THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF NICARAGUA
The following interview with Fr. Francois Houtart took place in Managua in August 1987. Fr. Houtart, a Belgian priest who teaches at Louvain University, has been devoting his summers to research work in Nicaragua for the last five years. Since his first visit to Latin America in 1953, Fr. Houtart's work in the sociology of religion has become widely known and respected. He has also worked in many other parts of the third world. He was an expert at the Second Vatican Council and contributed significantly to the 1968 conference of Latin American bishops at Medellin, Colombia. Fr. Houtart is the author of the following books in English, among others: The Challenge to Change (Sheed & Ward, 1964); The Church and the Latin American Revolution (Sheed & Ward, 1965); Church and Revolution (Orbis, 1970); Religion and Ideology in Sri Lanka; and two books on Catholicism in India.
Joseph E. Mulligan (JEM): How did you come to Nicaragua?
Francois Houtart (FH): In 1982 Xavier Gorostiaga (Jesurit director of CRIES, the Regional Center for Economic and Social Research in Managua) and Uriel Molina (Franciscan director of the Antonio Valdivieso Ecumenical Center) and other friends asked me to come to Nicaragua. So for the last five years I have spent my summers here in Nicaragua, doing teaching and research with the Central American University.
My first project was on the impact of religion on politics-- to see what kind of religious conceptions people had and whether that had any impact on their political thinking or behavior, and to discover their vision of the Church as an institution.
In 1985 we began a study of people's understanding of health issues. It was clear that the revolution had brought in a new philosophy of health--as a human right and not just a commodity available to those with money to buy it. Due to the achievements of the revolution, more and more people expect health care as a right, but they still see that if you have money you have better health, because Nicaragua has a mixed-economy system.
For the last two years I have been working with the Ministry of Culture to see how people's mentality is changing with the social and political transformations of society.
JEM: Could you summarize your findings as to the impact of religion on political attitudes?
FH: Our specific study of that was about five years ago, but what we found was that just because a person had a traditional religious mentality did not mean that he or she necessarily had antirevolutionary attitudes. For instance, we found pro-Sandinista attitudes throughout the religious spectrum.
However, the opposition against the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) was always, or almost always, associated with the traditional religious approach. Of course, the opposition was also closely related to a bourgeois attitude.
In studying the pro-FSLN youth, we found two groups: those who had abandoned religion, and those who had changed their religious approach (from more conservative to more progressive). So we concluded that the political attitude of the hierarchy was not a real threat to the FSLN, because it was only effective among those who were already against the revolutionary process.
Thus we saw that the people, especially the lower-class people, both rural and urban, could distinguish quite well between the religious function of the Church and the political attitude of the hierarchy, concluding that they were not obliged to follow the political views of the hierarchy.
JEM: What impact did the Pope's visit in 1983 have?
FH: We thought it might have caused a certain trauma in the people, but we found that was not true. In one interview a peasant told me: "The Pope came to Nicaragua by air, but he never landed." That was a good resume of the people's thinking about the matter. …