Four Nicaraguan priests who were ordered by the Vatican to quit their posts in the Sandinista government or face suspension from the priesthood all have chosen to remain in the government.
During the past two months the priests, one by one, have made their decisions known. Miguel D'Escoto, foreign minister and a Maryknoll priest, Fernando Cardenal, education minister and a Jesuit, and his brother, Ernesto Cardenal, culture minister and a diocesan priest, all announced that they would suffer suspension by the church rather than quit the government.
The fourth priest, Edgard Parrales, another diocesan priest who is ambassador to the Organization of American States, already had announced his decision to leave the priesthood. He, too, said he would continue in the government.
The announcements again brought to the fore the tensions between the five-year-old Sandinista government and the country's Catholic Church hierarchy, which has accused the regime of leading Nicaragua toward totalitarianism.
The stridency of that conflict diminished after Vatican mediation last September, and the two sides are holding talks. But the decisions made by the four priests and the subsequent suspensions demonstrate that divisions in the clergy, between those who support the Sandinistas and those who oppose them, continue.
D'Escoto and Fernando Cardenal already have been suspended, while Ernesto Cardenal's censure becomes effective Feb. 14, according to church sources. Their suspension a divinis means they cannot say mass nor perform the sacraments of the church, which include giving communion and performing marriages or last rites.
All four priests have served in the Sandinista government since it came to power in 1979. They made an agreement with Nicaraguan bishops in 1981 that they would not perform priestly duties while they remained in the Cabinet. But in November 1983, Pope John Paul II saw to it that Catholic Church law was rewritten, prohibiting priests from holding government positions.
All the priests, except for D'Escoto, announced their decisions at press conferences, the last being that of Ernesto Cardenal last week.
"I can't resign," said Cardenal, well-known as a poet. "To resign at this moment when my country is under attack would be to commit treason against my people," he said, referring to attacks by U.S.-backed rebels.
D'Escoto, whose suspension from the priesthood became effective last week, said in a telephone interview earlier that he believed the Vatican was acting in an "authoritarian manner, which won't do the church any good. . . . I won't change my position now just because I'm being threatened."
Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega, president of the Nicaraguan bishops' conference that has been a sharp critic of the Sandinistas, denied charges made by some progovernment priests that the Vatican action was political, the act of a conservative pope against leftist clergy.
"They are being asked to dedicate themselves fully and faithfully to priestly service. That is the question," he said.
Vega said no further action would be taken against the priests unless they decide to defy the suspension and resume performance of priestly duties. He said the priests would then face a process of "interdict" by the church, a step just short of excommunication meaning the priests could not only not perform the sacraments, but could not receive most sacraments either.
Vega said recent talks with the government had brought some progress in church-state affairs.