The Last Word: Sandinophilia

A profoundly disturbing note in the debate on the conflict in Nicaragua was sounded in a nationally televised debate in March. Appearing on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour as an opponent of U.S. aid to the contras, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton refused to offer a shred of sympathy or support for Managua’s embattled archbishop, Cardinal Obando y Bravo. Instead, Gumbleton informed viewers that “Cardinal Obando is not the Church” in Nicaragua. The church is “the people,” and Obando does not speak for them.

The message. Gumbleton conveyed was as ominous as it was startling. The bishop was saying, in effect, that he didn’t care about Cardinal Obando — that he didn’t care about the persecution of a brother bishop. What he did care about was stopping aid to the contras. Nothing could be allowed to attenuate that commitment. No other outrage could intrude on his moral sensibility. Thus, Gumbleton could not muster a word of criticism of the regime that is persecuting his own church.

To be sure, Gumbleton concedes that the Sandinistas have made “mistakes.” Tepid language, that. But to go beyond such praising with faith damns — to admit that the Sandinistas have set their country on a totalitarian trajectory — would presumably be tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the contras and to the Reagan Administration. Bishop Gumbleton and his colleagues on the religious left seem determined to play the role of internacionalistas — the term Nicaraguans use for Sandinista sympathizers.

That the issue of aid to the contras should produce sharp disagreement within the religious community is not surprising — nor is it morally offensive. While all parties to the debate (one hopes) would like to see democracy emerge in Nicaragua, there is still room for disagreement about how best to accomplish this goal. But there should be no doubt about the Sandinistas’ hostility to the Catholic Church and to democracy. Not now. Not after ample reporting in the American press on their continuing repression of religion and political pluralism — including accounts in such stalwart liberal organs as the New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Republic, and Washington Post.

Yet some in the religious community still refuse to raise their voice against the Sandinistas. No matter that Cardinal Obando is the target of harassment and persecution. No matter that the Sandinistas have banned publication of Iglesia, the newspaper of the archdiocese of Managua. No matter that Radio Catolica has been shut down, or that state security officials have forced Catholic priests to undergo long interrogations while stripped naked. No matter that top Sandinista commandantes have explicitly acknowledged their Marxist-Leninist principles, including adherence to the classic Leninist notion of themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. Every possible excuse, every conceivable benefit of doubt, is granted to Daniel Ortega and cohort. The contras and the Reagan Administration are held to the strictest standards; against them alone a “hermeneutic of suspicion” is practiced.

This refusal to countenance any imputation of moral fault to the Sandinistas has now achieved the status of first principle, determining which arguments and evidence one must take into account, and which one may ignore. Thus Bishop Gumbleton summarily dismisses a Carnegie Endowment report on Sandinista persecution of the Catholic Church, saying that he doesn’t need “outside groups” to tell him what is happening in Nicaragua. He has his own “witnesses” to tell him that Nicaragua is “gradually becoming a free nation.” That this assessment is sharply disputed by others across the political spectrum gives Gumbleton not even a moment’s pause.

Clearly, moral gymnastics are not required to oppose both aid to the contras and the Sandinista regime. Many House and Senate Democrats who voted against the administration on this issue find it possible to do so. Senator Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), who gave the Democrats’ rebuttal to President Reagan’s television speech in support of contra aid, obviously does not think he is jeopardizing his commitment to peace when he states, “You see Ortega on television with his green uniform and red collar tabs and it reminds you of what happened 25 years ago in Cuba.” Judging by his performance on MacNeil/Lehrer, Bishop Gumbleton is not so reminded — nor, one suspects, would he be perturbed to know that Daniel Ortega was the sole head of state to attend and address the recent congress of the Cuban Communist Party.

What Bishop Gumbleton and his co-religionists do not seem to realize is that their tactics of refusing to criticize the Sandinistas is self-defeating. First, by saddling them with the role of apologists for an increasingly repressive regime, such a tactic destroys their credibility as spokesmen for moral-religious ideals. Second, it places them on the far fringe of the national debate on Nicaragua, indeed, as the irresponsible extreme against which everyone else may define themselves. Opponents of the administration’s policy can now earn easy points for moderation by saying, in effect, “Hey, I’m not as insensitive as that.” Third, if we should ignore the archbishop of Managua, why should we listen to the auxiliary from Detroit?


In 1983, Terry Hall became the managing editor of Catholicism in Crisis.

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