A Prophetic Pastoral Letter and Massive Support for the Literacy Crusade
A CHRONOLOGY OF CONFLICT. July 1979-May 1980
On July 17, 1979, two days before the Sandinista triumph, Archbishop Obando was in Caracas, Venezuela, meeting with Venezuelan Christian Democrats and members of Nicaragua’s traditional political parties and large businesses, in the hope of forming a social-democratic force to replace the collapsing Somoza regime. (The friendship between leaders of Venezuela’s Christian Democrats and the Archbishop has been a constant over the past several years. There have been several trips back and forth, public honors bestowed upon the Archbishop, and public declarations supporting his position.)
The first statement of the Conference of Nicaraguan Bishops on the revolutionary triumph was issued on July 31. The statement did not mention the word “revolution,” which at the time was to be heard in every street, in every discussion among Nicaraguans. Instead, they spoke of a “reordering of our national community” and affirmed that they “share the anguish and fears of this stage of transition. We understand that there are serious confusions, both in ideological terms and in terms of the organization of new state structures.” Given the general atmosphere of unlimited hope in the revolutionary process, the words of the bishops were barely heard.
In a message issued on August 19, men and women religious organized in CONFER (the Nicaraguan Conference of Religious) issued a statement reflecting the sense of an enthusiastic opening which Christians were experiencing: “God is calling us to devote our energies and the best part of ourselves to accompanying this process of reconstruction, that our faith in Jesus Christ might shed light on this process.” Till this day there have been increasing tensions between the bishops and CONFER, the latter being identified with the renewing tendencies of the CLAR (Latin American Confederation of Religious). This phenomenon is particularly clear in Nicaragua, though it exists throughout Latin America because of the tension between the CLAR and CELAM (the secretariat of the Council of Latin American Bishops). One of the factors in the continent-wide conflict is the renewal of theology and of pastoral practice undergone by Latin American religious, a renewal that has not touched other sectors on the Church to the same degree. At the present time, there are signs of some improvement in relations.
From the very beginning, the tasks of reconstruction attracted to Nicaragua many priests, religious, and lay workers. Along with Church workers already in Nicaragua, they wished to help consolidate a process that from the very first offered Christians throughout the world a unique opportunity to meet the challenges presented by a modern revolutionary movement. They wished to contribute to the renewal of the Church, a renewal that would now take place not through the process of fighting against injustice and repression – as sectors of the Church had renewed themselves under Somoza – but through participating in the building of a new society. They wished to write new chapters in the theology of liberation. And they carried with them pastoral experiences lived in other countries, mostly in Latin America. These experiences, marked by the renewal of Vatican II and Medellín, were more advanced than those seen in pre-revolutionary Nicaragua. With their varied experiences, and under the influence of a euphoria reflecting the liberation from four centuries of pain, defeats, and repressed hopes, many of these newly arrived Church workers “skipped steps” in their first phase of work, which was to last until late 1980.
Some sectors of the Nicaraguan people had already experienced some theological and pastoral renewal before July 1979, which the insurrections accelerated, though more at the level of pastoral practice than at the level of doctrine or pastoral theory. This renewal was further accelerated in the first months of the revolution, though this time more in terms of doctrinal formulation and expression than in terms of practice. Many errors were committed at this time, reflecting the urgency of daily tasks and a certain “historical impatience,” a desire to live up to the demands of the process and its international image.
This was the period of written materials, seminars, pamphlets, and posters, which forced a synthesis that had not yet matured in the minds of many Catholics. The communication of new theological insights and systematic reflection upon the experiences lived in the war of liberation presumed a popular synthesis between faith and politics (i.e., a Christian Marxism or a Christian Sandinismo) that did not yet exist. Many critics point to materials published during this period as proof of a Sandinista intention to manipulate Marxism in order to destroy the beliefs of ordinary Christians and to substitute political and partisan idols for those beliefs. This analysis, apart from being as hasty as the pastoral efforts that it criticizes, ignores the fact that since 1980 the reflection and the practice of those Church sectors interested in renewal have been adapted to Nicaraguan reality.
On November 17, 1979, an unexpected event occurred. The Bishops’ Conference, somewhat hesitant in its initial declarations, published a pastoral letter expressing support for the revolutionary process, for the armed insurrection that led to it, for the thought of Sandino from which it drew its inspiration, and for the socialist project to which it led. The Bishops’ letter was a truly historic document. “When it arrived at my office,” recalled a European journalist in Nicaragua who specializes in religious questions, “it took me ten minutes to read the document and twenty-four hours to get over the shock. What great things could be happening in Nicaragua, I asked myself, that such an ‘impossible’ text could have come from the hands of the ever-cautious bishops?” The euphoria and the hope had spread to the bishops, leading them to publish a statement that was not merely progressive or opposed to a dictatorship, but authentically revolutionary. By late 1980 the bishops would downplay the contents of their own pastoral letter and avoid referring to it in public.
In early 1980, the president of CELAM – who just a year earlier had blocked Archbishop Obando’s attempt to address the Latin American Bishops’ meeting in Puebla, Mexico, on the question of Nicaragua – launched a continent-wide campaign of prayers and financial collections for the Church in Nicaragua. The call for spiritual and financial support implied that the Church was “suffering,” and it was the first time that this veiled message was communicated to the world. After this first initiative on the part of CELAM – an organization know since the early 1970’s for its conservative views – several theological experts and bishops linked with CELAM visited Nicaragua in 1980 to give courses on Puebla. Since 1980, CELAM has had a lower profile in Nicaragua, though it is fair to assume that CELAM’s evaluation of the religious conflict in Nicaragua and Vatican Church officials.
In March 1980, government junta members Violeta Chamorro and Daniel Ortega and Foreign Minister Father Miguel D’Escoto visited Pope John Paul II. The Pope at that time encouraged Christians to participate in the Literacy Crusade, which was to begin on March 23, insisting, as he usually does when discussing questions of education, on the need to respect “the rights of Catholic parents and families.” A month later, Nicaragua’s seven bishops (today there are nine) visited the Pope, who sent the Nicaraguan people a message containing words of encouragement and affection.
At the end of April 1980, Father Alvaro Argüello was elected by Nicaraguan clergy to represent them in the Council of State, which began to function as a legislative body on May 4. In the meantime, the Literacy Crusade directed by Father Fernando Cardenal had begun in every corner of the country, with the participation of Nicaragua’s 52 congregations of Catholic religious and of thousands of students from Catholic schools throughout the country.
Throughout this first period, the national unity that had developed in the last two years of the dictatorships and led to Somoza’s overthrow remained intact. The Church also appeared united.
May-August 1980: The First Political ConflictsThe revolution’s commitment to give priority to “the logic of the majority” inevitably had to conflict with the aspirations of certain minorities. Although these groups had opposed Somoza, they did not want a profound transformation of society which would prevent them from developing the social hegemony that they had hoped to achieve with the departure of Somoza. On April 22, 1980, businessman Alfonso Robelo quit the government junta, expressing his disagreement with its project of social transformation. (Violeta Chamorro had quit the junta days earlier, stating that her health was not good.)
Less than a month after Robelo’s resignation, the Bishop’s Conference unexpectedly issued a communiqué calling for the resignation of those priests holding public office, “the special situation (which justified their holding office) having passed.” The announcement seemed to express the same disagreement with the direction of the process that had led to Robelo’s resignation.
National unity had begun to crumble. Inside the Church, the first gulf had been opened, a gulf that would continue to widen over the question of the priests in public office. The conflict over these priests has involved the highest officials in the Vatican and grassroots Nicaraguan Catholics, theologians from many countries, and revolutionary leaders. It is a profound difference which has repeatedly played a key role in the overall conflict inside the Church and between the bishops and the government.
The question is key for all interested parties. For the U.S. administration, for example, it is important that Father D’Escoto, who understands well the U.S. political process and the delicate diplomatic game through which Nicaragua seeks to assure its continued survival, no longer be Foreign Minister. It is also important that he no longer be a priest, in order to strengthen U.S.-administration arguments about “atheistic Sandinismo.” For traditional sectors in the Church, it is also important that D’Escoto abandon his priesthood, in order to demonstrate that there is in fact a contradiction between Christianity and revolution and that it is impossible to maintain a dual loyalty to the Church and a leftist process. They would also like D’Escoto to resign his Foreign Minister’s position because of the inconvenience of having a priest occupy such an important position in a government they are trying to portray as being hostile to religion. For the opposite reasons, it is important for the revolutionary government that D’Escoto continue to be both a priest and Foreign Minister. He is irreplaceable in both senses.
After this first critical episode in May, tensions emerged around the celebrations which ended the Literacy Crusade in August 1980, especially in Managua. Archbishop Obando refused to participate in a major ceremony, which his Youth Pastoral Team had prepared to welcome the literacy crusaders, because he had not been asked to preside over the ceremony.
A few days before the Literacy Crusade celebrations, Archbishop Obando presided over a ceremony in Masaya for the coronation of the Virgin of the Assumption, an image traditionally revered in Masaya. The ceremony, also attended by Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo, was unusually spectacular. Because of its timing, some felt that it was a “parallel” ceremony to those marking the end of the Literacy Crusade.
There were elements in the Masaya ceremony that appear ever more clearly in mass religious ceremonies organized by the Archdiocese. The religious content is always traditional and has little connection to the national reality. The political content is implicit. The ceremonies appear to be aimed at showing that the Church, represented by the Archbishop, is the only force capable of bringing together large crowds in the same way that the new government does. With these ceremonies – Holy Week ceremonies, processions, ceremonies dedicated to Mary – the traditional sectors in the Church seem to be seeking a means of expression and of self-affirmation in a historical situation which they find radically new.
There have never been conflicts associated with the central celebration of Nicaraguan religiosity, the Purísima, with its novena and its “shouting fest” on December 7. From the beginning, the Government accepted the Purísima as an expression of national identity and encouraged the tradition. Government leaders participate in the celebration, which involves the adorning of altars to Mary in streets and houses. The people meet in front of these altars to sing and “shout”: “What causes such joy? The Conception of Mary!” On the final day, sweets, gifts, and fruits are handed out. The government has prepared an altar every year in the Government House, where thousands of people visit and revolutionary leaders participate in the “shouting fest” along with the crowds.
The tensions arising from the controversy over priests in public office and the question of the Literacy Crusade ceremonies were most pronounced in Managua. The natural leadership role conferred upon Archbishop Obando by his presiding over the largest diocese in the country, his heading the Bishops’ Conference, and his history of open opposition to Somoza was rapidly put to use by business and political sectors opposed to the revolutionary process. The newspaper La Prensa, which represents these opposition sectors, has done everything in its power to promote the image of Archbishop Obando, both nationally and internationally. The paper always refers to the archbishop as “pastor of all Nicaraguans.” This has obscured the work of other bishops in the country and has created outside the country a distorted image of the Nicaraguan Church, since the entire national situation is judged in light of events in Managua alone. This “Managuazation” of the conflict has been an important factor in its development.
October 1980: Hostilities Break OutFrom October 6 to 10, 1980, 135 priests (100 of whom were working in Nicaragua) met and issued a document clearly expressing support and confidence in the revolutionary process. On October 7, the National Directorate of the FSLN published a Statement on Religion whose importance transcended Nicaragua’s frontiers. The FSLN sought to express publicly principles already lived during the insurrection and the reconstruction, “given the importance of the topic and the need to orient our militants, to clarify our position for the people, and to avoid further manipulation of this question.” Like the bishops’ statement of November 17, 1979, the FSLN statement was a historic document. For the first time, a modern revolutionary movement already in power had broken with the rigid view of religion as an opiate of the people and a brake upon history. This historic novelty did not arise from a new theory of religion, but from experiences lived during the liberation struggle, experiences which were very different from those of leaders of other revolutionary movements, such as in Cuba.
The bishops’ answer, issued ten days later, seemed to have missed the novelty of the FSLN document. While raising again the question of the priests in government, the bishops also introduced new elements: “humiliating nterventionism,” “atheist proselytizing,” “classical materialism”… The abstract and negative tone of the bishops’ document provoked one of the first expressions of division within the Church. Some organized Catholic groups expressed this division publicly. Confusion began to develop in the minds of most Catholics. Less than a year after issuing their positive and hopeful pastoral letter, the bishops seemed to have been deeply changed. Yet the revolutionary process itself had not changed enough to explain the bishops’ evolution.
From this time forward, one sector of the hierarchy would be suspicious of the government and would begin to argue, as was already insinuated in their October 1980 document, that the government had two policies: one meant for public consumption, which proclaimed respect for religion; and the other, the true Sandinista policy, which sought to manipulate and eradicate religion. The distrust of the bishops and of some priests was heightened by a leaked document written by an FSLN official, which discussed the need to give traditional Christian celebrations such as Christmas a new political content. The document circulated in December 1979, before the FSLN had made official statements on the religious question.
International observers insisted that both the bishops’ October 17th response to the FSLN statement and their October 22nd pastoral letter on “Jesus Christ and the Unity of the Church” arose out of CELAM attempts to give doctrinal content to the bishops’ new posture, which would be initiated with these two documents. This posture would involve confrontation with the state.
** Of 220 priests surveyed in 1982 and 1983 – almost all those in Nicaragua – 46% support the process and 54% are opposed, with support and opposition occurring to different degrees. Diocesan and native-born priests (the two categories almost always overlap) tend to be more opposed to the process than religious and foreign priests. Religious and foreign priests have always represented the majority of Nicaraguan clergy. Currently, they make up 61% of the 220 priests in Nicaragua.
October 1980 marked the true breaking out of hostilities. This was perceived by the government, by Catholics who supported the process, and even by right-wing American religious sectors linked to the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which noted that “the Church and the Sandinista junta maintained good relations until October of 1980.” (IRD, “A Revolution against the Church?”, published in IDOC Bulletin No. 5-6, 1983. The entire document is an interesting presentation of the views of the U.S. religious right on the question of the Church in Nicaragua)
October 1980-June 1981: “The Church is Divided”In January 1981, as Ronald Reagan was beginning his term, a national inquiry on education was carried out in Nicaragua with the participation of religious and parents of children attending Catholic schools. The inquiry was not without its tensions. From this time on, education would become an even more sensitive topic. There had already been some confrontation during the Literacy Crusade, more in terms of theoretical problems than at the practical level. The January 1981 inquiry began at a time when certain dogmatic tendencies had developed among supporters of the revolution, tendencies expressed above all by some university texts, professors and programs. This increased the concerns of some Catholics and helped to polarize positions. Despite extreme positions on both sides, however, daily reality manifested a spirit of understanding and cooperation. As Minister of Education, Dr. Carlos Tunnermann, a practicing Catholic, is thus responsible for one of the questions most sensitive to ideological/religious polemic.
On March 24, in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a group of Christians concerned both by the lack of creative theological reflection in the face of the challenging reality of the revolution and by aspects of the revolutionary process itself issued a statement entitled “Christian Fidelity in the Nicaraguan Process.” In the context of overall support for the process, the Christians questioned the lack of austerity on the part of some leaders, the danger of depersonalizing and “massifying” the people, growing bureaucratization, etc. The document reflected a characteristic shared by other writings and materials which began to emerge in 1981 and which continue to be published today: critical support for the process. One example among many is the weekly newspaper, Tayacan, which began in February 1981 and has now published more than eighty issues. It should be stressed that those who seek to portray the “Popular Church” as a small group of Christians manipulated by the Government ignore the critical nature of these Christians’ support, expressed in meetings, courses, and publications. Once the period of euphoria had passed, these Christians sought to consolidate and extend the renewal of the Church begun before the revolution and to create new possibilities for renewal in light of the national situation.
Some have accused Christians participating in the Nicaraguan process of trying to create a “parallel magisterium” (that is, a teaching authority parallel to that of the institutional Church). However, it could also be said that some theological initiatives were needed, as the bishops had abdicated their responsibility to accompany the people living through a new historical process and to provide them with an equally new theological reflection. Thus the need for theological reflection was filled to some degree by different centers: CEPA, the Antonio Valdivieso Center, and the IHCA. In June 1981, the bishops specifically stated that these centers were not official Catholic institutions.
** Religious congregations run 173 schools, half of all schools in the country. Of Nicaragua’s 247 private schools (including the 173 mentioned), 73% receive state funding.
The hierarchy and some clergy sought to strengthen certain forms of popular religiosity. La Prensa began in April 1981 to give extensive coverage to a campesino from the town of Cuapa, in the Department of Chontales, who claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him several times since May 1980. As La Prensa began its campaign, popular pilgrimages to Cuapa began to be organized, particularly in Managua. The limitations of Nicaragua’s infrastructure – the shortage of vehicles, the poor condition of access roads, and the lack of lodging for the pilgrims – have been a source of tension among the organizers of the new cult, who are asking the state for more facilities for the pilgrims.
For a time, the mass media were overly involved in the debate over the meaning of this new devotion to Mary. The case of Cuapa demonstrates the hypersensitivity to religious topics that has existed at times in Nicaragua. The message which the campesino said that he received from the Virgin was simply a traditional exhortation to pray the rosary with a biblically based reflection. But the sensational polemic which La Prensa developed around the events at Cuapa led the other two newspapers and other mass media to see the new devotion as a counterrevolutionary manipulation of religion. For a time, Cuapa was a subject of widespread discussion, its importance exaggerated by all concerned. Now that the initial debate has subsided, the cult of the Virgin of Cuapa continues to develop, though more quietly than before and without becoming very rooted among the Nicaraguan people as a whole. Some bishops, priests and religious have promoted the cult, particularly in Managua and Juigalpa, the diocese within which Cuapa is located. Stamps and devotions have been printed, and Bishop Vega of Juigalpa gave the church in Cuapa the status of a sanctuary in December 1982. The religious sectors opposed to the revolution have sought to monopolize the cult at Cuapa.
Already in 1981, Holy Week celebrations contained elements which displayed the growing division in the Church. The differences between Catholics who supported the revolution with hope and those who were suspicious of the process were revealed in different ways of expressing faith. While progressive Catholics prayed during the Holy Thursday Eucharist for “bread with dignity” for Nicaragua (President Reagan had just cut credits for purchasing wheat), Archbishop Obando insisted in his homily that priests should not be involved in politics.
On June 1, 1981, one of the most serious crises concerning the participation of priests in the government broke out. In a statement that had the tone of an ultimatum, the bishops “declare that if the priests who hold public positions and exercise partisan functions do not abandon these positions as soon as possible in order to devote themselves fully to specifically priestly ministry, we will consider them to be in a state of open rebellion and formal disobedience to the legitimate Church authority, and thus liable to the sanctions provided for in Church law.”
The priests referred to by the bishops at that time were Father Miguel D’Escoto, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Father Ernesto Cardenal, Minister of Culture; Father Edgar Parrales, Minister of Social Welfare at that time and since 1982 ambassador to the OAS; and Father Fernando Cardenal, Vice-Coordinator of Sandinista Youth since the end of the Literacy Crusade in August 1980.
The document’s tone and its unexpected appearance caused a great commotion in the Church and throughout the country. Throughout the month of June, priests, religious, base communities and other groups issued documents expressing their support for the priests, their desire that the priests remain in office, their perplexity at the tone of the bishops’ statement, and above all their call to the bishops to dialogue with the priests involved before making such important decisions.
Among the most important documents issued in June 1981 was one that for the first time publicly addressed the problem of conflict within the Church, entitled “Time of Crisis, Time of Discernment and Grace.” At the international level the document, signed by twenty-three world-renowned theologians from various countries calling for dialogue within the Church, was especially noteworthy.
In mid-July, after high-level meetings in Nicaragua and Rome, the Vatican decided to replace the bishops’ ultimatum with a conciliatory dialogue. The Vatican also accepted that, given the continuing state of emergency in Nicaragua, the priests could continue in their official positions, so long as they did not perform priestly functions in public or in private, inside or outside of Nicaragua.
The June 1981 crisis demonstrated among other things that the sector of the Church in Nicaragua that supports the revolutionary process enjoys significant international support. This support has remained constant and has been demonstrated through varied expressions of solidarity: economic support, personal visits and international pressure. This solidarity, which goes beyond the purely ecclesial sphere, continues to be of great importance for Nicaragua’s process of material and moral reconstruction and for the defense of the revolution.
After the resolution of the June crisis, the government and the Bishops’ Conference agreed to create channels of dialogue in order to avoid the recurrence of similar conflicts, conflicts which hurt both the Government and the Church. These channels, however, were never used. As a tense and prolonged conflict continued to develop, Archbishop Obando told La Prensa, “We must recognize that there are divisions within the Church.” A group of wives of the leaders of the opposition MDN party (today linked to the armed counterrevolutionary group ARDE) held a special tribute to the bishops. Archbishop Obando commented to La Prensa: “We are not alone.”
July 1981-February 1982: No DialogueIn June and July 1981, a seven-member delegation from Pax Christi International, the prestigious European Church organization, visited Central America. The delegation was headed by Bishop Luigi Betazzi, of Ivrea, Italy. The report prepared by the delegation helped to clarify the situation in Central America and the situation of the Church in Nicaragua in particular. According to Pax Christi, “Archbishop Obando’s personality is increasingly being modeled along the lines of an opposition leader.” The delegation added that “While the bishops criticize the FSLN for turning Christians into ‘political instruments,’ they are allowing themselves to be politically manipulated by the opposition. We witnessed the way in which the political opposition declared the Archbishop to be a ‘prophet and martyr’.” The Pax Christi report would be met with a “counter-report” prepared by a CELAM delegation which visited Central America a few months later.
In July 1981, certain inopportune statements made by Archbishop Obando led the Government to an equally inopportune canceling of the Archbishop’s Sunday televised masses. The Archbishop denounced the move as a sign of the increasing lack of religious freedom. In response, the Government suggested that the televised mass be celebrated on a rotating basis by all the bishops in the country. In the following weeks, while awaiting the bishops’ response to the proposal, the Sandinista Television broadcast the papal mass from Rome. The bishops never did respond to the proposal, and at the present time no mass is broadcast.
In July and August, two Dominican priests, Fathers Aragón and Batalla, were removed from their Managua parishes, located in popular neighborhoods. Opposition to this measure, expressed by progressive Church sectors through communiqués, street demonstrations and the seizure of churches, was given ample coverage by the mass media which support the revolution. This pattern would be repeated in January and July 1982 when two other priests, Fathers Iacomelli and Arias Caldera, were removed from their parishes. The tendency of newspapers and TV and radio stations to participate in intra-Church conflicts has had a negative effect on those conflicts. The media have tended to exacerbate, polarize and distort the conflicts through the language that they use, through the great amount of coverage devoted, and through a lack of understanding of certain elements in the religious sector.
It is worth noting the enormous amount of coverage – in the form of news articles, editorials, commentaries and columns – given to religious topics by Nicaragua’s three newspapers. From July 19, 1979, to the end of 1982, a total of 6,500 articles on religion appeared in the three papers, which could well be a world record. This is an indication of the importance given to religion within the ideological struggle that is a component of the class struggle that came out into the open with the triumph of the revolution.
The cases of priests transferred from their parishes – in both Managua and Juigalpa – and of sisters who have also been transferred demonstrated one of the constants in the religious conflict: the lack of dialogue. The opposition which these transfers have provoked has always expressed a key demand, that the bishops dialogue with the communities involved. Progressive communities and religious have repeatedly asked for regular channels of communication with the bishops so that their points of view might be heard by the hierarchy. Such dialogue has always been very hard to attain. In the case of the transfer of Father Arias Caldera from his Santa Rosa parish, when parishioners who had occupied the church in protest tried to prevent the auxiliary bishop of Managua from removing the tabernacle from the church, they were all excommunicated by the Archbishop.
It is evident that a sector of the hierarchy and more conservative priests have become almost as suspicious of the base communities as of the revolutionary process, and have given more ecclesial legitimacy to more-spiritualizing lay movements such as charismatic groups and the so-called “City of God” movement, which have grown rapidly over the past few years, at the same pace as the evangelical religious sectors.
In late August 1981, the Christian Democratic government in Venezuela honored Archbishop Obando with membership in the Order of Francisco de Miranda. La Prensa responded to the occasion with a special edition devoted to the Archbishop. The edition contained thirty–six photos of the Archbishop, many of them occupying a full page, paid for by private companies and some members of opposition parties. The La Prensa tribute is perhaps the most obvious demonstration of the never-concealed links between the Archbishop and the country’s wealthy and opposition sectors. Adolfo Calero and Alfonso Robelo, currently leaders of the FDN and ARDE counterrevolutionary groups, respectively, attended the Venezuelan ceremonies along with the Archbishop.
As 1981 drew to a close, both national and Church tensions had increased. The American-Honduran “Halcon Vista” military maneuvers led 400 priests and religious in Nicaragua to write to the Pope asking him for an action on behalf of peace in Central America.
As the Purísima drew near, La Prensa returned to the subject of devotion to Mary with articles on another “miracle.” A statue of the Virgin was “sweating,” though La Prensa insisted that the statue was giving off not sweat but tears. The Archbishop and auxiliary bishop of Managua examined the statue to witness the “inexplicable” phenomenon. A few days later the “miracle” was discovered to be a fraud. During the night, the plaster statue of the Virgin was refrigerated. When it was removed in the morning, the heat caused the cold statue to “perspire.”
In January 1982, Archbishop Obando was invited to Washington by the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a neoconservative group formed in 1981 to counteract the effects of liberation theology. According to the Covert Action magazine (issue No. 18, 1981), Archbishop Obando is “pampered” by the IRD, which gave him its highest decoration during his visit.
The IRD report cited above also noted that the Catholic Church “is the only institution in Nicaragua which seems to have much prospect of holding the country back from the drift toward totalitarianism. Whether or not it succeeds may depend on the kind of moral support – and, possibly material assistance – it gets from Christian churches throughout the world.” The IRD has tried to obtain both moral and material support for the Nicaraguan hierarchy.
On February 18, the hierarchy-state conflict broke out once more with the publication of a Bishops’ Conference document denouncing alleged grave violations of the human rights of Miskitos who had been transferred from militarized zones along the northern frontier. At the time, the war which counterrevolutionary bands were waging from Honduras had become particularly critical in the North Zelaya area. Some Miskitos, responding to various types of pressure, had joined the counterrevolutionaries or were giving them logistical support. The Government responded to the situation with an evacuation of those living in the Río Coco area.
The bishops’ document, issued as representatives of political parties from all Latin America were meeting in Managua, caused another national commotion. The Government, which thought that the bishops should have engaged in prior dialogue before issuing the statement – as was agreed in the July 1981 accord – called for an emergency meeting with the Apostolic Nuncio. After issuing a sharp reply to the bishops on February 22, the government asked the Vatican to send a special delegation to discuss the overall problem of relations with the hierarchy. At the same time, groups of priests and religious visited the new Miskito settlements and issued statements questioning the extreme accusations of the bishops’ document.
June-September 1982: The August Crisis and the Pope’s LetterUntil mid-1982, the conflict within the Church and the hierarchy-state conflict had been kept inside the boundaries of Nicaragua, even though certain international information media had used the conflicts to speak of “religious persecution in Nicaragua” as a prime example of the dictatorial path being followed by Sandinista leaders who had “betrayed” the revolution.
In June, Pope John Paul II took a very clear stand, after a two-year silence, sending the Nicaraguan bishops a pastoral letter on the subject of Church unity. Though the letter was dated June 29, the bishops, for reasons which are still not known, chose not to make the letter public until early August. When they gave it to La Prensa to be published, the government’s Communications Media Office, alarmed by the letter’s unconditional support for the bishops and its criticisms of the “Popular Church,” forbade publication of the letter, under the terms of the state-of-emergency censorship laws decreed in March 1982. The error in this decision became clear when the news spread around the world that the Sandinistas had silenced even the voice of the Pope. From that time forward, the conflict in Nicaragua would be interpreted in terms of “persecution of the Church” and “the danger of the Popular Church.” The first characterization arises from a one-sided interpretation of certain errors on the part of the Government, while the second was introduced into the discussion by the Pope’s letter.
The Government reversed the decision of the Communications Media Office on August 10 and the Pope’s letter was published in all three papers. Progressive Catholic sectors circulated the letter widely, accompanied by theological and biblical commentaries and an answer to the Pope which stressed the true nature of what had been called the “Popular Church” by those seeking to delegitimize progressive Catholics. These progressive Catholic sectors said that they did not feel that the Pope’s description of the “Popular Church” applied to them. Their letter to the Pope helped clarify once again the nature of the situation in Nicaragua.
On July 25, an FDN band savagely assassinated fourteen campesinos in the town of San Francisco del Norte. They wrote on the walls of houses that their action was taken “in the name of God.” This was the beginning of such attacks, which have become sadly commonplace in campesino communities near the northern frontier. Christians participating in the revolutionary process began to ask the hierarchy to condemn officially these armed aggressions. In the October 1982 issue of its bulletin, “De Frente,” the FDN claimed responsibility for the San Francisco massacre, stating that it had “killed many enemies, who were oppressors.” In the same issue, the FDN devoted several paragraphs to praising Archbishop Obando, who “is ever more identified with the struggle for the liberation of Nicaragua.”
Immediately after the controversy over the Pope’s letter, the “Carballo case” occurred in Managua on August 11. Many Nicaraguans considered the positions expressed by Father Carballo through the Catholic radio station that he runs and in the two parishes under his responsibility (Santa Gema and Las Brisas) to constitute a provocation to those committed to the revolution. The crudity with which an alleged scandal involving Father Carballo was handled by the press and TV caused yet another national uproar which had negative implications for the Government. Government officials would later acknowledge the errors involved in the affair. The scandal itself, which from inside Nicaragua appeared to be little more than a domestic squabble, was presented outside the country as positive proof of the existence of religious persecution in Nicaragua.
At this point La Prensa began a campaign to restore the tarnished image of Father Carballo, referring to him as “another suffering Christ.” The priest would later be invited for a U.S. tour, and in April 1983 Archbishop Obando expressed his support by granting him the title of Monsignor and naming him Episcopal Vicar responsible for communications media.
On August 16, as an expression of solidarity with Father Carballo, five religious-run high schools in Managua were occupied by young anti-Sandinistas. In Masaya, 28 kms. from Managua, a demonstration of young Sandinistas was fired upon by snipers positioned inside the Salesian high school. One student died and several were injured during the attack. As a result of events in the high school, a Spanish priest, José Morataya, was expelled from the country after having been accused of complicity in the events.
Tensions had built up very quickly. The hierarchy-state conflict and the confusion of many Nicaraguans had reached the critical point. With the channels of communication blocked, the FSLN Directorate, concerned above all with the military situation resulting from the escalating aggressions along the northern frontier, took a step toward reconciliation. In a communiqué issued August 18, the FSLN reiterated the principle of respect for religion declared in the October 1980 statement and offered its interpretation of the situation: “Recent events in which persons associated with religious activities have participated of have been involved do not represent a confrontation between religion and the revolution… We must be ready for the manipulation on the part of the counterrevolutionary groups who are behind these events, who seek to present these conflicts as religious ones.” The FSLN statement added that “We must face with maturity both the points on which we agree and the points of disagreement, without allowing provocations to bring us to the point of fighting in the streets. The media should avoid exacerbating tension.”
There was a clear control exercised by the government over the popular organizations which might have wished to encourage confrontations in the streets, and over the media, which might have tended to whip up feelings. Publicly, a period of relaxation began that would last practically until the visit of the Pope. On September 16, Carlos Nuñez, President of the Council of State, visited Vatican Secretary of State Cardenal Casaroli with the goal of finding new points of reconciliation and understanding. (Government delegations had previously visited the Vatican in June 1981 and May 1982 in the same search for reconciliation.)
October 1982-March 1983: Violence from HondurasThe ideological-religious conflict which had been in the forefront of Nicaraguan news from late 1980 to mid-1982 began to receive less attention as the U.S.-backed war launched against Nicaragua from Honduras began to escalate. Counterrevolutionary bands continued to harass the Nicaraguan people and army. On October 30 the Blandon family was murdered in the northern town of El Jícaro. The father and one of the children had been Delegates of the Word. The murders shocked Christians throughout Nicaragua. Christian communities throughout northern Nicaragua released the names of other Delegates of the Word who had been recently assassinated, showing that Delegates of the Word, along with teachers and campesino leaders, have been the prime targets of counterrevolutionary violence.
In response to the assassinations, many Nicaraguans once again called upon the bishops to condemn the violence which, apart from the human suffering it cost, was leading to the diversion of key material and human resources from the tasks of reconstruction to those of defense. To date, any condemnations made by bishops of the violence, which has cost the lives of 800 Nicaraguans, is weakening the economy and might be the prelude to a full-scale war that would cost thousands of lives, have been weak, given the gravity of the situation, and have not been supported by all the bishops. The total silence of a sector of the hierarchy is contradictory, given the Church’s traditional opposition to “violence, whatever its source.” This silence is even more surprising, given that the counterrevolutionaries attacking from Honduras present their actions as a “holy war” against communism, invoke the name of God and publicize their cause by claiming that their concerns are the same as those of the Church and some its leaders. The hierarchy’s silence is disconcerting for those Catholics who are weeping for their dead, for those faithful who are fighting to defend their country, and for Catholics around the world who consider that the silence of the bishops may imply some sympathy on their part for the counterrevolutionaries.
On November 28, after a campaign initiated by the bishops was undertaken throughout the country with complete freedom, all the dioceses in the country celebrated the Consecration of Nicaragua to the Heart of Mary. Thousands of people attended the main ceremony in Managua.
On December 3, the Bishops’ Conference issued a document on education that insisted on the right and duty of Catholic parents to assure a Catholic education for their children and that seriously questioned educational reforms in Nicaragua. The statement led to critical responses on the part of some revolutionary leaders. In a February 4 speech to Nicaraguan teachers, Tomas Borge gave a strongly worded answer to the bishops’ statement.* [*On the debate over education in Nicaragua and the bishops’ statement, see Envio 21, March 1983.] In early March the definitive statement of “Goals and Objectives of the New Education” was issued, the fruit of the national study of education undertaken in January 1981. The statement of goals was severely criticized by the parents of students of some Catholic schools, especially in Managua. These parents had been organized by two Catholic parents’ organizations which are active in making religious objections to changes in the educational system.** [**An example of the parents’ criticism is one referring to the economic limitation faced by the educational system. The parents’ group writes that “What the state refers to as respect for freedom to choose a nonstate school is actually a lack of respect. Respect for this freedom would involve making all the resources of the state available so that all Nicaraguan parents can choose the form of education they wish for their children. Here on the other hand it says that the state will respect the freedom of those parents who have the economic means to choose non-state schools. That is, the state is not going to respect the right which the poor also have to choose the form of education they wish.”]
Other Catholic sectors published the goals-and-objectives document in popular form, with questions for group discussion that would help counteract the negative reactions being publicized by conservative Catholics. This initiative was well received by the Ministry of Education.
Friction over the topic of education has continued to be present. According to La Stampa of Turin, Archbishop Obando stated in November 1983, “Now the main battle is being waged in the schools with the goal of taking away from us the education of children. They have imposed Castroist textbooks based upon materialism. Sandinismo is using psychological terrorism upon families and is trying to denigrate our teachers by staging shameful episodes.” But today, as in March 1983, the “main battle” is being waged not in the schools but along Nicaragua’s frontier. Even as the debate on education developed, defense and national survival were the main concerns of Nicaraguans.
March-May 1983: In the Wake of the Pope’s VisitBeginning in February, the government and people of Nicaragua, Church institutions and groups of all stripes, and the popular organizations were all involved in preparing for the Pope’s visit. (For a detailed account of preparations for the visit and of events during the Pope’s hours here, see Envio 22, April 1983)
Nine months after the visit, it can now be seen as a historic event in Nicaragua. The visit was crucial in deepening the conflicts we have described here. With the visit a phase in the conflict ended: the Pope came down decisively on the side of one of the models of Church being promoted in Nicaragua, with all the political implications of such a stand.
After the Pope’s visit, the Church sector opposed to the process, feeling its position affirmed by the Pope, went on the offensive. This was seen particularly in the use made by certain priests of their weekly homilies to express in varied ways their opposition to aspects of the revolution. At the same time, the progressive wing of the Church began an important period of reflection and coordination, seeking more realistic pastoral projects. Relations between the hierarchy and the Government were practically frozen after the Pope’s visit. Throughout the world the myth developed of an almost diabolical “Popular Church,” created by the Sandinistas and responsible for the “profanation of Managua.”
From the time of the Pope’s visit to the present, Nicaragua has lived under a permanent state of alert provoked by the escalation of military attacks, verbal threats and economic sabotage, all of which are increasingly orchestrated directly by the Reagan administration. The possibility of a cruel and prolonged Central American war being triggered by direct U.S. intervention in the region has made the Pope’s visit seem increasingly remote and irrelevant for most Nicaraguans.
The publication of two important documents followed the Pope’s visit. The first, published in various places*, was apparently a CELAM report to the Pope to prepare him for his visit to Nicaragua. The document, leaked from within the Vatican, defined the Nicaraguan government as the “enemy” of the Church and laid out a strategy to meet the challenge. This strategy was to be based upon “the strengthening, unity and firmness” of the Church, and upon a unified teaching and strong leadership which bishops and the faithful would develop around the Archbishop of Managua. The overall goal of such a strategy would be to develop a Church similar to that of Poland – the document explicitly makes the comparison – a Church “restricted but with room for independent action.”
[*E.g. “El Papa en Nicaragua. Análisis de visita” IEPALA, Madrid, May 1983.]
Information released by “Il Manifiesto” of Italy on November 25, 1983, indicated that the article reflected the analysis of Humberto Belli, a Nicaraguan advisor to the Vatican Secretariat for Nonbelievers, who has links to opposition sectors and COSEP business people. Belli has written several books and articles on the “persecution of the Church” in Nicaragua, the most recent being a November 1983 report to U.S. bishops entitled “Nicaragua: Christians Under Fire.”
The second important document which emerged after the Pope’s visit was a “Letter of Support to the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua,” written by many of the most influential Catholic and Protestant progressive theologians in the world, such as Chenu, Metz, Schillebeeckx, Kung, Moltmann, Ducquoc, Boff and Casalis.
The Pope’s position made it more difficult for more moderate positions within the hierarchy and for conflicts among the bishops to see the light of day. Since the visit, the bishops have publicly appeared united. On April 13, more that a month after the visit, at a critical time when the aggression of counterrevolutionary task forces was intensifying, the bishops returned to the issue of the Pope’s Managua mass, publishing a document to “regret and condemn the unspeakable lack of respect towards the Eucharist and the Vicar of Christ” demonstrated by “a minority.” When El Nuevo Diario called upon the bishops to devote as much energy to condemning the criminal actions of the counterrevolutionary groups, they responded with an April 20 declaration stating that there should be a sincere dialogue and that division was the work of those who “are trying to build a so-called Popular Church and who are mixing Christian things with those that are political and partisan.”
On April 28, 100,000 people gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution in Managua in response to President Reagan’s speech to Congress the day before. The event ended with a moving speech by Father Arias Caldera, one of those transferred from one of his parishes by Archbishop Obando in 1982. Father Caldera, a personal friend of the late Carlos Fonseca, referred again to the events surrounding the Pope’s Managua mass: “On March 4 you prayed in front of the Pope. You said: We want peace! And God, who is more just and more merciful than any holy man, heard your prayer. It does not matter if some people maliciously interpreted this Christian action of our people. What does matter is that this prayer rose up to God almighty, who fills the earth. And because of this, peace will come to us.”
In April, Christian groups issued a statement reflecting upon the state of the war and the need for defense: “To defend today with all means this revolutionary process is a challenge to our faith and we should respond to that challenge. Because we believe, we speak out. And because we believe, we are going to defend this revolution.” This topic of armed defense and of the increase in defense forces through military service would be at the heart of debates in the following months. During those months, the progressive wing of the Church would help Christian communities assume conscientiously the tasks of defense.
Posters that the FDN distributes during its incursions into Nicaragua were captured in a battle at Maracalí in May. One of the posters featured a picture of the Pope with large captions stating, “The Pope is with us” and “With God and patriotism we will overthrow communism.” The bishops did not comment on the posters.
Also during the month of May, Christian Communities in Jalapa issued a message for Christians throughout Nicaragua. The northern town of Jalapa is a symbol of Nicaraguan resistance to the counterrevolutionary aggression, and many of its citizens have experienced the activities of that sector of the Church which is portrayed outside the country as an “aggressive Popular Church.” In their message the Jalapa Christians said, “In the last twenty months we have been suffering the assassination and the kidnapping of Delegates of the Word, teachers, technical advisors, young people, children, and entire families.” On June 5, some 40 priests and religious and dozens of Delegates of the Word from all over Nicaragua met in Jalapa in a show of solidarity with the northern communities organized by CONFER.
On May 15 the Bishops’ Conference visited the Pope. In his opening address, Archbishop Obando told the Pontiff: “Your passing has been so profound, your words so dense and sure, your portentous spirituality so human, that the Pope is still present in Nicaragua.” In speaking to the bishops, the Pope referred among other things to the situation in Nicaragua. The Pope expressed his hope that “there be an end to the sufferings of this faithful and dignified people, who from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the northern to the southern frontier, seek to live serenely and in peace, to live their own values, seeking with a deep social feeling necessary progress on earth.” In reading these comments, many Nicaraguans asked themselves whether they might not indicate a change in the position of the Pope in the direction of a greater understanding of the Nicaraguan situation, as well as possibly being an expression of the different opinions about Nicaragua that exist within Vatican circles.
May-August 1983: A Church of MartyrsWhile the bishops were still in Rome, the Government deported Spanish priest Timoteo Merino, parish priest in La Azucena and in other small villages along the frontier with Costa Rica, where the ARDE counterrevolutionary group is operating. The Government accused Father Merino of having used his influence and pastoral structures to encourage the penetration of ARDE among the campesino population. Father Merino went to Rome and told the bishops that his expulsion was another example of the government’s religious persecution. He also claimed that certain priests and religious institutions (e.g., CONFER) has been involved in the decision to deport him.
On May 17, Archbishop Obando was interviewed in Rome by an Associated Press reporter. Asked about counter-revolutionary aggression against Nicaragua, a topic being discussed throughout the world, the Archbishop said that he had received no reliable information about any U.S. government plans against Nicaragua. This triggered harsh attacks on the part of the media which support the revolution. “La Semana Cómica” launched a prolonged, disrespectful and untimely personal campaign against the Archbishop. A similar line was followed by a comedy program of the Sandino radio station, an official FSLN medium which has never been very dignified in its handling of religious questions.
The eighteen-year-old Association of Clergy (ACLEN) was dissolved on May 25, partly in response to Vatican guidelines on such priests’ organizations. The statement announcing the dissolution read: “The difficult circumstances which we are experiencing in the Church have led us to make this sad decision.” At the same time, the announcement noted that dissolving ACLEN did not mean abandoning the goals that it had promoted. One of ACLEN’s characteristics had been its work for Church unity through its encouragement of fraternal links between diocesan and religious clergy, and between Nicaraguan and foreign priests.
Throughout the month of July, a dialogue was proposed between the Nicaraguan and Honduran bishops on the initiative of the latter. For reasons which are still not known, this dialogue never took place.
On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the revolution, it was announced in Estelí that Felipe and Mery Barreda, a long-standing Catholic and Sandinista couple, had been murdered in a counterrevolutionary camp in Honduras, after having been brutally tortured. The Barredas had been kidnapped near the border on December 28, 1982, by a Somocista band, while participating as voluntary workers in the coffee harvest. Upon hearing of the deaths of the Barredas, the diocese of Estelí issued an important statement condemning the crime and expressing its “anguish over the imminence of an armed conflict which would cost much blood.”
On July 30, fifty priests held a ceremony in the Cathedral of Estelí honoring the Barreda couple as new martyrs, whose lives vividly demonstrated that “between Christianity and revolution there is no contradiction.” Thousands of people from all over the country attended the ceremony. As time goes by, the lives of the Barredas are becoming a symbol and an example for other Nicaraguan Christians. But the Barredas were not an isolated case. Dozens of other revolutionary Christians, especially campesinos, Delegates of the Word, and young militia members, have died in the counterrevolutionary aggression against Nicaragua.
After a long publicity campaign lasting months, which included a song lionizing the life of Archbishop Obando, the latter celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood in Managua on August 14. On that day the archdiocese prohibited the holding of any mass other than the main mass for the Archbishop, which was attended by thousands of people. The Archbishops told autobiographical anecdotes, but did not refer to the war situation. He prayed for Nicaragua, “that the scorpion of hatred might not pour out its venom upon our people.”
September-November 1983: The Last Crisis?On August 29, the Bishops’ Conference issued a document on the proposed Law of Military Service, which was then being discussed in the Council of State. The bishops’ statement was clearly political, adopting the arguments used by the Social Christian Party in a statement issued August 19, when the party abandoned the Council of State discussions on the subject of military service. The bishops questioned the legitimacy of the revolutionary state, which they implied had a “totalitarian” ideology. They argued that “the legitimate initial popular revolutionary social movement has been turned into a political party.” The bishops proposed conscientious objection to the law and stated that “no one can be punished, persecuted or discriminated against for choosing such a solution.”
The document had less impact outside the country than within, where it provoked the usual debates, now heightened by the sensitivity of the topic of military service at a time when the war against Nicaragua was escalating. It was not clear if all nine bishops approved the text. Bishop López Ardón of Estelí was out of the country when it was issued, and bishops Santi and Schlaeffer of Matagalpa and Bluefields, respectively, made statements that did not exactly coincide with the position of the bishops’ document.
In mid-September, Christian base communities issued a long document entitled “We Want Peace,” which examined some of the concerns of Christians that had been building up during the tense emergency period. The document also addressed the arguments that the bishops had used to criticize the revolutionary state and has helped clarify certain issues inside the country and outside, where the theme of Nicaragua’s “militarization” has been receiving much attention in recent months.
Generally, the hierarchy does not respond or refer to the documents issued by the progressive wing of the Church. It should be noted that in the debate within the Nicaraguan Church there is a large difference between the types of theology used by the two wings of the Church. On the one hand, the conservative wing relies upon a more abstract form of reflection, one that seeks to be valid for all places and times. The progressives, on the other hand, seek to understand the specific new reality in Nicaragua from the perspective of the Gospel.
The difference in output between the two wings is less due to one side controlling more economic resources. It is certainly not true, as some have claimed, that “the Church of the poor is rich, while the Church of the rich is poor.” There is rather a marked inequality in terms of creativity, in terms of the consistency of initiatives taken, and in terms of the theology employed by each Church sector. This was clearly seen, for example, in the materials which each sector contributed to the preparation for the Pope’s visit.
On October 30, the second-to-last day for registering for military service, popular organizations demonstrated near various parishes, especially in Managua, in order to prevent some antimilitary service demonstrations from taking place. These events had been preceded by a religious procession of thousands of people in Managua on October 9, in which the theme of conscientious objection was central.
The members of the popular organizations that gathered outside the various parishes on October 30 were rather heated up, and they surprised many faithful who arrived at the masses unaware of plans to organize antimilitary-service marches after the masses. The most spectacular incidents took place in the barrio of San Judas, where the strongest pressure and verbal attacks by the so-called “mobs” took place. (The organized groups who demonstrate in the streets are often termed “mobs.” Anti-Sandinista groups are widely referred to as the “perfumed mobs,” while the Sandinistas are called “the divine mobs.”) When Managua’s auxiliary bishop arrived to say mass in San Judas, he was not allowed to enter the barrio. The bishop, Bosco Vivas, was insulted, though not physically harmed in any way. It should be noted that insults and strong words are a normal ingredient in any street incident in Managua, whatever its type.
The tensions in San Judas and in some other parishes were exacerbated by the long history of problems in these parishes. In three of the parishes where there were incidents on October 30 (Tipitapa, Centroamérica and San Judas), priests who were open to the revolution had been removed by the Archbishop and replaced by conservative clergy. This had led to tensions in past months. It has been a strategy within the Archdiocese, and also in Juigalpa, to remove priests or to publicly delegitimize them in order to assure that parishes are in the hands of priests loyal to the hierarchy’s line.
Another factor that increased tensions in some of the parishes where incidents occurred on October 30 was the refusal of parish priests to say masses for soldiers or militia members who had fallen in battle. This refusal, which confused many Catholics in the parishes in question, helped lead to the events of October 30
In response to those events, the Archdiocese declared November 2, All Souls’ Day, to be a “day of mourning, fasting and prayer” in Managua, forbidding all 60 parishes in the Archdiocese to hold All Souls’ Day masses, a move never before seen in Nicaragua.
L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, commented on events in Nicaragua in a front-page story: “Another case of provocation and religious intolerance, which causes deep preoccupation, has been added to the ‘profaning’ of the Eucharist during the Pope’s visit in March and to the ongoing humiliations which the Catholic community in Nicaragua suffers.” Referring to the closing of churches on November 2, the Vatican paper called it a “response based of faith to a provocation based on violence.”
On October 31 two Salesian priests were deported from Nicaragua. José María Pacheco and Luis Corral, Costa Rican and Spanish, respectively, were teachers in the Salesian high school in Masaya. The two were accused of promoting, verbally and with pamphlets, non-registration for military service, which, since the military service law had been passed, was an illegal act. The Bishops’ Conference publicly supported the two priests and complained on November 3 that the Government had not taken the bishops’ authority into account when deciding upon the expulsion, though the Government had previously consulted with Salesian authorities. Upon returning to Spain, Father Corral, who refers to himself as a “disciple of Ghandi and of nonviolence,” termed the deportation “unjust.” Father Corral declared that “I did not interfere in questions of state,” adding that the pamphlet which had led to his expulsion was one which “advocated dialogue between the parties to the fighting. Following these principles, I believe that the FDR, or whatever it’s called [referring to the Somocista FDN], could lay down their arms and begin a peace dialogue with the Sandinistas.” But the questions of “dialogue” with the ex-National Guard leaders of the FDN, a dialogue now being demanded by the U.S. administration, is in fact a question of state. The Nicaraguan government has maintained a firm refusal to contemplate negotiations with the Somocistas, in accordance with the agreement among all the social forces that helped to overthrow Somoza to the effect that a basic goal of the new society was to block any return to Somocismo. (See the Government Program of the Government Junta of National Reconstruction, Section 1.1.)
In early November, the imminence of an invasion of Nicaragua led the Dominican Fathers in Nicaragua, the Jesuits of Central America, the Ecumenical Council of Bluefields – which has representation from the Catholic Church on the Atlantic Coast – and dozens of base communities to condemn the possible U.S. invasion of Central America and to express support for a peaceful solution to conflicts in the region.
On November 9, government leaders met with the Bishops’ Conference for the first time in two tension-filled years, with the goal of reopening channels of communication at a time when the national situation was particularly critical. According to both sides, the meeting was “positive.” On the part of the government, the meeting was one of several measures undertaken in the last few weeks to strengthen national unity and to reaffirm Nicaragua’s desire for peace. (Other measures include the amnesty for Miskitos and campesinos who have taken up arms against the Government, the loosening of press controls, the announcing of an electoral timetable, and meetings with opposition political parties and private sector groups.)
For the bishops, the meeting came at an opportune time, since Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega of Juigalpa had become president of the Bishops’ Conference on September 21. It is believed that Bishop Vega’s leadership will be less conflictive that that of his predecessor, the Archbishop of Managua.
Hierarchy-Government talks have continued in an informal manner since November 9. It is to be hoped that the tensions which have built up over recent years in the various dioceses in the country can be resolved through the new dialogue.
At the time of writing this chronology, the long-awaited relaxation of tensions – in all spheres of national life, including the religious – is a dominant theme. The Nicaraguan people, as they harvest coffee and continue defending the nation’s frontiers, faithfully adorn once again the altars of La Purísima, praying with more hope than ever that peace might come to Central America.
December 1, 1983.