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  Number 357 | Abril 2011
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Nicaragua

Is Ortega’s Project Christian? And What is the Church’s Project?

A brief historical review of Nicaragua’s predominant religiosity and an analysis of both the FSLN’s current social policies and the government’s relations with the religious authorities.

Rafael Aragón

On Sunday, March 20th, the great Belgian Catholic theologian José Comblin died in Brazil. He had worked for many years in Chile and Brazil and had visited Nicaragua and other Central American countries on various occasions. Comblin once told us that “religion has ended up occupying increasing space in the Church, to the point that it has overshadowed the Gospel. Church historians can confirm this.” I would like to confirm it in the Nicaraguan Church.

Three Stages of the Catholic Church

Before doing so, though, we should recall a bit of history. The great German Catholic theologian Karl Rahner divided the history of the Catholic Christian Church into three stages. The first was the paradigmatic stage of primitive Christianity initiated with the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. It lasted until 313, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. According to Rahner, that second stage lasted the longest, right up to the 1960s when the Second Vatican Council was held in Rome. That long period saw the birth and consolidation of the Christendom Church model in which Christian identity was totally identified with Western European culture. It was also the period in which the Americas were conquered, with the Christianization process in Latin America implemented in that spirit.

For Rahner, the third stage opened up in Europe with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and in Latin America with the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín (1968). During those times, the Catholic Church was proposing new ways of understanding its identity and its role in the world. The Christendom model, which had functioned for over 1,500 years, began to be renovated with the Council, which issued two key documents: “Lumen Gentium” (the “Light of Mankind” Church, understood not as a hierarchy, but as the People of God) and “Gaudium et Spes” (the Church in “joyous and hopeful” dialogue with today’s world). In Latin America the Council’s themes were taken up again in the Medellín bishops’ conference, where they were fleshed out in our reality and translated into what we know as “the option for the poor.”

In this third stage, the Catholic Church in Latin America underwent major transformations that provided many fruits: a Church more committed to reality; a more prophetic Church, denouncing injustices and announcing the transformation of society; a more martyred one, with many giving their life for the Gospel message; and the emergence of Christian base communities, Liberation Theology and an ecumenical spirituality of solidarity. Nicaragua went through this process of change and renovation at the same time it was living through the Sandinista revolution.

There are many signs suggesting that, starting with the pontificate of John Paul II, we’ve been returning to the discipline, rites and dogmas of the Christendom model and to the centralization of power. John Paul II erected walls where the Second Vatican Council had proposed liturgical, theological and pastoral openings. I believe the majority of cardinals and bishops of the universal Church never accepted the renewal represented by the Council because their model was and still is that of Christendom. And with John Paul II that model consolidated itself again everywhere in the world. The beatification of John Paul II in Rome this coming May 1 is one more expression of the rejection of the Council’s renovating thinking.

While the Catholic hierarchy
only moves away from Somoza…

After Vatican Il and Medellín, Nicaragua’s Catholic Church dithered. The most the hierarchy did was begin to distance itself from the Somocista dictatorship and move closer to the opposition bourgeoisie that favored what at the time was called “Somocismo without Somoza,” aimed at avoiding a real people’s project.

The majority of the clergy remained within the tradition of the Christendom Church, which proposes staying on the good side of the political powers, whatever they might be, and keeping the relationship with the constituted power, with the civilian authorities, on as good a footing as possible. I well remember that when I arrived in Nicaragua in 1978, 200 Masses were being held around the country for the health of Somoza, who had just had a heart attack. It didn’t mean they all supported him or were Somocistas. It was rather an expression that the Catholic Church was following the traditional Christendom model.

Although in the first years of his term as archbishop of Managua after taking possession in February 1970, Monsignor Obando y Bravo, coming from Matagalpa, made speeches praising the National Guard, he also tried to put some distance between himself and Somoza. When the President offered him a Mercedes Benz he turned it down. In 1970 and again in 1972, both he and the whole of the Bishops’ Conference published pastoral letters that were very well received by the bourgeois opposition to Somoza.

…some clergy hear the
wake-up call of renovation

Meanwhile, the first pastoral assembly was held in 1969 at the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in Managua, and it was there that the first evaluation was made of the Catholic Church in the country. The conclusions were that the hierarchy was very conservative, most of the clergy was foreign, the minority national clergy was very traditional and most priests and nuns were working in schools with no social projection. But a renovating awakening was also noted among some young priests, both foreign and national. The Capuchins in the Caribbean Coast and some other orders in Managua were putting their energies into a renovated and renovating pastoral.

They thus began laying the groundwork for what in a few years would be the active participation of the Christian grass roots in the revolution. The worsening of the social and political crisis in the rural areas and in Managua, particularly after the 1972 earthquake, contributed to the growth of this base. The seventies were years of creativity and the prominence of the laity, both in the countryside and in the city. Organizational forms were born that saw social and political commitment as the expression of Christian faith.

The FSLN harvested the fruits
of the renovating pastoral

Results of that 1969 pastoral assembly included the emergence and increasing consolidation of Christian base communities; the Center for Agrarian Promotional Education (CEPA) dedicated to the peasant pastoral; Radio Schools, which played an important role throughout the northern part of the country raising consciousness through Paulo Freire’s pedagogical method; the Solentiname experience… In other words, a whole awakening in the Catholic Church that I believe played a decisive role in getting the Church’s social base to participate in the revolution. I also believe that the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) wouldn’t have had such deep grassroots support without that contribution. The rank-and-file of the Farm Workers’ Association (ATC) in Carazo, the San Pablo community in the eastern barrios of Managua, and the many Christian leaders who led demonstrations against Somoza showed that the social pastoral gave the FSLN both support and roots.

After the 1972 earthquake, the FSLN became better organized in Managua and did so around the already organized Christian base communities. Many stories evidence this: the FSLN’s increasing closeness to Father Uriel Molina and Father Fernando Cardenal—with young people at the UCA and the short courses in Christianity—was crucial. This Christian faith being lived in a renewed form allowed the FSLN to sink roots in many grassroots sectors.

By the mid-seventies, with Somocismo aggravating the contradictions, there was no longer a pastoral in the Catholic Church to accompany Christians who wanted to renew their theology according to Vatican Council principles. Instead, there was a project for the ideologized incorporation of Christian groups into the insurrection and the revolutionary project. The FSLN realized the value of these organized Christian grass roots and harvested new rank-and-file among them.

Does support for the revolution
mean advocating armed struggle?

There was tremendous ambiguity among the priests, monks and nuns: did commitment to the revolution mean support for armed struggle? It was legitimized from the Catholic camp in 1979 to the point that a group in which I participated met clandestinely in the largest Managua seminary to reflect and draft a text we submitted to the bishops. They signed it on June 3 of that year, by which time the armed insurrection was a daily reality and thousands had already died. Somoza prevented it from being published in the newspapers or broadcast over radio. I recall listening to that text being read on the clandestine Radio Sandino one Sunday at six in the evening.

On July 20, when the revolutionary Government Junta entered victorious into the Plaza of the Revolution, the Nicaraguan people celebrated that political victory from their traditional faith. Many who had taken up arms against Somoza went afterward with their grandmothers and mothers to pay promises to the Virgin of Mercy in León or Christ the Saint of Esquipulas. Traditional faith and revolutionary commitment were totally intertwined.

Those of us who had been educated with a more secular, more lay mentality couldn’t understand that very well. Our first problem came when we refused to celebrate outdoor rural Masses for those killed in the insurrection, because the FSLN always accompanied them with political acts. It seemed to us that political activities needed to be separated from religious ones to avoid confusing the two identities. We had been educated to believe in the separation of Church and State, and the promotion of a Church that would not continue being the Church of power, faithful to the Christendom model. Other priests, however, very frequently held such Masses at the time.

The revolution and the hierarchy
get off on the wrong foot

Archbishop Obando wasn’t invited to join the Government Junta at the Plaza of the Revolution that July 20. It was accompanied by Bishop Salazar of León, who even chanted “The People united will never be defeated!” Meanwhile, Obando was in the National Palace that flanked the plaza, “watching the bulls from the barrier.” That scene must be remembered and appreciated to better understand the role he would later play. But it also needs to be recognized that a few days earlier, when Obando was in Costa Rica, he didn’t want to dialogue with the FSLN leadership. Monsignor Obando was firm in never wanting to dialogue with the Sandinistas, and he didn’t do so until Daniel Ortega decided to negotiate with him.

In Nicaragua, as everywhere else, the Catholic hierarchy has always felt more comfortable with the traditional powers than with grassroots organizations or social movements. The hierarchy’s discomfort with the revolutionary process continued to grow, because the revolution triggered a rupture with the Christendom model. The new revolutionary reality was intensified by an ideology that demanded a secular State that was also revolutionary and favored the grass roots. And at the same time a Church movement emerged advocating a model of Church closer to the renovating proposal of the Council and Liberation Theology. The hierarchy found it impossible to understand those two challenges, to accept them. It was unable to make the institutional change or to collaborate in the creation of a new “social self-image” that differed from the one consolidated in the Catholic tradition over centuries.

On November 17, 1979, Nicaragua’s bishops published a pastoral letter hailing Nicaragua’s move toward socialism, but the content of that letter wasn’t the fruit of a reflection by the bishops or by the Church as a whole. It was a document drafted by Latin American liberation theologians who came to Nicaragua, then imposed on the Nicaraguan bishops by the Vatican representative in the country. The bishops disagreed with its contents and didn’t want to sign it. There are those who say they even physically stomped on it.

The hierarchy breaks with the government

The Catholic hierarchy definitively broke with the revolutionary process as the revolution became more radicalized and consolidated—particularly after Violeta Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo, who were the expression of the bourgeoisie’s support of the FSLN, resigned from the Government Junta in May 1980. That rupture expressed their fidelity to the model of Christendom, the Church of power. The bishops had no friends in the FSLN, which was by then consolidated and alone in power.

The FSLN had not correctly analyzed the Church’s cultural and symbolic power in Nicaragua, and the bishops and many priests felt excluded and marginalized by power. A large part of the Christian population was indeed participating energetically in the revolutionary process but with no theological education process that really validated the popular slogan of the time: “There’s no contradiction between Christianity and revolution.”

In breaking with the government, the Catholic hierarchy was backed by the Latin American Bishops’ Council, whose president at the time, Medellin’s Archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo, came to Nicaragua to hold a Mass to support the bishops and organize a crusade against the “communism” threatening Nicaragua. From that point on the hierarchy and a majority of the clergy, monks and nuns organized to oppose the revolutionary process. They did so without putting forward any pastoral project other than strengthening the traditional devotions: Purísima (the celebration of the Immaculate Conception) and the celebrations of the blood of Christ. They were counting on stimulating the most traditional religiosity, calling on the Catholic masses to back the leadership of Monsignor Obando and of each bishop in his diocese. The possibility of developing a prophetic, committed and liberating Church inspired by Vatican II and Medellín was therefore lost and we went back to lack of dialogue; to the archaic catechism of questions and answers already put aside in so many parts of the world.

As Comblin said, the Church promoted Religion and concealed the Gospel to better battle the developing revolution. The growth of the counterrevolution, the crisis and destruction caused by the war and the mass exodus from the country of people unhappy with the revolutionary process increased the tensions, which the hierarchy capitalized on to accuse the government of religious persecution and a lack of religious freedom.

The FSLN fought back

The FSLN equally felt no need at first to dialogue with either Religion or the Gospel. In is famous “72-hour meeting,” the FSLN National Directorate produced a document addressing the issue of Religion in a way that greatly annoyed the bishops.

The revolution’s leadership was all-encompassing, and the revolution itself was an all-encompassing project that involved all of life, leaving no spaces for autonomous creativity. That left us without the most distinguished leaders of the Christian base communities, and even of society in general. Faced with such a project, the Church hierarchy and clergy became even more traditional than they had been before the triumph of the revolution.

A battle between “two Churches”

Beyond what was happening nationally, the experience of Christian participation in a revolutionary process, so unlike what had happened in Cuba 20 years earlier, awakened admiration and interest all over the world. Latin American liberation theologians came to Nicaragua to encourage the experience. It was they, for example, who promoted the Antonio Valdivieso Center, which like other initiatives grew out of the stronger need of Latin American Christians than of Nicaraguan Christians to transform society.

During the revolution, the climate was one of a battle between “two Churches”: Christians against bishops, strong disagreements in the parishes, and hence confusion for most of the population, which clung to its traditional religiosity. This impeded the emergence and development of a more open theology. Many of us felt that Nicaragua’s destiny and even that of Latin America as a whole was being played out in the defense of the revolution. And in our defense of the revolution we were moving away from many believers who had never known anything other than the religiosity packaged in the Christendom Church model.

Frei Betto comes to Nicaragua

The FSLN believed that Nicaraguans would participate in the change of religious consciousness and fight against the Catholic hierarchy with the same force they had lent to the struggle to bring down the Somocista dictatorship. It wanted to foster a popular insurrection in religious consciousness. But that was a mistake; changing consciousness is not the simple task they believed it was.

The Sandinista attitude toward religion was also influenced by the atheist and atheizing Cuban process. Officially, the FSLN said it promoted political pluralism, but religion was frowned on, considered backward among its own rank-and-file, its military and its party activists. I dare to say this because I had an opportunity to see up close the efforts that the Brazilian Dominican monk Frei Betto made to give the FSLN cadres a better understanding of the religious phenomenon. Betto came to Nicaragua for the first time in 1980, with Lula, where he met Fidel Castro. That led to an invitation to go to Cuba, where Betto learned about the Cuban project firsthand.

Betto wasn’t interested in giving talks to base communities in Nicaragua. He wanted permission to participate in the formation of FSLN cadres. He was convinced that revolutionaries would sooner or later trigger a serious conflict if they didn’t know how to work with the deep-rooted Christian religiousness underlying the Latin American peoples. But the FSLN never gave him that chance: they never listened to his arguments. He came several times in those years, trying to get them to pay attention to what he was saying, but he was only welcomed as Lula’s accompanier. Only in 1985, when Betto wrote the book Fidel and Religion, which made him famous both inside Cuba and out, did the FSLN change its attitude. And when he continued insisting on his next visit to Nicaragua, they finally allowed him to go to the FSLN cadre school, but they only let him do one exercise. He left a letter to the FSLN National Directorate criticizing the anti-religious radicalness in which it was training its cadres and never returned to Nicaragua.

Both in the all-encompassing power it had in the eighties and outside of government in the nineties, the FSLN always saw the religious issue in a short-sighted, non-strategic, even non-structural way; that circumstantial pragmatism was especially notable in Daniel Ortega. I recall meetings with him in the eighties, first when he was the coordinator of the Government Junta and later as President, in which we proposed in-depth issues about religiosity. He always reacted the same way, saying it was “for another time.” The only thing that interested him was what to do tactically in the immediate setting to resolve the problem of the moment.

Vatican II is rolled back

Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1983 and the naming of Obando as cardinal in 1985 were key moments in the re-articulation of the Church in line with the Christendom model. The lines of Vatican II, which had encouraged us to relate faith to life and move horizontally closer to people, were forgotten. I recall the priest Leopoldo Brenes, with his blue jeans and long hair, awakening such motivation among the youth. Many young people formed by him in Las Brisas later joined the FSLN. When he returned some years later from his studies in Rome wearing a cassock and surplice, he had totally changed; everything he had been before forgotten. He was now a fully official priest who adhered utterly to the Christendom Church model imposed by the universal Church of John Paul II.

Had the renovating lines of the Council continued developing in the Vatican, some understanding might have been reached in Nicaragua, even though the Catholic hierarchy didn’t sympathize with the FSLN. But Pope John Paul II took up his post determined to return to the Christendom model. This greatly disappointed many base Christians, who refused to accept the Church leadership’s confrontation with the revolution and in their frustration never participated in Catholic activities again. Certain base community leaders—I could mention some very well known names—never again participated in anything. Some opened up to other religious experiences, which contributed to the growth of the Protestant Churches here. The Catholic Church’s loss of leadership and of the capacity to convoke all of the people also contributed to the growth of the Protestant denominations, thus making the country’s religious panorama more plural.

The Chamorro government:
Resurgence of the Christendom model

Bolstered by the Vatican, by the preponderant leadership figure of Cardinal Obando and by the clergy who had been an active part of the counterrevolution, the Catholic Church consolidated its Christendom model even more once the revolution was defeated at the polls in 1990. By then, the Christian base communities and Christians who participated in the revolution were already weakened, but without the revolution they became weaker still, ever less able to bring people out. In contrast, the Church kept growing stronger, having consolidated itself in the Christendom model. I remember that Cardinal Obando’s speech at the inauguration of President Violeta Chamorro was even longer than hers, and was punctuated with strong criticisms of the outgoing Sandinista government. He laid out the central points of the Catholic tradition on which a democratic society must be based and advocated the recovery of Catholic leadership in education and the promotion of “values.”

In those “transition” years of the nineties, the presence of the hierarchy in the government’s public acts was a constant. Furthermore, President Chamorro donated to the Church the lands where the Catholic University (UNICA) now stands. The bishops’ idea was to recover the space lost during the Sandinista government, thus guaranteeing the Christendom model the bishops and the most traditional Catholic sectors longed for. There were still tensions, however, because the generation of young technocrats participating in the government was more interested in the country’s modernization around a national project than in the ideological confrontation with Sandinismo.

The bishops continually pointed out cases of corruption and insistently repeated their prejudices against the Sandinistas in their documents, accusing them of being the cause of all the country’s ills. But the dialogue President Chamorro maintained with the Sandinistas and the continued presence of General Humberto Ortega at the head of the Army meant the Catholic hierarchy didn’t get everything the way it wanted it during her government.

In 1997, at the end of her term, Pope John Paul II returned to Nicaragua to definitively back the Church of Christendom model he had wanted to inaugurate with his first visit in 1983. The papal metaphor of 1997, about the «dark night» that in his view Nicaragua had lived through during the revolution, was a symbol that the Catholic hierarchy and the entire opposition to the FSLN continued using for years. It’s still being used today.

The Alemán government:
Full consolidation of the model

The full consolidation of the Christendom model took place during the Alemán government. Cardinal Obando played a decisive role in Arnoldo Alemán’s 1996 electoral victory with his famous “parable of the viper,” designed to block any chance of an FSLN electoral victory. Cardinal Obando was not only present at Alemán’s inauguration, but came garbed in cope and miter, the most formal of liturgical ornaments. In the act, a group of priests intoned the Te Deum, the melody used to crown emperors and kings, in Latin.

During Alemán’s administration, the Catholic Church fully recovered its institutional power and the State legitimated itself through the ideological power of the Church, which acted in those years as a fifth branch of the State. The hierarchy attended public celebrations and the government attended religious ceremonies, not to mention erecting religious images in plazas and parks. The violation of the constitutional principle of the secular State became routine. The Catholic hierarchy never criticized the corruption institutionalized by the Alemán government during its term, remaining silent even in the face of accumulating evidence. What we had in those years was a Church that was prophetically dead and ideologically subjected, with an increasingly traditional pastoral that stimulated the mythical and the magical, turning its back on a modern vision of the world.

The FSLN changes its strategy

There was some distancing between the Catholic hierarchy and the government during Enrique Bolaños’ term, but the Christendom model went right on getting stronger. It was during that government that the FSLN, by then totally in the hands of Daniel Ortega, with his short-term approach to problems, understood that it had to change its strategy.

Back in government as of 2007, Daniel Ortega has fully developed that new strategy. The FSLN came to see the strength of religion in the Nicaraguan people and of the persistence, even predominance of the conservative tradition in grassroots religiosity. They understood that, despite all the efforts in the eighties, that mentality didn’t change. Based on that evidence, they concluded that confrontation didn’t suit their purposes, that they had to coexist with the religious leaders and, above all, that they even had to encourage the traditional religiosity those religious leaders represented because it would help secure them in government.

The current government has thus made alliances with the bishops and the clergy. They negotiate with them, make pacts with them and help finance their projects. And as in the classic Christendom model, the Church feels good when it is recognized and taken into consideration by power; the bishops and clergy accept and even celebrate that. If 200 Masses were held for Somoza’s health to stay on his good side six months before his fall, why not stay on the FSLN’s good side, holding Masses and presiding over public government events? It’s the logic of both Obando and the Christendom model, one the majority of the clergy shares. And the FSLN government’s logic is to ensure that the religious hierarchy doesn’t take serious issue with the social-political-economic model the FSLN is imposing in the country today.

Into the breach comes Monsignor Báez

In these times of accommodation, negotiation and friendship, Monsignor Silvio Báez came to Nicaragua in 2007 as the auxiliary bishop of Managua. He’s a very intelligent priest and was an outstanding student during his years preparing for the priesthood. He acquired a solid theological and biblical formation, although one more European than Latin American.

Monsignor Báez studied in Costa Rica in an open environment close to Liberation Theology. He taught theology in Guatemala and was a professor at the Carmelite University in Rome when he was named bishop for Nicaragua. He has a distinguished leadership in the Carmelite Order to which he belongs. Báez came to Nicaragua for the purpose of opening new spaces in the Bishops’ Council, which is very influenced by the line transmitted to the bishops and the clergy over time by Cardinal Obando.

Monsignor Báez has been harshly criticized by political analysts close to the government. As auxiliary bishop, tradition dictates that he should not stand out more than the diocesan bishop, Monsignor Leopoldo Brenes. It was thus speculated that he would be appointed bishop of Matagalpa, where he could exercise his ministry more freely than in Managua. But instead they named Father Rolando Álvarez, a priest very dynamic in his pastoral work, whose formation and personal experience keeps him close to the line of the majority of bishops. Everything indicates that the Vatican wants to keep Monsignor Báez in Managua for now.

One thing Báez doesn’t have in his favor is having lived Nicaragua’s history first hand, so his messages can seem somewhat abstract. He speaks of human rights, civil society, respect for the Constitution, but perhaps lacks the prophetic radicalness of someone speaking from insertion into the reality of the poor. I think he needs it to avoid being manipulated and entrapped by the political opposition. He could be instrumentalized through his generic language of respect for institutionality, which is a cornerstone issue of the current political contest. He should root himself more in the spirituality of the biblical prophets and in the Gospel so the opposition can’t use his message for the purpose of confronting Daniel Ortega’s project. He runs that great risk. Some journalists and media are elevating his figure and voice to place him and the other bishops in the front line of the political conflict. Monsignor Báez needs to maintain his pastoral autonomy to avoid any such manipulation.

The rapid growth of Pentecostal Churches

We need to remember that the Protestant, or Evangelical, tradition is historically linked to liberalism. Protes¬tantism—Baptists, Moravians, Anglicans, etc.—came to Nicaragua at the end of the 19th Century when Liberal President General José Santos Zelaya opened the doors to them in an effort to modernize the more conservative and traditional dominant Catholic thinking. We also need to remember that these mainline Protestant denominations supported the revolutionary process in the eighties while the Catholic hierarchy opposed it. The revolutionary government’s strategy at the time was to support and promote those and other Evangelical Churches to neutralize the power of the Catholic Church.

The Pentecostals arrived nearly a century after those first Churches. In 1973, Rockefeller published a report concluding that Liberation Theology, born in the Catholic Christian communities, endangered US interests in Latin America. In response, the US government promoted the arrival of evangelizing groups like the Assemblies of God, known as Pentecostals or neo-Pentecostals, throughout Latin America, Nicaragua included. As a result, Pentecostal Evangelicals grew and multiplied in the eighties.

Many of these denominations supported the counter revolution in the eighties and many of their leaders were even leaders of the armed counterrevolution. Since then those groups have been changing, becoming more politically pluralist.

The influence of Churches with a Pentecostal tradition began to grow rapidly in the nineties. Their offer of salvation reached out to the traditional religious sensibility and their offer of miracles and healing responded to the vital needs of an increasingly impoverished and abandoned population. With all its contradictions, what the Pentecostal spirituality has to offer is closer to modernity than the offer of traditional Catholic religiosity.

The current increase of these groups is related to the generalized impoverishment that has created a subculture of poverty and exclusion both in Nicaragua and in the rest of Latin America. The poor of the last two decades aren’t like the poor of the previous ones, who were the inspiration for Vatican II. In those years the poor were exploited and oppressed, whereas now no one oppresses or exploits them because they’re excluded from, marginal to, even the system of exploitation. They are people with no future, no opportunities, no work and no social recognition. The Pentecostal groups offer them the hope of salvation. The religion and the services they hold in their barrios extend them a life saver. In those services they are recognized and have an identity and dignity society denies them.

Many evangelizing denominations espouse an increasingly fundamentalist religiosity that rejects the “worldly,” imbues civil authority with a sacred nature and does a literal and decontextualized reading of the Bible. Before the revolution they had 20 schools and study centers in the country; today they have 1,200.

Religion and the elections

Today, aware of the greater historical power of the Catholic Church and the universal power of the Vatican, the FSLN government has made a radical shift. Leaving the Evangelical sectors of all stripes to one side, it is prioritizing the Catholic hierarchy and clergy, giving it a leadership role. Will this tactical shift influence the vote of the Evangelical sectors in this year’s elections?

The tendency not to get involved in politics has been strong among the Evangelicals, although in the nineties some of their leaders formed political parties such as the Christian Way; Christian Unity Movement and Christian Alternative, which later changed its name to Alternative for Change. All three are allied to the FSLN in the upcoming elections. But how will their flocks vote?

I think that the bulk of the Catholics who participated in the revolutionary process in the eighties are maintaining their backing for Daniel Ortega’s current project, albeit with a certain critical consciousness among those who had more educational opportunities. But when the time comes to actually mark their ballot, even these critics will vote for the FSLN in my estimation, because right now they see no other alternative. Other professional and middle-class Christian sectors who also participated in the revolution have moved further away and won’t vote for the FSLN. My quick calculation is that the grassroots Sandinista base could well be 50% Catholic and 40% Protestant, with the remaining 10% distanced from all religion. In the population at large, 30% is Protestant. Who will they vote for? It’s not easy to estimate, since they are much more politically pluralist than before.

What about President
Ortega’s “Christian project”?

Will a vote for Daniel Ortega and his FSLN government be a vote for the “Christian socialist and solidarity” project that the huge billboards all over the country are proclaiming? In my view, this government is still managing the religious issue the way Daniel Ortega did in the eighties, from the same pragmatist, short-term, opportunist perspective. The official use the current government makes of religion in those official speeches impregnated with religious inspiration hurts me greatly. The slogan of a “Christian, socialist and solidarity” Nicaragua is all tangled up with the “liberty, equality and fraternity” of the French revolution, and the “common good” from the tradition promoted by St. Thomas Aquinas. And if that weren’t enough, we hear that the government is one of “reconciliation” and “forgiveness,” words with clear Christian connotations.

In my opinion, the government has fallen into the temptation of so many other old politicians to abusively use concepts and symbols of the Christian religion to legitimize itself with people who have a traditional religiosity. I consider that idolatrous blasphemy. Using God’s name in vain is false; it’s blasphemy. The prophetic tradition firmly criticizes idolatry, understanding idols as neither statues nor images. The prophetic tradition of the Bible and the Gospel considers it idolatrous to want to use God’s name to legitimize any project that doesn’t promote justice and doesn’t promote the poor.

And what about its social projects?

Do this government’s social projects, including Zero Hunger, Zero Usury and Roofs for the People, promote the poor? Do they express the option for the poor, as President Ortega has said so often? Cardinal Obando himself claims that he’s living “the option of the poor” in the government program he heads by distributing sheet metal roofing to repair the houses of the poor all over Nicaragua.

The option for the poor proposed by Liberation Theology is to make the poor subjects of their own history. I became a convert to this form of understanding it by reading all the works of Paulo Freire, which make up his pedagogy of liberation. Freire teaches us that the poor have to be «conscienticized» so they can understand the causes of their poverty, to be given back their dignity and become subjects of their own history and participate in the transformation of the reality of their poverty.

Understood in those terms, turning the poor into objects of charity and handouts isn’t an option for the poor. They have to be made into rights holders with a voice rather than the submissively grateful objects of favors. Liberation Theology taught us to be critical of the paternalistic charity projects of churches and governments, in which people are considered an object not a subject and aren’t taught awareness or stimulated to make themselves the subject of their own history.

We have to evaluate the current government’s social programs based on these concepts. Are they turning the poor into subjects of a process to transform their lives, their communities or Nicaragua itself? Is the logic to democratize Nicaragua’s economy or only to palliate the poverty while the economy goes right on being inequitable and in fact continues promoting even greater inequalities? Is the consciousness of those receiving these social programs being changed? Are these people becoming more critical, more autonomous? Is their thinking increasingly their own? Are these projects helping to create community organization? Are they a first step to the emergence of autonomous and responsible organizations? Have they created more unity in the community or are they creating division and exclusion? Are they just responding to basic needs without laying out what to do next? Are they financially sustainable? Are they sustainable over time? Do they ensure sustainable development from the bottom up or do they only provide help decided from above with a clientelist spirit, seeking votes and gratitude? Do they respond to state policies or are they fundamentally party programs? What’s the ultimate goal of these programs: to ensure the government’s popularity or to construct freer, more critical subjects? Are they just a means for achieving reelection?

In situations of extreme need, people have to be helped to move forward. But even in doing so one should ensure that what is being given generates consciousness, participa¬tion and organization. Today, when we watch the news on the FSLN’s Channel 4 and see how this aid is being given out, we see the ideological expression of those who feel helped and respond with gratitude. Every day we see people thankful for favors, in a relationship of dependence that has mythical-religious nuances: “We thank the comandante; no one has helped us before, only him”… One doesn’t perceive the creation of citizens’ consciousness but rather people’s dependence on a party. Based on this, we can judge the logic of these social programs as paternalism and people’s quasi-religious dependence on charity.

The State has duties toward the citizenry

People perceive the duties that correspond to the State as if they were personal favors. The State has duties to its citizens because they pay taxes. When rights are seen as favors the government is doing for us because it is “very good,” it constructs a mentality of serfs toward a monarchy rather than citizens in relation to a democratic authority. There’s no doubt that this has been the practice of many paternalistic, charitable churches throughout history. But Liberation Theology and the revolution in Nicaragua in the eighties taught us to view that way of acting as an insult to the poor.

The FSLN government of the eighties saw it that way, which makes it even more of a shock to see today’s FSLN government promoting such dependence-creating paternalism. Charity to the poor may move them from extreme poverty to just poverty, but it isn’t an option for the poor that helps them stop being poor and converts them into subjects and citizens. That’s why this is neither a Christian project nor a revolutionary one in the sense I understand them.

The President has the duty and the task to construct a participatory, critical society, and the responsibility to democratize the economy. The more in-depth question we must ask ourselves in relation to these social programs is whether the economy is being democratized by them. In Chinandega, where I work, we’re seeing that the big capitalists of Pantaleón and the Pellas family, both partners of the government, aren’t favoring the democratization of the economy. Quite the opposite; they’re making it increasingly inequitable.

The issue isn’t simply
whether we’re better off

Of course there are positive things in the current government. I work in a radio station in Chinandega and, like the rest of the country, we were without electricity for eight hours a day during the previous government; now we have it all day long. That’s a positive advance that has benefited us all. And a family that receives sheet metal roofing to repair its roof and now doesn’t get wet when it rains has obviously experienced an improvement. The previous government really neglected the poorest people and we can clearly say that many poor people are now in better shape than they were during the Bolaños government. But I don’t think that’s the key to evaluating this government. We must ask ourselves if it’s moving in the right direction, and whether it’s respecting the laws in doing so. We must ask why there’s such centralization of power, such social control.

The biblical tradition teaches us that we must not use God’s name to legitimate projects that go against the common good, against the poor. Believing in the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus, means practicing justice. The government is using God’s name in a programmed and calculated way to legitimize the implementation of all these social programs. But the government’s use of religion is in fact moving it closer to the now obsolete projects of the extreme Right than to authentically grassroots projects.

How do we explain Cardinal
Obando’s radical change?

The government is also trying to legitimize itself through the ongoing presence of Cardinal Obando in its public and official acts. One way to explain the radical change in Cardinal Obando is to recognize his inescapable enthusiasm for leadership. He was permanently wounded by and resentful of the Sandinista government’s policy in the eighties. He felt that it wasn’t respecting a distinguished figure in Nicaraguan society and in national politics and found ways of getting back at the Sandinistas for that. Obando has always been convinced of the Christendom model of the Church as a power that must be recognized and that dialogues on an intimate and equal footing with the political and economic powers. That vision was strengthened by the papacy of John Paul II, which supported him and appointed him cardinal to strengthen that model in Nicaragua.

A few years into the new century, the FSLN decided to build a closer relationship with Cardinal Obando and other Catholic Church leaders; it did it to avoid having them as enemies, to neutralize their influence. It wasn’t Obando who sought out Daniel Ortega, but rather Ortega who approached him to negotiate. What did Obando want out of the negotiations? Prestige; a public post so he could stand out. They may also have discussed Obando’s participation in the corruption discovered in the Archdiocese’s Social Promotion Commission (COPROSA) during the Bolaños government. COPROSA was an NGO never legalized in the eighties, directed by Roberto Rivas and considered an extension of Cáritas. During the Bolaños administration, the media documented the corruption that took place in COPROSA, when it was directly under Cardinal Obando’s control. Sweeping that issue under the rug have figured in the negotiations that resulted in the cardinal’s ongoing close relationship with President Ortega.

Nicaraguan religiosity is
still culturally pre-modern

To understand those negotiations and everything we’re seeing today, it helps to recall that the culture of modernity and the secular spirit promoted by Vatican II never made its way into Nicaraguan religiosity. Christians in Nicaragua are still today living in a cultural pre-modernity, which is even more true of the Catholic Church and the majority of the Evangelical ones. Those who began to open up to more modern religious ideas with Vatican II were drowned out by the hierarchy.

A modern vision proposes the autonomy of politics, the separation of Church and State, the end of the monarchic Church and monarchic State. Such ideas have never had any solid expressions in Nicaragua. This allows President Ortega to clad himself in religious language and symbols and present himself as heading up a model of “Christian” government that is totally out of date in the modern world. By acting that way he’s promoting serious cultural backwardness and playing with the Nicaraguan people.

The logic of power and
the logic of Jesus of Nazareth

If it wants to experience faith in the prophet Jesus of Nazareth and move beyond the current situation, the Church will have to rescue its prophetic tradition. We must understand that all power, whether religious or civil, has an excluding logic. All power tends to exclude sectors of society. To avoid excluding anyone, it is necessary to know how to dialogue with all social groups, with all society, and it’s only through such a dialogue that a truly national project can be put together.

The Church’s role must always be outside of power, with the people, with those organized in alternative projects who are making claims, demands. It must be to speak in their name if they have no voice or to accompany their development, announcing and denouncing what it’s learning with them. That is the model of Jesus’ movement. That isn’t Christendom, which is a model of power in which political and religious powers dominate, guide and regulate society.

The Church’s main mission is to accompany the people from the base and not from power; to accompany the people’s organizations from below. If it’s above, it will be a Church of Christendom, whether the power is leftist, rightist or centrist.

The Church must always have a critical attitude toward power, when that power isn’t at the service of the people or in favor of the common good. In the eighties, they criticized us, and with some fairness, for so strongly supporting the revolutionary government. We justified that support because of the war and our enthusiasm for the project of transfor¬mation, but we weren’t sufficiently critical.

It’s discouraging to see how the government that represents the FSLN today has caved in to the traditions of the Nicaraguan people’s pre-modern culture and forgotten its commitment to forge critical consciousness in the people that would make its activists participate politically in a conscious manner. If it were to do that, it would open up ways of making Nicaragua a more modern society that could put behind it all the backward political styles of the previous governments, be they Liberal or Conservative. It’s discouraging that a government representing the FSLN isn’t working to give the people a renewed vision of human beings, society and the world.

Power always corrupts and religious power can corrupt just as much as others. Power corrupts when it doesn’t allow grassroots organizations autonomy and freedom, when it doesn’t dialogue with all of society. And when power is authoritarian, things always ends badly. That’s the lesson of history. All authoritarian powers, whether of the Right or the Left, have ended badly. I lived 26 years under a rightwing dictatorship in Spain that ended badly. The authoritarian governments of the Left in Eastern Europe, countries I visited a number of times, also ended badly. Today we’re seeing how badly the authoritarian government of the Left in Libya is going to end. It’s time to reflect and to rectify.

Father Rafael Aregón is a Dominican priest who has worked in Nicaragua for over 30 years.

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