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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 3 | Agosto 1981



The Ideological Struggle within the Catholic Church In Nicaragua

Today the efforts to destabilize Nicaragua are being carried out in many arenas: the economic, the political, the military – and in a very real and important way – the religious arena.

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In fact, many believe that at this time the ideological struggle is being waged most strenuously in the religious camp. With the measures enacted under the State of Emergency and with the control over money coming into the country, the room for maneuverability has been reduced in the political and economic spheres. But in Nicaragua, where the people have a profound and active faith, religious sentiments and sensitivities make the churches easy prey for those who would manipulate them for the purpose of destabilization.

The struggle, which is being presented as religious – the Sandinistas against the Church – is much more a struggle between the Sandinistas and the opposition, the economic and political sectors that have lost power and are trying desperately to regain it. Politically, they have no large social base and so they must convert religion into a political base by convincing the people that their religious beliefs and traditions are being threatened.

In presenting the picture of a religious conflict, a change in the attitude of the Nicaraguan hierarchy is often mentioned. While it is true that during the final days of the insurrection and immediately after, the bishops did oppose Somoza, so did most of the private sector. As the private sector began to move away from the revolution, so did the hierarchy, encouraged to believe that the Government was moving against the Church. Thus the alignment of the Nicaraguan institutional church is where it has always been, with the private sector.

The international human rights group, Pax Christi, in the conclusions of their report on Nicaragua published in October 1981, made this statement: “The church of the political opposition seems to us to be almost exclusively linked to the party politics of the Christian Social party and to the confederation of entrepreneurs (COSEP) headed by Alfonso Robelo. It also plays an important role in the American strategy aimed at destabilizing and overthrowing the revolution.”

In terms of the American strategy, since the Republican National Convention in 1980, the Reaganites and the “new right” have made their intentions very clear with regard to Nicaragua. The party platform spoke of the need to reverse the Sandinista victory and immediately after Reagan assumed office, aid was cut off, wheat sales credits were terminated and the destabilization process was underway. As part of that process, the U.S. began to court conservative sectors of the Catholic Church here, and statements by the U.S. Embassy and official pronouncements by the hierarchy began to have a striking similarity.

The Santa Fe document, which was prepared for U.S. President Reagan by a team of ultra-conservative advisers before he took office, says, “The United States must seize the ideological initiative….The war is for the minds of mankind. Ideo-politics will prevail….” And also, “U.S. foreign policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the ‘liberation theology’ clergy. The role of the church in Latin America is vital to the concept of political freedom.” However, the committee’s assessment of political freedom is only found in “private property and productive capitalism.” Any other concept is “less Christian than Communist.”

In April of 1981, the Institute on Religion and Democracy was formed for the express purpose of combating the infiltration of communism in the church and combating the evils of liberation theology. The right-wing Heritage Foundation consistently presents a picture of the Sandinistas repressing religious freedom and attacking the church, especially in the person of the Archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo. The IRD invited the Archbishop to the U.S. to present him with a special award in early 1982.

According to an article in the Panamanian magazine Diálogo Social, of August 1982, “The Reaganites’ strategy tries to stop the advance of the religious groups most committed to the marginalized sectors of Latin America and to the anti-imperialists. For their plan, they have had to create another Jesus Christ. They cannot manipulate the historical Jesus for their own interests, but they have been able to distort his image…. Thus we see that simple Christian people who have great social limitations, find the escape that had been planned by the divisionist missions and churches and pushed by the North American government.”

A Brief History

Political manipulation of religion by the U.S. has a long history. A look at the past twenty years gives a clear picture of the use that the CIA has made of religion, its infiltration in the Latin American churches and its strategy for fostering dissent within the churches.

After his visit to Latin America in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller warned of the danger of the Medellin documents, which called for a preferential option for the poor, and he cautioned that the Latin American Church was vulnerable to “subversive penetration.” At that time, many U.S. missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, were willing CIA informants in the belief that they were doing their patriotic duty. In her well-documented book, Cry of the People, Penny Lernoux says, “There is conclusive proof that the CIA used religious groups in Latin America for its own secret ends. At the same time it contributed to the persecution and division of the Latin American Catholic Church by supporting right wing Catholic groups and financed and trained police agencies responsible for the imprisonment, torture and murder of priests, nuns and bishops, some of them U.S. citizens.”

There is convincing evidence of CIA penetration of both Protestant and Catholic missionary societies. CIA money, much of it funneled through church-related groups, amounted to $2.6 million for the successful presidential campaign of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei in Chile in 1964. Jesuit Roger Vekemans, who operated the Centro Bellarmino in Santiago, received huge sums of money from the West German Bishops in the early 60’s as well as money from both AID and the CIA. The U.S. De Rance Foundation, which in 1976 was called “the largest religiously oriented foundation” in the U.S. by the Milwaukee Journal, gave Vekemans $200,000 for his book against liberation theology. Vekemans is on the board of directors of the International Institute of the Heart of Jesus, which is the major recipient of De Rance funds. Vekemans currently lives in Bogota where he wields considerable influence within CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference. CELAM is outspokenly critical of the Nicaraguan government and exerts much influence over the Nicaraguan hierarchy.

The CIA also financed Catholic organizations such as Fatherland and Liberty, a Chilean paramilitary organization which operated before and after the election of Allende. In Chile and other Latin American countries, the CIA helped finance the right-wing Tradition, Family and Property which played a role in the overthrow of both Allende in Chile and Goulart in Brazil. In many instances it pitted one sector of the church against another.

In 1975 the CIA financed the Banzer Plan in Bolivia which had as its objectives: to sharpen internal divisions within the Church; to smear and harass progressive Bolivian Church leaders; and to arrest or expel foreign nuns and priests.

Knowing this history, the Sandinista government looks with suspicion at incidents which could fit into the type of CIA schemes used in other countries. This suspicion combines with other factors to further complicate an already difficult situation. One of those factors is the admitted errors on the part of the government in the handling of some church-related incidents.

In recent weeks, charges of Sandinista religious repression have accelerated. The U.S. State Department has accused the Sandinistas of trying to divide the Catholic Church and to foment the creation of a “popular church” (charges almost identical to those made by the Nicaraguan hierarchy). State Department official Elliot Abrams, in an article in the Washington Post on August 21, treats at great length what he calls examples of the Sandinistas’ decision to tremendously increase the pressure against organized religion in Nicaragua. And church sources in the U.S. have confirmed that State Department officials have been calling U.S. bishops to urge them to speak out against the “terrible repression of religion in Nicaragua.”

Recent Incidents

It is important to look at some of the recent happenings involving the church in Nicaragua to understand the concern here about manipulation. Tensions within the Catholic Church and between the Catholic Church and the government, which is more specifically between the government and the archdiocese of Managua, have resulted in a certain polarization of position on both sides.

Nicaragua’s revolution was the first to be fought with the active participation of large numbers of committed Christians. The Catholic Church has, for the first time is history, the opportunity to participate in a positive way in the ongoing revolutionary and reconstruction process. However, the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America, doubts and fears of the unknown and individual mistakes on all sides have caused serious fissures in what could be a cooperative effort within Nicaragua.

The problem of Santa Rosa. Monsignor Arias, pastor in the poor barrio of Santa Rosa for the past eight years, was removed as pastor of that parish and a newly ordained priest was named is his place. Although the Chancery Office terms the change “routine,” it was the latest in a series of transfers or removals of priests and nuns for what are considered by many to be political reasons.

The people protested very strongly, but without success, to have the decision reversed. One evening during a prayer vigil in protest of the removal, Managua’s Auxiliary Bishop, Bosco Vivas, arrived to remove the tabernacle. This caused a strong reaction from the people and a scuffle ensued. During the scuffle, the locked tabernacle fell to the floor. The following day, the Archbishop placed the church under interdict, signifying that no religious services could be held there, and issued a blanket excommunication of all who had participated in the incident, citing as reasons blasphemy to the Blessed Sacrament and attacking a bishop, based on testimony from Bosco Vivas. People who were in the church have testified that at no time did anyone intentionally attack the bishop, although it was quite possible that he was pushed around in the scuffle. People from the parish went to see the Papal Nuncio over the excommunication but were told that he could not interfere in a diocesan matter. The priest said that if Bosco Vivas had not come to remove the tabernacle there would have been no problem, and no disrespect to the Blessed Sacrament, and that his refusal to discuss the situation with those gathered in the church had contributed to the incident.

The Papal Letter. A letter dated June 29 was sent to the bishops of Nicaragua from the Holy Father. On August 3, priests of the diocese were shown the letter and told that the government had prohibited its publication. The letter was published in the archdiocesan bulletin, distributed in many churches and read from the pulpit on August 8. On August 11, the Office of Communications Media published a communiqué giving as the reasons for the prior non-publication the timing (at the time of the San Francisco del Norte massacre) and the possibility of manipulation. The communiqué called for all newspapers to publish the text of the Papal Letter in its entirety one time. The papal letter called for Church unity, spoke of the dangers of a “popular church,” and also spoke of the merits of service to one’s country and to others. One priest said that pastorally the letter had many merits, but that from a political context, it was another link in the chain of isolation and aggression toward Nicaragua. He attributed this negative aspect, the timing of the letter, both to the influence of CELAM and to the direct input that some of the Nicaragua bishops made to the Pope recently, and which had d no alternate voice.

The Bismark Carballo incident.On August 12, the morning papers published a short communiqué from the Office of Communications Media which prohibited publication of anything related to the “incident involving Fr. Carballo in Las Colinas.” That day, Fr. Carballo, press secretary for the Archbishop and director of Radio Católica, gave a press conference to La Prensa and foreign journalists in which he gave his version of the incident, and which then began to go out over the wire services. According to Fr. Carballo, he was having lunch with one of his “faithful” when an armed man entered the house, forced him and the woman to undress and then began to beat him, forcing him toward the open front door. The police entered the house, and dragged him outside, past a passing demonstration, to a police jeep. He claimed he was then taken to a police station, held for several hours and treated very disrespectfully.

After that press conference, the government lifted the ban on coverage. TV news that night and papers the following morning carried pictures of Fr. Carballo naked, and gave extensive coverage to the incident. According to the police version, the demonstration asking for more police protection at various embassies to prevent criminals from seeking asylum was, by chance, passing near the house of the woman. Many embassies, as well as the headquarters of the Embassy Protection Unit of the police, are located in the wealthy suburb. Shots were heard and upon approaching the house, the crowd saw a man later identified as Fr. Carballo running out of the house, pursued by a man who was hitting him. The police, who were there with the demonstration, took them all away without realizing at the moment who the priest was, according to their reports. Continuing coverage by the pro-government paper presented interviews with the woman indicating a lengthy romantic involvement with the priest. The priest and the Chancery office have maintained that the incident was a government set-up to discredit the priest and destroy the church.

La Prensa ran a picture of Fr. Carballo, supposedly taken “minutes” after the unfortunate incident with his shirt torn by his assailant when he was forced to undress. (This in spite of Carballo’s statement that he was held for a lengthy time without clothes.) However, pictures of Carballo being turned over to the Papal Nuncio by the police several hours after the incident show a shirt without tears.

In an interview on August 14 in La Prensa, Fr. Carballo said, “One must remember that there are concrete documents that the people know about, in which the destruction of the Church has been programmed in the person of its priests who are faithful to the Catholic hierarchy.”

In the Pax Christi report on Nicaragua, an identical charge, made by Archbishop Obando y Bravo, is cited. “When asked for his objections against the FSLN rule, the Archbishop could mention few or no facts. But he did talk about the approaching Cubanization, about the plan to make Nicaragua a Marxist-Leninist state. He cited a certain document as the most important argument for this plan. Opponents of the FSLN had mentioned this document several times to us, but nobody was able to procure this document for us.”

In an interview last week with a foreign journalist, Fr. Carballo was asked about the mysterious document. He referred to two, one written in China and another written by members of the Frente, but said that he did not have either document nor could he say where they might be found.

Public reaction to the Fr. Carballo incident was very strong and united on at least one aspect of the incident and resulting coverage. Most people were scandalized at the publication of the pictures of a naked priest and outraged at what was often referred to as a “mortal sin” committed by the newspapers.

The incident sparked a series of protests and actions in support of the priests in various Catholic schools. These demonstrations often led to confrontations between different groups.

On August 14, Monsignor Obando y Bravo went to Monimbó, a barrio of Masaya, to celebrate Mass and participate in a procession celebrating the Assumption of Mary. According to witnesses in Masaya, an incident occurred when the MDN youth prevented a group from the Comunidades de Base from presenting a letter to the Bishop. It was not a serious incident nor an aggressive action toward the Bishop, although it was portrayed as such in coverage outside Nicaragua.

On August 15, some students and some of the priests who staff the Salesian Catholic School decided to close the school in a 24-hour strike in support of Fr. Carballo. A day-long series of incidents, rumors, etc., culminated in a protest demonstration against the closing of the school. During that demonstration, shots were fired from the area of the school and two demonstrators were killed. As a result of all of that, the Salesian high school was temporarily closed and several of the priests, all foreigners, were taken to their respective embassies for their own protection, while the events were being investigated.

One priest, the director of the school, was deported. He is said to have been outspoken in his opposition to the Sandinista government and apparently on one occasion burned the FSLN flag at a parents meeting.

After several days of meetings between the Minister of Education and representatives of the Salesians, as well as between government officials and the people of Monimbó, an agreement was reached. A new director was named, government intervention ended, and classes resumed.

On Sunday, August 15, a confrontation broke out between those attending a charismatic conference in a Catholic school in Managua and a group of Sandinista youth. No one was hurt.

Las Brisas. On August 19, after flyers were circulated around Managua advertising a Mass in support of Fr. Carballo at his parish in Las Brisa (flyers which accused the government of anti-religious actions), people objecting to that position, as well as students on their way home from neighboring schools, gathered in front of the church where Fr. Carballo was concelebrating Mass with Archbishop Obando y Bravo. According to some of the people who were in front of the church, which is still under construction, when the Mass was over, an exchange of slogans began between people inside the church and those outside. At one point, according to one observer, a rock was thrown by someone inside the church, cutting one spectator on the forehead. This intensified the feelings on both sides and a melee began. The police had formed a cordon through which Fr. Carballo and the Archbishop left without problems. However as they were leaving more rocks were flying from both directions and one hit the rear window of the Archbishop’s car, breaking it. The Security Police, led by Lenin Cerna, restored order. Several people from both groups were arrested.

On August 24, after the incidents in Masaya, which again were primarily of a political nature, rather than a conflict between the government and the church, the Episcopal Conference published an unsigned letter in which they denounced “public defamation and insults toward some Catholic educational personnel and organisms;” at least the passive complicity of some “authorities of public order and of the Ministry of Education;” the closing, “which for us is a camouflaged confiscation.” The entire contents of the letter clearly indicate a position that Catholic schools and Catholic education are under attack. This is after government officials and personnel from the Ministry of Education had made repeated public statements to the contrary and during the negotiations which ended with the school being returned to the Salesians.

The Problems

These recent incidents have sharpened the divisions within the church, which have nothing to do with doctrine but much to do with the way in which the carrying out of the gospel message is perceived. This difference in perception has further separated the Managuan Archbishop from the government and from significant sectors of the people.

There are strong criticisms because the hierarchy has made no statements regarding the increasing border attacks nor have they decried the deaths of Nicaraguans such as occurred in San Francisco del Norte. This is particularly irritating in light of the strong, and never substantiated, denouncement of human rights violations toward the Mískito Indians which the bishops published last spring.

Fr. Carballo was asked on July 27 if the Chancery was going to make a statement regarding the San Francisco massacre and he replied, “The Church can’t be putting out a document every time that something happens.” Daniel Ortega said in a recent interview, “They (the bishops) go to Mass for Salazar, but when do they ever go to Mass for the militia who have been killed?” (“Salazar” refers to Jorge Salazar, a private businessman killed in 1980 while apparently involved in gun-running.)

A great increase in the charismatic movement in some ways parallels the Pentecostal experience among non-Catholics. There is much emphasis on a spiritual approach to life, the importance of prayer and the exclusion of involvement in “political activities,” which include any government programs. This is seen as very negative by those sectors of the church that feel community activity is a necessary manifestation of faith. One priest said to us, “To praise only God, to ask only that God save the country from communism and that he convert the comandantes, without acting in a way that will benefit the community is, to me, not only counterrevolutionary but also anti-Christian.”

Again citing the Pax Christi report, “…the interwoven relations between the hierarchy and the political opposition have been growing considerably. As a result, Archbishop Obando was given a more and more political role. In the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, he is almost daily played off against the FSLN. Although the bishops accuse the FSLN of ‘politically instrumentalizing’ the Christians, they themselves are, in no modest way, instrumentalized by the opposition. We even witnessed how the political opposition hailed the Archbishop as a ‘prophet’ and a ‘martyr.’ Conservative church milieus and the political opposition constantly mentioned to us a ‘religious persecution’….It seemed ridiculous to us to talk about ‘religious persecution.’”

The newly consecrated bishop of Matagalpa, Mons. Santi, said in his homily on the day of his consecration, “Anyone who says there is no religious freedom in this country is a liar.”

It is worth asking, Why are the problems that exist between government and church only found to such a great extent in Managua? According to Pax Christi, “The whole issue of polarization is centered around this one question: being a Christian, should one support the revolution led by the FSLN or should one adopt a counter-revolutionary attitude? This is however not an internal church discussion but a political one….”

The clergy certainly are drawn into the political arena. One of the reasons given for the strongly politicized clergy is: “The traditional totalitarian thinking, leaving little room for pluralism (especially within the clerical hierarchy) and resulting in the fact that every criticism of a person or an aspect of clerical life is experienced as criticism of the church or of Christianity itself.”

In a recent interview in the publication Amanecer, the Pastoral Vicar of the Diocese of Estelí, Father José Ernesto Bravo, talks of what he sees as the negative aspects of the church in Nicaragua. Among those things, he includes the excessive influence of CELAM in the Nicaraguan church, the break in relations between the Episcopal Conference and the government, internal church repression against those who collaborate with the process, and documents issued by the hierarchy which focus only on what seems bad to them in the process, documents which are excessively political rather than pastoral.

The Government

At the height of all of the recent problems, the FSLN, on August 18, took the positive action of issuing a statement reaffirming its Document on Religion, issued in November of 1980. It reaffirmed the government’s commitment to religious liberty and its respect for the religious sentiments of the Nicaraguan people.

Not all of the actions by the government have been completely positive. The government has recently found itself faced with sometimes openly counterrevolutionary activity under the guise of religion. This has sometimes led to non-action on the part of the government. The popular organizations then take matters into their own hands and confrontations result. The danger is that, as one member of the CDS told us, “Our own people are well-disciplined and we can control them. But in these situations, sometimes other people get involved who do not have that discipline and cannot be controlled by us, since they don’t belong to our group.” Thus, unfortunate results can occur which can further deteriorate an already tense situation.

The Office of Media Communications has also acted in a less than prudent way in some of these cases. Many groups, including the Association of Priests, have written letters protesting some of the decisions and the coverage by local media. At times, the office does not seem to have its finger on the pulse of the people, to be able to read and respond to their sense of popular religiosity and their sense of what is sacred and what is inviolable.

The Foreign Media

If coverage of events within Nicaragua has sometimes been less than responsible, foreign coverage has often contained serious distortions and often outright lies.

In an interview in the Venezuela English-language paper, The Daily Journal, on August 20, with Monsignor José Joaquín Tronconis, Secretary of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference and member of the CELAM team sent to Nicaragua in response to the Pax Christi report, there is such blatantly false information as that the Archbishop of Managua was stoned by a mob while the police stood by and did nothing, that protests in support of Fr. Carballo were violently repressed by police and resulted in a number of deaths at the hands of the police, and that Nicaraguan priests are holding public office in defiance of papal orders to withdraw. Similar stories have appeared in papers in Honduras, Costa Rica, Europe and in the United States.

Another extreme distortion of the truth in the foreign press coverage of church-related events was the story that Bishop Schlaefer of the Atlantic Coast was under arrest. The bishop clearly spoke out against the report, stating that he had never been arrested, either in Nicaragua or anywhere else.

As an indication of the extent of CELAM’S negative perspective in relation to Nicaragua, their report, based on a visit in January, 1982, includes the following criticisms of the Nicaraguan process: growing totalitarianism, progressive disappearance of liberties, repression, sowing hate and division in the people, excessive militarization ideologized by Marxism, alignment with Cuba and insertion of the process in the Russian orbit. Its criticisms of those Christians committed to the process include: socio-political reductionism and political instrumentalization of the faith, deviations from the magisterium of the church, insubordination to the church hierarchy, attempts to divide the church, the search “rather than to Christianize Marxism, to marxize Christianity,” letting itself be used.


The attempts of the U.S. to destabilize Nicaragua through the area of religion and the church has serious implications in part because of the historic role of Christians in the revolution and the role of Christians in support of the FSLN now, with several priests holding key positions in the government. The churches throughout the world have played a key role in support for the FSLN, both before the victory and since that time. Thus, the U.S. efforts are aimed at cutting off a very important and vocal area of support by trying to convince those church sectors that the Sandinistas are now persecuting religion. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made strong and very positive statements in support of self-determination in Central America and against the interventionist policies of the U.S. government. There is a concerted effort now to get the bishops to back off that position, again by picturing the Sandinistas as attacking the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. These efforts contribute to the overall plan to isolate Nicaragua politically.

In the future it can expected that efforts, both internal and external, will increase to neutralize the effectiveness of progressive forces within the churches in Nicaragua by playing on the differences and internal conflicts. Efforts will also be made to stop church support for Nicaragua abroad by media campaigns portraying the Sandinista government as extremely anti-religion; also, efforts will be stepped up to portray those churches or sectors that continue to support the Nicaraguan process as “communist sympathizers.” This is evident in the attacks in the U.S. media against congregations such as Maryknoll and attacks against the United Methodist Church and others.

One Nicaraguan priest sees the only hope of reconciliation, within the Church and between the Church and the government as a commitment to dialogue: commissions from the various sectors, truly committed to an improvement in relations and willing to sit down and dialogue, admitting mistakes and making concessions. Hopefully, even though some of these sectors do not have a history of democratic procedures or dialogue, the seriousness of the current situation in Nicaragua will move them to go beyond their own interests and work for “el pueblo” – the people.

The Archbishop has recently made a statement indicating his willingness to work for the improvement of relations with the government. Recent meetings between members of the FSLN and some of the bishops have been termed “fruitful.” Daniel Ortega, in an interview on August 31, reaffirmed the willingness and desire of the government to continue the dialogue and said that the dialogue had been continuing with at least some of the hierarchy. The FSLN, in their statement reaffirming the document on religion, says clearly that to them recent incidents are not a confrontation between the revolution and religion, but rather a political struggle which the counterrevolution is portraying as religious.

After a period of extreme tension and a less than optimistic prognosis, the past two weeks have brought indications of a definite lessening of tension and progress toward reconciliation. There will certainly continue to be caution and expectation of more moves by the enemies of the Nicaraguan experiment to find inroads within the church to continue their battle for the “minds of mankind.”

September 6, 1982
By Patricia Hynds
Maryknoll Lay Missioner
Managua, Nicaragua

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