An internal Sandinista communique on the possible eradication of Christmas was the Roman Catholic Church’s first taste of the kind of government they had helped place in power. Issued December 1979, the communique ultimately decided that if Christmas still existed in the Soviet Union after 62 years of revolution, then they would be “petty bourgeois revolutionaries” to steal it away after only a few months. Instead they would pursue an alternate course, they would transform Christmas into a political symbol.
Three years have passed since the revolution, and in that time this objective has been met at great cost to the Nicaraguan Catholic hierarchy and the orthodoxy it represents and struggles to protect. Leaders of the official Roman Catholic Church have been publicly attacked and humiliated in the media and assaulted by mobs. Sandinista youths have occupied Catholic schools. The archbishop and the pope himself are heavily censored. Government policies have favored leaders and institutions promoting liberation theology, encouraging a schism within the Church.
Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua has been the principal target of the Party propaganda campaign to undermine the influence of the Church and transform the very meaning of what it is to be Christian.
A Mestizo priest who ministered to the poor and refused traditional gifts from the Somoza regime, despite the poverty of the local Church, Obando was an ally of the Sandinistas during the revolution. He supported many of their goals in its aftermath, travelling to the United States to raise funds for the literacy campaign.
Despite Obando’s spotless credentials, the Sandinistas and the media they control consistently promote the view that the archbishop speaks for the church of the rich while the revolution is aligned with the church of the poor. In fact, the once-supportive church leader had become a thorn in the side of the regime since he first urged his fellow bishops to speak out against the atheistic underpinnings of the literacy campaign, the nationalization of private education, and the harsh treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Atlantic coast.
The Party’s first reaction to this criticism was to replace the archbishop’s televised celebration of Sunday Mass with a liturgy celebrated by a more “progressive” priest. Today, Obando’s Sunday sermons still appear in La Prensa, the country’s only opposition paper, but the Ministry of the Interior receives an advance copy and prepares its own interpretation of the scriptures for Saturday’s papers. There are other attempts at direct or indirect censorship of the archbishop and the pope as well.
La Prensa has been denied permission to publish statements by the archbishop or the episcopal conference, and the paper closed in protest last summer when the editors were informed the pope’s June 29th pastoral letter to Nicaragua’s bishops could not appear in their paper. The paper reopened several days later when the letter was finally approved for publication.
The pastoral letter clearly criticized the ‘popular Church’, or Christian Base communities, that adhere to the teachings of liberation theologians rather than the magisterium. The pontiff’s message to the bishops was direct:
It is easy to see … that the concept of ‘popular Church’ scarcely escapes the infiltration of strongly ideological connotations along the lines of a certain political radicalization of the class struggle, of acceptance of violence for the carrying out of determined ends.
Describing the priesthood, he added,
It is not through a political role, but through the priestly ministry that the people want to remain close to them.
The pastoral letter reflected a sophisticated awareness of the role of the Christian Base communities in the junta’s strategy of undermining the Church. Since the revolution, the CBC have opened five centers that disseminate the theories of liberation theologians. The centers’ function is to offer pastoral services, such as retreats and Bible-study groups that pursue social analysis. Their publications and regular columns that appear in the two Party papers, Barricada and Nuevo Diario, offer politicized interpretations of the personality of Jesus and his mission on earth.
While the archbishop, who cannot even afford a printing press or a photocopy machine, has been denied access to outside funds, these centers receive help from the World Council of Churches, some Methodist congregations, and West German foundations.
Roughly one third of the clergy and religious continue to support the revolution. Many others who worked to overthrow Somoza, however, are now demoralized by the new regime’s increasingly repressive tactics, not only against the Church, but against powerless minorities like the Miskito Indians, as well as other Christian denominations, businessmen, independent unions and media, and indeed against any group or institution that resists their measures for transforming a culture. The Sandinistas have sought to circumvent international criticism of these efforts by constructing alternative Party-controlled organizations that affirm popular support for them. By nurturing CBC, they hope to set up an alternative Church for similar reasons.
“Fact-finding” religious groups who are investigating church-state conflict in Nicaragua may be confused or even fooled by these methods, but the Nicaraguan people, for the most part, are not. Demonstrations followed the most serious incident of confrontation between the junta and the official Church during a summer of rising tensions.
The incident involved Father Bismark Carballo, secretary of communications for the archdiocese of Managua and a national figure seemingly above the control of the censors. The director of Catholic Radio, he had earned the Party’s wrath by broadcasting the testimony of priests who had been beaten by mobs because they replaced progressive clerics in parish churches. Following the testimonies, the station was forbidden to broadcast anything but direct scriptural readings and music.
The Carballo scandal, as it was reported in the Party media, implicated the priest in an affair with a woman whose jealous lover had surprised them and threw Carballo, naked, out into the street. Television cameramen, photographers, and a crowd of people happened to be passing by and recorded the event.
The attempt to embarrass the Church was not entirely successful. The priest’s story was supported by the archbishop and the news articles, complete with nude photographs, offended the people’s sense of decency. Public outrage mounted.
Spontaneous riots and mass demonstrations occurred throughout the country. A Salesian high school, the center of anti-government protests in the archbishop’s home town of Masaya, became another flashpoint. The government intervened during a a strike at the school that left several students dead; others are now imprisoned. Reacting to the incident, the bishops’ conference issued a statement that criticized the government’s intervention in a private institution. It also emphasized the necessity of “an educational system open to spiritual values of the human person beyond the narrow confines of materialistic ideologies that ignore or deny the existence of God.” The bishops protested the government’s “passive” approach toward the occupation of their schools by Sandinista youths.
There is a great deal of confusion about the government’s control over roaming mobs that have assaulted the Bishop of Juigalpa, Bishop Bosco Vivas of Managua, and stoned the archbishop’s car. This pattern of intimidation by anonymous groups, beyond the jurisdiction of the government, has shaken members of the hierarchy, and others who support the official church. Some have retreated, allowing Archbishop Obando to become more isolated, forced to return for support to the opposition party, led by businessmen and former cabinet member Alfonso Robelo, and thus a more vulnerable target in the propaganda campaign to discredit his ties to the campesinos.
The archbishop’s independent course has increased his stature among orthodox Catholics, sparking comparisons with the role of Warsaw’s Primate. But the Polish Primate leads a united Church. Supporters of the CBC and liberation theology remain silent or even endorse the government’s attacks against the official Church.
There has also been a series of appointments of new bishops in Nicaragua which does not appear to augur well for the beleaguered archbishop. These bishops take a more conciliatory stance toward the Sandinistas, preferring dialogue and compromise to confrontation. In a recent interview, Msgr. Pedro Vilchez, soon to be the new bishop of Jinotega, a province north of Managua, was described as a long-time minister to the campesinos who tried “to keep in mind that Nicaragua is in an irreversible process of revolution. It will not be undone,” he said.
The majority of the new bishops appears at present to make little effort to publicly challenge the notion that the archbishop is a reactionary who is out of step with the revolution, a historical event which the Church can support or reject, but cannot stop.
It is still unclear whether the new appointments signify the local papal Nuncio’s own bias, or the pope’s tolerance of Obando’s lonely battle, and the regime’s stepped-up efforts to isolate him. The pontiff is scheduled to visit Central America this year. It is still too soon to say whether his welcoming committee will be comprised of the Church of the rich or the Church of the poor.