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Managua parish combats cardinal over cathedral.

A new cathedral is rising in Managua. The old cathedral, which still lies in ruins in the former center of the city devastated by the earthquake of 1972, has been abandoned. Managua's Cardinal Obando y Bravo has made the building of the new cathedral the central symbol of what he sees as the restoration of Catholic society."

The cathedral lies on land donated by the government of Violeta Chamorro, whose party, with the help of 10 years of devastating war and economic blockade by the United States, won the elections against the revolutionary Sandinista party in February 1990.

By general consensus, the new cathedral is remarkably ugly: a massive, square concrete edifice topped by small domes. The price already has exceeded $4 million, and the cardinal has complained that he lacks the money to complete it. Much of the funds have been covered by Tom Monaghan, the Domino's pizza magnate, owner of the Detroit Tigers and a member of the Knights of Malta.

The building lies in a new commercial sector of Managua below an American-style shopping center. In a society of grinding poverty and 70 percent unemployment, where most of the people live at baresubsistence levels, the cathedral is a pointed symbol of the cardinal's social priorities.

Meanwhile, in the parish of St. Paul the Apostle, in a working-class barrio of Managua, another drama is going on, signaling the cardinal's war against the "popular church." This parish is seen as the birthplace of the Christian base communities in Nicaragua in the late 1960s. In 1966, Father Jose de la Jura, a young Spanish-priest teaching at the seminary, asked the bishop to assign him to this area of then 60,000 people.

Father Jose developed a pastoral strategy to serve this population with teams of lay leaders and religious (including Maryknoll Sister Maura Clark, martyred in El Salvador in 1980). These teams created a series of base communities that studied scripture and celebrated liturgies of the word. Courses were developed to train lay leaders as delegates of the word, to lead these groups coordinated by the parish. From this beginning, the Christian base community movement spread throughout Nicaragua and many of its members opted for the revolution in the late 1970s. (See Joseph E. Mulligan, SJ, The Nicaraguan Church and the Revolution, Sheed & Ward, 1991.)

Today, the parish of St. Paw the Apostle struggles to keep some remnants of this heritage alive against the hostility of the cardinal. A fiercely conservative priest has been assigned to the parish and has made clear that no popular initiatives will be allowed. In late January, this priest broke into a Mass being conducted in the home of a deceased woman long active in the parish to commemorate her life. He denounced the assembly as illegal and the priests leading it as unauthorized. He took pictures of these priests, none of whom would have denied being present, then departed in a rage.

Managua has grown to a sprawling city of more than 1 million in recent years (one-third of the nation's population). Many Nicaraguans flee the poverty, violence and unemployment in the countryside (some still-armed contras have formed bands of robbers and assassins) to seek a precarious life in the capital. Popular barrios with makeshift housing have grown up with such names as Ciudad Sandino. The residents often lack title to the land and hook up illegally to light and water.

The Catholic hierarchy has virtually no pastoral outreach to these poor communities. Pastoral work is done by small groups of religious women and lay associates who live there in housing similar to the rest of the community's and develop food kitchens, medical clinics and some catechetical formation. The visiting priests who provide the occasional Mass do so without the blessing of the cardinal. Meanwhile, evangelical churches multiply in these communities. About 20 percent of Nicaraguans are now Protestants.

On Oct. 7, 1992, the Nicaraguan hierarchy sealed its alliance with the far right of Nicaraguan and North American society with a pastoral letter on the state of the nation. Departing from the centrist coalition of the moderate wing of the UNO party and the Sandinistas, which has guided a process of national reconciliation, the bishops echo the demands of the far right that all Sandinista influence must be eliminated from the government and military.

In 1990, although the Sandinistas lost the majority, they won 41 percent of the vote and now hold 39 of the 93 seats in the national assembly. The army, as well as the unions and remaining peasant cooperatives, are solidly Sandinista. Recognizing the impossibility of governing without their help, the Chamorro government has pursued an ambivalent course of partly restoring power and land to the oligarchy, while accommodating some of the changes of the revolution.

The far right of Nicaraguan society, backed by rightists in the U.S. Congress, led by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, has insisted that this coalition be dissolved for a society totally given over to the oligarchy, and they were making this the condition of releasing the promised U.S. aid (some aid was released with the Clinton election). The bishops' pastoral aligned itself with the demands of this right-wing faction and its definitions of the means for restoring "peace" and "democracy" to Nicaragua.

This holy alliance of the far right in Nicaragua and the United States and the Catholic hierarchy ignores the growing Protestant presence in Nicaragua, significant sectors of which work in good ecumenical relations with progressive Catholics. The far right ideal is a restored Catholic Christendom, in which the hierarchical church, allied with business interests and international monetary power, reasserts the dominance of the church over culture. The tired disinterest of the majority of Nicaraguans to the concrete monstrosity growing in the shadow of the new banks and supermarkets, where only a tiny percentage of people can afford to shop, gives the lie to the cardinal's claims to speak for the "true interests" of the people of Nicaragua.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a theology professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
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Title Annotation:Nicaragua
Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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