MANAGUA – Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes’ quick acceptance of First Lady Rosario Murillo’s explanation of a controversial government press release attacking the Catholic Church has critics claiming the Sandinista government has achieved its objective of bullying the church’s hierarchy into a more submissive role.
The controversy started April 30 when a press release was sent from Murillo’s official NicaraguaTriunfa email address accusing Nicaraguan Catholic priests of being corrupt, drunks and womanizers. It accused the Catholic Church in Nicaragua of being among the most corrupt in the world and of trying to assume the role of a “powerful political party” in opposition to the Sandinista government.
The press release, a type-written report titled “The Relationship with the Church,” was allegedly written by presidential aide Orlando Núñez and addressed to Murillo, head of all government communication. It was supposedly based on an interview Núñez conducted with Father Gregorio Raya, a Spanish-born Roman Catholic priest in Juigalpa, Chontales, who allegedly said the Nicaraguan Catholic Church is worried about the government’s growing power and a return to the hostile church-state relations that characterized the first Sandinista government in the 1980s.
The report was apparently written as a private memo to Murillo, indicated by the signoff, “hugs, Orlando” – not exactly official government protocol. But nevertheless it was e-mailed to all the press from the administration’s address along with the customary letter of introduction signed by Murillo on official “Pueblo Presidente” government letterhead.
The release of the memo caused an immediate stir. Father Raya quickly denied having ever given an interview to Núñez. And the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua held a press conference May 4 to demand an explanation from the government.
“This document should be considered for what it is, the product of an imaginative mind without any foundation, far from the truth and from reality,” the Episcopal Conference said in a written statement. The Nicaraguan bishops said they were “open to forgiving,” but demanded a clarification from the government.
The clarification came May 5 – six days after the memo was leaked – in the form of a fiery email from Murillo, sent from the same NicaraguaTriunfa address. The first lady blasted unidentified “rightwing hackers” for allegedly breaking into her email account and trying to stir up trouble between the government and the church.
Murillo warned the alleged perpetrators that “hacking is a crime” and accused them of “playing with fire.” Núñez, for his part, denied writing the memo.
Though Murillo’s explanation was dismissed as “unconvincing” by the media and political pundits, Archbishop Monsignor Leopoldo Brenes hailed the government’s explanation as a “positive step” and said he hoped that such tense situations would never be repeated.
Buckling to Pressure?
Analysts say the Catholic hierarchy’s quick acceptance of the government line demonstrates the church is afraid to risk its own quota of power by assuming any meaningful opposition role to the powerful Sandinista government.
María López, a former nun and author of various theological works, including Just Jesus and Another God is Possible, doesn’t buy the government’s explanation and said she thinks the Sandinista email attack on the church is a clear message to the hierarchy to not step out of line by questioning the government.
López said the Catholic Church is very concerned about its public image right now, following the paternity scandals of Paraguayan President and former bishop Fernando Lugo and the recent romantic scandal involving popular priest Padre Alberto Cutíe, of Miami.
The Sandinistas, she said, know the church is feeling susceptible to moral scandal so they sent out the memo to advise the bishops that they’ve got dirt on them and can throw it whenever they want.
“This was a warning,” she said.
Church-state relations began to strain late last year, when several bishops denounced election fraud in the Nov. 9 municipal vote, in which the Sandinistas are accused of stealing more than 40 mayoral seats. The Episcopal Conference demanded a vote recount.
The bishops again expressed consternation with the government in December, when the Sandinistas usurped the image of the Virgin Mary for political rallies.
Tensions increased again last month when bishop Abelardo Mata, of Estelí, announced the presence of rearmed “political groups” operating in the mountains in northern Nicaragua. That claim has been disputed by the government and military, despite continued warnings by Mata and ex-Contra leaders.
But apart from several critical voices in the church hierarchy, López claims the Catholic Church as an institution is more interested in protecting its own interests and “surviving” than it is in playing any prophetic or political opposition role.
“There are no more Monsignor Oscar Romeros,” she said, referring to the martyred Catholic bishop gunned down in 1980 for speaking out against the abuses of the government in El Salvador. “The Nicaraguan bishops don’t want conflict, they want comfortable relations.”
Sociologist and political analyst Cirilo Otero says he thinks the Catholic Church is “buckling” to the Sandinista government.
He agrees that the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is more interested in protecting its tax exemptions, properties, privileges and power than it is in denouncing government abuses.
Meanwhile, Otero says, the government’s attack email against the bishops shows the Sandinistas are taking their intolerance to new levels.
“The Ortega government is attacking others just for giving them bad looks, not even for assuming real opposition roles,” Otero said. The analyst says the memo was – in effect – a slap in the church’s face, “to make them learn.”
Otero thinks it was also part of Murillo’s strategy to knock the church down a few rungs before entering into the anticipated dialogue between the church and state.
“Before the church was going to enter the dialogue from a position of power, or equals, but now they will come to the table scared,” Otero said.
Buoyed by ‘Celam’ The day after Murillo’s “hacker explanation,” the government reportedly asked the church to sit down for a face-to-face dialogue last weekend. The church, however, said its scheduling was complicated by the arrival of some 60 bishops from 22 Latin American countries for this week’s meeting of the Latin American Episcopal Council (Celam) in Managua.
Though Nicaragua was picked to host the Celam conference two years ago, the timing of conference, which ends May 16, comes at a moment when the NicaraguanChurch could use a little solidarity.
“This meeting was programmed here in 2007, when the reality was different,” Archbishop Brenes told The Nica Times last week. “But there’s no doubt that it’s a form of support for the church and a demonstration that we are also important within the Celam.”
Brenes said the Nicaraguan church has no “specific proposal” to ask for any special declaration of support. Others, however, have noted that it is customary for Celam to issue some sort of joint declaration at the end of their biannual meetings.
Regarding the Catholic Church’s relations with the Sandinistas, Brenes said he doesn’t consider the memo leak as a part of a campaign against the bishops. He stressed that relations are fluid with many government institutions and ministries, and are better than they were in the 980s.
“I have had a very open dialogue with them, and I don’t feel any tension,” he said.
“And I thank God that my heart has never had bad feelings toward someone else.”
Asked if he still believes the government when it talks about reconciliation, Brenes said, “Reconciliation is our theme, and it’s the desire of everyone. I know that sometimes it’s difficult, but we have to ask the holy spirit to give us the spirit of service so that all Nicaraguans can reconcile and love one another.”