Listening to the Central American Bishops

Published November 1, 1987

That American activists and policy makers should “listen to the Church in Central America” is a regular antiphon in public debate over U.S. policy toward El Salvador and Nicaragua. This past July, a delegation of bishops representing the U.S. Catholic Conference met in San Jose, Costa Rica, with ten bishops from the Central American episcopal conference. The joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting emphasized the responsibilities of governments to address the grave problems of Central American refugees; stressed the importance of political solutions to the region’s multiple and related conflicts; applauded the rise of democracy throughout Latin America; and urged that U.S. policy toward Central America emphasize economic assistance for development.

What was most interesting about this meeting, however, was not its final communiqué, but the discussion leading up to it. The U.S. bishops arrived in San Jose with a draft joint statement, prepared by the bishops’ Washington, D.C. staff, that raised several issues in the interrogative: to what extent, the draft asked, had the Sandinista regime betrayed the Nicaraguan peoples’ revolution? To what degree had Nicaragua become a part of the Soviet bloc?

These questions reflect, of course, the standard Central American analysis of U.S. Catholic Conference staffers. The bishops of Central America weren’t buying that perspective. According to Bishop Joseph Sullivan, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Social Development and World Peace, the Central American bishops “had no question” that Nicaragua had “become a threat, and that it is an unacceptable threat.” Moreover, “they have no question that the Sandinistas . . . betrayed the revolution.” The Central American bishops also rejected the now-standard U.S. Catholic Conference view “that the Sandinista government developed as it did because of U.S. ‘insensitivity,’ ” and that the Sandinistas act as they do “because of U.S. aid to the contras.”

Bishop Sullivan went on to note that the Central Americans had complained about U.S. groups that visit Nicaragua and return with tales of social and economic progress while downplaying the repression of the Nicaraguan church.

Bishop Sullivan came away from this meeting, according to NC News Service, convinced that “the Sandinista government is Marxist-Leninist and totalitarian.” Sullivan still opposes aid to the Nicaraguan resistance, and that is a policy option on which reasonable people can differ. But the bishop now seems clear on the nature of the Nicaraguan regime. Bishop Sullivan, at least, has had the integrity to acknowledge the witness and testimony of his brother-bishops in Central America.

Why, then, do other religious activists remain among the foremost apologists for the Sandinista regime? What is the will-to-believe that compels men like Bishop Thomas Gumbletbn of Detroit to continue denying the facts about Sandinista ideology and practice? The U.S. bishops are reportedly preparing a statement on Central America for debate at their November annual meeting. Given what happened in San Jose, it is not difficult to imagine what the staff of the U.S. Catholic Conference would like its putative Episcopal masters to say, and to leave unsaid.

“Listen to the Church in Central America,” the conference staff has urged for eight years. The Church leadership of Central America has now spoken, unambiguously. It remains to be seen if the staff of the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that it is supposed to serve will heed its own advice.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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