The Sandinistas and the Pope: Will Eyes Open?

Since their ascent to power in Nicaragua in 1979, the Sandinistas have claimed that they are a regime respectful of religion, as well as a model of the integration of Christianity and revolution, Marxism and faith. Many in the United States — ranging from Catholic publications such as Our Sunday Visitor and Maryknoll magazine to some segments of the secular media — have tended to endorse such an explanation.

When reports about church-state conflicts began to surface, those who tended toward a favorable view of the Sandinistas offered the explanation that the conservative biases of the Catholic hierarchy had allowed them to be manipulated, perhaps unwittingly, by the enemies of the revolution. However, the label “conservative” was not easily applied to the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference, as they had courageously opposed the Somoza regime and supported the building up of a “human socialism” after the success of the revolution.

When some Nicaraguan bishops suffered attacks at the hands of the Sandinista mobs, and the government cracked down on the Catholic media, some observers outside Nicaragua expressed concern. Yet there remained a great deal of sympathetic understanding toward the regime. Fr. Bryan Hehir of the U.S. Catholic Conference (U.S.C.C.), for instance, in testimony before the House Sub-Committee on Human Rights, suggested that the government could not be assigned the blame for actions involving “protesting parishioners.”

When in August 1982 the Nicaraguan rulers tried to defame the spokesman of the archbishop of Managua, Fr. Bismarck Carballo, prodding him naked before state TV cameras and accusing him of having been caught in a tryst with a woman, many became skeptical of the Sandinistas’ respect for religion. The public outcry was loud enough to embarrass the Nicaraguan rulers. Archbishop John Roach, president of the USCC, issued a statement critical of the government’s action, as did Vatican Radio and other Catholic bishops’ conferences throughout the world.

A new round of explanations of government intentions then made its appearance. Both the Sandinistas and their supporters abroad acknowledged that some Nicaraguan authorities had made a “mistake,” or, as a more sophisticated advocate put it, a “bad judgment.” This suggested that the humiliation of Fr. Carballo had not been a fully deliberate act — not an action related to the government’s principles or policies but an accident, an occurrence akin to a mistaken traffic citation.

With the visit of the Pope to Nicaragua, again, very distressing reports emerged. The Sandinista government interfered with the rights of Nicaraguans to greet the Pope freely. They publicly dishonored the Catholic pontiff, disrupting the celebration of the mass, and sabotaging his sermon with electronically amplified political chants. And to give the lie to any suggestion that Sandinistas partisans might have acted on their own, the full directorate of the Sandinista party acted at one with the crowd, in full view of the world.

What explanation of the Sandinista government’s attitude to religion can now be given? The government’s handling of John Paul’s visit leaves little room for softening explanations. Actions betray intentions far better than words. The Sandinistas treatment of the Pope has now inflicted a fatal blow to the contention of the Sandinistas and their defenders that they are, after all, a group of misunderstood Christian influenced revolutionaries, and that the churches need have nothing to fear from Sandinistas policies.

Author

  • Humberto Belli

    Humberto Belli was in charge of the editorial page of La Prensa for two years. He now lives in the United States and works with the Secretariat for Non Believers.

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