Nicaragua: Replacing Liberation Theology


The tallest building in Nicaragua's capital is the Bank of America, a symbol of ongoing market transactions despite all the attempts to bring them to a halt. Emerging from the rubble that was once the throbbing market and downtown area of Managua, it is one of the few buildings to have withstood the series of devastating earthquakes that rocked the city two days before Christmas 1972.

The quake left 80 percent of the city's structures in heaps and took about 10,000 lives. For some, the bank building represents the abomination of desolation; for others, it bespeaks the hope of a phoenix arising from the ashes.

I visited Nicaragua in early January, before the presidential election. As a priest I was interested in getting a sense of the life of the church in Central America. And the numerous lay religious leaders, priests, and bishops I encountered have caused me to revise some of my previous assumptions about the vibrancy of liberation theology.

Reading Orbis Press, you get the impression that liberation theology is the wave of the future, a movement on the rise. This was not my experience. My impressions, from an admittedly brief visit, indicate that liberation theology is on the wane. Likewise, intellectual changes among young seminarians and young clergy hint at a decline in liberation theology's moral legitimacy, which has bolstered socialist movements in Central America in general and Nicaragua in particular. The developments in Eastern Europe, of course, only hasten this decline.

The Nicaraguan "Popular Church," which emerged in the '60s and '70s from the speculations of the liberation theologians, is an exiguous form of its old self. The meeting of the "curia" of the diocese of Managua reflects this change. On the day I attended, 40 to 50 priests and invited guests were present. After prayer in the small chapel of the chancery, the discussion focused on the current political climate. Several priests agreed that they would be hard pressed to name a single native Nicaraguan priest who is active in the Popular Church.

Then came the announcement of the sabbatical leave of Father Uriel Molina, a well-known Franciscan liberationist priest who had been the pastor of the largest and perhaps best known of the Popular churches, Nuestra Signor de Los Angeles. Father Molina—whom Shirley Christian, author of Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, has described "as the unofficial archbishop of pro-Sandinista priests"—chose to take a year off and contemplate his situation after Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo transferred him to another parish in the city. He now resides at his mother's home.

The famous church he pastored is not a representative Nicaraguan parish. The people I spoke with said it was sustained by support from the Sandinista government, attention in the international press, and assistance from North American and Western European internationalistas (along with a sprinkling of native Nicaraguans who attend its services).

If liberation theology is alive anywhere in Nicaragua, it is among these internationalistas, derisively referred to as "sandalistas" by the local folk. (The reference is to the sandals they are wont to wear.) There is a distinct air of animosity toward them because of what some see as their hypocrisy. To hear the common folk tell it, the internationalistas also have a problem with hygiene. One nun said, "Why do they come here and pretend to be poor by dressing the way they do? They think they are identifying with us? Then why do they all smell? We may be poor, but we know how to bathe!"

The internationalistas gather for Cokes in the air-conditioned bar of the International Hotel after a hot day of reconnoitering the dank shacks that constitute much of the shelter in Managua. How they can return from these sights and from this inflation-ridden country to speak in glowing terms of the progress the Sandinistas have made defies the imagination.

A group of Carmelite sisters were adamant about the need to tell Americans that the money given to left-wing, religious organizations was not reaching the general poor. "When money is given to churches approved by the Sandinistas it is used politically," the mother superior of the community said. "The poor receive this money—but first they must become members of FSLN [the Sandinista Liberation Front]—and once they do that, they are called upon to attend meetings and lend their support to the various political organizations and causes."

We were sitting on the convent's little patio, which is located just off the living room where about 14 young girls, postulants and novices, sat chatting, watching television, and making rosaries. Every 15 minutes or so another political commercial would come on showing Daniel Ortega at a rally or bouncing a baby. The young sisters would snicker.

"Look there," said the superior who had been instructing me in the political manipulation of the poor. She was pointing to a scene on the TV showing a Sandinista political gathering. "Do you see those faces? Do they look to you as though they want to be at that meeting? That is where the American money goes. It is given by well-intentioned people, but it is being used politically."

She continued my tutorial: "The Church in communion with the bishop is poor. You can see that for yourself. But the Popular Church has everything it needs."

These nuns are expanding their convent to accommodate an increasing number of vocations. When I asked how they were able to afford the modest construction underway, I was told that it was only through the generosity of their American sisters, who made direct contributions and brought things down personally, without going through government channels.

I also encountered a young, recently ordained priest who was well informed on current theological and economic issues. He seemed anxious to read the paper I was to deliver at the Mont Pelerin meeting. I was amazed to discover his apparent familiarity with free-market economists, such as F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, cited in the paper. (I'd be astounded to learn of just one such seminarian in this country.)

It wasn't until I got to Guatemala and visited the Salesian seminary associated with the prestigious Francisco Marroquin University, where this young priest had been trained, that I came to see the shift that may well be taking place in Central America. All students at Marroquin, whether doctors, dentists, lawyers, or seminarians, must take the core curriculum of the university, which requires passing four courses in market economics. Two of these courses are on the thought of Hayek and two on Mises. So committed are the trustees of Marroquin University to classical liberal ideas that the new library, currently under construction, will be named for Mises.

The challenge to the philosophical basis of liberation theology is direct. Under the banner "Veritas, Libertas, Justitia," the opening sentences of a booklet outlining the university's philosophy represent the antithesis of the liberationist notion of "praxis":

"Francisco Marroquin University will emphasize the theoretical rather than the practical or occupational aspects of higher education.

"The disdain shown for theory in universities throughout the world is due, in part at least, to a partial understanding of the fact that all human thought finds its raison d'être in some form of action or practice. In the final analysis, all knowledge consists of knowing how to do something…the difference between he who learns to apply a theory without knowing what theory he is applying, and he who applies it knowingly, is that the latter is in a position to look for alternative methods which are compatible with the theory."

In short: from Marxist praxis to Mises's praxeology, the logic of the human action which sustains a free society.

This shift represents a general challenge to what Joe Sobran might call the socialist opinion cartel in Central America, and especially to the liberationist tendencies prevalent in the region. Seminarians come from all over Central America to take their theological training at the Salesian seminary, and Marroquin University has satellites in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Managua. The long-term impact of scores of opinion makers being turned out by Marroquin University is anybody's guess.

My guess, indeed my prayer, is that at the very least the moral, economic, political, and theological case for a free market in a free society may at last be heard. Of course, to hear an argument is not necessarily to believe it, but given the Nicaraguan spirit of hard work and enterprise I witnessed, the prospects for freedom are bright. Still, an intellectual lacuna needs to be filled. People who opposed the socialism promoted by the Sandinistas are not necessarily consistent supporters of freedom.

In my conversations with Nicaraguan intellectuals prior to the election defeat of the Sandinistas in February, I found that ideas on how to achieve a free society, and in particular a free market, simply were not on the table. At that time their primary concern was how to oust the Sandinistas. Now the question is, what next? Here is where a think tank or institute committed to promoting classical liberal ideas is crucial. One hopes that Nicaraguans will not be be so caught up in immediate political concerns that they neglect the intellectual foundations essential for a free society.

Robert A. Sirico is a Paulist priest on the staff of the Catholic Information Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.