The Roman Catholic bishops of Nicaragua have told priests serving in the revolutionary government they will have to make plans to turn over their jobs to lay people.
After meeting with Pope John Paul II last month and discussing among themselves the emotional issue of priests' participation in politics, Nicaragua's bishops issued a statement this week saying "lay Christians can fulfill with no less effectiveness the public jobs now held by some priests."
Clerical proponents of Latin America's so-called "liberation theology" have been very active in Nicaragua, and the bishops' decision apparently reflects the Vatican's desire to restrain such political activism by priests.
There are six priests serving in Nicaragua's executive branch -- two of them in the Cabinet -- and one in the recently installed Council of State. They had been permitted to do so because Nicaragua had just been through a civil war and there were not enough trained lay people to put the new government on its feet.
The bishops' statement declared that nine months after Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza, "The exceptional circumstances have ended."
Earlier this month, Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.), a Jesuit priest, said he would not stand for reelection in compliance with a papal directive banning priests from holding public office.
Foreign minister Miguel D'Escoto, a Maryknoll priest, said the priests in the government had not been notified officially of the bishops' decision. He said they met last night "trying to find out what it means," and will request a meeting with the bishops.
A member of the bishops' conference said the bishops believe that "the time of emergency has passed" and the revolutionary priests "should do what they were ordained for -- taking care of the spiritual needs of people." He said there are not enough parish priests in Nicaragua, and "ordinary people are wondering why they are there [in the government] when they could be helping us directly."
The bishops' document said that during his meeting with Nicaraguan bishops in Rome April 17 Pope John Paul said: "I wish to call your attention especially to the importance of a systematic and solid work of . . . religious instruction, using all available resources."
A Nicaraguan bishop said the priests would not have to resign from their government jobs immediately and would have time to find a successor.
Among the other priests in the Nicaraguan government are Culture Minister Ernesto Cardenal, his brother Fernando, who is head of the nationwide literacy campaign, and two economic advisers, Edgard Parrales and Xavier Gorostiaga.