Nicaraguan priest who defied pope and led the country’s literacy campaign dies aged 82
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Nicaraguan priest who defied pope and led the country’s literacy campaign dies aged 82

A Nicaraguan priest who flouted the Vatican’s orders to leave the Sandinista government in the 1980s has died aged 82.

Father Fernando Cardenal passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning (February 20) in hospital.  According to the Havana Times, he had been in an intensive care unit for several weeks after his health failed following an operation.

A Jesuit priest born in 1934 in the southern Nicaraguan city of Granada, Cardenal practiced Liberation Theology, a progressive movement within the Catholic Church which sought to actively aid the poor and the oppressed.

The movement – which originated in Latin America in the late 20th century – was, however, criticized by the late Pope John Paul II, whose papacy began in 1978 and ended in 2005 with his death. John Paul II disapproved of the movement because he believed it was too politicized, and too closely aligned with Marxist principles.

Supporting the Sandinistas

Cardenal ,and several other priests in Nicaragua, including Cardenal’s brother Ernesto, supported the The Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) struggle to overthrow the dictatorial government of Anastasio Somoza Debayle.  John Paul II, however, did not support the FSLN, and it vexed him that some of the Nicaraguan priests did.  When visiting in the early 1980s, John Paul II publicly admonished Ernesto Cardenal. Then, in December 1984,  Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, along with two others, were suspended from the priesthood after defying orders to leave their posts within the Sandinista government, which had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

In January 1985, after being expelled from the Jesuit order, Cardenal defended his decision to defy the church in an open letter.  “I maintain my objection in conscience. My religious community continues to bear witness to the fact that it is sincere and its motivation is evangelical. I believe that it would be a sin to abandon my people and even so when they are being attacked militarily, economically, politically and even through worldwide news agencies. I feel that God could not ask me to put myself on the side of those who want to devour the people like bread,” he wrote.

Fernando Cardenal’s position within the Sandinista government was that of education minister, which he held from 1984 until 1990.  Devoting his life to improving education in Nicaragua,  from 1980, Cardenal led the country’s  National Literacy Crusade, a campaign which helped to teach more than 500,000 Nicaraguans how to read and write.

A unique experience

Writing an open letter to Cardenal, Agustín Alonso, the director of Jesuit non-profit organization Entreculturas, said: “Fernando was very much involved in the  National Literacy Crusade. Whenever talking about it he becomes 30 years younger…In Managua or in Somotillo, in Ciudad Sandino or in Estelí, when we have gone for lunch with a group we have always found someone who says ‘Father, I was also in the Crusade…’ The experience was unique. They mobilized 60,000 young people that went to the fields and the mountains and 40,000 youth and adults who went to towns and cities.”

In 1990, however, Cardenal left his post in the cabinet and, like his brother, cut ties with the main faction of the FSLN.  According to Alonso’s letter, in 1995, Cardenal “wrote a letter to his ‘Sandinist brothers’ in which he told them that he was abandoning the political militancy of the Sandinism, in face of the illegal accumulation of richness, but not giving up his life commitment, the cause of the poor”.

In 1997, Cardenal was readmitted to the Jesuits, and, until his death, he worked at Fe y Alegría , a Jesuit organization dedicated to supporting education in some of the poorest regions in Nicaragua and other countries.

According to Nicaraguan news reports, Fe y Alegría said in a statement that it is “immensely grateful for his dedication, love and tireless struggle to defend the most vulnerable”.

See also:

Vatican reinstates suspended Sandinista priest