Maryknoll’s Miguel D’Escoto

It is a new tactic for Foreign Ministers of nations to go on a fast for peace, but it is a wonderful propaganda ploy. The Maryknoll priest who is Foreign Minister of Nicaragua, Miguel D’Escoto, is valued by his order as a propaganda weapon. This is, in any case, the argument that the Superior General of the Maryknolls, Father William M. Boteler, is making in Rome.

On April 30, Father Boteler wrote a letter to his fellow Maryknollers, an American missionary order operating worldwide but headquartered in Maryknoll, N.Y. In it, he explained the arguments he used in Rome concerning Pope John Paul II’s wish that Father D’Escoto exit from the Nicaraguan government:

I stated how Miguel has access to national TV and can sometimes thwart the efforts of the present administration to given an erroneous impression of what is taking place in Nicaragua and Central America. I do feel he has been successful, due to the fact that the Congress cut off funds to the Contras. And even our men in Nicaragua have mentioned that the Contras’ activity has been greatly reduced from what it was a year ago; which means less people are being tortured and/or killed.

The Superior General added:

…the U.S. Government’s financing of the Contras’ war puts us in an extremely delicate position. If we would take the initiative to move Miguel, it would give the impression that we are in favor of the policy of our Government. The policy promotes a military solution and it has been ejected by both the Holy Father and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Miguel would be in agreement with the Bishops’ Statement to the Congress at the time of the most recent vote against Contra aid.)

The situation is this. Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto and other priests in the Nicaraguan Government have been publicly suspended from their priestly duties. Pope John Paul II is firm in his desire that they should also resign from the Government. Despite D’Escoto’s failure to do so, no further action has been taken against him. Archbishop Pablo Antonio Vega, President ‘of the Nicaraguan Bishop’s Conference, said publicly last February 11 that “no further action would be taken against the priests unless they decide to defy suspension and resume performance of priestly duties.”

So matters were then at a standstill. “In this situation,” the Superior General wrote, “Maryknoll Superiors should assume the role of reconcilers. Out of loyalty to the Holy Father, we must provide him with all the facts, as we understand them, before he makes any decision. Out of loyalty and obligation to our fellow Maryknoller, we should feel a responsibility to provide Miguel with all possible facts and opinions emanating from the Vatican and our own Society, so that he might form a right conscience, without being pressured to violate it.”

One of the great virtues of a democracy is that individuals and associations may and should oppose the positions of their own government peacefully and with rational argument when they do not agree with that policy. They also have a responsibility to try to understand that policy.

Maryknoll’s Superior General wrote that the policy of the U.S. Government “promotes a military solution…” Is that true? Indisputable pressure on the Sandinistas to negotiate seems to be a better diagnosis.

Popular support for the nearby rebels against the new democracy in El Salvador, according to the press, has been falling. Meanwhile, reports say the number of Nicaraguans joining the Nicaraguan rebels are on the rise. If money is the measure, it is not clear which rebel force receives more. If popular support is the measure, it would seem the rebels in Nicaraguan have considerably more—and that it is growing.

Nonetheless, the Maryknoll Superior General speaks of the rebel effort in Nicaragua as “the war against the people.” Is it, rather, a war “of the people, by the people, and for the people”? Support of it is certainly spreading steadily among the people.

The problem for U.S. policy is twofold. (1) How to get the Sandinista Government to negotiate a settlement with the rebels in line with the original aims of the anti-Somoza revolution: full protection of the rights of democratic citizens, free unions, a free press, and a free church.

(2) How to break the spiritual and often publicly proclaimed alliance—not simply of military and intelligence support, but also of philosophy—between Managua and Moscow, Havana, Syria, Hanoi, the PLO, Libya, and the rest. These have been the anchors of Miguel D’Escoto’s foreign policy from the beginning.

Americans correctly argue about disputed facts, a proper strategy, and proper tactics. A crucial voice in this argument belongs to the newly named Cardinal-Archbishop Obando y Bravo of Managua and to the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference. As the Maryknoll Superior General candidly notes: “What is most telling is the fact that the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference has not yet condemned the war against the people and the atrocities being perpetrated.” The Superior General of Maryknoll seems to condemn the rebels. The Nicaraguan bishops do not.

Miguel D’Escoto has chosen a foreign policy. He was fasting for “peace” on those terms. Without the rebels, he would not have had to fast. Too bad his fast did not change the principles of his government.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.