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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 3 | Agosto 1981



Theological Analysis Of The Crisis

There exists today a certain escalation in the tensions within the Nicaraguan church. How should we understand and situate them?

Teófilo Cabestrero

The ecclesiastical development that the crisis of priests in public office has had offers various dimensions and levels for analysis. We will limit ourselves here to suggest certain references for a theological consideration of this key question:
To what extent is the fulfillment of public duties such as those performed by these four priests in the historic moment of their people (the Nicaraguan revolutionary process) compatible or incompatible with the priestly state?

A. A first observation:
Although a solution acceptable to the Church hierarchy, the priests and the people has been achieved (accepted by all, not with identical sentiments), there exist notable differences of perception and evaluation in these three areas of experience, thought and decision:

1. The practice of the four priests; their personal experience of their concrete work seen from their own perspective;

2. The decision of the bishops and their pastoral and doctrinal justification;

3. How the Christian people have gone through the crisis and how they have seen it; the evaluation expressed through their expectations and petitions.

The analysis of these three perspectives will provide useful data for a doctrinal reconsideration of the question.

B. Theological references about the priesthood and those tasks which are not priestly.

1. As opposed to the worship and the priesthood of the Old Covenant, for the New Covenant Jesus Christ lived and established a new worship and a new priesthood. The Church must maintain and practice this in its original purity according to the inspiration (the Spirit) of Christ.

In his Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul offers enlightenment for a theology of the new rites and priesthood that Jesus Christ established. With his incarnation and sacrifice, Christ replaced and gave new dimensions and sacrifice, Christ replaced and gave new dimensions to the “separation” that existed between priestly and ritual prayer. This gave the Christian priesthood and worship a place in history, an incarnation, which relates “service to God” to the service of persons, and ritual sacrifice to the personal sacrifices of participation in the struggle for a just and free life. For this struggle, Christ himself was sacrificed and offered himself. His sacrifice supplanted the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant.

Jesus thus introduced a strong, prophetic dimension in the priesthood and worship of the New Covenant: a) in the rituals or liturgical acts; b) in the localization and incarnation of these acts within the historic process of salvation. This includes salvific service and sacrifice in human and social works, and actions which are necessary or complementary for the construction of the church community and the Kingdom of God in the history or the people. These works and actions become prophetic because of the motivation, objectives and consequences of the people, and they become coherent with the prophetic, priestly mission of the priests in the New Covenant. The “service” and “sacrifice” are signs of credibility in the construction of the Kingdom of God and of his witness and prophet, the Church, the believing community among the people.

2. In the theory and practice of the Church, a fine distinction has come about between the “common priesthood” which all Christians receive through Baptism and the “ministerial priesthood” with which the bishop “ordains” someone to the worship or liturgical service of the community. This ministerial priesthood enables one to preside “in persona Christi” at the ecclesiastical “celebrations” of the Mystery of Christ, through which the Church is constituted or is recognized and expressed, and thereby gives worship to God the Father in Jesus Christ and through his Spirit.

The so-called “common priesthood” not only enables one to “participate” in these ecclesiastical “celebrations” but also qualifies all baptized persons to act “in persona Christi” in the actions of human life in order that they experience the motivation and the importance of the salvific love of Christ who died and was resurrected. Those who are ordained to exercise the ministerial priesthood in community celebrations continue being capacitated by the common priesthood to accomplish, like all Christians, in persona Christi, necessary human actions, service and sacrifices. However, once ordained for the ministerial priesthood, these other actions, services, and sacrifices have to be measured in relation to the good fulfillment of ministerial-priesthood service.

3. In the traditional practice of the Church in all times and places, priests have had to assume and have assumed numerous tasks and actions, services and sacrifices which are nor directly religious, not liturgical or strictly sacramental, but are coherent or complementary with the mission of the Christian priest and leader of the community. Such works and services are desirable and even indispensable, as much for the people, for the community, as for the credibility and coherence of the priestly state. Services which have filled at least 80% of the life of numerous priests with all types of jobs, from the most humble to the most scientific. Thus, numerous priests have worked as builders, bricklayers, mechanics, laborers, investigators, doctors, etc., etc. The church has even recognized those so-called “worker-priests” for their dedication to manual labor in specific situations where the need for witness or presence is advisable.

Historical practice has thus demonstrated strong motives or reasons for which priests exercise tasks or services which are not priestly: the emergency in the situations, the replacement of the functions, the testimony, the witnessing presence and the indirect apostolate in the motives…

4. It is a question of practical discernment to determine what actions and works can be compatible and even convenient for specific priests in certain situation and in conjunction with their priestly mission according to the prophetic Christian newness that Jesus Christ imposed on the priesthood. Such discernment will also determine what actions will be suitably reserved for the laity. It will determine what special emergency circumstances allow or advise, or even oblige, specific priests to fulfill a position. It will determine what actions and tasks are always incompatible, unadvisable, or prohibited for priests.

In that practical discernment, diverse types of analysis enter into play, not only based on religion but also on sociology and the human sciences. This makes it advisable to appeal to a mediator with an inter-disciplinary background for assistance in the discernment process.


Since Vatican II, a real spirit of pluralism has been allowed to exist in the Church, But this spirit of pluralism here in Nicaragua has deteriorated, in some areas, into conflict. This is an almost inevitable extension of the tension that exists within the revolutionary process of Nicaragua and it involves or affects almost everyone.

Legitimate Pluralism:

Legitimate pluralism does not exclude or repress those who have differences of opinion. It doesn’t demand absolute uniformity nor does it try to confuse the people by exploiting legitimate differences. These kinds of regrettable actions must be overcome in order to use the existing conflicts as occasions for grace and conversion.

What is Religious and what is Political?

Any observer of the tensions within the Nicaraguan church can see that the areas of conflict, without ceasing to be religious, are manifestations of differences that extended beyond the realm of the “purely religious” and that have ideological and political ramifications. Some of those who present these differences as “purely religious” then distort Christianity, using it to condemn one political process or ideology and to support or propose another.

In Nicaragua many people live the revolutionary process without distinguishing or categorizing their attitudes and actions as either religious or political. This overlapping and integration can cause confusion which can be easily manipulated. What the Church needs is vision, discernment and clarification which are based on evangelical conversion and good preparation.

What is clear here in Nicaragua is that the differing concepts and options, which are political and ideological as well as religious and ecclesiastical, are either supportive of Sandinismo and/or its underlying roots or are in opposition to it. More importantly, these concepts and options either support or oppose a process of change that is shaping a popular democracy and eliminating the kind of democracy in which all of the power is concentrated in a small wealthy group. The opposition often says it does not oppose the revolution, only the present leadership. We see this as a frequently used excuse to oppose both the leadership and the ideals of the revolution. They preserve the use of the word “revolution” while opposing any real revolutionary changes.

Only One Church, But…

It is a calumny used by the upper class to speak of two Churches in Nicaragua. The upper-class strategy is to align the bishops with their position so that the Church be a bastion of socio-political force against the revolution. They continue to support the maintenance of rich and poor classes and they want the Church to endorse this anti-Gospel division of classes. They insist that “theirs” is “the” Church and that those who view the Gospel and the role of the Church from a different perspective are creating a parallel Church, dividing it and disobeying the bishops. But here in Nicaragua the popular sectors and Christian revolutionaries are thwarting this strategy by refusing to be cut off; by maintaining the communion with the bishops. The poor also want one Church and demand that the bishops be their bishops also. They will defend this demand against those who would align the bishops with the privileged classes.

Two Tendencies:

While there is only one Church in Nicaragua there are two very obvious tendencies manifested (in both the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations.) These two tendencies (or ways of viewing what church and Christianity mean) have expression in two conflicting socio-political perspectives: that of a popular democracy which deepens the revolution, and that of an upper-class dominated democracy. The latter says it opposes the revolutionary leadership in order to save the revolution but what it really is trying to do is to recover its power at the expense the revolution.

Both tendencies have political weight. And here in Nicaragua we have a unique situation in that both tendencies are largely comprised of practicing Christians. It is not Christian-democratic capitalists versus popular-democratic atheists as has been suggested. The faith of the Nicaraguans is such an integral part of their lives that they will not surrender it to any atheistic ideology. Any leadership or vanguard will have to respect the religiosity of the people. The Sandinistas have promised to respect it. It is up to us to insist that they keep their promise and help them to do it, instead of simply obstructing, accusing and discrediting their efforts.

Without a much more in-depth analysis (there are problems and abuses in both tendencies that should be treated) the least one can hope for from the Nicaraguan church is that no one suppress the richness of legitimate pluralism. And the least that can be asked of the people is that they collaborate so that this pluralism remain healthy and living, evangelical and purifying. Of the bishops, it is asked that they be pastors of the Christian of both tendencies.

The least that can be stated without fear of error is that the possibilities that the Church has in Nicaragua to be able to positively fulfill its evangelical mission in a popular democratic revolutionary process are unique in history. Does it want to do it? Does it know how to do it?

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