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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 4 | Septiembre 1981



Problems Within The Church In Nicaragua

Envío team

“I don’t know what the bishops are thinking. First they ask the priests who work with the Government and for the people to resign, and now they want to get rid of Sister Pilar who has done so much good work and who has earned the affection of the poor. They refuse to let her back in the country with no further explanation. I would like to know what is behind these decisions because even in Somoza’s time he never did things like this, and now that many religious want to identify with the people, the Church itself wants to prevent it.” -Nifa Castillo, homemaker

The confusion and dismay expressed by Señora Castillo reflect the uncertainty and bewilderment of many of the Catholics in Nicaragua today. Each day the papers devote several columns to the conflict within the Church and each side uses a profusion of Biblical quotes, Church authorities and theological arguments to support its own position and discredit the other.

One thing is certain: Monseñor Obando y Bravo, Archbishop of Managua, has great prestige, which he earned during the last years of the dictatorship for his stand against the brutal repression of the people by Somoza.

This love and esteem that the people feel for the bishop was reinforced by the pastoral letter which the bishops of Nicaragua published in November 1979. The widely acclaimed letter repeated Medellin and Puebla’s call for a preferential option for the poor and supported the goals of the Nicaraguan Revolution that also made the needs of the poor their priority.

Recently the hierarchy has been unmistakably moving farther away from the support of the revolutionary process, and this has great impact upon many of the faithful, most of whom are economically poor, theologically unsophisticated people who don’t understand and who actively oppose what is happening.
In previous mailings, we have discussed problems relating to the issue of the four priests who hold positions in the Nicaraguan government. Today we would like to focus on the larger, underlying situation that also includes that of the Fathers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, Edgard Parrales and Miguel D’ Escoto.


Recently there have been many cases which seem to point to a concerted effort on the part of the Curia to remove from the diocese priests and religious who are supportive of the revolutionary process.

One of the first cases was that of a North American Sister of St. Agnes, Mary Hartman, who had worked since before the Insurrection in the poor barrios of Nicaragua. Some time ago the Archbishop of Managua asked her superior to transfer her out of the country. The superior asked him to put the request in writing. The Curia did not respond and no further action has been taken.

Sometimes, a priest has been removed merely by a telephone call. The Jesuit priests, Luis Medrano and Otilio Miranda, were dismissed from the barrio in which they worked in this manner.

On other occasions, religious who have returned to their own countries for a visit were replaced during their absence or not allowed to return. Such were the cases of Father Pedro Belzunegui, who worked in Tipitapa, and Sister Pilar Castellanos, who worked in Ciudad Sandino.

The Assumption Sisters of the parish of San Judas were asked to move out of the parish house in which they had been living, and it was implied that it would be preferable if they moved out of the parish.

There have even been incidents of arbitrary denial of priestly faculties (permission to function as a priest in a particular diocese) or limitation of faculties. For example, a superior receives diocesan faculties for a year, the rest of the order receives them for only six months.


Father Manuel Batalla arrived en Nicaragua in 1979 shortly before the Sandinista victory. At that time, he supported the people who were fighting for their liberation. After the victory, he encouraged the people to participate in the popular organizations. His writings were often published in local papers and these articles were sometimes critical of some aspects of the institutional church. Soon his superiors received a request from the Curia in Managua that they remove Fr. Manuel from Sacred Heart parish in the barrio of Monsignor Lezcano.

When the religious superiors and bishops of Central America met in Rome, Monseñor Obando y Bravo repeated his request for Father Manuel’s removal.

Aware of what was happening, the barrio and the Christian Base Communities began to mobilize in support of Father Batalla. The Curia office then stated that it had nothing to do with the matter, that it was the decision of the Dominican superiors to remove Father Manuel. The Dominican Congregation was then obliged to publicly declare that they did not want to remove him and that, in fact, they would not remove him.

The case of Father Batalla is now “on hold”, waiting to see what further action will be taken by the Curia.


All of those who have received this type of pressure are religious men and women who live, for the most part, in poor barrios. All are committed to the people within the revolutionary process that is going on in Nicaragua, but their commitment grows out of their Christianity. They support those things in the government which coincide with the gospel values and use their participation in the process to keep the Christian perspective present in it.

Generally there have been popular protests to the decisions by the Curia in the more serious cases, and in those instances, the priests or religious involved have been accused of politicization and manipulation of the people.

The strongest criticism of these actions is that they are carried out in an arbitrary manner, with no explanations to those involved or to the people and to attempt to reach compromises or have dialogue.


Upon describing the problematic situation that is going on within the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, and especially in the Managua Archdiocese, we are conscious of the difficulty that people outside the country will have in understanding the real significance of what is happening. Even within the country, it is a delicate and sometimes baffling situation.

To give an idea of the conflicting attitudes present here, we would like to quote some recent statements and documents.

From the Christian Base Communities: “There exists a whole project of destabilization in all of Latin America except Nicaragua, which is the persecution and killing of priests, religious and laity who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus, who opt for the poor. That persecution of conscientious Christians is executed from one end of Latin America to the other by the military authorities and the oligarchy that are supported by imperialism.

“By contrast, in our country, the destabilization of pastoral projects which are born in the Gospel and relevant to the national situation is carried out with the consent of some sectors of the hierarchy, an unfortunate and alarming fact for us believers”.

From an article published in La Prensa on Aug. 25. 1981, from the Centro de Estudios Religiosos: “If they don’t like the way the Catholic Church operates, what don’t the Manuels and the Christian Base Communities form a new Church, a Sandinista Church that encapsulates Christ in the historic Sandinista movement and respects the Vanguardia Sandinista as the maximum authority of that church?

“If that is what they want, why don’t they leave? Why do they stay here bothering those who, following a 2000-year tradition, believe that the true Church is where the Pope is, united with the bishops? Why don’t they leave in peace those of us who believe that the Church was not born of the people, but that it was born of God, born of Christ who sent those delegates chosen by him to preach the Good News?”

From a religious editorial appearing in El Nuevo Diario on Aug. 28, 1981: “The great political manipulation of the Church includes closing ranks around the bishops, especially around Monseñor Obando, and thereby detaching them from the march of the Christian people in the Nicaraguan process.

“The great political manipulation of the Church includes adulation of the bishops, portraying Monseñor Obando to the people and to the world as a victim of the Sandinistas or of those Christians who have sold out to them, and who for political reasons, pit the authority of the bishops against the revolution (their moral authority with the people and the canonical authority with the priests and the Christian communities)…

“If the world marveled at the positive participation of Christians and the Church in the overthrow of tyranny and the liberation of the Nicaraguan people, the world will be astonished to see the great political manipulation that now uses the power of the Church against the revolution, against the liberation of the same people”.

From a statement by the Nicaraguan Democratic Youth, the junior branch of the major opposition party: “We energetically condemn the dirty campaign to discredit our pastor Miguel Obando y Bravo that has been started by the Marxists, who today disguise themselves with the clothing of Christians. The figure of Christ represented in Monseñor Obando y Bravo must be respected”.

From a Managua layperson: “In the past we were never favored by any government, nor by any of the rich, and even less by the Church. Now that we have a popular government with religious who are concerned about the physical and spiritual development of the people, the bishops want us to give that up, that which cost us so much”. -Carmen de Gonzales, domestic employee in Ciudad Sandino.

An ex-Communist who is now a militant conservative writer on religious issues: “And how can it (the church) be divided? By creating, with the approval of priests undergoing a crisis of faith and Christians unclear about their foundations, a Church within the Church: the Popular Church, the Church of those who opt for Marxism (under the label of an option for the poor). All of this involves a many-faceted process: to distort Christ, presenting him as a politician or a guerrilla; to make political liberation synonymous with the liberation of Jesus; to say that the primary obligation of a Christian is to opt for the poor and in practice this is to opt for Communism; to attack the hierarchy and those Christians not identified with Marxism (insinuating that they opt for the upper classes); and to attack CELAM…
“It is clear that it is our bishops who are supposed to judge, in each case, whether what a priest preaches or writes constitutes a parallel magisterium, contrary to the teaching of the Church and to its unity…”
(by Humberto Belli P., Centro de Estudios Religiosos, in La Prensa Aug. 28, 1981)

The opinion of a Jesuit theologian: “One thing that I would like to say is that whenever someone in the Church exercises the right to give a theological opinion or the right to exercise freedom of conscience by criticism, or whenever someone dissents with some opinion of some bishop, then CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference, has the tendency to make the kind of judgment that is expressed in the following manner. They say, “Here we have a parallel magisterium”, that is we have here a challenge to the teaching authority of the bishops. Or, “We have here a parallel Church”, which is to say, we have here a challenge to the unity of the Church. Evidently that is very negative not only for the Nicaraguan Church but also for the Latin American Church, and it hinders the true liberty of the children of God.

“If they have something against some priest or some lay person, if something written seems to be not sufficiently Christian, then they ought to show exactly what is against the authority of the Church or of the Christian Faith. They should not be able to say that the writings of a certain priest or the opinions of a certain priest, in that vague way, are in opposition to the Faith or the authority of the bishops”. –Interview with Fr. Juan Hernández Pico, S.J. in Barricada, Aug. 26, 1981.


We said in the beginning that this internal problem of Nicaragua was complex; the above demonstrates some of this complexity and some of what the people have to try to sort out. We would like to add a few thoughts.

In Nicaragua, two political movements are at stake. The movement of the people, which came to fruition on July 19, 1979; and the movement of the upper classes, whose economic and political power was diminished with the Sandinista victory but who are determined to regain that position.

There are also two tendencies within the Church in Nicaragua that do seem to have a relationship to the political movements: the tendency which proclaims the preferential option for the poor, which is expressed in the Christian Base Communities, in the presence of Christians in the popular organizations, and in priests and religious living and working with and for the poor; and the second tendency, which, having its greatest following in the upper classes and within the political opposition, emphasizes purely spiritual values and wants nothing to do with the process that the people of Nicaragua are living.

The problem is that, although this latter sector had lost its political power and position of influence, it wants to continue to be supported by the moral force and prestige of the Church.

For this reason it manipulates the figure of the Archbishop, trying to make him theirs exclusively. Unfortunately, many of the people feel that the Archbishop and the Curia are consenting to this. Taking on a purely spiritual the posture, it personifies both its strong anti-Communist stand and its idea of spirituality in the figure of the Archbishop, thereby putting him, willingly or unwillingly, in a position of leadership of the opposition.

The result of all this is that many people are confused. They see this person whom they respect becoming each day more aloof and opposed to the revolution made in favor of them.

What role do the priests and religious who live and work in the popular barrios and campo of Nicaragua have in all of this? They are totally opposed to the manipulation by the wealthy private sector of the figure of the archbishop and the Church.

The stronger that the polemics become, the more strident the press coverage is, the more it becomes necessary for a spirit of conciliation and openness to develop. For the sake of the people, for whom their faith is a central part of their lives, this healing is essential, but it remains to be seen in the coming months what path the Nicaraguan Church will follow.

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