing open persecution.”

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The Nicaraguan Catholic Church has once again become a controversial topic after incidents in several Managua parishes on October 30 and the expulsion of two foreign priests the following day. According to La Stampa of Turin, Italy, the Archbishop of Managua stated that “Sandinismo has declared war on us,” although “we are not yet in a state of open persecution.” In Tegucigalpa, the FDN, the Honduras-based Somocista armed group, issued a communiqué stating that “the Sandinista regime is demonstrating its absolute disdain for the lives and physical integrity of our bishops and priests.”

On November 9, government leaders met with the Bishops’ Conference for the first time in two years. At the end of November, Minister of the Interior Tomás Borge announce that “We have received alarming information concerning a plan to assassinate religious leaders and representatives of Nicaragua’s right-wing parties and place the ensuing blame for these crimes on us. Various counterrevolutionary leaders in Miami, San José, and Honduras have mentioned a plan to assassinate Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo in order to try to trigger a popular uprising against the revolution.”

These events and statements are but a few of the pieces of a rather complex puzzle, many of whose pieces are unknown to those who wish to understand what is happening inside the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. In this article we will try to fill in some of the missing pieces through a chronology of the past four years of tensions and conflicts. We will begin with a brief look at the pre-1979 history.

As does any chronology, this one contains elements of interpretation. We have sought to be as objective as possible, and we leave it to the reader to analyze in greater depth the information and draw conclusions.

The Church Was Sleeping When the Bells of Medellín Rang

During the 300 long years of colonialism (1523-1821) and the century and a half between independence and the Medellín Conference (1821-1968), the Church in Nicaragua developed in much the same way as in other Central American and Latin American countries. As did Nicaragua, most of these countries had their occasional bishop-prophets, defenders of the rights of Latin America’s indigenous peoples (in Nicaragua, Bishop Antonio Valdivieso), and many priests who participated in the independence process in the early 19th century (such as Tomás Ruiz and many others in Nicaragua).

After independence, the hierarchical church in Nicaragua developed into a social force that showed little creativity in the face of political power. With very few exceptions, the hierarchy and the majority of the clergy were able to accommodate themselves to each new political situation, while the people were immersed in a religiosity that had little contact with reality. The Church gave strong support to the conservatives and went on the defensive against the liberals because of their support for a lay state. When faced with direct U.S. intervention, the Church was either a silent onlooker or an accomplice; Sandino’s struggle was ignored. There were few prophetic voices in this period, which is key to understanding the current revolutionary process. The anti-interventionist attitude of Bishop Pereira y Castellón was an isolated case, but one which continues to be relevant today, as demonstrated by Daniel Ortega’s reading of one of Pereira’s anti-intervention letters to the Pope during the latter’s visit to Nicaragua. The Church was slow to awaken under the Somocista dictatorship. When the hierarchy did awaken, it did so at the same time as the upper-class opposition.

In 1969 – one year after Medellín, four years after the end of the renovating Vatican II, and in the middle of the Anastasio Somoza Jr. dictatorship – Nicaragua’s priests and religious met in Managua to evaluate the state of their Church. Their conclusions were dramatic. In sum, they found a conservative and divided hierarchy, distant from the people and without initiative. There were few diocesan priests, they had antiquated ideas, and they did not dialogue with the people. Men and women religious were isolated in their schools. There were no communities in the parishes, very few people attended mass, the liturgy had not been renewed. Parish priests were also distant from the people and too obviously concerned about their own economic well-being. The only exceptions to this picture were a small group of very dynamic diocesan priests and some communities of women religious who had begun to work on behalf of social progress.

This Church, so deeply in need of renewal, would experience just ten years later the impact of the revolution. The Sandinista triumph would shake all Nicaraguan social structures, including, naturally, the Church.

Medellín, Birthplace of the So-Called Popular Church


The 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Columbia, wrought some changes in the Nicaraguan Church. These changes were less profound than those occurring in other countries – such as neighboring El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – yet there were significant seeds of renewal in Nicaragua. These seeds are at the root of the sector of the Nicaraguan Church (communities and priests) that today proclaims that there is no contradiction between Christianity and revolution.

In the late 1960s, the shortage of priests led to the campesino Delegates of the Word Movement. Delegates of the Word are lay leaders who administer the sacraments and give biblically based religious training in their own and in neighboring communities. The movement grew and evolved over the years in Rivas, Matagalpa, Boaco, and in various areas along the northern frontier – where delegates of the Word are now special targets for the counterrevolutionary bands. From this movement emerged many leaders of today’s campesino organizations and many directors of revolutionary projects in the countryside.

In the Atlantic Coast region the Capuchin religious community promoted the training of hundreds of lay evangelizers who began to work in the Miskito language in the early 1970’s. Some Managua parishes begin to develop ecclesial base communities, starting with the pilot project in the San Pablo parish, which was inspired by the San Miguelito community in Panama.

Through these years, the Christian Cursillo movement contributed much to the renewal of middle- and upper-class sectors of the Church. Many Christians who today have positions in the revolutionary government – ministers, diplomats, and high-level officials – participated in the Cursillo movement, though the movement itself has now become very conservative.

An exceptional case was the campesino and monastic community of Solentiname, founded by Father Ernesto Cardenal. For many years, the community’s art, poetry, and theological reflection (which led to the three-volume Gospel in Solentiname) presented to the world the image of Nicaraguan Christianity as unique and isolated as the Lake Nicaragua archipelago from which it emerged.

The magazine Testimonio, which published 18 issues between January 1969 and late 1970, sought to be the written voice of the new currents in Nicaraguan Catholicism. The difficulties inherent in trying to express the very new thought taking place in the Church through such a systematic medium led the magazine to cease publication, and never again, before or since the triumph of the revolution, was there a similar journalistic experiment in Nicaragua.

All these seeds of a renewed Church did not succeed in changing the basic elements around which the mainstream of the Church had consolidated itself: clericalism and, by extension, scant participation on the part of women; an ahistorical popular religiosity; a strong distinction between the religious and the social, between the Christian and the communal; a low level of participation in the sacraments; the absence of diocesan pastoral projects; and, in general, a poorly trained clergy.

Despite this, the seeds of renewal had great potential. Faced with the increasing repression and corruption of the dictatorship, these new Christian groups would develop, along with other social forces and with the believing poor – the majority of the Nicaraguan people – the opposition movement and the insurrection that would overthrow the Somoza dynasty.

Nicaragua’s Church Is Not Poland’s

This basic sketch of Church history reveals certain key points for analyzing the present situation of the Church.

Though it is sometimes presented as such, Nicaragua is not “one of the most Catholic countries in the world.” In particular, Nicaraguan Catholicism cannot be compared with that of Poland, as it has been by some observers of the religious situation and by certain counterrevolutionary groups. The Nicaraguan Church bears no similarity to that of Poland, either in its past or in whatever future may arise from a deliberate ecclesial strategy.

The Nicaraguan people are religious; no more so than most other peoples in Latin America, though more so than the Cuban people, for example. But the Nicaraguan people are not “very Catholic.” Nicaraguan religiosity lacks the communal organization and discipline, the systematic practice and the historical roots that typify Catholicism.

Thus, one should see Nicaragua’s Catholicism in perspective and not view the country as a Latin American Poland. In the same way, one should not exaggerate the organizational force or the “aggressive strategy” of the phenomenon that some wish to call the “Popular Church,” seeking to portray it as a type of “National Church” opposed to the legitimate worldwide Church.

To say “the Church in Nicaragua is persecuted,” or “80% of Catholics are behind Archbishop Obando,” or “the Church is opposed to or in favor of the revolution” casts little light upon the Nicaraguan situation because the Nicaraguan Church is not homogeneous. Blanket statements about the Church or about Nicaraguan Catholics tend to mislead both because the Church as a whole should never be confused with its bishops and because in Nicaragua it is difficult to know what one means by the word “Catholic.” Moreover, neither the progressive nor the conservative wings of the Catholic Church has yet developed its own identity. Such an identity, however, is now emerging in the religious sector in the midst of conflicts within the Church, political struggles, and rumors of war.

Events have demonstrated that at the heart of the conflict within the Church are two models of what a Church should be. The budding model of a renewed Church – which is not an exclusively Nicaraguan phenomenon but one which is worldwide, with particular importance in Latin America – confronts the model of the traditional mainstream Church, which for many years was supported by a very simple popular religiosity. Some of the leaders of this mainstream Church now wish to activate that religiosity in opposition to the new government. The conflict is between an emerging sector of the Church and the traditional Church, which fears losing its social position. Because these new Church sectors are emerging in an atmosphere of conflict, it will be difficult for them to achieve the type of synthesis with traditional sectors that occurred in some other countries. This can help to explain the extreme rigidity on the part of the old, as well as the groping and weakness on the part of the new. The present situation is a challenge to both the traditional and renewed sectors of the Church, as it is to a revolutionary government that lacks experience in dealing with a subject as complex as that of religion.

Two Clarifications

Any chronology of the conflicts between the hierarchy and the state, and within the Church itself, demonstrates that it is difficult to draw the boundaries between these two types of conflict. Two clarifications are needed before beginning the chronology:

1. Managua sets the example. Most of the events presented here center around the diocese of Managua and the figure of its Archbishop. Many religious observers have come to say that the Archdiocese has implemented a “pastoral strategy of conflict,” seeking to create permanent tensions with the government and with the progressive sector of the Church. Nicaragua’s other seven dioceses have been affected both by national conflicts and by those peculiar to Managua. We will not focus upon these other dioceses, where the polarization is not as intense as in Managua and where conflicts have special characteristics. The Catholic Church in the Atlantic Coast region in particular has always been and remains a special case, owing to its traditional coexistence with the Moravian Church, the different ethnic composition of the Atlantic Coast population, and the current military sensitivity of the region. Thus we have omitted from this chronology events connected with the Catholic Church in Bluefields (North and South Zelaya) in the hope of devoting a special study to this topic at a later time.

2. Although an estimated 13% of the Nicaraguan population belongs to evangelical churches, a figure that has quadrupled since 1979, the present chronology will deal only with the Catholic Church, which continues to be the largest and most socially influential Church. It is also the Church that has been involved in the majority of conflicts involving religion. Relations between the evangelical Churches and the revolutionary process, the different tendencies within the evangelical movement, and the proliferation of religious sects are topics that also require special study.

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