Maintaining the Independence of the Church

October 1990By R.F. Sheehan

Edward R.F. Sheehan, former Fellow of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, is the author of Agony in the Garden: A Stranger in Central America, several novels and works of nonfiction, and numerous articles on Central America for The New York Review of Books, The Boston Globe, and Commonweal.

Nicaragua's Other Revolution: Religious Faith and Political Struggle.  By Michael Dodson and Laura Nuzzi O'Shaughnessy. University of North Carolina Press. 279 pages. $39.95.



Late last February the people of Nicaragua -- in the first completely free election in their history -- chose Violeta Chamorro as their President and voted the Sandinista Front for National Liberation out of office. The election climaxed a decade of sanguinary drama in which the U.S., the contras, and the Roman Catholic Church played crucial roles.

By the time of the election, it was clear why the country had been reduced to a level of misery much worse than any it had endured even during the dictatorship of the Somozas. The first culprit was the U.S., which under President Reagan did all it could to reduce Sandinista Nicaragua to its knees, imposing an embargo of machinery and spare parts, and depriving the Nicaraguan people of medicine and food. The second cause was Reagan's contras, who raped and pillaged, destroyed infrastructure, and killed thousands of innocent civilians. The third -- and not the least -- malefactor was the Sandinista state.

After the election, even before it, Sandinista luminaries themselves lamented their many errors since overthrowing Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and installing a Marxist-Leninist model of governance. Their early efforts to improve health and increase literacy seemed laudable, but their general schemes -- of redeeming Nicaragua from the legacy of U.S. "imperialism" and promoting the welfare of the poor by invoking the doctrines of class warfare -- soon foundered in the quicksands of obsessive state controls, pervasive bureaucracy, and weird mismanagement.

The results -- which helped cause the contra insurrection and then were aggravated by it, in a vicious cycle -- took a terrible toll on Nicaraguan society and above all on the poor. Billions of dollars fled the country, and with them much of the middle and professional classes without whom no modern economy can function. Factories were expropriated and farms seized, to paralyzing effect; production plummeted; unemployment rose.

The Nicaraguan currency became progressively worthless; in 1988 inflation reached 33,000 percent.

The Sandinista army, by far the largest in Central America, consumed more than half the nation's resources, draining the economy dry. By the mid-1980s political prisoners in Interior Minister Tomas Borge's jails exceeded several thousand. During my visits to Nicaragua in 1985 and 1986, I had witnessed these conditions, and believed they could hardly worsen, but I was wrong. When I returned in the summer of 1988, Nicaragua was in the grip of incipient famine -- yes, U.S. policy was partially responsible -- and it was wrenching to observe the growing numbers of begging children in the streets and starving infants in their foul cribs, sick with diarrhea and dehydration.

Both before and after the Sandinista triumph, a number of Nicaraguan Christians -- including some priests -- identified themselves with the admirable aspirations of liberation theology and the revolution's relentlessly incanted goal of "redeeming the poor." As time passed, and that dream receded further and further from achievement, these Christians rationalized their continuing identification with Sandinista policy by blaming all of Nicaragua's obvious misery on U.S. aggression. Many on the religious Left in the U.S. took up the cry, and in the process made Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the Archbishop of Managua, their devil, second only to Ronald Reagan.

Cardinal Obando and the Nicaraguan bishops had condemned Somoza and were partially responsible for his downfall, but soon after the triumph their wariness of the Sandinistas erupted into open conflict. It was clear to the Cardinal that the Sandinistas intended to use religion as a political tool, forcing it to conform, under the guise of liberation theology, to the revolution's ideological agenda, particularly in the realm of education. The Sandinistas were indoctrinating Nicaraguan children in Marxist-Leninist values, exalting class warfare, and alienating them from their parents and the traditional norms of the Church. The Cardinal resisted, insisting on the rights of an independent Church and her active role in society. The Sandinistas responded by denying the traditional Church access to the public media and trying to push the Church toward the margins of society and into political impotence.

A segment of the Nicaraguan clergy -- disavowing the Cardinal and endorsing not only the revolution's ideological thrust but everything the Sandinistas did -- became identified as the "Popular Church." Again under the guise of liberation theology, the zealots of the Popular Church concocted a doctrinal porridge in which Christ, Marx, and General Sandino converged into a kind of revolutionary Blessed Trinity. Despite the enchantment such theology held for much of the U.S. religious Left, support for the Popular Church among the Nicaraguan people was minuscule. (Even such pro-Sandinista ecclesiastics as Padre Cesar Jerez, rector of Managua's Jesuit university, conceded as much to me in 1985.) On the contrary, as misery engulfed Nicaragua, the poor flocked to the traditional Church and her ancient mysteries as a refuge from their sorrows.

However, the bitterest dispute between Cardinal Obando and the Sandinistas arose from his refusal to condemn the contras: For this in particular he was anathema to many religious leftists. Instead -- his worst "heresy" -- the Cardinal repeatedly urged the Sandinistas and the contras to negotiate. It is clear today that the Cardinal knew the Nicaraguan character more deeply than his critics did -- and that he knew that in politics all is ephemeral, and that one day the Sandinistas might embrace his heresy. In retrospect, it is also clear that by refusing to condemn the contras the Cardinal was pursuing a shrewd strategy, reserving himself to resume his classic role as mediator of the quarrels in the Nicaraguan family.

Finally, exhausted by the war, the Sandinistas agreed to negotiate with the contras. Cardinal Obando brought the two sides together: President Daniel Ortega needed him desperately, and the contras trusted no other mediator. More recently, it was the Cardinal again who mediated the accords between the new Chamorro government and the guerrilla leadership for contra disarmament. Would any of this have happened had the Cardinal not so stoutly maintained the independence of the Church? Indeed, by 1988 some pro-Sandinista Jesuits were distancing themselves from the government because they did not wish to be identified with the disasters of Sandinista policy.

One would learn none of the above by reading Nicaragua's Other Revolution, a compendium of Sandinista slogans fashionable five years ago but not even fashionable by Sandinista standards today, and possibly the silliest book ever written about the religious conflict in Nicaragua. It is as though the book were conceived on the moon, the authors oblivious to all Nicaraguan reality and Sandinista failure. The chief villain, of course, is Cardinal Obando. Ad nauseam, the authors talk of a "grass roots" church, but they never demonstrate that it had a following; the closest they come to conceding its unpopularity is in stating that its members were "overworked" and thus unable to attend meetings. The "Popular Church" is dead, and one doubts that this hagiography will survive it.



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