The Catholic Church and the Nicaraguan Revolution

Pre-Revolutionary Church-State Relations

The Catholic Church has a long history of close relations with the state and government in power. In the Colonial period, the Church acted as a check-up on conquistadors who pursued their own feudal interests contrary to those of the Spanish Crown and those of the Church itself. In the middle to late colonial periods, the Church served the crown in their failing attempts to curb liberal wanting economic independence. In the post-independence period, the Conservative party was the dominant political party in Nicaragua; as such, the Church allied itself with the Conservatives to protect its privileges and maintain its influence in society.

After 1823 the Liberals gained power by violently repressing the Conservatives, however, the Church continued their alliance with the Conservatives. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the Liberals and Conservatives vied for ultimate power over the state; the Conservatives consolidated their power in 1856. During the whole power struggle the Church maintained warm relations with the Conservatives, in return, in 1862 the Concordato was signed by the Conservative government and the Vatican. The Concrodato gave the government the right to nominate Church officials; but in return, the State was to financially support the Catholic Church.

In the 1893 election, the Conservatives lost to the Liberals and a new leader came to power: José Santos Zelaya. Zelaya instituted a new constitution which called for the separation of the Church and state and the nationalization of Church property, in addition to the termination of the concordato, secular education, and civil marriages. In 1909 Zeyala was forced out of power and the Conservatives re-consolidated their power and instituted a new constitution in 1912 which reaffirmed Church privileges. In the mid-1920s a revolutionary, Augusto César Sandino, tried sweeping Nicaragua with Bolshevik ideals.
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Augusto César Sandino
The Church was opposed to Sandino because of his ties with the Mexican government of 1926-29, which partook in Anti-clericalism.

When liberal leader Anastasio Somoza García took power in 1936, the Church abandoned their loyalties to the Conservatives and became dedicated to the Somoza regime. Their new loyalties stemmed from the fact that Somoza stated himself as an anti-Marxist and did not continue the persecution of the Church as liberals before him had, but also, that Somoza was responsible for Sandino’s death. A new constitution was born under the Somoza regime in 1950; it was a negotiation between previous anticlerical measures and traditional church privileges.

The Catholic Church was recognized as the official religion, and despite the legal separation of church and state, church-run schools continued to flourish. After the first Somoza, there were 2 more successors in the Somoza regime which kept this family in power for over 40 years. Throughout this time, the Somozas and the Church remained in good relations. The Somozas controlled and promoted the Church as long as the Church was not critical of its state; by supporting the Church, the Somozas gained popularity among the people of Nicaragua.

It was not until the late 1970s that the Church began to divide their loyalties away from the Somozas; it was at this time that they started to recognize the repression and human rights abuses that were not concurrent with the bible. The Church could no longer support this government, but they were still in favor of the state’s ideologies of hierarchies and capitalist systems; this caused a divide within the clergy. Eventually the Church became united in their opposition toward Somoza; the problem was that the Church was not able to decide where to make their next alliance.

The Church and the Revolutionary Struggle

When the Revolutionary struggle began in the 1960s and 1970s with the Sandinistas, the Church did not support it. The ideology of the revolution was deep-set in Marxist values which were against religion. The structure of the Catholic Church was very religious; as such, they were rightfully threatened by the revolution.

The Catholic Church was still traditionally loyal to the Somoza regime at the beginning of the revolution, but as the revolution continued, acts of repression and human abuses became prevalent by Somoza and displeased the Church. Somoza engaged in violent tactics such as the authorization of bombings of major cities, some of which targeted the church in his attempts to hold on to power. Somoza soon began losing popularity among the masses, and slowly the support of the Sandinistas became more prevalent. Somoza’s constant use of the state for the purpose of his own interests increased and intensified the relations between the Church and state.

In 1965, the final year of the Second Vatican Council, the Church was still set in deeply traditional values with close contact to a state that did not have the same values. The church lacked resources and had little meaningful contact with the masses, despite the religious nature of the Nicaraguan country. Due to the lack of resources, the clergy was forced to shift responsibility for pastoral work to lower levels of the institution; the reorganization of the pastoral work involved women religious groups and laity groups. This reorganization of pastoral work led to the formation of Christian base communities (CEBs), which incorporated the laity’s importance in the pastoral mission. Religious activity at the grassroots increased and brought new vitality to the church. Peasants were unable to organize under the repressive Somoza regime, but under the CEBs these peasants were allowed to congregate and this is how the grassroots organizations were born.

The FSLN mobilized the grassroots organizations against the Somoza regime, thus using the Church as a revolutionary force. The upper hierarchy of the Church still feared the ideology of the revolution, as they wanted capitalism without Somoza. Clerics who opposed the revolution were also afraid of an emergence of a popular church, as the FLSN was promoting the popular church and diminishing the true church. There was much anxiety about the FSLN’s affiliation with the church, as the FSLN wanted polarization within the church which threatened the Church hierarchy. The Popular church was also considered deviant because of it’s affiliation with the FSLN politics.

By the 1970s the Church was united in their opposition to the Somoza regime, but still divided in their support for the revolution. The Second Vatican Council encouraged Catholics to involve themselves more deeply in social justice issues; so, much of the church worked as activists against the Somoza repression and for more social services. The Church fought for water and for getting a cemetery, but this was repressed by the government, and such, the church was repressed too. The upper hierarchy of the Church was still opposed to the FSLN revolution, as the violent guerilla tactics being used were not congruent with their biblical beliefs. Bishops used religious arguments to promote a bourgeoisie solution to the crisis of the dictatorship, while lower clergy and the popular church used religious themes to legitimize the radical new society promoted by the Sandinistas. While the upper clergy recognized the excesses and abuses of the Somoza regime, they did not reject the major organizational beliefs of capitalism; they wanted a more humane capitalism run in a fair Christian manner.

A major contribution on behalf of the Church toward the revolutionary struggle was the Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo's sale of Somoza’s Mercedes to feed the poor, and his refusal to vote in the 1972 rigged elections which deeply weakened the legitimacy of the Somoza dictatorship. A major triumph for the Sandinistas was the November 1979 bishops issued pastoral letter, “Christian Commitment for a New Nicaragua”, in which the Bishops acknowledged CEBs and welcomed interaction between them and the base clergy. They also acknowledged the contributions of the Christians to the revolutionary cause and recognized the FSLN as the new political leadership.

Liberation Theology in Nicaragua

Liberation Theology is considered one of the most important religious movements to emerge since evangelicalism. It represented a new form of religious and political thought that brought together both the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Currently Liberation Theology can be defined as a meeting of the minds, on one side the elite intellectuals, and on the other, the newly enlightened lower classes. The movement has often been criticized for not being a truly Latin American phenomenon, but instead a reiteration of European theology. However, what distinguishes it from Europe and makes it a distinctly Latin American commodity is its focus on the rebuilding of the economic infrastructure, the detest of foreign influence, and the move away from the internal fragmentations which held the people of Latin America in a state of servitude.

Factors which contributed to the growth of the movement were the lack of priests and the exploding population, forcing clergy to look to alternative pastoral movements that would have long-term and lasting events for the church. With the emergence of military takeovers in the 1960s and 1970s, and the repressive measures which were incurred by the church, Liberation Theology acquired a strong foundation with the masses. It helped to unite all Christians in a struggle against these violent and corrupt dictatorships.

Despite many labour movements which were supported by the church, Liberation Theology did not push Christians into a Marxist ideology. Instead it became an alternative to those who could have been tempted to become Marxist. Liberation Theology did not give rise to an independent popular church, but instead helped to restructure and revise its existing political and social structures.

With the movement's support, also came strong protest, most strongly seen in the conservatives within the Catholic Church. They feared the movement inspired communist ideology, and tried to oppress its progression. This discontent was evidenced in the Pope's visit to Nicaragua in 1983 to show support for a conservative archbishop who publicly opposed the movement, and shouted "Silence" three times to the hostile Sandinista crowd. By the 1980s, the movement had lost momentum before even 1 percent of Latin Americans had participated in a Christian base community.

Relationship between the Catholic Hierarchy and the Sandinistas

During the period of Sandinista rule (1979-1990) the Nicaraguan Catholic Church was divided between the pro-Sandinista “popular church” and the anti-Sandinista hierarchy. The Church was united in its opposition toward the corruption of the Somoza dynasty but the clergy’s opinions about the Sandinistas diverged once the revolutionary government took power.

The Sandinistas continued to enjoy the support of the lower level clergy that made up the “popular church”. The clergy was inspired by the teachings of Liberation Theology and adopted a “preferential option for the poor” with the goal of mobilizing the lower classes for social change. They followed in the tradition of priests like Father Gaspar Garcia Laviana. The Sandinistas also sought to foster amicable relations with the Church and therefore incorporated Church officials into prominent government posts. While this was generally a popular move among the Nicaraguan citizens, it was opposed by the Catholic hierarchy.

The hierarchical Church, headed domestically by Archbishop of Managua Miguel Obando y Bravo and internationally by the highly conservative Pope John Paul II, was extremely vocal in its opposition to the leftist Sandinistas on the grounds that they were proponents of “godless communism”.
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Miguel Obando y Bravo


Initially the hierarchy was supportive of the revolutionary regime. In November 1979 the bishops published a pastoral letter entitled: “Christian Commitment for a New Nicaragua”. This was a unique document because it represented an attempt by the hierarchy to reconcile tensions with the Christian base communities and sought to foster good relations with the revolutionary government. Tensions between the hierarchy and state began to mount when the Sandinistas implemented social reforms in favour of the poor, which were perceived as deliberate threats to the Church’s authority. This was most vivid in the Church’s reaction to the literacy campaign of 1980. Initially the hierarchy was supportive of the campaign which was headed by a Jesuit priest, Fernando Cardenal, who later became the Sandinista minister of education. However, the hierarchy began to oppose the initiative because of the involvement of Cuban teachers who they feared would contaminate the population with Marxist influence.

The Church also voiced its opposition to several other Sandinista policies. On August 18 1980, the Sandinistas published a report describing the nature of Christmas celebrations in which they encouraged the population to respect the spiritual aspect of the holiday and to avoid materialism (i.e. it warned them not to drink excessively). The Church was opposed to the guidelines set out by the government because they perceived it as an attempt by the government to encroach on their sphere of influence. The hierarchy also voiced loud opposition to the forced relocation of the Miskito Indians living along the Honduran border in 1982; the Sandinista actions were prompted by the fact that these Indians were aiding the contras by destroying their villages and crops. The hierarchy also spoke out against the Sandinistas’ right to conscript citizens for military service in a document issued by the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference in 1983 entitled “General Considerations on Military Service.” The conservative Archbishop urged the clergy to adopt an apolitical stand and put pressure on priests to resign from their government posts in the interests of preserving Church unity.

The hierarchy’s hard line opposition to the revolutionary government was brought to the forefront with Pope John Paul II 1983 visit to Nicaragua.
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Pope John Paul II in Nicaragua March 1983
Both the Nicaraguan Catholic Church and the Sandinista government eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Pope. The hierarchy believed that the Pope would give moral legitimacy to their efforts to combat the “godless communism” of the Sandinista government. The government believed that the Pope would offer support for the peace process as a mediator and formally oppose US aid to the contras. Rather than helping to alleviate the hierarchy-state tensions, the Pope’s visit exacerbated them even further. The Pope stressed the importance of Church unity as the best way to prevent Nicaragua from being corrupted by godless Marxism. He ignored the issue of peace and failed to speak out against the corruption of the regime. The Pope’s visit, coupled with the unwillingness of the Archbishop to condemn the contras, gave the contras tremendous moral legitimacy.

The vocal opposition of the hierarchy prompted the government to silence criticism by curtailing the Church’s involvement in political affairs. They closed Radio Catolica, censored and then ultimately stopped airing the weekly televised broadcast of a mass celebrated by the Archbishop.

Several explanations have been put forth by historians to explain the causes of the hierarchy’s opposition toward the revolutionary government. The most common explanation argues that the rift between the hierarchy and “popular church” was caused by their support for different economic systems. In other words, the hierarchy was intent on maintaining a status quo that favoured the middle classes and capitalist system in order to preserve his privileged place in the social order (i.e. it was primarily concerned with protecting its own economic security).

References

  • Bahman, Baktiari. "Revolution and the Church in Nicaragua and El Salvador." Journal of Church and State 28:1 (1986), 15-42]
  • Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: A concise History of Latin America. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001).
  • Deighton, Jane. "Sweet Ramparts: Women in Revolutionary Nicaragua." War on want and the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign. Sussex, London: 1983. Part Five, pp.139-157.
  • Dodson, Michael. “The Politics of Religion in Revolutionary Nicaragua.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 483 (1986): 36-49.
  • Gismondi, Michael A. “Transformations in the Holy Religious Resistance and Hegemonic Struggles in the Nicaraguan Revolution”. Latin American Perspectives, 50.13.3 (1986) 13-36.
  • Greil, Arthur L. and Kowalewski, David. “Church-State relations in Russia and Nicaragua: Early revolutionary years”. Journal for Scientific Study of Religion 26.1 (1987) 92-104.
  • Kearney, Michael. “Religion, Ideology, and Revolution in Latin America”. Latin American Perspectives, 50.13.3 (1986) 3-12.
  • Kirk, John M. Politics and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992.
  • Klaiber, Jeffrey L. "Prophets and Populists: Liberation Theology, 1968-1988". The Americas, Vol. 46, No. 1. (Jul., 1989), pp. 1-15.
  • Klabier, Jefferey. "The Church, Dictatorships, and Democracy in Latin America." Orbis Books. New York; 1998: Ch. 10
  • Lewellen, Ted C. “Holy and Unholy Alliances: The Politics of Catholicism in Revolutionary Nicaragua.” Journal of Church and State 31.1 (1989) 15-33.
  • Mulligan, Joseph E. The Nicaraguan Church and the Revolution. Kansas: Sheed & Ward, 1991.
  • Williams, Philip J. “The Catholic Hierarchy in the Nicaraguan Revolution.” Journal of Latin American Studies 17.2 (1985) 341-369.
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Salve a ti, Nicaragua


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