Nicaragua, The Catholic Church in
NICARAGUA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The largest Central American country, the Republic of Nicaragua is located approximately 375 miles from the Panama Canal and 375 miles from Mexico. It is bound on the north by Honduras, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, on the south by Costa Rica and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Nicaragua's population is concentrated along the Pacific coast; its major cities are Managua, León and Granada, and its chief port is Corinto. The climate is generally hot and humid except in the mountainous region and its Caribbean coastline has earned the name the "Mosquito Coast." Nicaragua has two great lakes and a number of rivers which flow into the Atlantic. The volcanic chain near the Pacific coast is always active but not dangerously so. Nicaragua is an agricultural and cattle-raising country whose largest exports are cotton, coffee, sugar, bananas and beef; it also has gold and copper mines.
Church History. Nicaragua was first inhabited by South American natives, who settled the coastal regions, and by the 10th century the region experienced an influx of immigrants from Mexico. Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World, "discovered" the Atlantic portion of Nicaragua on Sept. 12, 1502; Gil González d'Avila discovered the Pacific portion 20 years later. In 1524 the conquest of the region by Spain was accomplished by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who founded the cities of Granada and León; the monetary unit of the country, the cordoba, was named after him. During the colonial period Nicaragua suffered from the depredations of English pirates; in defense against them Rafaela Herrera became a national heroine.
Catholicism came to Nicaragua with Columbus and was established with the conquest by Córdoba. The first chaplain arrived with Avila in 1522, and in 1524 the first Franciscan church was founded in Granada. The first bishop for the province of Nicaragua was named in 1527. However, Fray Pedro de Zúñiga died in Cádiz before setting out for his see and was succeeded by Diego Álvarez de Osorio, who took possession of the bishopric in León in 1532. Bartolomé de las casas first visited Nicaragua in 1530 and returned in 1532 with four other Dominicans to found the convent of San Pablo at the request of Bishop Osorio. During the colonial period the jesuits also established themselves in Nicaragua, and accomplished much of the missionary work through the 18th century.
Nicaragua remained a part of the captaincy-general of Guatemala until 1821, when along with the rest of the provinces of Central America (except Chiapas, which was annexed to Mexico), it became independent and joined the United Provinces of Central America. In 1836 that federation was dissolved, and after many vicissitudes Nicaragua became an independent republic in 1845. In 1855 it was taken over by an American buccaneer William Walker, who, after seizing the country, made himself president before being driven out by Nicaraguan and Central American troops in 1857. When his new attempt to invade Central America failed, Walker was shot in Honduras in 1860. After his death, the country enjoyed a peaceful period under conservative rule that lasted until the early 1890s.
Protestantism was introduced along the Atlantic coast in the mid-19th century by Englishmen from Jamaica. Not until the 20th century did Catholic missionaries begin intensive work in that area. Protestant sects would penetrate the Pacific area after World War I and increased their activities after World War II. The most active groups were Baptists, Evangelists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Anglicans and Moravians.
In 1892 a military coup d'état brought to power General José Santos Zelaya, a man of liberal ideas, educated in Europe. Despite the beneficial reforms he introduced, Zelaya governed Nicaragua for 17 years with a dictatorial iron hand before revolutionaries ousted him with U.S. backing. Upon his fall, Nicaragua went through another convulsive period until a new armed rebellion brought the Liberals back to power in 1929. The United States played an important role in Nicaraguan politics from 1909 until the occupation forces were finally withdrawn in 1933.
The Modern Church. In 1937 Anastasio Somoza gained dictatorial power and held it until his assassination in 1956. From 1957 to the late 1970s Nicaragua continued to enjoy relative tranquility under the rule of first Somoza's son Luis (1957–63) and then his nephew, General Anastasio Debayle Somoza. During General Somoza's
regime the Sandinista guerilla group came into being, composed of landless peasantry, and over time they gained in power. Civil war broke out in 1976, and on July 17, 1979 Somoza was forced to flee the country. Nicaragua's Sandinista government quickly set about confiscating property from the wealthy classes, who retaliated by forming the Contra army.
The socialist policies of the Sandinistas— particularly with regard to land reform and redistribution of wealth—were popular with many less-affluent Catholics, while certain priests supported the regime within the context of a quasi-Marxist "liberation" as opposed to "salvation" theology that had begun to take shape at the Latin American Bishop's conference in 1968 (see liberation theology). During his visit to the region in 1983, Pope John Paul II surprised audiences by shaking his finger at the kneeling Father Cardenal, one of four Catholic priests who took positions in the Sandinista government in opposition to Vatican orders. More conservative Catholics sided with the former elite class in their opposition to the government and welcomed the CIA-sponsored Contra's efforts to unseat them. By the late 1990s Nicaraguan bishops advocated in favor of compromise between the socialist and U.S.-backed government factions. The nation's economy failed after the United States instituted a trade embargo in 1981; poverty increased, hand in hand with terrorism and human rights abuses, into the 21st century. The Church-supported coalition government elected in 1996 confronted an economic disaster, as well as the potential for renewed violence.
In November of 1998 another tragedy struck the region in the form of Hurricane Mitch, which left 2,500 Nicaraguans dead and many others homeless. Recognizing the people's confidence in the Church, the government allowed Catholic officials to distribute much-needed drinking water and other relief supplies to hurricane victims. Two years later the loss of crops in the outlying Eteli region threatened famine, and the Church, through Carítas, again responded with needed aid.
Moving into the 21st Century. At the close of the 20th century relations between Church and state remained amicable. As had been the tradition for centuries, leaders from the Church met routinely with Nicaraguan government officials and were often consulted by the government when appropriate. Pope John Paul II made his second visit to Managua in February of 1996 by encouraging Nicaraguans to revitalize their moral traditions. The pope also praised the arrival of peace, adding: "you have recovered your sovereign humanity— Christian and national." The coalition government's continued opposition to abortion and family matters was championed by the Church, although it became increasingly problematic on the international level as wealthy nations liberalized their social policies. In 2000, when financial assistance was requested from the Scandinavian nations in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, such aid was almost denied because Nicaragua's Minister of the Family, Max Padilla, refused to acknowledge homosexual relationships as a legitimate basis of the family unit. At home, flare-ups also began to occur, as in 1998, when Sandinistan politicians tried to eliminate the teaching of the Catholic catechism in public schools. Still, the Church's role as the religion of the majority remained so entrenched by the beginning of the 21st century that evangelical Protestant leaders urged their ministers to enter the political realm, even if it meant giving up their congregations.
The Jesuit, salesian, Christian Brothers and piarist orders continued to operate much-needed primary and secondary schools, which received government funding. In 1960 the Jesuits had founded the first Catholic university in Central America, and the Universidad Centroamericana,
in Managua, still maintained imposing credentials in civil engineering, electrical engineering, veterinary medicine, law and business administration. A national university was located in León, and in 1999 the Managua campus of the former Baptist University was transformed into a Catholic university through the funding of U.S. businessman Tom Monaghan. Several Catholic presses also operated in the country, and Managua was home to a Catholic-run radio station.
By 2000 Nicaragua contained 223 parishes, 235 secular and 176 religious priests, 93 brothers and 922 sisters. Among the religious orders were the Spanish Franciscans, Italian Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Capuchins, Salesians, Christian Brothers, Redemptorists, Piarists, Benedictines, Augustinian Recollects and the order of Jesús Divino Obrero, which runs a reformatory in Managua. Secular priests from Canada had charge of the national seminary, which was originally founded by the Dominicans in León and transferred to the capital in 1950. Religious orders of women included four native congregations founded after 1950: the Doctrineras, the Siervas Misioneras de Cristo Rey, the Misioneras Catequistas Lumen Criste and the Siervas de Nuestro Señor. Among the foreign congregations serving in Nicaragua were the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Sisters of the Assumption, Josephites, Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin of Mercy, Oblate Sisters of Divine Love, Oblates of the Sacred Hearts, Franciscans and others. They served in primary and secondary schools and cared for the seminary, an orphanage, a sanitarium and almost all the hospitals located in the country. Among the charitable institutions operating in Nicaragua were Cáritas, Catholic Action and the Congregación Mariana.
Nicaragua contained a number of shrines to which pilgrimages were made: Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in La Conquista, Carazo; San Jerónimo in Masaya; Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Managua; La Vírgen de la Inmaculada Concepción in El Viejo, Chinandega; Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in El Sauce, León; and La Vírgen de la Purísima Concepción in Granada.
Bibliography: Nueva poesía nicaragüense, ed. o. cuadra downing (Madrid 1949). j. d. gÁmez, Historia de Nicaragua (Managua 1889; 2d ed. Madrid 1955).