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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 43 | Enero 1985



Father Fernando Cardenal’s Decision

Fernando Cardenal

On December 10, the General Curia of the Jesuit Order in Rome confirmed reports by L’Osservatore Romano that Father Fernando Cardenal had officially been discharged from his religious duties as a Jesuit. The announcement ended years of efforts by Nicaragua’s present Minister of Education to maintain the “two great loves” of his life united. Father Cardenal describes these loves as “my loyalty to the Church as a Jesuit and a priest and my dedication to the poor in Nicaragua within the people’s Sandinista revolution.”

His efforts were shared by many other members of the Jesuit order. Two general superiors and the Apostolic Delegate to Nicaragua attempted to seek positive solutions and possible exceptions within the current Church legislation in favor of Father Cardenal. However, upon learning of Rome’s decision, the Jesuit Superior for Central America publicly announced that no exception had been made. Fernando Cardenal then declared his position of conscientious objection and his decision to remain in the government. He was consequently released from membership in the Jesuit order. The Jesuit Provincial Superior for Central America, together with the Nicaraguan bishops Carlos Santi of Matagalpa and Pablo Schmitz of Zelaya, as well as many Nicaraguan Catholic priests and lay people and Christians throughout the world have publicly demonstrated their respect for Father Cardenal’s position.

On December 10, the text of Fernando Cardenal’s “A Letter to My Friends” began to circulate throughout Nicaragua and the world. In the letter, Father Cardenal explains the circumstances of his case in detail: “Pope John Paul II was the one who categorically refused to make an exception that would have enabled the Nicaraguan priests to continue serving in the revolutionary government. This fact hurts me, but my Christian faith does not allow me to silence it.” If the possibility of exception is denied to the other three priests in government posts, this could lead to a problem of conscience similar to the one Fernando Cardenal is now facing.

In the following article, we shall attempt to address the deeper issues raised by this conflictive event, which once again has focused world attention on the Church in Nicaragua.

An old conflict and a new ecclesiastical law

The priests involved in the conflict are Father Fernando Cardenal, Minister of Education since July 1984 and former National Coordinator of the Literacy Crusade, National Vice-Coordinator of the Sandinista Youth Movement, and National Vice Coordinator of the Sandinista Defense Committees; Father Miguel D’Escoto of the Maryknoll Order, Foreign Affairs Minister of Nicaragua since 1979; Father Ernesto Cardenal, a diocesan priest and Minister of Culture since 1979; and Father Edgard Parrales, a diocesan priest, Nicaragua’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) since 1982, and former Minister of Social Welfare. As diocesan priests, the latter two are directly accountable to their respective bishops, Pablo Antonio Cuadra of Juigalpa and Rubén López of Estelí, respectively. In the cases of Fernando Cardenal and Miguel D’Escoto, the superiors of their religious orders hold direct authority over them.

Public tensions between the Nicaraguan bishops and these four priests began in May 1980, shortly after the resignation of Alfonso Robelo on April 22 caused the first crisis in the National Unity Government. At that point, the bishops issued a statement urging the four priests to resign from their government posts because the circumstances for which they were granted the exception had changed. The bishops’ appeal prompted an official government delegation to visit the Vatican. Arturo Cruz, then a member of the five-person governing Junta, participated in the encounter. In January 1981, the priests held talks with the Nicaraguan bishops, which helped to ease tensions.

On June 1, 1981 what had been the bishops’ request a year earlier abruptly became an ultimatum. In a statement, the bishops declared: “If the priests presently occupying public offices and exercising party functions were not to abandon those responsibilities immediately and return full time to their priestly duties, we would consider them to be openly defying and formally disobeying the legitimate ecclesiastical authority; they would thus be subject to the sanctions of the Church laws.” This ultimatum provoked the greatest crisis to have occurred until that point in the Nicaraguan Church, with repercussions in Europe and Latin America. Dozens of theologians came to the defense of the priests, urging the bishops not to apply sanctions but rather to engage in a process of dialogue with them.

This crisis prompted another official visit to the Vatican authorities, who, led by Cardinal Casaroli, recommended that the bishops modify the ultimatum and come to an agreement with the priests. The bishops allowed the priests to continue serving in their public positions, provided they relinquish their priestly functions, such as celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments in public and in private, both in and outside of Nicaragua. This agreement, reached in July 1981, remained in effect until the present crisis. For the last three years, the four priests have not been acting in defiance of the Pope but rather within the framework of a publicly authorized exception. All four have scrupulously kept their part of the agreement throughout this time.

With the advent of the new Canonical Law—the fundamental law of the Roman Catholic Church—on November 27, 1983, the legal situation of the priests surfaced again. Until then, the Nicaraguan bishops had based their arguments for removing the priests from public office on the opinion that the “special” circumstances for the exception no longer applied. They now argue their case from a legal standpoint. With both arguments, however, the political implications with respect to the Sandinista government are not hard to discern. Article 285 of the new Canonical Law establishes that priests are prohibited from accepting “those public positions entailing participation in the exercise of civil authority.” The new law is stricter than the old in that it mentions no possible exceptions. This explains why, since December 1983, there have been frequent hints from the Vatican and the Nicaraguan bishops to the effect that the priests must obey the law. However, neither the Vatican nor the bishops ever explicitly indicated to the Nicaraguan government that the July 1981 accord had lost its validity. Some observers attribute this omission to the accumulated tensions between the Church and state in Nicaragua over the last few years.

All indications suggest that Article 285, in all its severity, could not be applied to Fathers D’Escoto, Parrales or Ernesto Cardenal, as these priests were sworn into their government posts before the new Canonical Law came into effect. The law makes no mention of retroactivity and Article 285 does not state what type of sanction to apply in cases of violation. It is clear, as decreed in Article 1349, that those who violate the terms of the article cannot be subject to a permanent sanction and that normally the Church would not apply, in their cases, the maximum penalties of interdiction, defrocking, or excommunication.

Even though Article 285 does not mention specific exceptions, there in no reason to exclude that possibility. The ecclesiastical law, according to Pope John Paul II, is subordinate to the “gifts of faith, and charisma, and above all to love” (Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Legis, January 25, 1983).

The appointment of Father Fernando Cardenal as Minister of Education in July 1984 rekindled the debate surrounding the four Nicaraguan priests. Occurring at a time marked by acute tensions between the Church and state, following the government’s expulsion of ten foreign priests from Nicaragua, and when almost all channels for dialogue were blocked, Cardenal’s appointment was interpreted by the Vatican as a challenge to its authority. Even when all four priests were told in August 1984 to decide by the end of that month between serving in the Church or in the government, the only result has been the separation of Fernando Cardenal from the Jesuit Order, not the priesthood, four months later. On January 7, 1985, the Cabinet positions of Miguel D’Escoto and the Cardenal brothers in the new government were ratified by President-elect Daniel Ortega, leaving the doors open for new debates and decisions in the context of the recently initiated talks between the government and the Church (with the participation of the nuncio).

The first question: The letter or the spirit of the law?

“Sanctioning a priest is not right. His condition as a priest is precisely for the benefit of the people, of the poor. You see, he has always been on our side, struggling to stop the war and speaking to his people in the name of God.” These were the words of a 19-year-old vendor in a Managua marketplace upon hearing of Fernando Cardenal’s expulsion from the Jesuit Order. They are but one of many expressions of Nicaraguans’ sorrow, bewilderment, and support for the man they have come to know as a Minister of God and Minister of the people.

According to the tradition begun by Jesus of Nazareth, the essence of Christian priesthood is plainly expressed in the vendor’s statement. He speaks of the priest’s preference for the poor, coinciding with God’s partiality to the oppressed, which was clearly revealed through the life of Jesus. Above all, he speaks of a God engaged in dialogue with his people and the priest’s responsibility to continue that service to the people. In a nutshell, these elements are the essence of Christian priesthood.

Vast sectors of the Nicaraguan people have always regarded Fernando Cardenal as a priest. They have know him as a leader of nonviolent protests in the defense of political prisoners and as one who has encouraged Nicaraguan young people to discover an authentic Christian and revolutionary commitment for their lives. They remember him as one of the “Group of Twelve,” which challenged Somoza’s corruption and sought international support for the revolutionary cause, and as the coordinator of the campaign that taught illiterate people to read. He is revered as a founding member and leader of the Sandinista Youth Movement and vice coordinator of the men and women who have organized themselves into neighborhood civil defense committees. Finally, as Minister of Education, the highest authority responsible for the education of Nicaragua’s youth, Fernando Cardenal has profoundly broadened the Church’s definition of the Catholic priesthood.

The bold originality with which Father Cardenal opened up new channels for the priesthood is what has created the conflict. In effect, the law that structures and institutionalizes the Catholic priesthood has clashed head on with this priest’s spirit of vocation. Arguing from the rationale of the Gospel, which is the rationale of the spirit of the law and not the letter, the administrators of this law could have engaged in a dialogue and allowed for an exception. Allowing exceptions to the letter of the law does not undermine the spirit of life. As Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8). It would have been important to determine if this personal exception fulfilled the spirit that inspires the law and if Fernando Cardenal was carrying out the essence of Christian priesthood. Only after serious deliberation could the administrators of Church law avoid the temptation to serve the law itself without considering the creative freedom of the Gospel.

It would have been beneficial for the Church authorities to have consulted with the Nicaraguan people, who have been the recipients of Father Cardenal’s pastoral service. The views of members of the Christian community who consider themselves committed to the poor have been expressed publicly and privately many times in Nicaragua since 1981. They have expressed support, respect, appreciation, and hopes that through an open dialogue the spirit of the Gospel will succeed in overcoming the letter of the law. Now, with the Church’s final decision regarding Father Cardenal, the Nicaraguan people and Christians throughout the world have lifted their voices in the spirit that the Second Vatican Council described and affirmed as “Sensus Fidelium,” meaning the views expressed by authentic Christians.

The tension between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, as demonstrated in the contradiction present in an institution that is tempted to give excessive importance to the law while being called on to live out the gospel of liberation and service, has left Nicaraguan Christians with new elements for reflection on the meaning of the priesthood and its purpose in today’s world.

Second question:
What is the mission of the Church today?

“I am convinced that our presence in the Nicaraguan revolution in these times is of great importance, not only for this process, but also for the development of the social transformation that is occurring throughout Latin America… The Holy See has difficulty understanding Nicaragua’s situation as being different from the historical problems between the Church and state in Eastern Europe, which have nothing to do with the history of God’s people on our Latin American continent, much less with the Nicaraguan revolutionary process.”
—From Fernando Cardenal’s “A Letter to My Friends”

The conflict involving Fernando Cardenal shows every trace of an authentic conscientious objection in which his “intimate conscience before God” (Corinthians 2:2-4) has prevented him from obeying the institutional law.

As in many cases like Fernando Cardenal’s, judges of conscientious objection consider history according to the standards of a new future. The disciples of Jesus understood that Israel’s future depended on accepting the God who confirmed the life of a carpenter killed by the religious and political leaders of their time. To defend the cause of Jesus, the disciples conscientiously objected to the laws and traditions by which they had been raised. In his own time, Thomas Moore saw the future of the Christian faith as dependent upon the Christian community’s adherence to Roman tradition. In defending his ideas, he presented his conscientious objection to the King and religious authorities of England.

Today, Fernando Cardenal, through his conscientious objection, sees the future of the Latin American Church as dependent upon the unity of Christians and non-Christians in support of revolutionary processes like that in Nicaragua. It is a bold idea in the present historical circumstances, and for a future that still seems so far away. It is as bold as the idea in its time that a crucified man would become the religious key to history or that the corrupt Roman papacy of the Renaissance was the legitimate successor to Peter, the humble fisherman from Galilee.

For some of today’s Church authorities, the revolutionary phenomenon in Nicaragua is nothing more than another attempt by pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist forces to gain a beachhead on the American continent. Nicaragua’s future is interpreted by them as the consolidation of a totalitarian project. When Nicaragua demands independence from US hegemony, this provokes fear. Likewise, any weakening of US hegemony is interpreted as the lessening of freedom—particularly religious freedom—in the pro-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe.

While a great number of Church authorities recognize and denounce the human exploitation and materialistic consumerism that characterize capitalist systems, the majority of them—from their geographical location and ideological orientation—are confident in the ability of the democratic, representative states of the capitalist countries to resolve those problems. They define a “totalitarian” state as any system that does not adjust to the model of representative democracy, distrusting such a system’s capacity to humanize the errors of socialism. However, the US administration’s reaction to the draft of the US bishop’s pastoral letter challenging the capitalist economy is an indication of Western democracy’s inability to bring humanizing reforms to its system. The evident poverty in the most developed countries of Western Europe as a result of the current economic crisis demonstrates this inability.

In its studies on democracy, the Trilateral Commission—a symbol of advanced capitalism within the technological revolution—has pointed out that representative democracies are threatened by movements of grassroots participation, which question the elite’s control of power in the advanced industrial societies. These studies fail to recognize the fact that participatory democracy is the foundation for representative democracy.

The Church’s adaptation to profoundly new and different situations (such as the participation of Catholics at the grassroots level in ecclesiastical debates, the building of Christian base communities with the active participation of their members, and the new rituals and methods of Church worship) is disturbing to many Church authorities, who fear that this will lead to dangerous instability. This distrust is similar to the fear expressed by political elites when faced with participatory democracy.

Despite its knowledge that by the year 2000 over half of the world’s Catholic population will live in Latin America on the fringe of the advanced industrial world, the Catholic Church continues to view the world from a Eurocentric perspective. As in the US, many European leaders regard world events within the framework of the East-West conflict. This is a severe limitation because the conflict only touches the developed societies of the Northern Hemisphere. The North-South conflict, in which the very poor must confront the very rich, is outside of that framework. In addition to its economic and political roots, this conflict has cultural dimensions. Because Western Europe has been unsuccessful at blending the socialist projects of the East with the religious aspirations of the West, it is distrustful of the attempt to accomplish something similar in Latin America. Western European Church authorities, particularly, close their eyes to the new paths Nicaragua is creating. They draw simplistic conclusions, using familiar European labels such as “Marxist tactics” and “religious persecution” to describe Nicaragua’s revolution. The unprecedented act of Christians and Marxists united in a revolutionary task to transform their society is written off as either the work of naïve Christian dupes or a deceptive façade to hide an intrinsically perverse ideology.

All these political, social, and cultural perspectives do not take into serious consideration the struggles of Third World peoples for real nonalignment, national independence, or full liberation. From a theological point of view, these perspectives ignore the fact that the Church of God comprises more than just the Catholic and other Christian churches. The spirit of God works not only through the institutional Church but throughout human history with Christians and non-Christians alike. God’s spirit has sparked movements that do not necessarily depend on a confession of faith or adhesion to the Christian Church.

Behind the conflict of the four Nicaraguan priests in government is the tension between very European visions of the world and the Christian faith and new Latin American viewpoints. These tensions raise essential questions as to the role of the Church in today’s world.

Third question: Power for domination or service?

“Our small Nicaragua is almost defenseless in the face of the slander and manipulation used to discredit us and justify military aggression against us. The truth of our cause has to cut through so much dirt and infamy. We do have a role in this process. That is why we continue onward together with the people in their revolution. With all the strength of our credibility and moral authority as priests, we call on all who will listen: ‘Do not believe the slander that is said of Nicaragua; we make mistakes like all humans, but not to the extent of their accusations. Our goals are just, noble, beautiful, and holy.’ Today, more than ever, Nicaragua needs witnesses committed to truth and justice to defend its cause. This is where we, as priests, belong…

“We are aware of being exceptional cases, or pioneers, with respect to practices that are legally accepted by the Church. We don’t intend our case to be a prelude to other such cases, nor do we expect priests to occupy ministerial positions in all of the future governments of the revolutions that are emerging throughout Latin America… But as pioneers, we are fulfilling an apostolic mission that is very appropriate for the priesthood. We are serving the faith through our leadership in the midst of an historical secular movement, and we are helping this movement not to become anti-religious or anti-Christian, but to become truly ‘revolutionary’ and to serve the poor.”
—From Fernando Cardenal’s “A Letter to My Friends.”

When Saint Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuit Order in the 16th century, he prohibited the Jesuits from assuming positions of power in the Church unless the Pope ordered it. Despite his goal of purifying the corrupt Renaissance Church of his time from the top down, Saint Ignatius rejected the idea that the Jesuits could accomplish this from positions within the hierarchy. He preferred the mobility of the “light brigades” as the most effective and humble way to achieve this purpose. The Jesuits’ effectiveness lay in their capacity to develop important services without imposing them from above. Their effectiveness proved to be boldly and openly prophetic, often bringing them into conflict with the hierarchy. Saint Ignatius did not want his zeal for reforming the Church to be confused with an ambition for power. He saw that Jesus’ example of poverty and humble service might help to move the Church toward a similar service and to defend itself from the temptations of power.

Four centuries later, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote a fictitious letter from Ignatius of Loyola to all the Jesuits of today. Referring to those bishops who exercise their authority on behalf of the poor and suffer the same consequences of repression and persecution as the poor, he wrote: “You could all be bishops like Dom Helder Camara.”

An important distinction with regard to the case of the four priests in political positions is that political power in revolutionary Nicaragua is entirely different from political power as experienced in Europe.

It is striking that country as small as Nicaragua has become a focus of world attention. Nicaragua does not have vast natural resources nor the technology with which to develop itself. It lacks enough qualified men and women to build the new country and its institutions, to administer the scarce resources, and to lead its people through the challenges and sacrifices that confront a society in transformation. Until recently, underdeveloped countries like Nicaragua could only aspire to become pawns in the midst of fierce competition on the part of world powers. Today, Nicaragua is choosing to set its own course toward political sovereignty and national dignity. Despite its weakness, Nicaragua insists on being an independent nation, and not a pawn.

From this perspective, to speak of power in Nicaragua is to speak of the weak becoming empowered and exercising their right to dignity. In Nicaragua, to build an independent nation—though with very limited resources—is to exercise political power. Unlike the traditional use of political power, the exercise of political power in Nicaragua is more conducive to social justice.

The very dynamics of a weak people’s struggle for dignity have prevented Nicaragua from building a strong state apparatus, capable of isolating itself from the people. Nor has Nicaragua developed an omniscient party or a repressive police force. Relatively well-armed for defense purposes, Nicaragua’s army lacks significant offensive capabilities. Of course, particularly in the war zones, where the need for military defense comes before the benefits of the revolution, arrogant insensitivity and abuses of power have occasionally been seen.

Political power in Nicaragua is also a human reality subject to contradictions and ambiguity. Nevertheless, in the overall balance, sacrifice and service continue to outweigh arrogant displays of power.

For a Jesuit priest to exercise political power in a revolution, he must have a very special vocation and a “pioneer” spirit in order to put power at the service of the poor and to bridge the gap between those who govern and those governed, while resisting the tendencies toward domination that the use of power normally entails. This “pioneering” task is not a new one for Jesuits or other priests who have accepted the risks of power before. Moreover, a priesthood that is exclusively confined to liturgy, Bible reading, and Church planting does not plumb the depths of Christian priesthood.

The Church law prohibiting priests from exercising political power reflects the human experience of power, which has been dominating and overbearing throughout both secular and Church history. Nevertheless, power can also be used to serve the forces of good. The presence of Christians and honest individuals within the power structures can be a concrete way of accepting Jesus’ challenge to power: to convert domination and oppression into service and promote equality in human relations.

Whenever the hierarchical Church structure has assimilated the oppressive and dominating characteristics of power, it has portrayed civil political power as an absolute evil. From a position of “holy” power, the Church condemns “unholy” power. Only when the Church authorities become servants can they accept the possibility that political power can be redeemed. The key to using power to serve the poor was described by a Nicaraguan Christian in reference to Father Cardenal: “It’s not political passion that motivates him, but rather his love for the poor of his country.” When a passion for the poor is the driving force, the dangers of power can be overcome.

An unforeseen result of the conflict

On December 13, a few days after Father Cardenal was dismissed from the Jesuit Order, Bishop Rubén López of Estelí, located in a northern war zone, issued an important document in which he expressed his deep grief and support for the suffering of the mothers whose children have been murdered by the counterrevolutionaries. His serious call for peace echoed the profound aspirations of the majority of Nicaragua’s population. Since the war on Nicaragua began four years ago, this was the first public statement by a Nicaraguan bishop to unequivocally denounce the military aggression against the country.

On December 18, Bishop Carlos Santi of Matagalpa publicly demonstrated his disagreement with the war and the foreign intervention that is provoking it. He affirmed that the majority of the Nicaraguan bishops are in favor of a dialogue with the government. In addition, he expressed his desire for a dialogue between the bishops and the four priests in government, particularly Fernando Cardenal, whose role in the literacy campaign he commended highly. While extolling Father Cardenal’s capabilities as Minister of Education, the bishop noted that Cardenal was not indispensable in the government post.

On December 20, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Atlantic Coast, Pablo Schmitz, issued the strongest statement ever to be made by a member of the Nicaraguan Church hierarchy against the foreign aggression: “As a Christian, a Capuchin, and a priest, I cannot agree with this war being waged by the forces of imperialism against the Nicaraguan people.” He supported Bishop Santi’s call for a dialogue and proposed that talks begin with Fernando Cardenal during the Christmas season. He affirmed that Fernando had carried out all his tasks “as a Christian, a Jesuit, and a priest.”

On December 24, more than a year since the last Church-state dialogue was held, seven of the ten bishops—including bishops Obando and Vega—met with President-elect Daniel Ortega, Minister of the Presidency Rodrigo Reyes, and the General Secretary of the FSLN National Directorate, René Núñez. Both sides considered the talks to be “positive” and decided to appoint special commissions to continue the meetings.

With the events surrounding Fernando Cardenal’s case, the reorganization of the government, and the advent of the new political situation resulting from the November elections, the necessary climate for renewed Church-state dialogue has developed. Though the cycle of tensions and dialogue has run its course on many previous occasions without the two parties achieving the desired results, recent events indicate that the present situation is special. The November 4 elections, described by L’Osservatore Romano as “clean and honest” although “imperfect,” have given the Sandinista government new credibility in the eyes of the bishops and the Vatican. The statements by some bishops stressing the need for dialogue may have been influenced by this report, as well as by the conviction that the majority of Nicaraguans deeply desire an easing of tensions between the Church and state. The concrete opportunity to spark these prophetic statements and begin a dialogue might well have been the painful events surrounding Fernando Cardenal and the desire not to further inflame the open wounds.

The calm and honorable attitude with which Father Cardenal publicly expressed his conscientious objection has had a profound impact on many sectors of Nicaragua and the world and may help to open the doors for dialogue. Fernando Cardenal’s former Jesuit superiors have testified to the honesty of his positions and have clarified that the decision to remove him from the Order does not reflect disapproval on their part for the Nicaraguan revolution. If the recently initiated dialogue is carried out with the same honesty, many doors could still open. It is both a political and a Christian duty to encourage dialogue. The hopes of the poor of Latin America and the Third World demand it, and these hopes need creative political channels to make life possible for humanity.

Father Fernando Cardenal’s case brings to the surface many fundamental issues: the tension within the Church over the letter and the spirit of the law; the role of the Church throughout history in confronting the challenges of acculturation; the nature of political power—always tainted with domination—in the developed countries of the competitive Western system; and the nature of political power as exercised in a poor country seeking national independence and dignity within the framework of the North-South conflict. All this must be seen in the light of the hopes of the poor. The pain that accompanied Father Cardenal’s decisions is but a small portion of the immense pain that the Nicaraguan and Central American people must suffer each day in their efforts to achieve dignity and justice.

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