The Roman Catholic Church of Nicaragua is making Latin American history in the way it is learning to work with a socialist revolutionary government, according to the Nicaraguan church's top leader.
"The church has sustained conversations with the government junta and the Sandinista, movement," said Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua. The Sandinistas seized control of the Central American nation last year.
Speaking to reporters during a visit here last week, Obando said that the church is "going along" with the new revolutionary government while feeling it still can criticize it.
The Nicaraguan prelate, head of the most important diocese in his nation, was in Washington on his way home from San Francisco, where at the invitation of Archbishop John Quinn, he had visited a colony of about 50,000 Nicaraguan expatriates.
He had hoped to visit with members of Congress to lobby for a bill providing aid to Nicaragua, which has been pending since last summer. But since he was here only on Friday -- a day when members traditionally head back home, particularly in an election year -- he made only limited contacts.
According to church experts, the Nicaraguan situation marks the first time in South America that the church and a revolutionary government have been reasonably amicable following a coup.
In the years and months leading up to last summer's civil war there, Obando was increasingly critical of President Anastasio Somoza, although he stopped short of supporting the Sandinistas directly. Toward the end of the civil war, Obando, the most important of the country's prelates, traveled to Venezuela and then to Costa Rica, where negotiations were going on with Sandinista leaders.
When the Sandinista government-in-exile flew triumphantly into Nicaragua last July, Obando was with them. The hierarchy's support was not unconditional, however. The bishops soon issued a pastoral letter that warned against authoritarianism on the left.
Communication between the church and revolutionary government leaders remained open, however, and in November, the bishops issued another pastoral letter, entitled "Christian Commitment or a New Nicaragua," that gave conditional support for the new government's policies.
A section of the pastoral letter dealt forthrightly with the question of socialism. As Obando summarized the central points, "If socilism means to take away divinely given rights . . . if socialism takes away from parents the right of educating their children as they see fit, that it not what the bishops want.
"If on the other hand, it gives the rights of the people to use the goods of this earth for the benefit of the people," it would have their support, he said.
A key passage in the bishop's message said: "We are further confident that out (Nicaragua's) revolutionary process will be something original, creative, truly Nicaraguan and in no sense imitative. But 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, not dependent, nor totalitarian."
Parish priests have taken a far more aggressive role than their bishops in the new revolutionary government and three are in high posts: the Rev. Miguel d'Escoto, foreign minister; the Rev. Xavier Gorostiaga, a Panamanian Jesuit on loan to the Ministry of Planning, and the Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, minister of culture.
Despite statements on several occasions by Pope John Paul II that clergy should not become part of the political process, he archbishop said, in answer to a question, "The Holy See has as yet not given an opinion" about the three priests serving in government posts.
Obando said that church leaders were told last month that "in the long term, Catholic schools would be nationalized." But he said the government gave assurances that "the religious personnel should continue" as teachers.
At the same meeting, he said church leaders raised the question of government control of the mass media. They were told, he said, that "TV at least for the moment would remain in the public sector, but that the church would have a chance for its programs."
The church's 20-year-old radio station, which Obando said he controls "is functioning, and we have the promise from the government that it will continue."