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The historical significance of Nicaragua.


The following interview with Fr. Francois Houtart took place in Managua in August 1987. Fr. Houtart, a Belgian priest who teaches at Louvain University, has been devoting his summers to research work in Nicaragua for the last five years. Since his first visit to Latin America in 1953, Fr. Houtart's work in the sociology of religion has become widely known and respected. He has also worked in many other parts of the third world. He was an expert at the Second Vatican Council and contributed significantly to the 1968 conference of Latin American bishops at Medellin, Colombia. Fr. Houtart is the author of the following books in English, among others: The Challenge to Change (Sheed & Ward, 1964); The Church and the Latin American Revolution (Sheed & Ward, 1965); Church and Revolution (Orbis, 1970); Religion and Ideology in Sri Lanka; and two books on Catholicism in India.

Joseph E. Mulligan (JEM): How did you come to Nicaragua?

Francois Houtart (FH): In 1982 Xavier Gorostiaga (Jesurit director of CRIES, the Regional Center for Economic and Social Research in Managua) and Uriel Molina (Franciscan director of the Antonio Valdivieso Ecumenical Center) and other friends asked me to come to Nicaragua. So for the last five years I have spent my summers here in Nicaragua, doing teaching and research with the Central American University.

My first project was on the impact of religion on politics-- to see what kind of religious conceptions people had and whether that had any impact on their political thinking or behavior, and to discover their vision of the Church as an institution.

In 1985 we began a study of people's understanding of health issues. It was clear that the revolution had brought in a new philosophy of health--as a human right and not just a commodity available to those with money to buy it. Due to the achievements of the revolution, more and more people expect health care as a right, but they still see that if you have money you have better health, because Nicaragua has a mixed-economy system.

For the last two years I have been working with the Ministry of Culture to see how people's mentality is changing with the social and political transformations of society.

JEM: Could you summarize your findings as to the impact of religion on political attitudes?

FH: Our specific study of that was about five years ago, but what we found was that just because a person had a traditional religious mentality did not mean that he or she necessarily had antirevolutionary attitudes. For instance, we found pro-Sandinista attitudes throughout the religious spectrum.

However, the opposition against the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) was always, or almost always, associated with the traditional religious approach. Of course, the opposition was also closely related to a bourgeois attitude.

In studying the pro-FSLN youth, we found two groups: those who had abandoned religion, and those who had changed their religious approach (from more conservative to more progressive). So we concluded that the political attitude of the hierarchy was not a real threat to the FSLN, because it was only effective among those who were already against the revolutionary process.

Thus we saw that the people, especially the lower-class people, both rural and urban, could distinguish quite well between the religious function of the Church and the political attitude of the hierarchy, concluding that they were not obliged to follow the political views of the hierarchy.

JEM: What impact did the Pope's visit in 1983 have?

FH: We thought it might have caused a certain trauma in the people, but we found that was not true. In one interview a peasant told me: "The Pope came to Nicaragua by air, but he never landed." That was a good resume of the people's thinking about the matter.

JEM: Would you say that the experience even contributed to a maturing of the people's faith, in the sense that it brought them to a greater ability to distinguish between the hierarchy's political options and the authoritative teaching of the Church?

FH: Yes, but I would say that has always been the case. In Nicaraguan history some bishops have been closely linked with oppressive political power, and the people have strongly opposed them--without affecting their religious faith.

JEM: What would you say was the Pope's view of Nicaragua when he arrived here? Did he see this as another Poland, another Hungary?

FH: Exactly. In the process of becoming that. He did not understand Nicaragua.

JEM: On the basis of your research experience, how would you estimate the extent of political support now for the FSLN?

FH: That has not been the primary focus of our research, but my impression is that the general support by the people still exists, even in the midst of much criticism especially of the economy. We must also note that no other political party is really offering an alternative for the people. This is not to say that that is the only reason for support for the Frente, but it is a fact. We must be realistic in this. People will continue supporting the revolutionary process if they see that it is in line with their basic interests. If society is not able to be changed in such a way that the real economic and social interests of the people are met, then they can change very rapidly.

In the new and very poor squatters' settlements which have sprung up in Managua since 1979, there is a great deal of anomie--people don't know which system they belong to or what to think religiously or politically. They can go either way. Of course, they represent less than 10 percent of Managua's population.

Then you find people in certain areas like Chontales and Boaco who work for the big cattle ranchers in a kind of feudal relationship and who more or less support the counterrevolution. In some of those areas, the revolution has not changed things very much because the land reform was not very active, due to the fact that the land was in the hands of middle-range owners who kept up a good degree of productivity and thus did not have their lands expropriated. So for many of the peasants nothing was changed, and they don't see their interests as lying with the revolution. And where there is a feudal relationship between the landlord and peasant, the peasant is really very much influenced by what the landlord thinks.

But this is not the general picture. The peasants who have benefited from the land reform are still strong supporters of the revolution.

JEM: In the midst of all the social and economic changes taking place during these years in Nicaragua, do you find people experiencing a liberating kind of education in the sense of asking their own questions, developing their own capacity to criticize, and thinking for themselves instead of just receiving some doctrine?

FH: I find a great deal of that, especially among the peasants in cooperatives. They make up their own minds. And while they are very pro-revolution, they do not simply repeat what they hear either politically or religiously. For example, in our surveys we found that Cardinal Obando is seen as a political figure, but Miguel D'Escoto (the Minister of Foreign Affairs) as a religious figure. That shows they have a capacity for analysis.

JEM: What does the Nicaraguan revolution represent for other third world countries?

FH: It represents a particular way of getting free of American imperialism and initiating an original way to move toward a socialist society. Most revolutionary movements in the third world see two things very clearly. First, that in the present balance of forces it is impossible to arrive right away at a full socialist society. So a second Cuban revolution is almost impossible, both for internal structural reasons and because of international relationships.

Secondly, revolutionaries see that they cannot come in with a full socialist model of society; rather, things like a mixed economy and political pluralism are necessary steps. So, if Nicaragua is succeeding in that, they see a practical way of achieving something (without slavishly copying the Nicaraguan experience, of course).

JEM: Do you feel that the revolution here is a way of implementing the "option for the proor" that the Church speaks about?

FH: Of course. I would even say that the real danger of the revolution is not to be too radical, but not to be radical enough. And the danger for the future is that the new middle class coming out of the revolution and the bourgeois class would impose their interests on the revolutionary process, which then would serve their interests rather than the interests of the lower classes.

JEM: If because of all the economic and military pressures the Nicaraguan revolution does not survive, what will people in other revolutionary movements throughout the world conclude?

FH: It would probably be a terrible setback, because the more radical groups would say: "You see. We were right: there is no other way besides the radical way." They would look to the total destruction of any kind of power of the former dominating classes. They would say that if you leave a little bit of power to the former dominating classes, they will ally themselves with the capitalist powers and will reverse the revolutionary process. Some revolutionaries will react that way, but others will not agree, and thus the divisions in the revolutionary movement will be accentuated, and the process will be longer and more difficult.

JEM: Will some people draw the same conclusion with regard to the institutional Church? If, God forbid, the hierarchy here were to play a significant role in overthrowing the revolution, would some conclude that they must take a harder line against religion?

FH: Definitely. Of course. And I would say that even now it is almost too late. The Church has almost lost credibility among revolutionaries, although they will accept Christians. But they will never trust the Church as an institution.

I have seen that in Vietnam in relation to the present Pope. They see the Holy See as one of the world instruments to destabilize the socialist world. This is so clear when the Pope goes to Poland or to Latin America.

It is also clear in his encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). I do not agree with the benign interpretation offered by some in Latin America. The encyclical is one of the most reactionary documents. Rather than taking isolated phrases, we must analyze the whole logic, and then we see that the argument is that capitalism, though needing to be reformed, is acceptable. There is supposedly a difference between the old capitalism, which was really bad, and "civilized" capitalism. The latter is the only economic form acceptable for the Church.

Socialism, on the other hand, is said to be essentially bad, while capitalism is only accidentally bad, because the analysis which is made of socialism is a philosophical or theoretical type of analysis, whereas the analysis of capitalism is not theoretical but practical. So they say that if this or that problem in capitalism is remedied, then the system will be all right. But they don't make a real analysis of socialism; they simply say it is based on an atheist philosophy and so it is unacceptable. Of course, I'm referring to socialism in the sense of the socialist mode of production, not social democracy, which is very different in that it accepts capitalism as a system and tries to work within it. But the idea that a new, socialist mode of production must be established in order to solve the basic problems of injustice and exploitation is fundamentally rejected --and it is rejected on philosophical grounds.

JEM: But in reality isn't that opposition to socialism based on an identification with the capitalist system as it is? While it is said that socialism is wrong because it is atheistic, aren't there other more basic economic interests involved in the Church's position?

FH: Yes and no. We should not oversimplify the matter. It is not just an identification with the capitalist system. What is involved here is the idea that capitalism is the system where, for the moment, the Church as an institution gets the greatest amount of liberty to exercise all kinds of activities--not only religious but educational, health care, etc.

The Church came to this position after a long period of struggle against liberal [laissez-faire] capitalism. That struggle was not due to any perception on the Church's part that the capitalist system was an unjust system; rather, the Church opposed it because it represented a break from the feudal system. For years and years the Church has dreamt of going back to the feudal order. Now that is over, and they have accepted this system as the best system in the world today to give the Church as an institution the greatest possible space to carry out its own activities.

But they forget to mention one thing. There is a condition to this: the Church must not call into question the basic social relations of the capitalist system. The day they do that in any effective way, religious persecution will break out. But no one talks about that.

Of course, in Europe you can speak against capitalism from a religious perspective, but that will not threaten the system since no one will really challenge it. It is too strong. But in countries like the Philippines or in Latin America, where there is dependent capitalism, religion can be a dangerous issue for the system--if liberation theology is developed and Christians are motivated for the class struggle. Then, of course, capitalism reacts very strongly against that kind of religion.

So, I think the reason for the Church's opposition to socialism is an institutional reason more than anything else. Of course, indirectly, there is a certain economic base which is easier to find in a capitalist system, and that means that the Church must be associated with the capitalist state or with people of means. But the institutional concern, which of course the Church does not state officially and which some Church people may not even be conscious of, is more important than economic interests.

This is tied in with a certain kind of ecclesiology and theory of evangelization in which the Church feels that it must have, if not hegemony, at least a great space in civic society--in education, health, mass media, etc. In socialism that is not the case. Of course, socialism has been quite antireligious and anticlerical because of the role the Church was playing in the previous systems. This was especially clear in Eastern Europe, for instance, where the churches were feudal within a feudal system--the Orthodox Church in Russia or the Catholic Church in Poland, Yugoslavia, Rumania, etc. So the socialist system had to fight that kind of organization in order to change the system.

In a socialist system it is necessary to mobilize the whole people to bring about a transformation of the social structure of production. This is a very difficult process, and a voluntary one involving political power. So it is impossible to avoid conflict with an institution which has been one of the key elements of the old society. Complete liberty cannot be permitted an institution which will be an instrument to destroy what the revolution is trying to build. So, historically speaking, the conflict was practically inevitable.

From another point of view, the role of the Church in a socialist society will not be the same as before. It will not have to organize the educational or health systems, for instance, because the whole society is organizing those systems. It will not have to organize development projects, because the whole society becomes a development project.

JEM: Juan Luis Segundo says that the Church frequently does not have enough faith in the power of the gospel, but rather feels that it needs hospitals, schools, food programs, etc., with which to pressure people into accepting the gospel.

FH: Certainly. And that becomes a terrible burden, with the Church becoming a business in some places.

JEM: How does this apply to Nicaragua?

FH: I think this helps to explain the conflict between Church and state here. Having lost some social territory, the Church is trying to regain it by making alliances with the bourgeois opposition. The Church had hegemony in the educational system before the revolution. The revolution did not close a single Catholic school, but it organized the whole educational system, so all at once the Church finds itself a minority in the system. This gives it the impression that it is losing social space, and then it quickly starts talking about persecution!

In reality, of course, Church communities have increased their development projects here since the revolution--not so much the official Church but other Christian groups, both Catholic and Protestant--on the condition that these projects would be integrated into the general plans of the government, which is quite normal. Thus the Church loses some of its power in society, but it gains new space for evangelization. The Church here does not understand that. In trying to regain its power, it is losing its space for evangelization.

JEM: What about the detente between the Vatican and the communist world, and the appointment of a new nuncio here in Nicaragua last year who brought in a more conciliatory tone?

FH: That is tactical. When you come to the conclusion that a government is here to stay, if you want your institution to have a certain place in society, you must dialogue with the government. But that does not mean you have changed your mind about the government.

JEM: Then in the long run the Pope and the hierarchy here would like to see this government crushed, but for now they want to have some kind of working relationship with it.

FH: Absolutely. The Pope's idea when he came here to Nicaragua was that this government was not yet a Marxist-Leninist regime, but was on its way. So he felt there was still time to mobilize the whole Catholic body to stop that evolution. That is why he expressed his opposition so strongly. When he goes to Poland, on the other hand, he knows that the governmental structure is there to stay, and he acts accordingly.

JEM: Do you have any particular message for readers in the United States?

FH: Yes, I think we must be very conscious of the fact that what is happening in Nicaragua is very important for the rest of the third world. I was in the Philippines this year and had contract with people in the revolutionary movements. For them, Nicaragua is a basic point of reference. If the Nicaraguan revolution is brought to an end, either through violence or because they cannot cope with the economic and political pressures, that would be a very dramatic development for the whole third world and for the Church.

So, our solidarity work must be very much oriented to our own countries, because most of the obstacles are coming from our side. We have a great responsibility for what will happen in Nicaragua. And it is not only for the sake of Nicaragua alone, but for what Nicaragua represents in terms of the rest of Latin America and the third world. If Nicaragua fails, then to a great extent the hopes of people throughout the world will go down the drain.

Nicaragua is a central issue for the Church as well. If the Holy See and the hierarchies do not change their basic attitude, then we will be encouraging a process similar to what has happened with the working class in Europe. That means that the credibility of the Church as an agent of evangelization will disappear among the most dynamic sectors of society. In fact, I would say that credibility is already very low. I am not concerned about saving the Church, because for the purposes of evangelization it would be better if this kind of Church that we have here would disappear. But my concern is to save the values of the gospel and the contribution that the gospel can make to the uplifting of mankind.
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Title Annotation:interview with Fr. Francis Houtart
Author:Mulligan, Joseph E.
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:interview
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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