U.S. Bishops, Nicaraguan Bishops: Do They Speak With One Voice?

The expulsion of Monsignor Bismarck Carballo and Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega from Nicaragua last summer was tantamount to an open declaration of war on the Church by the Sandinista regime. Not that that war was a new development. It has been going on for some time. The list of Sandinista attacks is long and sobering, and includes:

  • organizing demonstrations against the pope during his pastoral visit in 1982, even interrupting the celebration of Mass;
  • drafting seminarians into the militia, and expelling foreign missionaries who were not in political sympathy with the regime;
  • shutting down the Catholic radio station, the Catholic newspaper, and all other access of Church leaders to the public through mass media;
  • waging a vicious campaign of slander through the government-controlled media against Cardinal Obando y Bravo and other Church leaders;
  • establishing a counter-church, based on a syncretism of Marxism and Christianity, in order to separate the people from loyalty to the authentic Catholic Church;
  • committing acts of violence against individuals, and occupying the offices of the Archdiocese of Managua with military forces.

The clear objective of Sandinista policy toward the Church is either to tame it, making it an instrument of state policy, or, failing that, to crush it.

Thus, the Church in Nicaragua is struggling for its very existence. Yet Catholics are prominent among the most intense American admirers of the Sandinista regime. This enthusiasm for the Sandinistas is a significant factor in the church-state struggle within Nicaragua. It enables Daniel Ortega to claim that his quarrel is not with Catholicism, but only with the reactionary hierarchy. This is the fiction on which the iglesia popular, the “peoples’ church,” is based.

It is regrettable that there are some Catholics in this country who take the side of the oppressors rather than the side of the Church. But whether that is regarded as treachery or mere foolishness, it is one of the conditions under which the Nicaraguan drama is being played out. That pro-Sandinista Catholic fifth column contributes to the pressure on the Church in Nicaragua. Under these circumstances, it is crucial for the official apparatus of the Church in the United States to be unambiguously in solidarity with the persecuted Church in Nicaragua. If the National Catholic Reporter carries Sandinista propaganda in its pages — arguing, for instance, that Bishop Vega deserved to be thrown out of his country — at least the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and its secular arm, the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), should make clear their support of the Nicaraguan bishops.

When the Church is fighting for its life against a hostile government in one country, it would be intolerable for Church leaders in another country to take the side, or to appear to take the side, of the offending government. For this reason, the policy of the Church in the United States toward the Nicaraguan situation ought to be, as nearly as possible, identical with that of the bishops of Nicaragua. This intention has presumably guided the formation of policy by the USCC. But there is reason to doubt whether that intention has been realized.

Where the Nicaraguan Bishops Stand

The bishops of Nicaragua have scrupulously refrained from any statement that could be considered politically partisan. They have refused to identify the cause of the Church with any one political faction, and have refused to condemn absolutely the Sandinista regime (despite ample provocation), so as not to give the Sandinistas a legitimate excuse for suppressing the liberty of the Church. Instead, the bishops have urged all factions to abjure the use of force and to work out their political differences peacefully through the democratic principles announced by the revolution of 1979.

Consequently, there are two basic principles which the bishops have espoused as the necessary steps to peace. First, they seek “national reconciliation” rather than a military solution to Nicaragua’s problems. They have urged all parties to engage in open dialogue to shape a new, democratic government. Second, they seek an end to foreign interference, both ideological and military, so that Nicaraguans can work out their political differences and their future for themselves.

Specifically, the bishops favor negotiations among the Sandinistas, the contras, and the representatives of all other viewpoints. They want the withdrawal of all foreign personnel and weapons — not only because this foreign military presence leads to more destruction, but also because without it neither side in the civil war would be able to achieve a military victory, so they would be more ready to negotiate.

Every party in Nicaragua except the Sandinistas has agreed to negotiations. Since the Sandinistas control the government, they stand only to lose in such negotiations; and since they are backed by massive military support from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other Communist nations, they believe it possible to annihilate their opposition through force.

So, while the exhortations of the bishops have been expressed in neutral terms, they are, in reality, directed toward the Sandinistas. It is the Sandinistas who have refused to negotiate, the Sandinistas who are seeking a military solution to the conflict, and the Sandinistas who have been the beneficiaries of most of the foreign military aid that has accelerated the violence in Nicaragua.

Where does that leave the Nicaraguan bishops on the question of U.S. military aid to the contras? At first glance, it would seem obvious that their opposition to foreign military intervention is absolute. As they said in their censored pastoral letter of April 6: “It is our judgment that any kind of help, whatever the source, that leads to the destruction, sorrow and death of our families, to hatred and division between Nicaraguans, is to be condemned.”

Yet the bishops have never explicitly opposed aid to the contras. On the contrary, they have pointedly refused to do so, even when pressured by the Sandinistas for a partisan statement. Their statements on the subject of military aid have all been even-handed, condemning all outside intervention. One of the major points of conflict between the Church and the Sandinistas is the bishops’ refusal to speak out specifically against aid to the contras. The bishops alluded to this problem in that same April 6 pastoral letter, in which they said that “when the Church seeks peace through reconciliation and dialogue, they [the Sandinistas] calumniate and attack it, since what they want is not moral guidance but a statement they can manipulate. When the Church does manage to make itself heard, those who would tell it what to say criticize it not for what it says but for what it supposedly should say and does not.”

Cardinal Obando himself, in an article published in the Washington Post on May 12, revealed that he had been pressured by the Sandinistas to condemn contra aid. He compared this demand with the trap laid by the Pharisees for Jesus when they asked Him whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. If He answered no, He would be open to an accusation of treason; if He answered yes, He would have been branded as a collaborator. The Cardinal refused to let his words be manipulated, insisting that the long-standing opposition of the Nicaraguan hierarchy to both U.S. and Soviet military intervention would remain unchanged.

He then went on to offer his own remarkable analysis of the conflict in his country. If, as the Sandinistas argue, it is a question of a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, then that “would be to admit that the Sandinistas themselves are just as much the tools of Soviet interests as the insurgent forces are of the United States. If this is accepted . . . it would necessitate the withdrawal of the Soviet and Cuban advisors. as well as the withdrawal of all U.S. military aid.”

If, on the other hand, the struggle in Nicaragua is an internal conflict, then “the conclusion could not be avoided that the insurgent dissidents are now in the same position that the Sandinistas themselves once occupied, and, consequently, that they have the same right that the Sandinistas had to seek aid from other nations.”

In short, the position of the Church in Nicaragua calls for an immediate end to violence. In pursuit of that, it opposes all foreign military assistance to either side. But it refuses to go along with any one-sided policy: If the Sandinistas receive military assistance from Communist nations, that fact confers legitimacy on the request of the contras for aid. It must be emphasized that neither Cardinal Obando nor any of the other Nicaraguan bishops, at any point, have endorsed U.S. military aid to the contras. But neither do they oppose such aid absolutely or in isolation from other questions. Their opposition is not to U.S. aid, but to all foreign military intervention. Monsignor Carballo put the matter well in a July 15 press conference in Washington. He compared the Church to a mother, trying to secure the rights of all the people of Nicaragua. When a mother sees her two sons fighting with knives, he said, she wants the fight to end — but not by disarming just one of them.

So on the question of U.S. aid to the contras, the position of the bishops of Nicaragua is a delicate one. Opposed in principle to any foreign military intervention, they have to live with the fact and consequences of massive Communist aid to the Sandinistas. As long as the armed power of the Sandinistas finds no counterweight, they will believe themselves capable of achieving a complete military victory, and therefore will have no incentive to engage in dialogue. On the specific question of aid to the contras, the bishops have offered neither approval nor condemnation, although Cardinal Obando’s Post article, Monsignor Carballo’s press conference statement, and several statements attributed to Bishop Vega all imply conditional approval. The condition is that this military aid not lead to more destruction, on balance, but that it helps bring the armed conflict to an end by convincing both sides (which means, in practice, the Sandinistas) that a complete military victory is impossible and negotiations are necessary.

No one can predict with certainty whether aid to the contras will have this effect, or whether it will simply lead to more needless bloodshed. This is one more valid reason why the Nicaraguan bishops have refrained from making a definite up or down decision on the question, but have offered moral guidance and criteria for judgment instead of the political statement that has been demanded of them.

The Position of the USCC

The United States Catholic Conference (USCC) has been far less subtle in its pronouncements on U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Starting from the same basic premises as the Nicaraguan bishops — a preference for negotiation instead of armed conflict and opposition to foreign military intervention — the USCC has condemned contra aid categorically and unconditionally, and has urged renewed support for the Contadora peace talks.

These are perfectly valid policy conclusions to draw from the stated principles, abstracting from the actual situation. If these conclusions were not significantly at variance with those drawn by the Nicaraguan bishops, they would constitute a reasonable position for the USCC. But in the actual circumstances of the church-state conflict in Nicaragua, these policy recommendations are in effect, if not in intention, pro-Sandinista.

On the question of negotiations, the USCC fails even to advert to the internal dialogue which is the object of the Nicaraguan hierarchy’s efforts. Instead, the Conference urges support for the Contadora talks — which the Nicaraguan bishops do not even mention in their pastoral statements.

There are two points of significance here. First, it is the Sandinistas who have refused to engage in internal dialogue, and the Sandinistas who are participating in the Contadora talks. If the Nicaraguan bishops are right in seeing internal dialogue as the road to peace, then the Sandinistas are at fault for refusing to engage in such dialogue. If the USCC is right in seeing the Contadora talks as productive of peace, then the Sandinistas are blameless.

Second, the Contadora talks, while they may have some salutary effects on international affairs in Latin America, are totally incapable of bringing about peace in Nicaragua. The Sandinista representatives at Contadora are negotiating not with their domestic opponents, but with the foreign ministers of other Latin American nations, nations which are not direct participants in the Nicaraguan conflict. Even if the Contadora Group eventually manages to agree on a solution to the Nicaraguan conflict, it will be meaningless; the people who will have to accept that settlement — the contras — will have had no part in shaping it.

There are a number of regional problems which the Contadora Group might profitably discuss, but the Nicaraguan conflict is not among them because it is an internal problem. The representatives of Argentina and Peru may have opinions on the subject. They may even have wisdom to offer. But it is not their problem. To imagine that a civil war can be settled in this fashion is as fatuous as thinking that a conflict between a husband and wife can be ironed out if the husband goes down to the corner bar to discuss it with the boys. They may come up with solutions of Solomonic wisdom, but unless the lady of the house is convinced that her viewpoint has been taken into account, the fight will go on.

On the question of contra aid, the USCC has rushed in with an absolute condemnation where the Nicaraguan bishops have, at great risk, refrained from a definite commitment. The most recent USCC statement even quotes, out of context, that passage from the April 6 pastoral condemning “all military assistance, from whatever source” as if it were directed specifically to the question of contra aid. This comes very close to being that kind of “political manipulation” which the Nicaraguan bishops, in that same letter, feared the Sandinistas would attempt.

It is possible that aid to the contras will produce disastrous effects. It is possible that the USCC staff members have assessed the situation more accurately than the Nicaraguan bishops have. On the other hand, aid to the contras may prove to be a step towards eventual peace. Only time will tell whose political judgment is better.

But the Church in Nicaragua is undergoing persecution precisely because the bishops of that country refuse to let the Church appear partisan. If the Nicaraguan bishops had issued a pastoral letter saying, in substance, what the USCC has said about the issue, then Bishop Vega and Monsignor Carballo would not be in exile; Radio Católica would be on the air; Iglesia would be published regularly; Cardinal Obando would not be attacked daily in the government media as a reactionary CIA agent; government troops would not be occupying the archdiocesan offices; there would be no conflict between the Church and the Sandinistas.

If the bishops of Nicaragua are convinced that it is necessary to risk violent persecution rather than to endorse the political objectives of the Sandinistas, then a basic sense of fraternal solidarity would dictate that the USCC support their stand rather than undermine it.


  • Michael Schwartz

    Michael Schwartz was a steadfast advocate for the Catholic Church and pro-family policies in Washington, D.C., and a good friend of The Cardinal Newman Society. Schwartz served more than a decade as chief of staff to pro-life Senator Tom Coburn after many years at the Free Congress Foundation. He was instrumental to the founding of The Cardinal Newman Society in 1993 and served on the Advisory Board for many years. On January 25, Schwartz was recognized for his lifetime of pro-life leadership by the National Pro-Life Religious Council. He passed away in 2013.

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