The Two Catholic Churches of Nicaragua

A debate has emerged within Nicaragua, on social media and more traditional outlets, on the role of the Church currently. The most recent trigger was the guarded response of Cardinal Brenes to the siege of St. Michael the Archangel parish in Masaya, where the pastor opened the church to Mothers of Political Prisoners who were holding a hunger strike. The reaction of the government was to send truckloads of heavily armed police, block access to the area for 8 days, cut off their light and water, and arrest 13 people who brought them bottled water, and charge them with transporting weapons. The Cardinal was asked to intervene publicly on their behalf and clearly denounce the response of the government. This article comes out of that context.

The Two Catholic Churches of Nicaragua

By José Luis Rocha

November 18, 2019 published in Confidencial

[original Spanish]

The calculating one or the prophetic one. The Church fearful of the FSLN, and the one that opens their temples to peaceful resistance.

The Church is casta meretrix– saint and sinner, chaste and prostitute – many theologians remind us. It doesn´t matter whether Saint Ambrose of Milan meant to give that meaning to the expression that he coined in the IV century, but rather to point out that the Church remains holy even though it welcomes sinners. The fact is that from its first steps the Catholic Church has had this dual nature. Schizophrenic, if you will. The two-faced nature intensified its differences with the institutionalization of Catholicism when, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, empire and church were merged and blended, resulting in a hierarchy, political division, protocols, symbols of power and formulas that were absorbed as its own, which is why it began being a small religious sect, an insignificant division within the Judaic creed, and nevertheless survived thousands of years beyond the empire that it mimicked.

Since then the most visible elements of Catholicism harbor contrasts that, if they did not exist in reality and were repeated in each century, could be taken as delusions of novelists with runaway imaginations. How can you reconcile the fact that Saint Francis of Assisi belonged to the same institution as Cardinals with extravagant lives and outrageous luxury? There are many other examples. Saint Theresa closing loose-living convents that lodged her in stables to take their predictable revenge. The Brazilian Bishop Helder Cámara preaching against the military, and the spiral of violence in Latin America strewn with chaplains of murderous armies. The current Church has a Cardinal Bernard Law who did not renounce trips in his private plane, not even after his diocese and others had to pay millions to the victims of pedophile priests which he concealed for decades. But it had and has Alejandro Solalinde, the24/7 apostle of migrants, who washes their clothing and bathes in a bucket to be more like the people and more human.

A high point for that prophetic church were the six Jesuits murdered thirty years ago, on November 16, 1989. They paid the price of their commitment when their lives were cut down on the verge of the peace that they struggled for, and without seeing a glimpse of the justice that inspired their writings and homilies. Ignacio Ellacuría, from the presidency of the UCA in El Salvador, made that university a platform for denouncement with a beneficial influence on politics that his successors have kept strong. The Jesuits were assassinated by the elite Atlacatl Battalion. The Government tried to make it appear that the guerrillas had killed them, which would have ended up being credible to a certain extent, because their criticisms also were directed at the guerrillas, even though much more toward an Army who greater responsibility in the war crimes was established by the Truth Commission.

The civic rebellion that began in Nicaragua on April 18, 2018 and that continues in a tireless struggle has been a challenge for all sectors of the citizenry. It has been so for the Catholic Church, whose moral integrity was put to the test, and whose two-faced nature was laid bare once more to the faithful and all Nicaraguans and the world. Thus appeared a venal Church, that pulls out a calculator to add and multiply, and that does not want to return to the lean times when the State was less generous in subsidies to maintain the churches and works of charity, and in awarding public posts to family members of high and medium level clerics. Or maybe this is also a Church fearful that the FSLN would make their little dirty acts and large sexual and financial dirty acts public. Or maybe it remains mute because its members aspire to an ecclesiastical career, and are waiting for the not always clear and at times oscillating signs from the Vatican, in order to know on which side to place itself without putting at risk future promotions, prelatures and other perks.

But there is also another very different Church. The one that risked its life placing itself in front of the people in demonstrations and protecting them from police and paramilitary harassment. That church continues opening its temples to peaceful resistance and making their pulpits tribunals of denouncement, in the best tradition of the prophets Samuel and Isaiah, Simone Weil and Edith Stein, Oscar Arnulfo Romero and Pedro Casaldáliga, always against power, putting their lives at risk.

This Church is not calculating. It lets itself be taken by the wind of the spirit, that passes as a soft breeze over the victims and the underprivileged of this world. It is the church of charism, not of power. In the end it is the Church of Jesus Christ, who did not think about founding any church and never calculated, did not have assets to defend, nor left behind a history of scandal. And he did not care whether he earned a terrible reputation as a drinker and big eater for enjoying his friends when he could.

On one side is a Church which has the Archbishop of Managua Leopoldo Brenes at its head. A prophetic phrase has never come out of his mouth, nor does it seem it ever will. Disorganized ideas spring out, destined to confuse the common people. Brenes is not stupid, but he thinks the people are, and he considers them so stupid as to take his gibberish as pious phrases, or even as expressions that imitate that vaporous complexity unique to theology books. He never makes a direct denouncement, but through phrases that mean to be enigmatic. When it is assumed that he condemns an act, his Archbishop´s office issues a press release that speaks about him in the third person, each time with more confrontative phrases and tones with the Ortega regime, but never with his own thundering voice that might echo the laments of the victims and match the urgency and definition that the situation requires. No Orteguista will tell him that he said what he should not have said, because it is always more what he says by what he doesn´t say. The Nuncio Waldemar Sommertag accompanies him in his disdain for the Nicaraguan people. Swirling his luxurious cassock, for months he strutted as the missing link between La Modelo [prison] and El Carmen [home and office of Daniel Ortega] and earned himself the title of the Great Prison Freer Panjandrum, which the texted gossips assigned him as a disgraceful nickname. The number of prisoners continues to increase and, according to what is seen and heard, the Nuncio has lost his liberational gifts and fallen into a suspicious – hopefully not ominous – muteness.

Many partners accompany him. Those concerned with little things, as one of my aunts would say. And not because they are less capable than those mentioned, but because they have not been successful in occupying responsibilities in accordance with their level of corruption, even if they be bishops, like Vivas and Sándigo[1]. Not even the papacy would lift them to that level.

On the other side of the street is the other Church. Both are diverse. But there is more charisma than power in this other one. The Bishop of Estelí, Abelardo Mata, stands out among its leaders. His frugal ways are not able to hide a solid education. He knows how to communicate with the people and does not underestimate them. He listens to them and takes their cries very seriously. They have an impact on him, and they move him to act. I suspect that I do not agree with him on many views, but it is impossible to not respect and tout his courage, dedication and clarity. In this Church is the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, and the pastor Edwin Román who stands out with even more audacity, who every day outdoes himself. When it seems like he has reached the peak of his commitment, he adds another breathtaking action. It was not enough for him to receive ten mothers of political prisoners in his parish. He joined their hunger strike, in spite of his diabetes and the police harassment. The Nuncio did not make a statement about this Church. He discredited it by legitimizing a fake-dialogue with his attendance, which this Church denounced and in which it refused to participate. His reputation sank into an abyss when not even the most obliging sectors went to the extremes that the Nuncio did, always with an easy smile for the Orteguista operators, and a sour face for independent journalists.

On which side is the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Báez? Among the rebels he is the most popular of the bishops. But he is subjected to the institutionality of a Church that is not one, but holy and sinful. I do not know how his role will be seen from his Roman exile. From there I see him tweeting again and again, maybe seated under the dome of St. Peter, maintaining his opposition to Ortega. And that is very well. But I have a twinge of doubt, and I am beginning to suspect that there is more than one hidden reason for his abrupt departure from Nicaragua. It is clear that he had to protect his life, and that Sommertag was the Salome who served his head on a platter. Is there another reason? For better – or worse – the Vatican Inc wanted to prepare itself for the eventuality that Ortega would fall and have ready a chess piece with good credentials who would represent it when the opposition came to power, and whose presence alone in the refurbished hierarchy might suggest to the faithful that the Brenes/Sommertag combination did not represent Catholicism, but the good Silvio Báez. Time will tell how much of that is true. It would be better not to wait so long. One word from Jorge Bergoglio[2] right now would be enough to let us know which of the two Churches is making the decisions in Rome: the calculating one or the prophetic one. 

[1] Retired bishop of León and his replacement, respectively

[2] aka Pope Francis

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