A Portrait in Grays of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church
A characterization of Nicaragua’s Catholic dioceses,
as well as their bishops, clergy, nuns and laypeople,
accompanied by reflections on a few of their historical aims
and some of today’s challenges for the Nicaraguan Church.
I want to start with the Caribbean Coast, Nicaragua’s most extensive territory yet the one least known in the rest of the country, because it is there that I’ve had my greatest participation in educating laypeople. For the past 30 years I’ve spent a week a year on the coast, giving courses to Delegates of the Word of God, a Catholic movement that started in Honduras in the sixties. It prepares peasants who already have a leadership role in their communities to preside over the Sunday celebrations, explaining the Bible to their neighbors. They are trained for this task by studying the Bible from a perspective of historical commitment.
The Caribbean CoastThe coast isn’t actually a diocese; its legal status is that of an apostolic vicariate, so its bishops aren’t chosen locally from lists proposed by the Conference of Bishops, as in the rest of the country. Rather they are designated by the religious congregation that has the apostolic mission in that territory. Historically, the Capuchin order in the United States has had that mission, although now that only three Capuchins remain, the vicariate is passing into the hands of diocesan priests.
In 1966, a year after the Second Vatican Council ended in Rome, US Capuchins on the coast committed themselves to the renewal the Council represented in theology, liturgy and opening up to the world. They promoted the Delegates of the Word movement, as well as the training of laypeople, giving them a solid biblical formation. They published folders with really good explanations for an advanced reading of all the books of the Bible, publications we’re still using but that are barely known in the rest of the country. And they introduced grassroots methodologies for catechesis in the communities. As a result, the community leaders were very progressive. I recall attending an assembly of Delegates in Siuna in 1980 and watching them celebrate the Lord’s Supper using tortilla and chicha [a corn-based drink], which was a great pastoral novelty. And, in a tour I made in 1988, I saw the Delegates in Bocana de Paiwas celebrate baptisms, even though I, the priest, was present. All this pastoral work began to die little by little after the death of Salvador Schaeffler, the bishop who promoted it, and as the community of Capuchin priests from that era started aging. A more conservative mentality began to be embedded into everything with the two new bishops, Pablo Schmitz followed by David Zywiec, and the arrival on the coast of diocesan clergy formed in the Managua seminary, much influenced by then-Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo. Some of them had even studied in Rome.
The Capuchins’ pastoral work on the coast was mainly aimed at strengthening the communities and native lay leadership, although with no social projection or political awareness. That’s the Catholic Church tradition in the United States, where the government deals with social and political aspects and the Church concerns itself with the community. In Nicaragua this style also has to do with the awareness the bishops on the coast have always had of being foreign missionaries who shouldn’t get mixed up in the country’s politics. They’ve always respected the viewpoints of the national bishops and have never had their own strategy within the Bishops’ Conference.
Generational changesThe coast Church began changing with the arrival of Pablo Schmitz as bishop. The presence of national clergy increased, with only the three aging US Capuchins remaining in Siuna, El Ayote and La Cruz del Río Grande, plus one in charge of biblical formation in Managua. The parishes have now been given over to the national clergy, including the Bluefields Cathedral, which is such a symbol. With these changes the pastoral work has been geared to education, with the creation of rural schools built with the families’ collaboration and administered very successfully by teachers from the community itself. They provide a major service and the vicariate pays half their salary. The Church has also promoted some health projects, but preparing religious lay workers is no longer a priority and interest in promoting it has withered.
Despite this, one great value of the Church on the coast is that it’s the only place that maintains an ongoing institute for the religious formation of laypeople. It was initially geared to educating and ordaining permanent deacons. While the transient diaconate is the step prior to priesthood, the permanent diaconate was promoted by the Second Vatican Council to respond to the scarcity of priests. The Council permitted married men with community leadership to be ordained as deacons. Some twenty married deacons were ordained on the coast, and the parish of El Rama was administered by one of them for years. Today the Church is more clerical and while the formation program continues, everything taught in it has to get the green light from Rome. For example, one course must be Canon Law—this for peasants who barely know how to read and write! Five or six years ago the deacons began to be ignored and today they’re virtually excluded from ministry; no permanent deacons have been ordained for the past ten years. The Delegates of the Word do pastoral work, but with a very different profile from the one they had at the start of this valuable experience.
Bishop Schaeffler’s open attitude permitted various communities of religious women to be established in the coast: in Siuna, Waslala, El Rama and Bluefields. They’ve done important formation work with women and consciousness-raising with the laity. But the lack of institutional encouragement has been weakening them. Now new congregations are working on the coast. For example, workers from the Spanish Institute of Foreign Missionaries have come, and in the best Spanish missionary style have built an enormous church in Nueva Guinea—a traditional evangelical bastion—to rejuvenate the Catholic presence.
There have always been Moravians, Anglicans, Baptists and other Protestant denominations alongside the Catholic presence on the coast. The Anglicans have lost force since Hurricane Joan destroyed the Anglican Cathedral in Bluefields in 1988. Although it was finally rebuilt after ten years, the Anglican community hasn’t recovered. The Moravian denomination has the deepest roots. Relations are cordial at the grassroots level of the Catholic and Moravian churches and there’s close collaboration, above all in the municipality of Puerto Cabezas. If there’s a Moravian mission, the Catholics go to it, and the Moravians go to the Catholic mission if there is one. Each has its own identity, tradition and service, but relations are harmonious, as they are between the bishops of both churches. It’s at the clerical level, between Catholic priests and Moravian ministers, that one can find jealousies and competition.
Matagalpa and JinotegaLet’s continue with the mapping. The Italian Franciscan tradition predominates in the diocese of Matagalpa-Jinotega. It’s a very traditional Catholic spirituality, based on devotion to the Virgin, the Eucharist, the saints and the pope. In contrast, there are chapels on the coast that aren’t dedicated to any saint, because the US Capuchins don’t promote devotion to the saints the way the Franciscans do. The Franciscans also promote the Catholic Action movement, but less to foster social action among the laity than to organize for the building of chapels in the communities. Building chapels is less important on the coast, because the liturgy is celebrated in homes and schools. In Matagalpa and Jinotega the church is the central symbol of Catholicism.
The most deeply rooted devotions are reciting the rosary and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. It’s typical in Matiguás, for example, to see peasants get off the bus and immediately go to the church to visit the Blessed Sacrament. There hasn’t been any project to give a comprehensive preparation to lay people in either of these dioceses, and only very recently has there been any biblical formation. The social projection of the organized Catholic groups hasn’t emerged as the fruit of formative work that guides them to assume a commitment to the common good and to improve society as an expression of their Christian faith. Rather it has emerged spontaneously from the sense of community that always exists in rural communities, where peasants have an innate sense of solidarity toward collective needs.
Jinotega has been a diocese since 1984 and has only had two bishops: Pedro Vílchez and the current one, Carlos Enrique Herrera. There were two Italian Franciscan bishops in Matagalpa—Julián Barni and Carlos Santi—before Jorge Solórzano, the current one. Bishop Solórzano, made in the image and likeness of Cardinal Obando, was the latter’s auxiliary bishop in Managua. He’s very popular with the peasant communities because he has made it his business to get close to them. Bishop Herrera is a “sandals and floppy shirt” sort of Franciscan, or so he has been characterized by some members of the scandalized Jinotegan bourgeoisie. He’s simple, humble, warm and inviting to all and is lovingly welcomed in the rural communities because his Franciscan charisma is very appealing to the poor. The national clergy has a weak formation in these two dioceses, with no big pastoral projects. But the Franciscan stamp leads to social-charity projects in all corners: an old-age home, a home for street children… This sensitivity has led to Bishop Herrera’s openness to pastoral ministry for those with HIV.
In Jinotega more than in Matagalpa, many lay leaders from the communities participated in the contra ranks during the war, some of them major Resistance leaders who fought and were based in Honduras. There are Delegates of the Word who were taught to read and write during the Literacy Crusade, then later became disillusioned and joined the contras. Several of them explain that they are now Delegates because during the war they promised God that if they got out alive they would dedicate their life to the Church. They now have recognized leadership and a vast capacity for selfless dedication, with a strong social projection in their communities.
Bishop Vílchez strengthened the Cursillo movement rather than that of the Delegates of the Word. Among the differences, the Delegates always introduce historical elements during the Sunday reflections in their communities, even when they read the Bible with some fundamentalist nuance, while the Cursillo members are more normative, exhorting people to change their lives and embrace a traditional morality. And since they are close to the charismatic tradition, their celebrations are more festive.
Unlike the coast, where the Bible circulates in Miskitu and there are Miskitu and Mayangna leaders in the communities, one finds Miskitu communities in northern Jinotega that are totally abandoned. There’s one community of nuns in Wiwilí, alongside the Río Coco, who are doing what they can along liberating pastoral lines.
JuigalpaLet’s move on to Juigalpa, where for years there was a prelate who depended on the diocese of Granada. Julián Barni was its first bishop and Pablo Vega its second. He was followed by Bernardo Hombach and now by René Sándigo, who has a traditionally clerical and authoritarian pastoral style and maintains a close relationship to the big ranchers. The major landowners in this diocese have always had an influence on the course of the Church. For example, if you set up a meeting with Delegates, some will arrive by car, which is unimaginable on the coast. Unlike the US Capuchins on the coast, who don’t link up to any “power of this world,” or the Franciscans in the north, who have a clear option for the poor, although they fundraise among the rich to help the poor, the ecclesiastical style in Juigalpa is to get close to the rich, comfortable hacienda owners, whose participation in the church carries a lot of weight.
In his time, Bishop Vega strongly supported the laity and the communities. His political orientation was clearly anti-Sandinista and his religious orientation anti-clerical: he trusted more in the laity than in the clergy, thus he gave them religious preparation and consolidated very united communities. Following him, Bishop Hombach had a more social orientation and through the work of Caritas supported many NGO projects: dispensaries, children’s programs… He also encouraged communities of nuns to come to the diocese. Among them were Trappist nuns who have constructed an impressive monastery in the middle of that rural area’s poverty. In a place with no electricity, the two-kilometer walk to their monastery is illuminated by lanterns. In their own country these Argentine nuns are committed to progressive movements, but now they are living there, in a monastic model they identify with the “city of God” to which we must all aspire. They say they’ve now constructed that “city” in a gorgeous place where they want for nothing, contemplate God and welcome any who visit them.
GranadaThe Granada diocese is traditional and reflects Nicaragua’s Conservatism, which has always been centered in Granada. Bishop Leovigildo López Fitoria governed this diocese for many years, but always acted timidly and very obediently toward the norms of Canon Law. In the years of struggle against the Somocista dictatorship, the diocese did little, except in Tola and San Juan del Sur, where parish priest Gaspar García Laviana, a Sacred Heart missionary, died in the guerrilla struggle. San José de los Remates, in Boaco, was also an exception. The priest Alfonso Alvarado and a friend worked in the seventies and eighties forming Delegates of the Word with a clearly political orientation. Many leaders of the revolution passed through their hands. When the Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua signed that famous pastoral letter of July 1979, legitimizing armed insurrection, Alvarado played a determinant role.
What happened to all this work? Perhaps the same thing that happened to many others who thought the revolution was already the Kingdom of God and dreamed of a “leftist Christianity.” Later came the disillusionment, and today Alvarado is a traditional parish priest. His excessively clerical, machista visions prevent him from understanding the changes that have taken place in society, and the Delegates movement he promoted has shifted to a traditional spirituality, with a Catholic identity based on competing with the evangelical churches. I think the weight of masculine clericalism in the Catholic Church influenced these shifts and consolidated a style that doesn’t promote any participation from below that could transform the Church’s way of being.
The Delegates of the WordPerhaps this is the place for a parenthesis about the Delegates of the Word of God movement. It was born with the defined objective of bringing men, males, closer to the church, so they would participate in its activities and thus begin to transform traditional religiosity.
Soon, women began to demand their own right to participate actively, and in Honduras, the Housewives Club appeared alongside the Delegates movement. The pastoral work with women in Honduras stood out above all in the diocese of Choluteca, which demonstrated an ability to incorporate them into the church leadership.
This didn’t happen in Nicaragua: pastoral work with women has never been done through the institutional church, but rather by various religious congregations, some training teams and NGOs, but with no repercussions in the official church entities. The humanist and Christian formation offered by some pastoral teams in Nicaragua today has begun to have a gender orientation, and little by little the macho culture in the Delegates’ mentality is changing. Certainly, most of the leaders in the rural areas are still men, unlike in the cities, where the majority of leaders in the Christian Base Communities and other movements are women. Nonetheless, the formation imparted over so many years of work with the participating teams hasn’t changed the machista patriarchal orientation that dominates the Catholic Church.
This is why I greatly value the efforts of the religious communities of women, who are working in parishes, groups and movements inspired by liberation theology to get lay women considered, valued and respected in the ecclesial community. It’s important but hard work because the traditional movements haven’t changed their patriarchal style and there’s no shortage of people in them who are closed to the idea of gender.
Las SegoviasLet’s continue with the diocese of Estelí, which covers the departments of Las Segovias: Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia. In the eighties there was hope of a diocese open to the revolutionary process and to a change in Nicaragua’s traditional ecclesiastical structures. The diocese was young, having depended previously on the diocese of León. Rubén López Ardón, ordained in Rome during the anti-Somocista insurrection, was its second bishop. He was a pastor with dialogue skills, but was marginalized by the Bishops’ Conference due to his openness to the revolutionary process. Unable to tolerate the pressures, he went through a painful personal crisis and decided to go to Mexico, where he is currently living totally outside of any religious commitment. There are still traces of the church he could have built there.
The Dominican and Franciscan fraternities that converted into Christian Base Communities after Vatican II still exist in the communities of Estelí. In the Segovias there were communities in Ocotal, Somoto, Palacagüina and other places. They still exist, but are a minority and virtually nothing of liberation theology remains.
The current bishop, Abelardo Mata, was the auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Obando y Bravo and has his same style, although with more intellectual clarity and more incisive public declarations. He is promoting communities of “the new evangelization,” a Mexican project based on charismatic spirituality, which is equivalent to Catholic Pente¬costalism. They use the methodology of retreats and meetings, and their social projection is based on the Church’s social doctrine, which brings their proposals close to those of Christian Democracy.
The Maryknoll religious communities did important work in the Segovias during the dictatorship in the sixties and seventies, as well as later. In the eighties, those of us in the Conference of Religious of Nicaragua sent a letter to all religious communities of Latin America explaining that we were living through a hopeful process and inviting them to come and participate. Eighteen religious communities responded to the call and some still work in Nicaragua. Since the archbishop of Managua excluded them, they sought the backing of other bishops. The coast and Estelí were places that welcomed them.
Before the revolution virtually no religious communities had a presence in urban barrios or rural districts. These 18 communities came with the objective of developing a model of religious life “inserted” in revolutionary Nicaragua, but because they lacked the bishops’ support they had to establish themselves where they could rather than where they wanted. Without institutional support and lacking vocations, they failed to give birth to the renewal movement we had hoped for. I think a great effort to renew religious life was made by the generation that experienced the enormous novelty of the Second Vatican Council, but that energy no longer exists.
LeónBosco Vivas is the bishop of León. The weaknesses of León’s clergy explain the accommodation observable in this diocese. The bishop and clergy fear that if they criticize the government in any way it will come back at them twofold, so they keep quiet. And this isn’t true only of León. I think the government policy toward the Church hierarchy is achieving its goals. In the eighties the FSLN clashed with the Catholic Church and it backfired. Now it negotiates, power to power, which is more successful. The government offers privileges to some bishops and to a sector of the clergy, with the justification of supporting the Church, which keeps the hierarchy submissive and silent. This official policy is easier to implement now that the religious movement in the eighties called the “popular church” has disappeared.
The Delegates of the Word movement was very strong in León and Chinandega for many years. Born in Honduras in the wake of Vatican II (1961-65) and the Medellín Conference of the Latin American Bishops (1968), this movement had a huge social projection. That projection has been maintained in Honduras up to the present day, and the Delegates of the Word from the Honduran diocese of Choluteca, on the border with Nicaragua, have a style that contrasts sharply with their peers on the Nicaraguan side.
In the seventies the Delegates movement in the northwest triangle of Nicaragua resulted in a political commitment to the armed struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. There were very energetic communities with a strong Sandinista tradition in the area of Chinandega, León, Achuapa, Somotillo and El Viejo, and the revolution accentuated the contradictions and tensions between these communities and the hierarchy. The Delegates movement there, which is called “the Bloc,” no longer has any vigor today due to the lack of pastoral accompaniment: there has been sustained institutional rejection by bishops and parish priests for years. Between 1980 and 1992 we Dominicans accompanied these communities, but only with great difficulty. In some communities the chapel of the Bloc communities was only a block away from the “official” parish church, in what was a vitiating competition. With time, the Bloc has become an NGO, maintained with resources from international solidarity, including the Lutheran Church. After Hurricane Mitch, which affected that area severely, many Delegates became Lutheran pastors in exchange for the resources provided.
The religiosity that Bishop Vivas is currently promoting in his diocese is very traditional. He insists on devotion to the Virgin of Fatima and the Virgin of Cuapa; the latter based on an “apparition” from the eighties in Cuapa, Chontales, with a marked orientation of opposition to the revolutionary government. Religious life in León has always been much more committed to education than to pastoral work, with the high schools of the La Salle Brothers, the Calasanz Fathers, the Sisters of the Assumption, and the Religious of the Purity of Mary standing out among other congregations. Given the León clergy’s clerical, authoritarian and machista vision, it doesn’t allow nuns to participate in pastoral projects on their own initiative.
ManaguaArchbishop Obando y Bravo left his mark on the archdiocese. Now lacking both the strength and the presence he had then, he has retreated to the Catholic University (UNICA) as his support institution. His current alliance with the government—who initiated it, him or Ortega?—has paid off for the government because he is docile toward it and neutral regarding national conflicts. I don’t think either the bishops or the majority of the clergy sympathize with Cardinal Obando’s current line and little by little he has been losing the leadership he once had in both national and religious life.
Understanding the shift Cardinal Obando made in this second government of Daniel Ortega requires starting with his personality, which seeks the fame and prestige derived from the ecclesiastical post he flaunts. Second, one could assume it might be the fruit of a negotiation with the government: offering him a “clean slate” regarding the accusations of corruption that involved the church and its allies. Daniel Ortega would forget the past in exchange for Obando blessing the government. Obando has a complex personality that’s hard to manage in a culture like Nicaragua’s, with its deeply fundamentalist religious tradition.
The Sandinista government of the eighties didn’t know how to handle that culture, but to my way of thinking it’s doing an even worse job of it today. The current Sandinista government has abandoned its open vision committed to Christianity, replacing it with a mythic fundamentalist vision to win people over. But it’s making an error: society’s increasing secularization, a progressive vision of faith and a traditional vision that always keeps the religious aspect independent of the political one all contribute to making people uncomfortable when political leaders try to manipulate their religious sentiments. Only the sectors with the most backward vision of the world and society can possibly be in agreement with the current government’s way of framing things.
There are now tensions between the Bishops’ Conference and the Ortega government. They began with the Conference’s charge of fraud in the November municipal elections. Although this charge is based on objective facts, I think Bishop Hombach, whom some colleagues view as the intellectual of the Conference, is the one most convinced of what happened. But given that he’s a foreigner and already gave the pope his letter of resignation when he turned 75, the bishops’ charge doesn’t have the force it might have. Furthermore, they don’t have a culture of valuing democracy. The personal relationship they’ve now built with government leaders and the aid provided to them by those leaders weighs more heavily, and prevents them from assuming courageous and prophetic attitudes.
It must be recalled that the Bishops’ Conference felt closer to the Alemán government than to the Chamorro or Bolaños governments. This could be seen in President Chamorro’s inaugural event, at which Cardinal Obando admittedly gave a longer speech than the new President, underscoring some aspects of democracy and criticizing the outgoing government of Daniel Ortega on educational issues. But his presence didn’t stand out too much; he was just one more invited guest. In contrast, at Alemán’s inauguration, Cardinal Obando presided over a liturgical ceremony for the civil authorities. He wore the most formal vestments, miter and cope, and the Te Deum was sung in Latin at the event. Although these could seem like protocol details, they say a lot about the relations established between the Alemán government and several Catholic bishops, particularly Obando, Bosco Vivas and Mata.
The Chamorro government maintained friendly and respectful relations with the Church hierarchy, above all with Pope John Paul II, while the Alemán government’s relations with the Church could be described as close, supporting it economically and highlighting the hierarchy’s presence in the government’s public acts. Ideologically, the three bishops I mentioned above sympathized with Alemán’s Liberal party. With Bolaños, the hierarchy returned to its previous distance and pressured for Rome to accept Cardinal Obando’s resignation as archbishop of Managua, submitted to Rome when he turned 75. During the Bolaños government the corruption of the Social Promotion Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua (COPROSA) and other ecclesiastical entities came to light, as did the personal advantages received by Cardinal Obando and his UNICA allies.
The current archbishop of Managua, Leopoldo Brenes, is made in the same mold as Archbishop Obando, but has a different, more pastoral style and a great capacity to win people over. In Matagalpa, where he was the bishop before being named to the capital, he was in tune with the peasants’ soul, not for any specific pastoral plan, but just by being with them, by being close. It is also a characteristic of his to make his clergy feel like family, to create friendship, integration and harmony among his priests. Given his formation in the diocesan tradition, he doesn’t grasp the role of religious life in the Church and lacks the political agility Obando had.
The Managua clergy is quite varied, but all are conservative and like to be close to power and to the most powerful economic and political sectors. Both Archbishop Brenes and his priests have been “won over” by the government’s policy of economic support for works, religious events and land donations and have thus sacrificed their freedom to assume critical or prophetic positions regarding the country’s situation.
Recent Catholic movementsThe Neocatechumenate Way, a Catholic lay movement born 40 years ago in Spain and actively strengthened during the papacy of John Paul II, has caught on with some force in the archdiocese of Managua and the dioceses of León and Granada. John Paul put more trust in this movement and in other recent movements, such as Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ, than in the major historical religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans. Several of Bolaños’ government ministers belonged to Opus Dei. Although I don’t know much about this movement, I sense it doesn’t have the impact in Nicaraguan society that it does in other Latin American societies, and I don’t think Nicaraguan bishops and clergy find it easy to become part of this work.
The Neocatechumenate is based on several years of training for lay people, which seeks a renewal of the baptismal commitments. The Neocatechumenal communities operate within the parishes but have some autonomy from them. It is the religious movement with the greatest organization and presence in the capital’s barrios. The Neocatechumens are building a gigantic church in Managua’s San Judas barrio.
Another lay movement with a presence in Managua is called the City of God. It is a more refined expression of the Catholic charismatic movement, which was very successful in the seventies and eighties but has now lost its strength. The City of God has also built an enormous center, but it appeals to the Catholic elite. Nonetheless, I think that outside of the different identities or movements, the spirituality that has won the heart of the majority of Catholic believers in Nicaragua is a charismatic spirituality based on lively and festive celebrations, belief in miracles and healings, the power of prayer and a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. It is this emotional spirituality that brings Catholics and Evangelicals closer together today. Emotionally, Catholic and Evangelical Nicaraguans in the grass roots have the same spirituality; it’s just that some follow the Catholic tradition and others follow Protestant traditions. The basic social challenge posed by their leaders is to attract more people.
The Catholic movement called the Full Gospel Business¬men’s Fellowship—founded by a US Catholic bishop—is having a boom in some sectors and regions of the country, but it has no official or institutional links with the Catholic hierarchy, and the Catholic clergy take a dim view of it.
Managua’s Christian Base Communities had an outstanding role in the eighties. In those years the majority of their leaders went to work with the revolution, and there was no investment in forming new leaders. The priests who accompanied those communities had to put up with the archbishop’s rejection: they either left Nicaragua or had their pastoral licenses withdrawn by him. All these pressures prevented the growth of a broader, more solid movement. Christian Base Communities have remained in some parishes and today are like NGOs: they do social work with street children and at-risk women and can pull together around a hundred young people in their youth movement, but they have neither the political presence nor the evangelizing force that at one point we thought they would have for energizing the ecclesiastical structures.
Therapeutic abortionOne of the points of agreement between the government and the Catholic hierarchy right now has been the criminalizing of therapeutic abortion. The hierarchy hasn’t been able to differentiate between abortions in general and therapeutic abortion, a distinction the Church and many moralists have always been open to. I think the Nicaraguan bishops’ obsession with outlawing therapeutic abortion is due to their belief that allowing it opens the way to allowing all abortions. This seems an irrational attitude and I think this topic should have been the subject of reflection in an open forum, where distinctions could have been made between abortion by choice, therapeutic abortion, and abortion after a rape. Differentiation should also be made between the Church’s official morality and the state’s public policies, with the understanding that a lay state’s legislation doesn’t have to agree with Catholic morality. I think the bishops’ mentality is that of medieval Christendom: they don’t want to lose the moral leadership of society, even if it means disrespecting dissenting visions.
On several occasions the Catholic hierarchy has also advocated public policies that prohibit sex education in public schools. Although the bishops have no specific weight in the national educational system, that doesn’t prevent them from trying to impose their moral values on all of society. In the Christendom model, government is responsible for education, but the values and moral criteria of that education correspond to the Church, which should act as a “moral force” to have an impact on laws. I think this is a mistake, and if the Church believes the use of condoms or premarital sexual relations to be bad morals, then it should educate its faithful to avoid these practices, but it shouldn’t impose those criteria on all of society. Nicaraguan society, like all human societies, is moving toward ever greater secularization, and an increasing number of people don’t share the Catholic moral criteria regarding sexuality.
EducationAnother point of friction or negotiation between the Catholic hierarchy and the government is the subsidizing of parochial schools. It must be said that Nicaragua’s Catholic hierarchy has never banked much on education, tending to leave it in the hands of both male orders —Jesuits, Calasanz Fathers, La Salle Brothers, Dominicans and Franciscans—and female ones—Ascensionists, Teresians, Maryknolls and Cabrinis. However, the linking of male and female religious educators together into the Nicaraguan Federation of Catholic Schools has weakened, and the weight this federation had during the Somocista dictatorship and in the eighties has been lost. Each congregation now has its own pedagogical project and designs its educational institutions according to its own style.
And what about parochial schools? In the nineties, the bishops set up such schools to obtain income for the diocesan clergy. While that was the first objective of the schools, the second was to transmit more traditional Catholic doctrine. Thus, the statutes and by-laws of those schools propose, for example, that all teachers must be married by the Church, even though this is not common Nicaraguan custom.
We can’t fail to say a couple of words about the seminary, the place where the country’s future diocesan priests are trained. At the triumph of the revolution, the seminary wasn’t functioning in Nicaragua. Between the current of renewal running through the Catholic Church in those years and the attraction of joining the FSLN ranks, young people were disinclined to consider the seminary. In fact, a number of them preferred to leave their priestly studies and join the revolutionary struggle. In the eighties, the Bishops’ Conference brought a group of Mexican priests in to organize the education of future priests. The Mexicans’ preparation had been traditional, but they were open to the revolutionary process and willing to accompany it. The bishops were not pleased and forced them to leave the country.
Since then the seminary has been taking shape according to a classic, very clerical mentality far removed from people’s problems. In a society in crisis, the seminary became a space for young people seeking social status. Many who went into the seminary to “protect themselves” from the revolution are today’s priests. Their theological and humanistic preparation is poor, and a traditional clerical mentality predominates among them, reproducing the church model promoted by John Paul II. The recently appointed auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Baéz Ortega, has come to raise the level of the seminary’s theological and biblical studies. The taste for traditional forms, including a return to the use of habits and traditional liturgical signs, is now common among seminary students. In the Chrism Mass celebrated this past Holy Thursday, for example, the seminary students sang the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and in Gregorian chant, thus turning it into a performance spectacle rather than the prayer par excellence of the Christian community. This is contrary to the criteria of liturgical renewal promoted by the Vatican Council. This same kind of backpedaling has also occurred in the educational centers for male religious. There is no significant presence in Nicaragua of educational centers for priests and would-be priests, and most now study in Guatemala, Costa Rica or El Salvador.
Some years ago I predicted that Nicaragua would soon be 50% Catholic and 50% Protestant. Many factors explain why the evangelical denominations have grown so much. Western civilization was once the setting wherein the Christian faith was transmitted and Christendom—a mentality still present in the Catholic Church—prospered, but that civilization is today in crisis. And in moments of crisis we all look for some place to grab hold of and hang on to. For many people, other religious messages are more attractive than the Catholic one and they’re grabbing them. For other people the solution is to grab onto tradition, and that’s what the Vatican is aiming to support by trying to strengthen the vision of Catholic tradition. That tradition is very rationalist: it presents doctrines and lays out truths, but leaves emotions aside. Traditional Catholicism rationally preaches dogma and tries to impose a morality on people who live and feel their religiosity emotionally. In an open society in crisis such as ours, a thirst for meaning is arising that can’t be slaked by rationality. And since there’s a multiplicity of alternative religious offerings out there today, people seek and choose what feels right to them. The evangelical denominations are more emotional and for that reason more appealing.
The exodus from the countryside to the urban barrios is yet another factor that explains the evangelical church boom. The Catholic Church has no presence in the poor barrios. Chinandega has three Catholic churches in the city center, but in the barrios there are only dozens of evangelical churches of different denominations. Catholic peasants who come to the city lose their religious bearings, but find them again in these new churches. The Catholic Church hasn’t even had the capacity to accompany the culture of the urban poor, to reach out to them, to encourage them. The more decentralized and less hierarchical structures of the evangelical churches appeal more to these people. The evangelicals also do more to promote grassroots leadership. Still another influencing factor is the evangelical reading of the Bible, which questions Catholic devotion to the saints, the Virgin, the pope…
Liberation theologyWhat remains of liberation theology in Nicaragua? The progressive social and theological vision of the seventies and eighties is still alive in those of us who are working for those goals and have those dreams. But I don’t think liberation theology any longer provides reference points in Nicaragua. We’ve lived through the end of a generation. For all that, however, I don’t believe it has died, because throughout Latin America, including Nicaragua, many seeds have been sown by liberation theology and now by feminist theology. I’ve spent 30 years of my life giving courses on liberation theology to Nicaraguan, Honduran and Guatemalan peasants from a committed reading of the Bible, and I’m not giving up. But it’s undeniable that there’s a strong tendency toward an increasingly traditional religiosity that’s less committed to social change, and that in our time that religiosity has come to predominate in both the clergy and the people.
Rafael Aragón is a Catholic priest of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans).