Press Watch: Their Sunday Visitor

Our Sunday Visitor is the largest national Catholic weekly newspaper in the country, with a circulation reported to be over 200,000. (This is said to be “soft” circulation, meaning that it includes free distribution along with paid circulation.) The paper is attractively produced, although I should have thought it could dispense with its magazine- within-a-paper format. It is to be found in parish churches all over the country, and its editor, Richard McMunn, has described its readers as “grass roots Catholics — people like you and me.” OSV tends to be picked up after Mass by conventional Catholic families of orthodox views — people who probably do not suspect it of political bias, doctrinal confusion or misrepresentation. Nevertheless there are signs, particularly in the writings of its left-wing editor-in-chief, Father Vincent J. Giese, that the paper may now be in danger of leading its unsuspecting readership astray. Moreover, its Washington bureau chief Jim Castelli is another leftist who constantly gives the impression of being more upset about the advocacy of traditional morality (e.g. by people like Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority) than he is by the abandonment of it.

Of greater interest, however, has been the confusing and misleading coverage of the Communist (or “Sandinista”) revolution in Nicaragua, which Father Giese has written about at length. One can have no quarrel with the amount of space that he has devoted to the subject. It is indeed of particular interest to Catholics, since it involves an attempt by the revolutionaries to split the church down the middle, and to use one side as a stick with which to beat the other. The only trouble is that Fr. Giese has somehow managed to obscure this point, despite the considerable space that he has allotted to the “Frente,” as he familiarly calls the Sandinist revolutionary comrades. Can this be because he is really on their side? I must confess that this thought did cross my mind.

In September 1982 Fr. Giese traveled to Nicaragua with a “task force” of priests and “religious sisters” (nuns) to “investigate the tense relations” between the Sandinista revolutionaries and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. They were to “assess the situation first hand,” and then “make a direct report” to Archbishop John Roach, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group met with “high level government officials” and representatives of various “religious communities.” Fr. Giese then wrote a “special White Paper on the Church in Nicaragua,” a long article published in the November 7 issue of OSV. Included in the article was a photograph of the “delegation of priests and Religious,” including Fr. Giese, who is shown wearing sun glasses and an open-neck shirt, beaming broadly at the camera. All the others are likewise dressed in what appear to be picnic clothes.

The great drawback to Giese’s long article — since he does not always dress like a priest, I’m sure he won’t mind if I don’t always address him as one — is that he completely fails to clarify to his readers what has happened to the church in Nicaragua since the Sandinistas seized power in July 1979. At that time almost the entire Catholic Church in Nicaragua seemed to support the revolution and the overthrow of the former ruler, Anastasio Somoza. Among the supporters of the revolution and opponents of Somoza was the Archbishop of Managua, Obando y Bravo.

Soon enough, however, the Communist and totalitarian ambitions of the Sandinistas became clear to almost everyone. Cuban instructors and military personnel arrived on the scene. (Today it is said that the ruling junta is “guarded” by Cuban bodyguards, just as in Cuba itself the top government officials are “guarded” by Soviet and East European bodyguards. The potential for control in the guise of protection is of course obvious.) Daniel Ortega, the Sandinist “junta coordinator” traveled to Moscow, and was the guest of honor at a Kremlin dinner hosted by Leonid Brezhnev. Soviet military equipment and East European advisers began to appear in Managua.

It became clear to Archbishop Obando that the revolution was following the familiar pattern. “After two years of hope,” he said in June, 1981, “our revolution is drifting toward Marxism according to the Cuban model.” Five) months later, in an address to a Latin American conference of bishops, he noted that “key positions” in the government were “occupied by Cubans,” in fact if not necessarily in title.

For some years now it has been clear that the spiritual and material goals of all socialist revolutions, including the “indigenous” Sandinista version, are the same: first and foremost, the wreaking of vengeance against the former social order, this to be called “social justice”; the destruction of all private property, the abolition of the family, and finally the complete annihilation of all traces of religion. On this basis a “new society” is subsequently to be constructed a society in which each individual is to be directly dependent on the state, without benefit of the intervening structures of property, family and religion.

By 1981, there could be no doubt that the Sandinistas were going down this familiar path. And at that point Archbishop Obando y Bravo, who indeed is a brave man, began to move into open opposition to the ruling junta and their Cuban guides. Now the opposition of the archbishop, and the other bishops in Nicaragua as well, created a serious problem for the Marxists. Unlike Cuba at the time of Castro’s seizure of power, Nicaragua was and is predominantly Catholic. The Sandinistas could not just come right out and openly attack religion in the way that Lenin, Stalin and Castro had done. They would have to subvert by redefinition, using liberation theology and a semantically disguised assault on the entire structure of traditional belief to overcome the church by stealth.

Not coincidentally, there were plenty of theologically liberated clergymen in the area, ready to lend a hand with this task of redefinition. Five such clerics joint the junta at high levels, among them the foreign minister (Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann), the minister of Culture (Ernesto Cardenal, the one who wore open shirt and slacks when he met the Pope in Managua this March), and his brother Fernando, who headed up the country’s “literacy” program in 1980 (it turned out to be a program of communist indoctrination. As Giese put it in OSV: It “taught poor illiterates how to read and write — essential before calling for national elections — and informed them of the aims of the revolution.”)

In addition to renegade clergy, the Sandinistas made use of “base communities,” or neighborhood groups which were simply Sandinist support groups representing themselves as the “Popular Church.” Such groups, with the important assistance of revolutionary priests, could then masquerade as the church in Nicaragua, thus enabling revolutionary doctrine to emanate from the pulpit in the guise of updated theology. The Sandinist-approved instruction would in fact advance the Communist cause while seeming to renovate the Christian one.

At the end of June, 1981 there was a two-day convention of these so-called “base communities,” and one outcome of this people’s conclave was an “open letter” warning that the bishops, still hewing resolutely to the path of orthodoxy, “fail to recognize that the Sandinista revolution is about to establish a new society which fits the just social order delineated in the Gospels … It is our conviction that all Christians must participate in the revolutionary process because no one can be truly human and refrain from political action.” Lenin could hardly have put it more clearly.

The Sandinista-controlled TV station stopped broadcasting Archbishop Obando’s Sunday mass at about this time, while Sandinista-organized mobs picketed his office and jeered his vicar-general as he left the building. “The principal instigator of the Nicaraguan counterrevolution is Archbishop Obando,” said the Reverend D’Escoto, according to a Mexican journalist, who quoted the remark in his paper. The main Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, was shut down for 72 hours when it repeated the comment.

La Prensa editor Pedro Chamorro had this to say about the so-called Popular Church: “By their propaganda methods, the Sandinistas are creating a new wing of the Church which will damage the rest of the church. It will echo those who criticize the hierarchy; it will corner Archbishop Obando; while it works in this manner one can easily suspect that the FSLN (Sandinistas) will erode the Church, producing rejection and antipathy in the midst of a people who are deeply Catholic and who love their bishops.”

In any event, it is not hard to see that the antagonism between the orthodox hierarchy, duly appointed by Rome and obedient to it, and an entirely new entity called the “People’s Church,” created by the Sandinistas and obedient to them, was a crucial development in the unfolding of the “indigenous” revolution. It is of obvious interest and importance to Catholics in this country, both for its own sake and for the light that it sheds on parallel “liberationist” movements occurring in the Catholic Church outside Nicaragua.

Raymond Bonner continued the story as follows in the New York Times: “In June (1982) the Archbishop took his concerns directly to the Pope and returned not only with a promise that the Pontiff would visit Central America, including Nicaragua, early next year, but also with a letter to the country’s Conference of Bishops endorsing its authority and criticizing the idea of a People’s Church.” Such a church, said the Pope, “is a grave deviation from the will and plan of salvation of Jesus Christ.

The Pope added: “It is easy to recognize that the concept of a ‘People’s Church’ cannot escape infiltration by strong ideological connotations along a certain radical political line, of class conflict and of acceptance of violence to achieve determined ends.” He called such a church “absurd and dangerous.”

In August 1982 government relations with the bishops deteriorated even further. The Sandinistas showed just how eager they were to discredit the archbishop when they succeeded in luring his spokesman, the Rev. Bismark Carballo, to house where a prostitute (posing as a penitent) awaited the unsuspecting priest. According to a fairly high level Sandinista defector, Miguel Bolanos Hunter, who was interviewed by the Washington Post in June, 1983, the whole operation was set up by a Sandinist intelligence unit: “While the two were talking over lunch one day last August,” the Washington Post story relates, “an agent burst into the room, pretending to be the woman’s husband. He attacked the priest, ripping his clothes off, and pushed him into the street where people organized by the F7 (intelligence) unit were waiting with cameras. Also waiting outside was a van with dark windows, in which … Interior Minister Tomas Borge had front row seats from which to laugh at the naked priest,” Bolanos said.

“Government media played up the event, claiming Carballo had been caught in a love triangle. The archbishop — correctly, Bolanos indicated — said the whole incident had been ‘a show to slander the church.’ ”

Here’s how Giese described the episode in OSV. Admittedly, at this stage, November, 1982, the Bolanos defection still had not taken place, but the Archbishop’s and Father Carballo’s version of events were on the record, and even from the New York Times account by Raymond Bonner (August 21, 1982) it is quite clear that Carballo was framed and deliberately humiliated by the Sandinistas.

By August, says Giese, “Bishop-state relations had reached a new low.” (Note “bishop-state,” implying of course that the state had no quarrel with the church, only with an elitist part of it.) There had been “conflicting reports of the August events . . . depending upon who does the reporting.” Giese continued: “Some said Father Carballo was the victim of a government entrapment; others said he had been discovered in a tryst with a woman.” After Father Carballo had called a press conference to give his version of the story, “the government lifted the ban on coverage. TV and newspapers (except La Prensa) carried pictures of Father Carballo naked. Continuing coverage by the pro-government paper indicated a lengthy romantic involvement of the priest with the woman.”

In the last sentence, gratuitous as it was, Giese seemed as anxious to smear Father Carballo as were the Sandinistas. A couple of paragraphs further on Giese did it again, alluding to a Sandinist official, Octavio Caldera, as follows: “Caldera indicated the bishops know the real story but can’t publicly acknowledge it.” (This hints to the reader, quite falsely, that the bishops know that Carballo was involved romantically with the woman, but of course can’t say so).

Then came a familiar bit of confusion: the even-handed repudiation of “both sides,” as though both had been a little bit guilty, and rapping both sets of knuckles only showed how fait, honest and straightforward was the OSV account. “A state of calm ‘has marked church-state relations since the August incidents,” Giese wrote. “Both sides have admitted their mistakes.” (Sandinista spokesmen were quoted as saying they “should not have released the film clips and photographs,” implying, again, that as a matter of decency they should really have been more discreet about the priest’s indiscretion, thus obscuring the point that the footage itself was fraudulent. But Giese gives us no one on the Carballo side who acknowledges making a mistake.)

Giese seems to go to some trouble to obscure rather than clarify the relationship between the “People’s church” and the real church. He fails to quote from the Pope’s letter, even though it was certainly available to him, and would surely have made it easier for OSV readers to figure out what was going on, so trenchant and straightforward was the Pope’s condemnation of the idea of a “popular church.” Instead Giese makes the following confusing statement: Pope John Paul II’s “appeal for unity within the Church, and national unity in Nicaragua to deal with the tremendous problems facing that nation, is one of the positive aspects of the letter.” He added, audaciously, that “if” the archbishop “and his followers are at the center of the incidents that have happened so far, then it may be that the Vatican is beginning to play a moderating role.” (This implies, with something approaching malice, that the archbishop and his cronies just may be extremists and instigators of trouble, and at last the Pope is stepping in to insist on moderation.)

Giese throughout writes about the “institutional church,” and the “hierarchical church,” as though there were another equally valid. “They repeated over and over that the cleavage is between the hierarchy and the people,” Giese wrote in one notably muddled sentence. It was impossible to tell who “they” referred to.

When the Pope visited Nicaragua this March it surely must have become clear to everyone with a television set what was going on: the Pope hectored by Sandinist Marxist fanatics upon arrival; the hate-filled speech by Daniel Ortega, so rudely protracted, with the Pope standing behind him; the Sandinist control of the microphones as the Pope tried to say Mass; the locking up of the faithful inside churches; the loud barracking and demonstrations by professional agitators_ all these things showed the zealous Communist hatred of religion breaking through quite openly (and it will do so even more so in the future). What we saw here was a striking illustration of the Communist plague in its most virulent phase. (In Poland, as we saw with the Pope’s visit a few months later, the Communist germs are quite dead, although the nominally Communist power structure is still in place.)

The “crowd manipulation,” Giese thought in a subsequent article (OSV, March 20 ’83), must have destroyed any “credibility” the Pope might have wanted to grant the Sandinistas. It also subtracted from “the credibility of many of the fine remarks made at the airport by Daniel Ortega.” Then again, the “holy father” had been quite unable to exercise “a charismatic influence on the masses of people.” Partly this was because of the crowd control, but it was “also because his message wasn’t what the people were looking for.” Wouldn’t you know, “for the first time in his many papal trips abroad,” the Pope was “caught up in confrontation with both the government and the people.”

What kind of a Pope did we see in this country of “profound social change,” this country of the Sandinista National Government for Reconstruction, the Frente, the “revolutionary process,” and the Christian Base Communities (to quote just some of the phrases that so lovingly flow from the pen of our Giese? Why, an “unhappy” Pope, a “belligerent Pope,” a Pope who “took on,” yes, took on, “the crowds of upward of 500,000 people during the open air mass (that’s a small mass) in Managua. Even the tone of his voice seemed harsh.”

Well you see, these things will happen to those, even Popes who take on the People, the grass roots Christians, the Revolutionary Process, the Frente Triumphant. They are bound to come across just a little bit harsh and a little bit belligerent, aren’t they, my dear liberated Catholique revolution -lovers? (Surprising to find you reading Our Sunday Visitor, all the same…)


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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