MANAGUA, Nicaragua — In 1985, then-Pope John Paul II ordered the suspension of the priestly ministry of Maryknoll Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who served as the foreign minister of the Sandinista-led Nicaragua government in violation of canon law, which bars priests from holding political office.
Almost three decades later, on Aug. 5, Vatican Radio reported that Father d’Escoto, 81, had requested that he be allowed to say Mass again “before dying,” and Pope Francis approved his request.
The letter from the Vatican that agreed to the priest’s request was signed by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
“The Holy Father has given his benevolent assent that Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann be absolved from the canonical censure inflicted upon him and entrusts him to the superior general of the institute [Maryknoll] for the purpose of accompanying him in the process of reintegration into the ministerial priesthood,” stated the Aug. 1 letter, according to a press release issued by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.
In Nicaragua, the news was widely reported, with Rosario Murillo, the wife of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, congratulating the priest during a public event.
Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua told the Nicaraguan daily newspaper La Prensa that the reinstatement of Father d’Escoto’s priestly faculties was “a Vatican decision. … I can hardly comment on Father d’Escoto, since I was not here [in Managua] when he was suspended, and I barely know him.”
Meanwhile, Nicaraguan news sites registered comments that were often critical of the priest’s record, reflecting bitter, if fading, memories of the rise and fall of the Marxist-inclined Sandinista revolution and the complex role played by several priests who accepted senior positions in the Sandinista government after it came to power in 1979.
A New Kind of Priest
At that time, Father d’Escoto’s appointment as foreign minister marked the ascendance of a new kind of priest and social revolutionary.
Ordained on June 10, 1961, Father d’Escoto later joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front. The Sandinistas emerged as the leaders of a broad coalition of political, business and labor leaders that overthrew Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza in 1979, during a time of growing political upheaval and civil war in Central America.
Father d’Escoto would come to be associated with liberation theology, which expressed deep concern for the poor and the transformation of social and economic systems that prevented their advancement. Liberation theology, in its more radical forms, borrows Marxist categories — like class struggle — to critique economic inequality and Church authority.
In 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an "Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation," which welcomed efforts to respond to the yearnings of the poor but reminded its audience that Christ’s primary mission was to liberate men and women from sin, the wellspring of all social injustice.
The instruction warned that some theologies of liberation erroneously drew upon, “in an insufficiently critical fashion, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought.”
Father d’Escoto served as the Sandinista foreign minister from 1979 until the Sandinistas were defeated in a 1990 national election. Two other Nicaraguan brothers, Jesuit Father Fernando Cardenal and Trappist Father Ernesto Cardenal, also played high-profile roles in the government. Later, Father Fernando Cardenal successfully petitioned the Vatican to have his suspension lifted and resumed his priestly ministry, while his brother has not done so, according to media reports.
For many Catholics across the globe, the three priests offered a striking symbol of moral legitimacy to the newly established Sandinista government. But within Nicaragua, the Sandinistas’ efforts to consolidate power sparked criticism from the local hierarchy and other independent leaders, provoking clashes between Church and state.
“Father d’Escoto … went against the Church, like all the other governing Sandinistas,” said Elida Zelaya Solorzano, a Nicaraguan pro-life leader, who received an award for her service from St. John Paul II.
“I believe in mercy, and I know it is always there for all of us sinners, because God is love. But for it to reach us, we must repent and ask forgiveness. We haven’t heard this from Father d’Escoto,” Solorzano told the Register, echoing the concerns of some Nicaraguans.
Further, she said she was shocked to read an Aug. 6 article that quoted the priest praising Fidel Castro last week on television as “the greatest Latin American of all time,” who was chosen by God to “spread his message.”
Castro, charged Solorzano, “is an atheist who sent to the ‘paredón, [firing squad]’ hundreds of his countrymen.”
Father Cardenal: Sandinistas Were a ‘Completely New Event’
But some in Nicaragua had a different reaction to the news that Father d’Escoto’s suspension had been lifted.
Father Fernando Cardenal, who now works with his order’s Fe y Allegria initiative — a network of schools that serve the poor — recalled that the Sandinista government was a “completely new event” that required a different response from the Vatican.
When the Sandinistas came to power, Father Cardenal told the Register, it was “a new upheaval — not like the Soviet, not like the Cuban [situations] — with the participation of Christians, priests and religious.
“So my position was that the canon [barring priests in political office] is valid in ordinary times, but we were in a different, very special situation.”
But at the time, Pope John Paul, who was in the midst of a struggle to defeat the decaying communist system in Eastern Europe, saw things differently. And, during the 1983 Mass celebrated by the Polish pope in Managua, Church-state tensions exploded into view, with the Holy Father ordering Sandinista supporters to “silence” their chanting of party slogans that disrupted the liturgy.
The papal Mass was a low point for Xavier Zavala, a Nicaraguan publisher and intellectual, who has never forgotten Father d’Escoto’s tacit support for Sandinista policies that violated civil liberties and directly challenged the moral authority of Church leaders.
“The Sandinista government disrespected … the pope and the Eucharist,” recalled Zavala, who now lives in Costa Rica. “Everyone could see it on the TV screen: Miguel d’Escoto and the other two priests raising their right arms with clenched fists, while the loudspeakers” broadcast the Sandinista slogans.
Involvement in 1998 Scandal
In 1998, Father d’Escoto became entangled in an explosive scandal that rocked the Sandinista leadership, after the daughter of Rosario Murillo, the wife of Daniel Ortega, accused her stepfather of abusing her as a young girl.
An Aug. 5 La Prensa article about the lifting of Father d’Escoto’s suspension also reviewed Zoilamerica Murillo Ortega’s allegations, outlined in a published letter.
“In Zoilamerica’s public declaration on May 22, 1998, she accused Ortega of having abused her since she was 11 years old. She also [said] that she had asked Father d’Escoto, who was then minister of foreign affairs, to help her, but he refused,” reported the La Prensa story.
“Zoilamerica says, ‘He suggested that I should bear with submission, the cross assigned to me in this life. … This person [Father d’Escoto] supposed that I should have to look out for Ortega’s image.’”
La Prensa’s account did not include statements from Father d’Escoto refuting the allegation. When the Register emailed Father d’Escoto and requested further clarification on this matter and other issues, his assistant replied that the priest was not conducting interviews and was busy preparing for the celebration of his first mass in many years. a spokesman for the Maryinoll Fathers said there would be no further comment beyond the original press release confirming the Vatican's action.
Back in 1998, when Zoilamerica Murillo Ortega leveled her allegations, and also said she had forgiven her stepfather, CNN reported that Daniel Ortega and his wife made a formal public appearance that acknowledged the charges but did not directly refute them.
Return to Prominence
Daniel Ortega won the 2007 presidential elections after he offered a more moderate platform in keeping with the post-Soviet era, and he has remained at the helm of the government ever since.
Meanwhile, Father d’Escoto became president of the United Nations General Assembly in 2008. There, according to The New York Times, he “was known for his alliances with leftist movements around the world and was criticized for further polarizing an already divided region.”
Judging from his recent endorsement of Fidel Castro, Father d’Escoto has retained the ideological beliefs that brought him into the Sandinista party more than three decades ago.
But the status quo in Nicaragua has shifted since the 1980s.
Critics and media outlets note that the Sandinistas control the Supreme Court and dominate seats in the National Assembly, but Ortega has made peace with business leaders.
Last year, for example, he deployed one of his sons to China, with a group of Nicaraguan business leaders, to secure a deal for a “$40-billion interoceanic canal, a long-cherished dream of many Nicaraguans,” as The Economist reported.
“Nicaraguans call this Somocismo without Somoza,” Robert Callahan, a former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, told The New York Times in 2011, in comments that recalled the “style of ruling through favoritism” practiced by the national leader the Sandinistas themselves ousted in 1979.
Humberto Belli, a columnist for La Prensa and an entrepreneur in Nicaragua, told the Register that the Sandinistas, led by Ortega, have left Father d’Escoto far behind.
“Many of the Sandinistas use leftist rhetoric, but only to pay homage to leftist beliefs,” said Belli, the author of Breaking Faith: The Sandinista Revolution and Its Impact on Freedom and the Christian Faith in Nicaragua. “In practice, they have become neo-liberals: They are open to free trade and free markets. Ortega supports the private sector, which has been a pleasant surprise for business leaders.”
In contrast, he suggested that Father d’Escoto remained committed to the ideological mindset typical of “the ’70s,” when it seemed that communism, not capitalism, would inspire a new world order.
While Father d’Escoto did not respond to the Register’s request for comment on Daniel Ortega’s business-friendly policies, Father Fernando Cardenal offered his own guidance for an examination of conscience by the revolution’s leaders.
Father Cardenal suggested that each person must consider whether “the principles that we lived in those most splendid moments of the revolution” have “changed, if they have been corrupted.”
“We were Sandinistas; we continue being Sandinistas,” he concluded. “So I believe that each one must be his own judge for his actions.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.
Register Latin-America correspondent Alejandro Bermudez contributed to this report.