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Contradiction and Conflict
The Popular Church in Nicaragua
By Debra Sabia
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Today around the world and especially in Latin America we are witnessing the struggle for greater democratization. Since the fall of dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, the Nicaraguan people have sought to bring a new way of life and a new political vision to their tiny nation. In the last two decades Nicaragua has experienced a popular revolution, a civil war, and the international effects of an emerging new world order. Within this context progressive Christians have played a dynamic role in working for change. For an overwhelmingly large number of Christians, political struggle appears to have been inspired by a new form of faith: liberation theology.
Liberation theology is a theological current of Catholicism that originated in the region at the end of the 1960s. In the following decade this religious current appears to have evolved from a strictly theological endeavor to one that included a powerful social movement for change.
In Nicaragua, the liberation movement took life from the establishment and proliferation of comunidades eclesiales de base (Christian base communities, or CEBs). In the 1970s the communities flourished and gave rise to a new type of grass- roots church where Catholics came together to study, discuss, and reflect on their biblically oriented faith. Out of this reflection Nicaraguans came to discover a powerful political inspiration. In the following years many would devote their lives to a political struggle that focused on demands for greater social justice.
This book is an attempt to understand the rise, growth, and fragmentation of the popular church in Nicaragua. The term iglesia popular (the popular church) is often used interchangeably in Latin America with its other common identifying names, including the grass-roots church, Christian base communities, the people's church, the progressive church, and/or the church of the poor. The intent here is to examine the historical conditions that gave rise to the progressive Christian coalition and to the development, growth, and ultimate fragmentation of the grass-roots church. How might we understand the dynamics that nurtured the base communities? How might we account for and understand the conditions for change? What effect have these events had on religion, on politics, and on Nicaragua's social revolutionary experiment?
The events and issues with which this book deals began with a unique historical moment, the meeting of the world's bishops at the Second Vatican Council in Rome, 1962–65. The council was the watershed that brought revolutionary change to the private and public spheres of Latin society. Indeed, Vatican II unleashed forces for change that impacted the region greatly, perhaps as significantly as had the arrival to the region of the Spanish conquistadors five hundred years before.
Previous studies have documented the historical import and power of the Catholic Church that was brought to Latin America by its Spanish representatives. It is beyond the scope or intent of this book to repeat that history here. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the birth of the contemporary popular church particularly as it has been understood as arising within—and then apart from—the established, universal church.
Much of the previous literature has offered an analysis of this history from a dual- model perspective. The first model has understood the Latin American church institutionally. The second model (the popular church) has often been understood as one constituted by antagonists or more radicalized Catholics who separated themselves from the universal institution. Within this framework there has been a tendency toward understanding the two models of church as being in competition and conflict with each other. In the case of the iglesia popular there has also been a predilection toward understanding these radical, antagonistic Catholics as a unified, monolithic group. In Nicaragua, understanding the nature and ideology of the popular sector is not so simple a matter.
We shall see that in Nicaragua the notion of a breakaway church remains highly dubious. We shall also see that while there has existed a generalized conception of a separate people's church there exists a number of distinct trends and ideological differences in it. This study will examine these differences and ultimately suggest that one universal (Catholic) church still exists in Nicaragua. Within this institution, however, we shall see that several competing tendencies and internal divisions are clearly evident.
In addition to the radicalized tendency within the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, both traditional and reform sectors exist as well. A key issue distinguishing the radicalized sector from the reform and traditional ones has been that of partisan politics. In Nicaragua, differences have emerged in the Catholic community based on the support or nonsupport of the former revolutionary government, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the guerrilla movement that led the popular insurrection in 1979.
While many studies of the popular church have focused on these political differences within the radicalized Catholic sector, most have failed to address the spiritual dissimilarities among Catholic peoples. The intent of this book is to supplement this understanding by suggesting that to comprehend the political differences that are evident among them, we must focus more closely on the spiritual differences that also divide the Catholic community. The typology developed for this book presents a new way of exploring and thinking about these religious and political differences, contradictions, and conflicts.
In recent years significant growth has occurred in Protestant churches throughout Latin America and particularly in Nicaragua. Indeed, some Protestant churches played a crucial role in the popular insurrection of 1979. Many others worked cooperatively with Catholics in the revolutionary process of the following decade. The primary objective here, however, remains focused on the Catholic sector of the popular church, the sector represented by the radicalized and reformed faithful who are working both in and outside the Christian base communities. Nonetheless, the subject of Protestantism is treated where appropriate, particularly in the history of the fragmentation of the Christian base communities.
This book is organized into three focal points. The first, which includes chapters 2–5, is devoted to an introductory review of Latin American Catholicism, the birth of the popular church, the growth and maturation of the Christian base communities, and finally the conditions that led to the fragmentation of the Catholic coalition.
The second focal point examines more closely that fragmentation. Chapters 6–9 analyze the resulting schisms of the popular sector and the effects on religion, politics, and the social life of Nicaraguan society.
Finally in the third focal point, in chapter 10, the significance of these experiences for Nicaraguans is assessed and some final thoughts are offered on the likely impact of those experiences for Catholicism, for the church of the poor in particular, and more generally, for the future viability of the liberation struggle.
The popular church in Nicaragua is marked by heterogeneity and internal divisions. Such schisms, however, have not always been clearly discernible or readily obvious. Often there have only been hints of division and only subtle, whispered nuances. As this project unfolded it became apparent that a particular research approach was crucial in making sense of these distinctions and capturing these subtleties. Thus I found it invaluable to borrow from the contribution of the great social scientist, MaxWeber, in utilizing his methodological approach of the ideal type.
Weber's introduction of the ideal type proposes a way to give meaning and coherence to human behavior. Ideal types are logical constructions that the social scientist creates in order to conceptualize and analyze socially observed phenomena. For analytical purposes, ideal types furnish a standard in terms of which actual forms of social organization can be classified and compared. The method, however, is not without its difficulties. Ideal types are artificial constructs created by scholars as useful fictions against which to test the utility of categorizations. While they can prove quite useful in helping to elucidate directly observed phenomena, the propositions they generate must remain tentative.
For the purpose of this book, the popular church in Nicaragua is here conceived and understood as a community of faithful made up of four distinct ideal types. The construction of ideal types was developed incrementally following my first research trip to Nicaragua in spring 1990. Early in the research the typology began to take shape out of initial visitations to several Christian base communities. The two-month research trip also included meetings with Christian institutes and centers that had distinguished themselves as participants of the popular church. They were identified by people working within the CEBs in Nicaragua and in other cases by my own recognition of their work in the United States.
Both structured and unstructured methods of observation continued to be employed in subsequent research trips to Nicaragua, including a three-month trip to the country in summer 1991 and an eight-week visit in winter 1992. Both structured and unstructured strategies were deliberately selected as a means for dealing with the reactivity problem of direct observational research. Special care was given to collect data from a variety of sources. In this way the data could be cross-checked with other resources. Use of a variety of sources served as a means for reducing the potential bias of the researcher's presence while providing a strategy for gaining alternative perspectives.
The structured method employed for this research included formal interviews with populations both in and outside the popular church, with governmental leaders, business elites, and officials of the Catholic hierarchy, including the cardinal of Nicaragua, Miguel Obando y Bravo. In some cases where formally planned and structured interviews were utilized, preplanned questions led to other insights. Thus it was necessary to be more flexible, dropping questions that did not work or deviating from a structured agenda. Instances when data agreed with other studies on the popular church have been indicated in the research where possible.
Another strategy employed for this project was the participant-observer method, a largely unstructured process that included direct observation, actual participation in CEB events, and informal conversations with people both in and outside the Christian base communities, including people at Protestant churches, at public celebrations, and at neighborhood events.
The central activity was the recording of observations and interviews. Great care was given to obtain accurate descriptions of actual events and the culturally significant beliefs and attitudes that appeared to guide the social action observed. During these activities it was not uncommon to rely heavily upon written notes, photographs, and taped interviews. It was also of great value to maintain a personal journal to record reactions and general impressions.
Field aides were Nicaraguans who were always present at the research sites. Their assistance was invaluable for providing feedback, for facilitating improved communication, for checking the accuracy of observations and interpreted materials, and for double-checking one another's impressions and recorded work.
The collection of data led to the development of a taxonomy of political and spiritual ideologies around which interviewees were eventually grouped. These classifications or ideal types developed primarily from the participant-observer method, the core of which focused around three primary Christian base communities in the capital city of Managua: the communities of San Pablo, San Judas, and Adolfo Reyes. These three communities are among the CEBs that collectively constitute the heart of the popular church, and they were selected for a variety of reasons.
First, they are among the oldest, the largest, and the most active of the Christian base communities in the capital city. Managua, the largest city in Nicaragua, is the place where half of the country's four million citizens reside. It was also the city where the heart of the revolutionary struggle against the Somoza dictatorship took place. Today, it is the city where affiliates of the popular church continue to be the most active.
For reasons of history, region, and political culture, the three focal communities are quite likely to operate in a manner very similar to one another and very different from those outside the capital. Indeed, findings suggest such a conclusion. Despite this difficulty, selecting the oldest Christian base communities in Managua was considered important not only to examine the birth of the popular church but also to understand its development and evolution over time. With their rich histories of growth and change, it was deemed essential to draw on the earliest established CEBs within the country.
Second, it was important that the communities be selected based on the number of their participants. All three communities offered a large membership in barrios with stratified socioeconomic levels. These differences offered a greater distribution of personal attributes.
There were other reasons for selecting the communities of San Pablo, San Judas, and Adolfo Reyes. These communities continued to be identified by a large number of independent sources outside the popular sector. When asked about the work of the CEBs in Managua, the Catholic hierarchy and governmental and business leaders consistently cited all three as being among the most active in the capital city. Because the work of these communities has evolved over time and because all three continue to be vital, it was deemed important to study each of them.
The decision to study San Pablo, San Judas, and Adolfo Reyes was also made easier by their research accessibility. Each of the communities extended personal invitations to visit, live, and research with neighborhood families. The opportunity to live in the homes of CEB members and to watch the unfolding of their daily lives provided rich insights.
Potential weaknesses, however, do exist. First, in no way is this particular work intended to imply that it is solely representative of the larger progressive Christian sector that exists in Nicaragua. The decision to select three primary communities for intensive study makes generalizing to the larger population difficult. In theory and practice the study of the evolution and fragmentation of the popular church—as illustrated by the case studies of these three CEBs—is only intended to serve as a microcosm.
From the beginning, the ideal types that evolved were used as tentative theoretical tools for capturing the variegated ideologies and religious conflicts that were observed in the communities. Specific behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs continued to be assessed as an ongoing process. The strategy was to build theory from the ground up, by abstracting from particular observations more general and complex descriptions. Explanations of behavior could then be developed. In the case of each ideal type, past observations constituted the building blocks for future observations.
The construction of the ideal types, then, was extrapolated from the totality of the research experience. To guard against inferences in interpreting an individual's behavior or opinions, collected data were used throughout the project in a working hypothesis that could then be checked against the opinions of other researchers and other CEB members. The ideal type classifications that emerged were then compared and contrasted with each other in the search for variations, not only between the types but within each category as well. The final product ultimately developed from the final assessment of the data. The ideal types that evolved, however, may not necessarily be the final positions into which Nicaraguans might place themselves.
Excerpted from Contradiction and Conflict by Debra Sabia. Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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