Responsibilities of the Church in Central America Pablo Antonio Cuadra

Since Pope John Paul II’s visit to Central America,  something has become evident that had earlier drawn little attention: the religiousness of our Central American peoples and that religion’s moral and civic force. But in the same measure, a crisis could be observed: a new awareness, an uneasiness, a search by these great religious forces.

In this essay I do not address this crisis as it appears in other Central American countries; I hope others will do that. I limit myself to the conflict in Nicaragua, which is the most crucial to the internal as well as external responsibilities of the Church. My thesis is that, with regard to the faith, our peoples have entered the usual historical agony between Liberty and Destiny.

One of the greatest achievements of Vatican II was the recovery of the Church’s independence from civil or political power. There was a long pre-conciliar effort to continue loosening the ties that still remained between Church and State (or as it was called earlier, between Throne and Altar) and to prepare minds (many of them nostalgic for former privileges) for the new age of religious freedom that would lift up the Church as “the sacrament of history” and would increase its capacity to transform history. The independence of the Church was also coming to mean the rejection of help from the secular arm, not leaning on power or force, and trusting the Good News solely to the power of God, in the power of the Spirit.

In Nicaragua, the revolutionary holiness of John XXIII and that universal Pentecost which was the Second Vatican Council produced a profound stirring from top to bottom — bishops, clerics, and lay people — awakening an intense and active religiousness (movements for deeper religious awareness, pastoral encounters, symposia, congresses, courses, conversions, publications, community formation, (etc.). This awakening brought to the fore the fundamental problems of the Christian man. It was a doubly prophetic movement, both preparation and premonition of a future challenge to Nicaraguan Christianity that no one could have foretold. Moreover, the independence achieved by the hierarchy gave purity and force to its prophetic labor of reporting and condemning oppression and injustice. This chapter of Nicaraguan church history has not yet been fully written. I hope someone will write it someday, because it was the foundation and the root of the Nicaraguan Church’s subsequent reaction, of its constancy and its resistance. It was a moment of change and renewal that coincided with the grave ascent to power of the third Somoza, who continued (and worsened) a dynasty of dictators. A series of pastoral letters, of prophetic acts, of mediations and demands for human rights, of reports of injustices — giving a voice to those who had no voice — demonstrated a new face for the Church. The result was a break with a tradition that, with some beautiful exceptions, had been formed or established in Nicaragua through submission to, power.

It has often been written in Nicaragua that without the conscienticization achieved by the Church, there would not have been the deep feeling of justice and appreciation for liberty which made possible the people’s demolition of the dictatorship. At the triumph of the revolution, this same Church revealed its hopes and encouraged the social reforms and other promised changes. I do not think that there was published in all of Hispanic America in those days a pastoral letter so open to structural change and social justice — and at the same time so firm in its Christian conception of the destiny, rights, and liberties of man — as the first pastoral of the Nicaraguan Bishops, immediately after the revolutionary victory.

The problem shows up immediately afterward, and the point of conflict is precisely the Church’s independence. It is a typically modern problem: a problem of power. All power, particularly in our time, tends to turn into a monster. Its voracity grows if it is fed by an ideology that believes, with a fanatic faith, that the remedy of all ills, the solution to the exploitation of man by man, is the State, or more exactly statism.

In the Gospels — therefore, in the Church — the fundamental value is man: the concrete man, with all his rights and liberties. Each man is of unique and eternal worth. For Marxism, the fundamental value is generic man: the totality! Therefore Marxism — as Gevaert says — carries within it the source of totalitarianism. In deciding that each person receives his very being and his worth from the totality, Marxism also establishes the principle that each person always remains subject to the totality. Therefore, the State or Power — as an objective expression of the totality — according to the Marxists, “has the right to ‘use’ individuals for the totality since, in the final analysis, individuals exist for the totality, and can even be sacrificed when required to strengthen or fulfill the totality.”

A collision of these opposing positions was inevitable. But it is interesting and instructive to examine how the conflict came about. The Sandinista government put several priests and clerics in charge of ministries and in other high political places. This was a direct blow, ably concealed, at the Church’s independence. Filling the government with priests seemed the best evidence of an appreciative and understanding relationship between the government and the Church. The reality, however, was the exact opposite: it was a return to the politicized curate; it obliged the Church to serve one party and thus to renounce its independence and cease being a luminous sign of Christ’s love for all.

In reality, the rebellion of the political priests made clear the conflict between the Catholic Church and Sandinista power. It brought in its wake a much more pretentious movement — seemingly supported by a theological scheme, logically well worked out — but depressingly wanting in creativity and marked by spiritual dryness. I refer to the “Popular Church” and to the so-called “theology of liberation.”

I will not give a detailed critical analysis of this kind of reactionary heresy, which seeks to make the Church take a step backward in its post-conciliar development toward religious independence and purification. In this heresy, a political praxis — not even a free and pluralistic praxis, or a praxis derived from the Gospel’s immense revolutionary power, but a narrow and partisan Marxist praxis — replaces the redemptive meaning of Christ and his Gospel. Christ passes for a chapter in the history of the class struggle. The “poor” in the Sermon on the Mount are no longer the poor (in the infinite range of human poverty), but the proletariat of Marxist invention, whose blessedness is the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The unpopular “People’s Church” — as it is called in Nicaragua — is a strange leap backwards in our Americas: it is the typical fascination, always a little late, for philosophies of European origin. When the faith in human progress had turned into the prospect of future distress, so- called liberation theology de-christianized the hope in the resurrection and reduced it to a new “faith in the future.” As I wrote in my poem “Invitation to the Vagabonds”:

Yet another time hope is a trap and

happiness once again a future

which must be built with innumerable

new graves.

While the chaos and terror engendered by politics and ideologies in our time pushes us to open our souls more toward transcendence, liberation theology closes itself in an anti-metaphysic. It turns around and falls into the earthly messianism of the New Israel. Liberation theology looks at Christ with the political near-sightedness of Caiphas; with the erring eye of those who want a political leader; with the eye of the masses who wanted to elect Christ king in order to eat free bread; with the eye of Judas who, according to some commentators, sold out his friend Jesus because he did not find in him the Fuhrer of Israel, the same cruel eye that, disillusioned, preferred Barabbas.

These theologians (who are called “a-theologians” in my country) take as their starting point the theme richest in possibilities for liberation in the Gospel: the theme of the poor and oppressed. And what Christian solution do they offer? Christian, none. Christianity has nothing to offer to the moral challenge of poverty and oppression. (That is why I have called this the intellectually poorest heresy in the history of Christianity.) Marxism holds the texts and the interpretive keys to history. Marxism has the only scientific model for liberation. Marxism, however, is atheistic. Marxism has never renounced its materialist and atheist basis. In practice, through the expansion of his own dialectic, the Marxist is more than an atheist; he is a militant and missionary anti-theist. The result, then, is that to liberate the poor, Christianity must renounce God; and the poor, to achieve their liberation, must lose Christ.

But in our experience there is no such liberation. If I may quote myself: “The poet, turning with feeling toward poverty and suffering, believes — at the beginning — that Marxism opts for the needy and the poor. But in a very short time he learns that in its praxis Marxism opts for a State of immense power, control, and coldness — the coldest of the cold monsters. From its compassionate pity for the exploited rises a new, pitiless master who imposes and as yet unclassified form of slavery which denies to the worker all freedom of criticism, of association, of change, and even prohibits his oldest instrument of power and protests, the strike.” As Bakunin commented on the dictatorship of the proletariat: “To emancipate the masses of the people, first it is necessary to subjugate them.”

But the damage goes even deeper. The so-called Popular Church is the screen for an ideology that seeks by force to replace faith. It is the same theology that oppresses and destroys our culture — the pre-established scheme, the predetermined system of ideas that some wish to impose on and encapsulate our reality. For this it uses a costume, “camouflage,” a mask. But because the Christian people and the Nicaraguan Church had a profound awakening in the struggle for their liberty, in the pain of an earthquake and of civil war — and in other extraordinary events — they could not be manipulated. So the perennial error of power appeared: persecution.

  • Pablo Antonio Cuadra

    Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912–2002) was a Nicaraguan essayist, art and literary critic, playwright, graphic artist and one of the most famous poets of Nicaragua.

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