Bishops of Nicaragua – Christian Commitment for a New Nicaragua (November 17, 1979)

[The following text, including what is in brackets, can be found in Liberation Theology: A Documentary History by Alfred T. Hennelly (1990, Orbis Books).]

[This pastoral letter was written four months after the overthrow of the dictatorship of General Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua on July 19, 1979, by the FSLN fFrente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacionalj. It is a remarkable document because of its openness to and endorsement of a socialist society to establish justice, especially for the poor. It should be recalled that the Nicaraguan bishops had taken another unprecedented step when they declared on July 2, 1979, that the Nicaraguan people had the right to join in the revolutionary struggle. As succeeding letters of the bishops will show, this policy of collaboration was to change drastically. This is taken from LADOC, 10 (March-April 1980), pp. 1-4.]

To the clergy, men and women religious, basic Christian communities. Delegates of the Word, and all people of good will, peace and blessings in the Lord.

Introduction

We address the Nicaraguan community, of which we are a part, which is searching for the path of truth and for justice during the current stage of the revolutionary process in our country, a process that is being watched by many people in the world today. We wish to speak with the clarity demanded in the gospel (Matthew 5:37) and by the Catholic community and all the people of Nicaragua to whom we have an obligation. We speak as ministers of the church, aware that many Christians participated actively in the insurrection and work today for the consolidation of its triumph. We believe that this message can be of service to the people of God by encouraging them in their commitment and helping them to discern that which is the role of the Holy Spirit in the revolutionary process. As a church we are convinced that there is much to be done and that we have not always been fully aware of the needs of our people.

We cannot make this discernment alone. We recall and make our own the wise words of Pope Paul VI: “In Christian communities it is necessary to determine, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops involved, and in dialogue with our fellow Christians and all people of good will, the options and commitments that must be made in order to carry out the social, political, and economic changes that are felt to be urgently needed in each case” (OA, 4). For this reason, this pastoral letter is also an appeal to continue the dialogue with the Christian communities and a request that these communities, which are in closest touch with our realities, will be able to find the true spirit “to join Christ in effectively moving the history of our peoples toward the kingdom” (Puebla, 274). We know that what we have to offer is not “silver and gold” (Acts 3:6) nor to provide political and economic solutions, but to proclaim the Good News.

We wish to speak humbly and simply because we are ministers and members of a church that is “holy and at the same time in need of purification” (LG, 8; EN, 15).

We will discuss the following points in this letter:

  1. Christian commitment for a new Nicaragua.
  2. Evangelical motivation.
  3. The responsibility and challenge of today.

PART I: CHRISTIAN COMMITMENT FOR A NEW NICARAGUA

Accomplishments

We would like to begin with a few remarks about the achievements of the revolutionary process that help us to:

(a) Realize that through years of suffering and social marginalization, our people have been accumulating the experience necessary to transform this situation into a broad and profoundly liberating action.

Our people fought bravely to defend their right to live with dignity in a peaceful and just society. This struggle has given profound significance to the activities conducted against a regime that violated and repressed human, personal, and social rights. As in the past we denounced this situation as one that was contrary to the demands of the gospel, so now we wish to reaffirm that we accept the profound motivation of this struggle for justice and for life.

(b) Realize that the blood of those who gave lives in this lengthy struggle, the devotion of youth who want to build a just society, and the outstanding role of women in this whole process — elsewhere in the world postponed — signals the development of new forces for constructing a new Nicaragua.

All of this underscores the originality of the historic process we are now living through. At the same time, our people’s struggle to control their own future has been strongly affected by the thought and work of Augusto Cesar Sandino, which emphasize the uniqueness of the Nicaraguan revolution, giving it its own style and its clearly defined banner of social justice, of affirmation of national values, and of international solidarity.

(c) Observe in the joy of an impoverished people who, for the first time in many years, feel that they are masters in their own country, an expression of revolutionary creativity that opens up broad and fruitful opportunities for a commitment by all who seek to fight against an unjust, oppressive system and build a new humanity

(d) Appraise the determination to start on the first day of victory to institutionalize the revolutionary process by providing a legal basis. This was evident in the decision to keep the programs announced prior to victory. Some examples are the promulgation of the Statute on the Rights and Guarantees of Nicaraguans, the consequent practice of freedom of information, of partisan political organization, of worship, and of movement, nationalizations to recover the country’s wealth, the first steps in land reform, etc. Other examples include the ability to start, on the first days of the process, to plan and organize a national literacy campaign to ennoble the spirit of our people and make them more capable of guiding their own destinies and participating more responsibly and with greater farsight in the revolutionary process.

(e) Recognize the existence in Nicaragua of conflicts between opposing interests brought about by land reform, expropriations of large estates, etc., conflicts which can be aggravated by changes in the economic, social, political, and cultural structures.

(f) Recognize also the risks, dangers, and errors in this revolutionary process, aware that there is no absolutely pure human undertaking in history and, with this in mind, to consider freedom of expression and criticism as an invaluable means of pointing out and correcting mistakes and improving the accomplishments of the revolutionary process.

Tasks

We believe that the present revolutionary moment is an opportune time to truly implement the church’s option for the poor. We must remember that no historical revolutionary event can exhaust the infinite possibilities for justice and absolute solidarity of the kingdom of God. We must state that our commitment to the revolutionary process does not imply naiveté, blind enthusiasm, or the creation of a new idol before which everyone must bow down unquestioningly. Dignity, responsibility, and Christian freedom are essential attributes for active participation in the revolutionary process.

During this process, as in all other human undertakings, mistakes may be made and abuses may occur. Many Nicaraguans have certain concerns and fears. It is our pastoral duty to listen to the anxieties of the people whom we have served and discern the reasons behind these concerns. We must report those that are caused by abuse or negligence, and we must make certain that concerns arising from a lack of material resources and current conditions are not used demagogically.

The government has created channels that we believe will increasingly become more useful for collecting complaints about the revolutionary process. This creates the need for a dialogue, although it may be brief and we know that not everyone shares our point of view on some concerns that we have heard and that we think are important.

(a) Although the policy followed by the authorities has been that of avoiding executions or mistreatment of prisoners and appealing to the people not to take justice into their own hands, abuses have still occurred.

These distressing situations have been caused by some local leaders. Our task will be to give national authorities the evidence of such abuse that we have received, confident that they will know how to correct it as the possibilities for effective control and national integration increase

(b) There is much talk about the disorder and even administrative chaos of the country, but we must remember that we are living in a time of creativity and of transition, and that reconstruction is everyone’s work, not that of just certain sectors.

(c) Insofar as the freedom of political parties is concerned, it seems to us that responsible, active participation by a majority of Nicaraguans in our current revolutionary process is most important and should occur both through the existing organizations for direct popular democracy as well as through organizations that will be created out of national dialogue. Various forces have contributed generously to the historic process, and no one should prevent their continued contribution.

Leading all these forces, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional has clearly earned a place in history. In order to strengthen that position, the Frente’s principal task is to continue calling on the whole people to make their own history through strong participation by the many in the life of the nation. This requires absolute faithfulness to the community of the poor on the part of the present leaders so as to maintain unsullied the principles of justice and the name “Sandinista” earned in the struggle for freedom.

Socialism

The fear is expressed, at times with anguish, that the current process in Nicaragua is heading toward socialism. We bishops have been asked for our opinion of the matter.

If socialism, as some imagine, becomes distorted, denying persons and communities the right to decide their own destinies, and if it attempts to force persons to submit blindly to the manipulation and dictates of individuals who have arbitrarily and unlawfully seized power, then we cannot accept such false socialism. We cannot accept a socialism which oversteps its limits and attempts to take away individuals’ right to a religious motivation in their life or their right to express this motivation and their religious beliefs publicly, regardless of their faith.

Equally unacceptable would be a denial of parents’ right to educate their children according to their convictions or a denial of any other right of the human person.

If, on the other hand, socialism means, as it should, that the interests of the majority of Nicaraguans are paramount and if it includes a model of an economic system planned with national interests in mind, in solidarity with and providing for increased participation by the people, we have no objections. Any social program that guarantees that the country’s wealth and resources will be used for the common good and that improves the quality of human life by satisfying the basic needs of all the people seems to us to be a just program. If socialism means the injustice and traditional inequalities between the cities and the country, and between remuneration for intellectual and manual labor, will be progressively reduced, and if it means the participation of workers in the fruit of their labors, overcoming economic alienation, then there is nothing in Christianity that is at odds with this process. Indeed Pope John Paul II has just drawn attention at the U.N. to the concern arising from the radical separation of labor and ownership.

If socialism implies that power is to be exercised by the majority and increasingly shared by the organized community, so that power is actually transferred to the popular classes, then it should meet nothing in our faith but encouragement and support.

If socialism leads to cultural processes that awaken the dignity of the masses and give them the courage to assume responsibility and demand their rights, then it promotes the same type of human dignity proclaimed by our faith.

Insofar as the struggle between social classes is concerned, we think that a dynamic class struggle that produces a just transformation of the social structure is one thing, while class hatred directed against individuals is another matter, which goes completely against the Christian duty to be guided by love.

Our faith tells us of the urgent Christian responsibility to subdue the earth, and transform the land and all other means of production in order to allow everyone to live fully and make of Nicaragua a land of justice, solidarity, peace, and freedom in which the Christian message of the kingdom of God can take on its full meaning.

We are further confident that our revolutionary process will be something original, creative, truly Nicaraguan, and in no sense imitative. For what we, together with most Nicaraguans, seek is a process that will result in a society completely and truly Nicaraguan, one that is neither capitalistic, nor dependent, nor totalitarian.

PART II: EVANGELICAL MOTIVATION

On various occasions in the past, we have sought to address the situation of our country in the light of the gospel (see our messages of 1/8/77 and 1/8/78). More recently, on June 2, 1979, we proclaimed the right of the Nicaraguan people to engage in revolutionary insurrection. Each time, we have relied on fidelity to the gospel and the traditional teaching of the church

It now falls to us again, in this new situation, to offer a word of faith and of hope concerning the present revolutionary process and how, through it, we can accomplish what the gospel requires of us.

We would like, therefore, to recall a fundamental truth of our Christian faith, one which we are rediscovering and seeing again as central in the present situation of our country and in the orientation of the process of revolutionary change.

Announcement of the Kingdom of God

The heart of Jesus’ message is the announcement of the kingdom of God, a kingdom founded on the Father’s love for all humankind and in which the poor hold a special place. “Kingdom” signifies universality; nothing is outside it. Proclaiming the kingdom of God means proclaiming the God of the kingdom and God’s fatherly love, the foundation of solidarity among all peoples.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom means liberation and justice (Luke 4:16- 20), because it is a kingdom of life. Our need to build this kingdom is the basis for our accepting and participating in the current process, whose purpose is to ensure that all Nicaraguans truly live. Our faith in this God moves us to emphasize what we have always preached but which has now moved urgently to the fore. To believe in this God is to give life to others, to love them in truth and to do justice. The particular life which God wants for Nicaraguans can only be achieved by radically overcoming the selfishness and casting aside the self-interest which have festered in our country for so many years and have, we must tragically recall, caused the deaths of our brothers and sisters. Each of us must be made to live a life of love and justice, to forget about ourselves and to consider what we can contribute.

Evangelical Commitment

To announce the kingdom means that we have to bring it into our lives. On that effort, the authenticity of our faith in God is staked, establishing what the holy Scriptures call “justice and right” for the poor. It is commitment which tests our faith in Christ, who gave his life to proclaim the kingdom of God. There is no life of faith unless there is witness to it, which is given in our acts. Only then can the announcement through the word be understood and be confirmed. In our commitment to help the poor and to fight against social injustice, our faith becomes truly productive, for others as well as for ourselves. By acting as Christians, we become Christians. Without such solidarity, our announcement of the Good News is but an empty phrase. An evangelical movement of liberation implies a commitment to the liberation of our people. In the words of the bishops at Puebla, “Confronted with the realities that are part of our lives today, we must learn from the gospel that in Latin America we cannot truly love our fellow beings, and hence God, unless we commit ourselves on the personal level, and on the structural level as well” (327). After a long and patient wait, our people have committed themselves to the struggle for their full and total liberation.

Liberation in Jesus Christ

Liberation in Jesus Christ encompasses the various aspects of human existence, because God wants people to live and to live fully. God thus created humanity according to a plan in which our relationships with nature, with our fellows, and with God are linked closely together. First is the relationship with nature, whereby human beings can satisfy their most elemental needs. Harnessing it through a planned economy to the benefit of humankind forms the basis for a just society. There is also the relationship between individuals in society, which must be marked by fellowship implying genuine unity and effective participation by all in the society to which they belong. For us today, this must be primarily the work of justice for the oppressed and an effort to liberate those who need it most (Puebla, 327). Yet liberation also signifies a relationship with God. As children who accept and live in the light of God’s freely given love, we are inextricably linked to nature and to society. When we reject our fellows, we reject God. The act of love for the poor and oppressed is an act of love for the Lord (Matthew 25:31-46). Complete liberation encompasses these three, mutually inclusive, aspects. In neglecting one of them, we diminish the rights and the potential of the human person. In accepting the free gift of the Father, we are committing ourselves to the struggle for justice and the establishment of brotherhood. This, in turn, acquires its full significance in the acknowledgment of the presence in history of God’s liberating love.

Social Commitment

The kingdom of God, the heart of Christ’s message, is at the same time a requirement for social commitment which incorporates a critical judgment of history and refuses to deny change. It is open to human creativity and to the outpouring of the Lord’s grace.

The situation in our country today offers an exceptional opportunity for announcing and for bearing witness to God’s kingdom. If, through fear and mistrust, or through the insecurity of some in the face of any radical social change, or through the desire to defend personal interests, we neglect this crucial opportunity to commit ourselves to the poor, urged by both Pope John Paul II and the bishops at Puebla, we would be in serious violation of the gospel’s teachings.

This commitment implies the renunciation of old ways of thinking and behaving, and the dramatic conversion of our church. Indeed, the day when the church fails to present the appearance of poverty and to act as the natural ally of the poor, will be the day it has betrayed its divine creator and the coming of God’s kingdom. Never before has Nicaragua been faced with such an urgent need to persuasively confirm this commitment to the poor.

The poor of whom Jesus speaks and who surround him are the truly poor, the hungry, the afflicted, the oppressed, and all those for whom society has failed to provide a place. Through this solidarity with the poor, Jesus proclaimed his Father’s love for all humankind, was persecuted, and died.

Preferential Option for the Poor

Brothers and sisters of Nicaragua, our faith in Jesus and in the God of life must enlighten our Christian commitment in the current revolutionary process. The first contribution of the church and each Nicaraguan is the preference for the poor; thus, each should support the measures and laws which bring the poor out of their oppression, restoring their rights and strengthening the institutions which assure their freedom. We cannot and must not close our eyes to the dangers and possible errors inherent in any historical process of change; indeed, we believe that we must clearly and boldly lay them bare, working from the gospel, whose word it is our task and responsibility to spread. But we are convinced that this commitment will be authentic only if we listen humbly and perceptively to what the Lord is telling us through the signs of our times.

We wish to share this discernment and this commitment with the entire Nicaraguan ecclesial community, where we hope to encounter a spirit and a vocation in unity with the poor, whose “evangelizing potential” we have discovered and who call the whole church to conversion (Puebla, 1147).

PART III; THE RESPONSIBILITY AND CHALLENGE OF TODAY

The eyes of Latin America and of the Latin American church are on Nicaragua. Our revolution is occurring at a time when the Catholic Church, through the experiences of Vatican II, Medellin, and Puebla, is becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the cause of the poor is its own.

Many are the church members of this continent who have lately given clear witness to this solidarity. Aware that the revolutionary process demands generosity and sacrifice, we urge all of you, our brothers and sisters, to join with us in finding the motivation and strength in our faith so that we will be the first to accept the sacrifice and to devote ourselves to the task of building a new Nicaragua.

In the first place, the revolution requires us to undergo a profound change of heart. It also demands austerity in our lives. The war, and above all the previous social order, have left us with a legacy of economic poverty, despite the richness of our country. The exodus of competent administrative personnel and the inevitable confusion when any such radical change in systems occurs, only worsen the problem.

We must be prepared to support the lean years with austerity and provent those who must bear the consequences from being in the majority. As Christians aware of the Lord’s exhortation to poverty, we must be the first to accept, joyfully and generously, this period of austerity. We are certain that it will lead to a more fully human and fraternal way of life. In this way we will learn, as John Paul II has maintained repeatedly, that peoples’ fulfillment and the satisfaction of needs are not predicated upon abundance and still less on consumerism. The human person rather finds fulfillment as an individual from the solidarity which enables each to satisfy basic material needs and to create a higher level of culture, to labor more productively and humanistically, and to achieve a peace more receptive each day to spiritual progress. At the same time, we appeal for a halt to capital flight and for increased repatriation and’ reinvestment. We call for more equitable international trade practices and fairer conditions for renegotiating Nicaragua’s foreign debt, in the certainty that this will help alleviate shortages and prevent much human suffering.

Generosity of Our Young People

The hope of this revolution lies above all in the youth of Nicaragua. They have shown an outpouring of generosity and valor which has astonished the world, and henceforth will be the principal architects of this new “civilization of love” (Puebla, 1188) which we hope to build. It is up to them to incarnate in the revolutionary process the authentic values of the gospel. The evangelical effort of the whole church must be channelled to them with special care.

Freedom in Our Apostolic Mission

We Nicaraguan bishops want no special privileges for the church other than the ability to accomplish its evangelical mission of humble but valued service to the people. To do so, the church desires only “that broad area of freedom that will enable it to carry out its apostolic work without interference. That work includes the practice of cultic worship, education in the faith, and the fostering of those many and varied activities that lead the faithful to implement the moral imperatives deriving from the faith in their private, family, and social life” (Puebla, 144). The people of God must become revitalized through the basic Christian communities which create a growing sense of fellowship. The church must learn and teach others to see things from the perspective of the poor, whose cause is that of Christ. By adopting the cause of all Nicaraguans as its own, the church believes that it will be able to make an important contribution to the process which the country is now experiencing.

May the Virgin of the Magnificat, who sings of the fall of the powerful and the exaltation of the humble (Luke 2:52), guide us and help us in fulfilling our role in the arduous and exciting task of building a new Nicaragua in this hour when the commitment to the poor makes it possible to “create new horizons of hope” (Puebla, 1165).

Managua, November 17, 1979.

Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, Managua
Bishop-Prelate Pablo A. Vega M., Juigalpa
Bishop Ruben Lopez Ardon, Esteli
Bishop Manuel Salazar Espinosa, Leon
Bishop Leovigildo Lopez Fitoria, Granada
Bishop Julian Bami, Matagalpa
Bishop Salvador Schlaefer, Bluefields Vicariate