Contradiction and Conflict: The Popular Church in Nicaragua

By Stein, Andrew J. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview
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Contradiction and Conflict: The Popular Church in Nicaragua


Stein, Andrew J., The Catholic Historical Review


Contradiction and Conflict The Popular Church in Nicaragua. By Debra Sabia. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 1997. Pp. xi, 239. $34.95.)

In July, 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional, FSLN) led a multi-class coalition in toppling the dictatorship of the Somoza family in Nicaragua. The hierarchy gave qualified support for armed struggle during the insurrection to an unprecedented degree, and by the 1980's Nicaragua also represented the greatest church polarization in Latin America over the desirability and moral legitimacy of violent political change, class struggle, and socialism.

Debra Sabia's study is "an attempt to understand the rise, growth, and fragmentation of the popular church in Nicaragua" (p. 2) that is a clearly written treatment of grassroots Catholic groups before, during, and after FSLN rule (1979-1990). Background chapters discuss the impact of Vatican Council II, pastoral innovation, and the spread of Christian base communities (comunidades eclesiales de base, CEBs). The author then explains the splits in the popular church and offers a typology of Catholics that comprised it. These types include Marxists,"Revolutionary, Reformist and Alienated Christians." The basic distinctions among them pertain to religious beliefs and practices, the degree of ties to the institutional church, and views on the desirability and means of social change. The first group came to reject Catholicism completely, and was most committed to socialism, class conflict, and the use of violence to bring about radical change (pp. 111-114). Revolutionary Christians had greater ambivalence about violence and close association with the FSLN (pp. 132-137). Reformists were equally interested with the Church's option for the poor, but were less ideological and turned against the FSLN after 1980-1983 (pp. 148154). Finally, Alienated Christians who once supported Catholic social change movements turned toward individualistic religion, be it Charismatic Catholicism, or conversion to Protestantism.

Sabia's contributions are demonstrating how the extent of leftism in the Nicaraguan Catholic Church was overstated in the 1980's, and through ethnographic research, describing "the variegated nature of the progressive Christian sector in Nicaragua" (p. 11). The life histories of CEB participants destroy any notion of a monolithic, pro-FSLN, and radically violent grassroots church. In their own words lay persons describe the evolution of their faith, and how the insurrection against Somoza, Church-FSLN conflict, the Contra War, and later developments shaped it. Poverty, female-headed households, and a majority of the population that came of age after 1980 constitute major drains on the membership of the CEBs. Increasingly there is renewed value for many in the grassroots church in Catholic liturgy and recognition by church authorities (and the legitimacy and resources that go with it). Another strength of the book is the linking by the author of the four types and their potential patterns of political participation.

There are some basic flaws to Sabia's research.

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