The FSLN’s relationship with religion has always been contradictory
From its earliest days to the present,
the FSLN has had evolving, differing
and very contradictory relationships
with religion per se, the Catholic hierarchy,
progressive and conservative Christians
and also grassroots religious expressions.
A major thread weaving through this brief look
at the main stages in those relationships
is the symbolic role of La Purísima.
On November 29, 2017, President Ortega introduced a fast-track bill in the National Assembly to declare the festivities honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception (known in Nicaragua as La Purísima) as part of Nicaragua’s national, historical and cultural heritage.
In her daily message broadcast over the government media, Vice President Murillo announced the “good news” that the proposed bill would be approved by December 5. “just in time.”
Purísima festivities involve all the traditions linked to this Marian dogma: the novena to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, the traditional gritería (the shouting out of devotions) on December 7, and the festival in honor of the Virgin of the Throne in the small city of El Viejo, Chinandega.
The Catholic hierarchy reacted firmly and unanimously. The bishops fired off a letter to President Ortega opposing the project on the grounds that the State doesn’t have the authority to make this declaration. Their pressure prevailed: on December 4, the government withdrew the project.
I mention this recent event because La Purísima and its traditions appear again and again as a symbol of the swings and contradictions in the FSLN’s relationship with religiosity, especially Catholic religiosity, over the years.
Three fundamental paradigms
I also want to analyze those relationships over time based three paradigms from which religion can be experienced and understood.
The first paradigm is rooted in the mythical. Science has no place here, where the worldview is very traditional, with God explaining everything and resolving everything. Religious practices are rites and celebrations to give thanks to God, on whom we totally depend.
The second paradigm is philosophical and rational. The beliefs in this worldview emerge from philosophical reflection that uses logic to find the causes of events and criteria for individual behavior. Religious practice is translated into an ethic, a guiding moral commitment to live by and with which the believer responds to God. In the Church, the rational paradigm was reinforced in the 13th century with the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and has been prevalent up to our times.
The third paradigm is nourished by the social sciences. In it the believer’s response to God comes from analyzing reality. It invites each human being to be a subject of history and of a transforming praxis of the reality we live in with the goal of achieving Christian Utopia, i.e. building the Kingdom of God on Earth. In this paradigm history is dialectical and what matters about how we act within it isn’t so much if we are good or bad, but if we construct good and equitable social structures. Liberation Theology embraces this paradigm.
All three of these religious paradigms have always been present among the Nicaraguan people. With this background in mind, I now want to analyze the relationship of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) with the Catholic Church over the more than half a century in which the FSLN has played such an important role in our people’s history.
The first Sandinistas and Christian culture
The FSLN was formed in 1961 as an armed group, inspired by other Latin American guerrilla movements, all of which were in turn motivated by the Cuban revolution. That’s why the FSLN’s inspiration for social justice is mixed with the Cuban revolution’s Marxism and atheism.
Those who knew those first Sandinistas say that, despite everything, religion had a place in their awareness because of the education many had had and retained. For example, they recount the story of two Sandinistas on the outs with each other who were both in a clandestine meeting with Carlos Fonseca, the FSLN’s founder, an anecdote illustrating that Christian culture was also the culture of those first Sandinistas. Carlos reputedly told them: “Before you start working, you two have to reconcile, because that’s what Jesus taught us to do. I’m not a Christian, but if Christians do it, why shouldn’t we?”
Liberation Theology andits Nicaraguan expression
During those same years in which the FSLN was beginning to develop, a major renovation of the Catholic Church, a grassroots pastoral called Liberation Theology, emerged and grew in Latin America, including Nicaragua.
That process inspired, among other thingss, the Brazilian Paulo Freire’s seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). Pioneering that methodology in Nicaragua were the Radio Schools, an institution of the Catholic hierarchy directed by Father Bonifacio Echarri, which began working with the peasant population, especially in Las Segovias, two years earlier. The Schools used radio to teach literacy, organize and train the population and—with people who already had a more heightened awareness—promote development projects in the communities. Sandinista leaders invited peasants to in-person classes offered by the Radio Schools so they could begin their consciousness-raising process there.
Other Christian base movements sprang up after the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965) and 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín had already significantly renewed the Church. The FSLN found those movements a rich source of people who were beginning to experience a personal change that was moving them from the mythical paradigm to the committed one; people who were shedding their more individualistic and ritualistic religiosity in favor of one in which even personal commitment wasn’t enough; it was obliged to have a social projection as well.
The FSLN coordinated withthose committed Christians
After the 1972 earthquake in Managua, the FSLN had a greater presence in the capital and began coordinating with the Christian Base Communities developing in the poor barrios of Nicarao, San Judas, 14th of September and others, as well as with youth movements in the Jesuit Central American University. As part of this process, Father Uriel Molina made the Riguero neighborhood parish of Managua into a center for change, in which several Catholic schools, such as the Managua convent school of the Assumption motivated change among the girls. Meanwhile it was also coordinating with Delegates of the Word in rural areas.
In 1975, 5he FSLN split into three tendencies—those who continued to believe in Prolonged Popular War, building alternative consciousness among the peasantry in the countryside; the Proletarians, who were more intellectual and theoretical Marxists and began building a base among students and urban workers; and the Insurrectionists (or Terceristas), who were more pluralist and without a defined ideological identity but believed Somoza had so alienated most sectors of the population that he could be toppled sooner rather than later in a cross-class effort. This split, which lasted until just before the victory, enabled Christians from different social classes, intellectuals, artists, poets and the like to find a vehicle in one tendency or another that reflected their own particular vision of that sought-after social projection.
It was a very diverse experience. Such notable figures as Jesuit priest and educator Fernando Cardenal worked with students in the university and the Courses in Christianity, which taught that Christianity is not demonstrated by personal change alone but in the commitment to social change. His brother, Trappist monk and well-known poet Ernesto Cardenal, dazzled the world with his artistic and consciousness-raising experiences in the islands of the Solentiname archipelago, supported by figures from Nicaragua’s upper class.
There were many such novel experiences, and they continued growing, generating an important social force. And when that force coordinated with the anti-Somocista insurrectional movement it became invincible. I’ve always thought that the FSLN couldn’t have succeeded in overthrowing the dictatorship without the strength of committed Christians.
Neither the FSLN nor the Church base had a clear position toward the other
While the FSLN was talking with the Church’s grassroots base, which in turn began to participate in the struggle against the dictatorship, breaking with the traditional paradigm and embracing the paradigm of commitment, that’s not the same as saying there was any defined or formal position on religiosity within the FSLN. There didn’t appear to be a formulated strategy at the time to work with the new Church that was emerging everywhere.
Likewise, in those years of struggle against the dictatorship, the Christians who participated in that effort didn’t do so based on any ideology or following defined guidelines. What predominated were ethical approaches, indignation against the injustices, the desire to free the people from Somoza and the feeling that freeing them was God’s will. Debate between Christianity and Marxism was very limited among ordinary people. If it took place, it was within the environment of the universities and in some private schools run by religious orders. Even when that debate did indeed come later, it was only in certain circles.
The Church hierarchy refusedto talk with FSLN militants
Although the Second Vatican Council had largely renovated the institutional Catholic Church, Nicaragua’s hierarchy wasn’t very open to the change many people were experiencing personally. It also resented any changes it wasn’t leading.
For example, when the Nicaraguan Peasants’ Mass, with words and music written by Carlos Mejía Godoy incorporating liberation theology and Nicaraguan folk music, was first performed in 1975, the hierarchy not only rejected it; it prohibited it. Nor would the bishops, and particularly Monsignor Obando y Bravo, archibishop of Managua, agree to meet with the FSLN leaders fighting against Somoza who asked for an audience. There were, however, priests who sided with the FSLN and spoke on its behalf (Fernando Cardenal in Washington, Miguel D’Escoto in the Group of the Twelve), represented it internationally (Ernesto Cardenal in a world tour after the October 1978 offensive), or even took up arms with it (Gaspar García Laviana on the Southern Front).
With the victory, Monsignor Obando made his position clear
The hierarchy was no fan of Somoza’s continuation in power. Monsignor Obando had in fact publicly criticized him and on June 2, 1979, the bishops even issued a pastoral letter legitimating armed struggle against him. There had also been some contact between the archbishop and the Sandinistas before their victory, as he had been called upon to mediate between Somoza and them on two earlier historic occasions: the FSLN’s December 1974 assault on the house of Chema Castillo and its August 1978 taking of the National Palace. Both resulted in significant concessions by Somoza in exchange for the hostages taken, who were important in both number and rank.
But opposition to Somoza didn’t equal openness to the FSLN. I was in Costa Rica after the 1978 offensive when Monsignor Obando’s arrived in San José and the FSLN leaders who were there asked to talk to him, but he refused even then. On July 16, 1979, he and his adviser Roberto Rivas, with whom he has a long-standing close relationship, was in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Venezuela negotiating a different government junta than the one that took power on July 19.
Nor did the hierarchy’s unwillingness to meet with its leaders begin with the the FSLN’s victory. Not even did the fact that it acquired more government power than anyone had anticipated thanks to the National Guard’s total collapse produce a meeting with the archbishop, who as such most represented the Catholic hierarchy. The only thing that changed when the FSLN took office was that the distance between it and Monsignor Obando, previously concealed by the struggle, became open.
A significant example of that distance is that it wasn’t he who entered the Plaza of the Revolution together with the new Government Junta to hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters on July 20, 1979; it was Monsignor Manuel Salazar, the bishop of León. The archbishop, it was learned, was inside the National Palace, which flanks the plaza, “watching the bulls from behind the barrier.”
The unending public clashes and contradictions characterizing the relations between the new revolutionary government and Monsignor Obando only grew from then on.
No meeting of minds between Church and State
The Sandinista government’s enthusiasm at the beginning and all the outpouring of international support and sympathy overshadowed the importance of any rapprochement with religious officialdom, despite the latter’s deep roots in national culture. Moreover, the euphoria of people newly freed from the Somoza family dictatorship meant they didn’t take such a dialogue too seriously either.
Everything was euphoria and enthusiasm. For example, I recall that Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, considered the “father” of Liberation Theology, came to Nicaragua and visited the San Judas barrio where I was in those first days. He was there when some Sandinistas came to ask me to hold an open-air Mass to bid a final farewell to the remains of several local boys who had died in the insurrection. With a mentality based on post-Vatican II criteria that proposed a separation of Church and State, I declined. The idea struck me as a political-religious event and I thought Mass should be held in the church and political acts in the streets.
But Gustavo Gutiérrez told me: “Religion has always been manipulated by the Right; let yourself be manipulated by the Left.” I accepted his argument and went to the park in San Judas to celebrate the Mass. It was really disorderly! And after it, just to show you the many contradictions of that time, the neighborhood political leader criticized those who had asked me to do it, himself arguing that “the FSLN and politics are one thing and the Church and religion is another.”
So there was a current in the FSLN that understood, or saw, or wanted that separation, but grassroots religiosity, so deeply rooted in the people’s culture, invaded the new political spaces and began forcing the FSLN leadership to open itself up to religion.
The bishops began speaking out early
The religious tug of war, including but not only with the bishops from before the triumph of the revolution, continued in the new government’s initial stages. Two documents from the Episcopal Conference show this.
The first is the message the bishops published on June 2, 1979, at the height of the insurrection against Somoza, legitimizing it. That document stated, “We all suffer and are affected by the extremes of revolutionary insurrections, but their moral and legal legitimation cannot be denied ‘in the case of evident and prolonged tyranny, which seriously threatens basic human rights and damages the country’s common good’,” citing Pope Paul VI’s encyclical The Progress of Peoples.
The other document is the even more famous letter they published on November 17, 1979, some months after Somoza’s overthrow. It’s historic because of its contents, as innovative as they are encouraging, not only for Nicaragua, but for all Latin America. Clearly inspired by Liberation Theology, which was in ascendance throughout the continent at the time, one of its paragraphs says: “We are confident that the revolutionary process will be something original, creative, profoundly national, and in no way imitative because, with the Nicaraguan majorities, what we want is a process that steadily moves towards a full and authentically Nicaraguan society, not capitalist, nor dependent, nor totalitarian.”
“The 72 hour assembly”
There are also FSLN documents from those early days that express the internal contradictions that have always existed. The first assembly of top FSLN cadres, later known as “the 72 hour assembly,” was held from September 21 to 23, 1979. The document produced in that closed-door meeting proposed that the FSLN consolidate itself as a Marxist-Leninist party but maintain its democratic-pluralist image to the outside world.
From that proposed strategic “radicalizing” of the revolution and the FSLN’s preeminence as leader of the nation and of the “masses,” as they were then called, came the idea that the FSLN would lead the religious culture… and change it. That’s at least how certain FSLN sectors understood it.
“Who causes so much joy?”
And this is where Purísima comes in. At the time this celebration was virtually relegated by both the parishes and the hierarchy to being a family event without much public projection. But that first December of the revolution we witnessed a massive outpouring of grassroots religiosity on the night of the Gritería, December 7.
People set up altars everywhere and converted the act of visiting them to sing to the Virgin Mary and collect candies into a kind of thanksgiving for the end of the dictatorship. While this was happening, others wanted to redirect the meaning of the festival. For example, the traditional response to people’s “shout” of “Who causes so much joy?” is “Mary’s Immaculate Conception!” but in the Army barracks the soldiers changed the response to “La Gritería!” (the shout). I also knew of some places in the 1970s that changed it to “Carlos Fonseca and his guerrillas!”
The Church begins strengthening traditional grassroots religiosity
The bishops were very disturbed when they understood the content of the 72-hours document. Interpreting what was being developed as an ideologically atheist project, they initiated a strategy to compete with the revolutionary government by buttressing the most traditional aspects of grassroots religiosity (the first paradigm), which had begun to shift in the years leading up to the revolution. They managed to transmit their fears to many priests, who began to reverse their pastoral guidance.
The hierarchy introduced the slogan “Christ yesterday, Christ today, Christ forever!” in response to the “¡Sandino yesterday, Sandino today, Sandino forever!” of the revolutionary celebrations. Both bishops and priests sought to restore and give prominence to the celebrations of the Immaculate Conception, mass processions to pray before the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and First of January procession. They promoted the importance of the Eucharist—and hence the priesthood—and devotion to the Blood of Christ on Holy Thursdays, and endeavored to give increasingly greater visibility to municipal processions and festivals in celebration of their patron saints.
The Catholic Church turns back the clock
The renovated pastoral proposed by Vatican II, which had questioned all this, orienting pastoral guidance towards promoting a more adult and mature faith expressed in social commitment and development of ethical awareness, lost ground. The hierarchy and Catholic sectors of all social classes began to close ranks against the revolutionary advance, rejecting it on religious grounds.
It seems to me that the most serious aspect of the hierarchy’s strategic response to the ideology the FSLN—or one sector of it—wanted to impose, was that it totally discarded the renovated catechesis, suppressing any based on the spirit of Vatican II or on a reading of the Bible using the See, Judge, Act method being used by the Delegates of the Word and Christian Base Communities. Instead it imposed the Tridentine or Roman Catechism, commissioned by the Council of Trent and published in 1566, based on stock questions and memorized answers.
The FSLN recalls Christians’ revolutionary participation
The revolutionary government’s first full year (1980) was a difficult one. It was the year of the National Literacy Crusade, criticized by the hierarchy, and the year Violeta Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo, the two non-Sandinista members of the Government Junta, resigned because of the “radicalization” of the revolution.
In response, the FSLN published a document declaring its position on religion, in which it affirmed the secular nature of the new State and recalled the participation of Nicaragua’s Christians in the historical struggles against colonization, for independence and in the overthrow of the Somoza regime.
The central paragraph of this long and complex document says, “Some writers have said that religion is a mechanism for alienating men, acting to justify the exploitation of one class over another. Unquestionably this statement has historic value insofar as, at other times, religion was used as theoretical support for political domination. Suffice it to recall the role played by missionaries in the process of dominating and colonizing indigenous peoples. However, we Sandinistas say that our experience shows that when Christians, supported by their faith, are able to respond to the needs of the people and of history, their same beliefs impel them to revolutionary militancy. Our experience shows us one can be a believer and at the same time a committed revolutionary, and that there is no insurmountable contradiction between the two things.”
This important document had enormous resonance internationally and virtually none with the Nicaraguan population. It provoked further rejection by the Catholic hierarchy and positive responses only from those of us who, through Christian commitment, were already supporting the revolution.
The next year, in 1981, Ronald Reagan became President of the United States and began the war against the revolution that intensified year after year, aggravating all the already-existing contradictions. From then on, the confrontation with Monsignor Obando only steadily increased.
A conservative hierarchyand some progressive priests
When Karol Józef Wojty became Pope John Paul II in 1978, his Polish origins, conservative theological positions and decisions against Liberation Theology affected the Nicaraguan hierarchy—just as they did the entire Catholic Church of the continent and the world—in ways that lasted throughout the 28 years of his pontificate.
In 1985, in the middle of the contra war, Father Miguel D’Escoto, Nicaragua’s foreign minister, organized a fast to raise popular Christian consciousness against the US aggression, and a Stations of the Cross pilgrimage from Jalapa to Managua with the same objective. Calling it the “evangelical insurrection,” it resonated with already-aware national sectors but made no impression on the religious consciousness of most people. At that time, I was the parish priest of the church in Managua’s Monseñor Lezcano barrio, where the fast was organized, and I received politicians from many countries of the world but saw that most of the parishioners stopped attending Mass.
Years later, another fast, this time of Catholics and Evangelicals “for peace and disarmament,” had the same result. We asked Monsignor Obando, already made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, to receive us so we could try to convince him that his declarations in Washington hadn’t fostered peace and disarmament… but he didn’t change his line. It was clear that he and his adviser, Roberto Rivas, represented the interests of the armed counterrevolution.
We had arenas for dialogue but achieved little
The FSLN opened a space for dialogue with some priests, nuns and representatives of reflection centers linked to the progressive Church in the 1980s. We met periodically with René Núñez from the FSLN leadership. We spoke completely freely and frankly, disagreeing on some measures such as the expelling of Bishop Pablo Vega from the country.
On another occasion, when the government was about to expel 12 priests, the Brazilian bishop Tomás Balduino was in the country and we got Daniel Ortega to meet with him. Balduino advised Daniel not to expel the priests… but he didn’t listen. In our meetings with Núñez before those expulsions, our advice to avoid the tensions that had—predictably, in our view—provoked John Paul II’s visit in March 1983 wan’t taken seriously enough. We lacked autonomy and clarity about where our work should be directed at a time of so much polarization and in the middle of the war.
Neither did we criticize and point out the ethical failings and corruption we soon began to see within the revolutionary leadership. There was a kind of self-censorship, justified along with everything else by the war. There was also still a lot of euphoria among those of us who had committed ourselves to the revolution.
Our part in the dialogue was sincere, but we achieved little because we didn’t know how to coordinate as a movement and didn’t represent the majority of the people, whose lives were becoming increasingly more attached to traditional religiosity. The erosion of war added to the Catholic hierarchy’s intransigence and fear of the changes, which is why the first religious paradigm gained ground amongst the poorest people. In those same years, evangelical groups, largely from the United States, began to multiply in Nicaragua. Along with the Catholic hierarchy, they were active promoters of the first paradigm.
Greater resonance abroad than at home
Those were the years when Nicaragua was at the center of the world, when people from all over the world came to Nicaragua to accompany us, support us and learn first-hand about a process where “between Christianity and Revolution there’s no contradiction,” as one of the most frequently repeated slogans said. The participation in the revolution of Christian sectors—although never major ones—and of Nicaraguan and non-Nicaraguan pastoral agents always had greater resonance internationally than with most of our own people. It even had an important repercussion in Cuba, a country that had so many ties with revolutionary Nicaragua. Cuba had been constitutionally defined for years as an atheist State but, because of what was happening in Nicaragua, the wording of its Constitution was changed to define it as a secular State. The Dominican friar from Brazil who in 1988 wrote the book played a significant role in that change.
Betto also came to Nicaragua in the 1980s, very inspired with the idea of helping form FSLN cadres, but he left disappointed, feeling unable to do anything. The FSLN had invited him to give an initial workshop for its leaders and Betto focused his talks on showing that faith and politics are always related and that there’s no incompatibility between committed Christianity and revolutionary politics—as the FSLN had already officially proclaimed. But Bayardo Arce, who was responsible for the FSLN’s cadres, told him they weren’t interested in this approach. Betto never returned.
Among the Latin American bishops who supported the revolution and visited Nicaragua was the Brazilian bishop Monsignor Pedro Casaldáliga who came several times. Great European theologians also came to support the revolution, among them the Italian Giulio Girardi, who was adviser to the Second Vatican Council and wrote Sandi¬nismo, marxismo, cristianiesimo (1986), a book of great quality by a great thinker. But it, too, failed to have much impact on the Nicaraguan Christian bases or on the revolutionary leadership, which for a time distrusted him.
Purísima becomes centralto the hierarchy’s strategy
In the revolutionary years the celebration of the Purísima became an emblematic event with which to measure the ups and downs and contradictions of relationships between the Catholic Church and the FSLN.
These celebrations, firmly rooted in the first religious paradigm and hitherto in decline, had been marginalized by the Catholic hierarchy prior to the revolution that neither before nor after the Second Vatican Council were the novena or the gritería songs to the Virgin Mary allowed to be sung during official Church celebrations or in the seminary. Christian Base Communities had also distanced themselves from the novena and those songs.
With the triumph of the Revolution, however, reinforcing people’s traditional Marian devotion became central to the Catholic hierarchy’s conservative strategy, and this has continued up to the present. In 1982 the bishops organized a formal ceremony to consecrate Nicaragua to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was not the first time Catholic hierarchies had taken the initiative to consecrate nations to the Heart of Jesus or the Heart of Mary in countries with progressive governments or those promoting secular liberalism. In 1988 it was Cardinal Obando who introduced the slogan, “Nicaragua for Mary! Mary of Nicaragua!”—a message still heard today.
Progressive priests tried to update the prayers and songs
Seeing that the Purísima celebrations were becoming the subject of a dispute, a group of priests and laity wanted to bring them closer to the third paradigm, because there are elements in Mary, the Mother of Jesus, that allow it. To achieve this we wrote new novena prayers and songs, using the same traditional music. We published the renovated novena in the newspaper El Nuevo Diario so it would be widely read but the bishops prohibited it as soon as it left the printing press because it went “against the religious feelings of the people.”
We sent the text of this novena to one of the most prestigious Catholic theologians, the German Karl Rahner, who confirmed that there was no error in it and said he greatly valued the pastoral efforts we had made. We then published 5,000 individual copies of this novena but 4,500 are still in storage. They never reached the hands of the people because of the bishops’ prohibition and because the first paradigm was so deeply rooted in most of the population.
Then the governmentstarted promoting Purísima
While the hierarchy and many people remained pigeonholed in the most conservative tradition of this festivity, the revolutionary government began to celebrate the Purísima, setting up altars on Avenida Bolívar—in the center of Managua—with President Ortega himself sharing out the “goodies”: the candies, fruits and toys given to people who come to sing and “shout out” to the Virgin Mary.
The revolution lasted ten years and some months and ended without any understanding being reached between the FSLN and the Catholic hierarchy. With the FSLN’s defeat in the 1990 elections, tensions diminished and everything started to change… including in the FSLN leadership, which decided to make a very visible about-face.
Evaluating the participation of Christians in the revolution
In 1991, Comandante Tomás Borge asked a group of laypersons I worked with to evaluate the participation of Christians in the revolutionary process for a debate at the first FSLN Congress, to be held that year with the party then in the opposition. We produced and delivered a document, but there was no response to it, so I guess the issue was never discussed in the Congress. What we posited in that document is that the progressive Christian movement lacked the autonomy of the grassroots political movement during the revolution.
We subsequently published the document as a booklet that same year, with help from the German pastor Eberhard Löschcke, calling it La Iglesia de los pobres en Nicaragua: historia y perpectivas (The Church of the Poor in Nicaragua: history and perspectives).
Rapprochement, dialogue and cooptation
While we were proposing autonomy, the FSLN in opposition began a rapprochement with the Catholic hierarchy, becoming, year after year, an active promoter of the most traditional religiosity. Radio stations that were still with the FSLN began to transmit the Mass celebrated by conservative priests rather than progressive ones. This happened in Juigalpa, in Nandaime and on Managua’s Radio YA…
We were seeing a political decision, a clear change of strategy, to make peace with the Catholic hierarchy. In municipal meetings where the mayors were Sandinistas, they invited priests to make suggestions about the work that should be done in the municipality. I saw this in Chinandega and in Corinto. From the very first of the 16 years the FSLN was in opposition (1990-2006), the confrontation with the ecclesiastical hierarchies that had characterized the revolutionary years was replaced by rapprochement, dialogue and cooptation.
Winning over Cardinal Obando
The rapprochement between Daniel Ortega and Cardinal Obando began in 1998, during Arnoldo Alemán’s administration. A strategy of political pacts began at that time as well, which also involved the Catholic Church.
Some years later, the Bolaños’ administration’s failure to sanction the proven corruption in the Commission for Archdiocesan Promotion, directed by Obando’s protégé Roberto Rivas, enabled Daniel Ortega to completely “win over” Cardinal Obando, who began to support Ortega more and more openly. From then on the FSLN’s rapprochement policy with parish priests and bishops and the efforts to promote grassroots religiosity were accentuated, a strategy that came fully into its own after Daniel Ortega’s return to government in 2007. In 2006 Cardinal Obando openly campaigned in favor of his candidacy.
State promotion of grassroots religiosity
Since 2007 we’ve seen the organized promotion by state institutions and local governments of all expressions of grassroots religiosity. The government’s Tourism Institute nowadays promotes and finances patron saint festivities in all municipalities, from the most traditional one such as Santo Domingo in Managua, to forgotten ones such as San Pascual Bailón in Chinandega.
It also organizes and finances new traditions, such as the Holy Week Stations of the Cross procession in boats crossing over to Lake Cocibolca’s islets. Food fairs, which are heavily promoted by the government throughout the country, are always linked to patron saint festivals and religious celebrations. The government finances repairs to churches, chapels and shrines, makes donations to the parishes and finances the projects of priests and religious orders.
The Ministry of Education has directed that there be school prayers and devotions to the Stations of the Cross on the Fridays of Lent in all public schools. There’s never a shortage of priests, or of evangelical pastors, although to a lesser extent, at public municipal political events. Cardinal Obando, now emeritus, is always present at national ones. There’s now even a John Paul II Museum in Managua with the furniture, clothes and objects he used during his two visits to the country.
And, then, of course, there’s the Purísima… All state institutions celebrate the novena to the Purísima and all public employees are required to attend the prayers. In recent years all state institutions spend millions in setting up luxurious altars to the Virgin Mary along the Avenida Bolívar.
Rhetoric or reality?
The FSLN was never monolithic; different currents have always coexisted within it: one, more open and democratic towards other political and religious positions, and another, authoritarian and Stalinist. During the revolutionary years, the FSLN kept up a rhetoric of openness regarding religion but in practice things were different internally.
Some leaders said the openness regarding religion was tactical. not strategic, just like the model that proclaimed pluralism, nonalignment and a mixed economy, which in reality was just rhetoric. Other leaders said that liberation theology approaches were inherent to the FSLN’s ideology.
Strengthening social control and neglecting critical awareness
A former soldier told me that in the 1980s a moment came when the FSLN National Directorate ordered the soldiers to collect and remove all copies of the Latin American Bible they came across. This same soldier told me he believes that messianism is inherent to the FSLN group governing Nicaragua today. In his opinion, the current government has built a theocratic monarchy.
The stated objective of the government’s strategy today is to enhance the grassroots culture of people who are Christian and therefore blessed by God, as the official discourse we hear every day repeatedly says. But the underlying political objective of this strategy is to strengthen social control over people who are poor and have little education, promoting mythical religious awareness to do so. The government has neglected the formation of critical awareness, thus betraying the thoughts of Sandino, Carlos Fonseca and the original revolution as expressed in the FSLN anthem’s proclamation that “the people are the architect of their history.”
A strategy with neither ideological principles nor ethics
The present government’s religious-political strategy goes hand in hand with education without quality, controlled participation and economic projects that reward large investments by big companies guaranteeing them a strong macro-economy but producing massive social and economic inequality. It’s a strategy lacking either ideological principles or ethics.
There’s no progressive thought or liberal thinking behind this relationship with religiosity, with religion and the religious, because such thinking always promotes secular awareness. What we have is conservative, manipulative thought and—why not?—fascist thought.
The current government is strongly promoting the first paradigm, one in which the vision of the Catholic Church itself is, on balance, still very much anchored. We’re seeing Catholic hierarchies taking this kind of backward step not only in Nicaragua but throughout Latin America. The perspectives of a more committed religiosity, those that opened the 1968 Episcopal Conference in Medellín, have been closing and even the fact that Pope Francis’ vision is firmly set in the third paradigm has still not opened them.
A social movement tocounterbalance political power
I think that as long as the majority of Nicaraguans remain so impoverished and receive such poor quality education, we will remain stuck in the first paradigm.
The way out is to educate, raise awareness, train and organize people, not so they go out onto the streets shouting slogans but rather so that, by changing their image of God, they become committed to developing projects that can change their communities, and the country.
As long as the counterbalances to political power only come from above, from parties and institutions, power will not change. Power requires counterbalances that come from below, from people, an organized people. The role of the Church is to organize God’s people to be a community, a social movement that can counterbalance political power.
Rafael Aragón O.P. is a Catholic priest and member of the mendicant religious order called the Order of Preachers or Dominican Order.