Church, State, and Society during the Nicaraguan Revolution

By Wilson, John-Paul | Diálogos Latinoamericanos, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Church, State, and Society during the Nicaraguan Revolution


Wilson, John-Paul, Diálogos Latinoamericanos


The course of the Church's history in Nicaragua had changed from an institution led by a martyred Bishop protecting Indian rights before Rome and the Spanish King to one largely concerned with protecting its own interests following Nicaragua's independence to one that had come to terms with its mission to save souls and to serve its people. However, many of those who took the initiative to bring the Church toward a more humanitarian orientation in modern times had allowed themselves to become the tool of a revolutionary political movement whose aim was to perpetuate its own power. Ironically, those who truly wished to serve God and His people found themselves oppressed by those who claimed that they were doing the same. After a long struggle, a free election in 1990 brought to power a series of democratic governments allowing freedom of the Church to fulfil its mission.

Keywords: Governors, Popes, Dictators, Christians, Marxist, ecclesia

Throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church was created to propagate the basic Christian message (evangelisation) and to provide for God's people according to their spiritual and material needs. The primary role of the Church's clergy has been to prepare souls for the coming of the kingdom of God and to aid the less fortunate, both Christian and non-Christian. In principle, there need be no conflict between secular authority and the Church. Jesus gave clear instruction to his followers to 'render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God' (Mark 12:17). Even so, the Church still recognizes that spiritual matters transcend the secular. State demands for societal coherence and Church moral teachings are the usual domains of Church/State conflict.

Historically, the extent to which the Church has been involved in the lives of the people has often been dictated by its relationship to the state. Attitudes toward the Church's influence over society have ranged from benevolent patronage, allowing the Church to evangelise and expand its activity,17 to the most severe attacks of anti-clericalism for which a defensive posture starting with apologetic approaches to underground operations in the extreme. Throughout the course of church/state relations in Latin America, the Church has had to redefine its commitment to people in ways that are sometimes compatible with current political systems and at other times requires an offensive posture including aggressive evangelisation and non-violent confrontation on moral issues. At times, the Church has made intermittent defensive alliances with various political forces to prevent its loss of influence over society. Consequently, as an imperfect institution, the Church has, at times, found itself inadvertently serving the interests of party politics, the state, or even itself. Yet, at various points, the Church has fully realized its position and redirected itself back toward its original mission in a process of renewal through various Episcopal Conferences, Ecumenical Councils and papal proclamations.

The Catholic Church of Nicaragua has been unique from the standpoint that in its redefining of its commitment to God's people following the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), forces were unleashed that altered the course of Nicaragua's political and social history. In response to Vatican II, a dispute emerged among members of the clergy. There was a unanimous agreement on the definition of the Church's mission, yet parties differed in the means by which that mission could be fulfilled. One group of revolutionary Christians believed that the needs of the people could best be served through an ideology of human liberation based on a Marxist critique requiring an armed insurrection. Another found it necessary to work within the confines of the establishment. A third group of new bishops appointed in the early 1970s by Pope Paul VI avoided the trappings of politics.

A series of pastoral letters, written to clarify the Nicaraguan Church's position as an offensive thrust against a repressive Liberal government, incited retribution against the progressive wing of the Church. …

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