Skip to main content

See also:

Marxist Jesuits and the Nicaraguan Revolution

Map of Central America  Photo:
Map of Central America Photo:

John Paul II's authority as pope met head-on resistance from the onset of his papacy. The Jesuits' fervor for the Nicaraguan revolution—kindled by an already present Marxist philosophy— proved to be a formidable roadblock in his efforts to return the Jesuits to their original destiny as "the pope's men."

Map of Central America  Photo: Photo:
Map of Central America Photo: Photo:

The peasants of Nicaragua lived under the tyrannical dictatorship of the Somoza family from 1937 to 1979, beginning with the presidency of Anastasio Somoza García, (1) then passed down to his son, Luis Somoza Debayle, (2) and finally to Luis's brother, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. (3)

In 1972, a group of Nicaraguan revolutionaries known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) re-emerged after Augusto César Sandino's (4) 1934 assassination, determined to free Nicaragua once and for all from the Somoza dynasty.

The Cardenal brothers hailed from a wealthy Nicaraguan family; Fernando (5) joined the Jesuits, Ernest joined a diocesan seminary in Managua. While Ernest (6) busied himself writing poetry and living a monastic life, Fernando became a man of action.

Fernando joined the Sandinistas with full support of his superiors, becoming a model among his peers as a warrior against the injustice of capitalism. His religious status as a Jesuit carried with it an unrivaled significance, as the Jesuits' presence in Nicaragua since the 1600s left an indelible mark on every facet of Nicaraguan life. Cardenal, it was believed, was just the driving force needed for Nicaragua to claim its legitimacy at home and abroad.

Nicaragua's high percentage of Roman Catholicism was a major stumbling block to the Sandinistas Marxist agenda. Their ace in the hand was the full support of Catholic clergy—but not just their support. The Sandinistas needed clergy with a malleable doctrine—one which could be molded to suit their needs. The Jesuits were the perfect ticket.


Catholic theologians in Latin America were way ahead of the game. After World War II, the Jesuits embraced a new theology known as the Theology of Liberation, influenced primarily from the religious in Europe.
It was an elaborate and carefully worked out system, but its core principle is very simple: The whole and only meaning of Christianity as a religion comes down to one achievement—the liberation of men and women, by armed and violent revolution if necessary, from the economic, social, and political slavery imposed on them by U.S. capitalism; this is to be followed by the establishment of "democratic socialism." (7)

Liberation Theologians twisted and manipulated scripture, painting Jesus as an armed revolutionary and Mary as the mother of all revolutionary heroes, while the Eucharist became a mere symbol of the bread made by liberated workers.

Until1965, Pope Paul VI naively assumed that his Jesuit Superiors had everything under control. Little did he know that the inmates were running the asylum.

Realizing the severity of the situation and began a dossier on his Jesuits, assigning the task to the Jesuit Superiors.

He felt, too, that he could still rely on the Superiors of the Society to manage their rand and file, as Popes had done for four hundred years. And indeed, those Superiors did tell Paul the truth about one aspect of Nicaragua—the fact that the Catholic bishops and the Jesuits and everybody who was any sort of a Christian in the country were united against the lethal dictatorship of Luis Somoza Debayle. But they did not tell him that the Sandinistas were aiming at a Marxist takeover. (8)

By 1973 the revolution had exploded into a nightmare of killings, bombings, torture, and mutilation.
Everywhere, Jesuit activists and supporters took up the cause. They were zealous, knowledgeable, capable, and effective, inspired as one of them said, "with a sense of our mission as Jesuits to promote social justice and express our preferential option for the poor existentially." In the Nicaraguan context, all of this spelled support of "the people's Church," "la iglesia popular." (9)

On July 17, 1979, the Sandinistas invaded Managua, defeating all opposition within two days; the reign of the Somoza family was no more.

Following the Sandinista victory, Pope John Paul II allowed Fernando Cardenal and his colleagues to retain their political positions "temporarily until the country recovered from the effects of the armed revolution." When the pope eventually called them home in the late 1980s, he encountered a disrespectful, dismissive response. Arrupe was little help, refusing to request Fernando Cardenal resignation on the grounds of failure to observe his vow of obedience.

Agostino Casaroli (10) was a major contributor to the "Ostpolitik," (11) the Vatican's official policy toward Eastern European Communist states and the USSR. Under the auspices of John XXIII, Casaroli made a "secret pact with the Moscow Politburo: the Roman Catholic Church authorities would not formally denounce the USSR, its atheism, or its Marxism. The preservation of that pact was Casaroli's prime rule of diplomatic behavior."

In May of 1980, John Paul II once again took a stand: "A priest should be a priest. Politics is the responsibility of laymen."

Father General Arrupe was informed by the Pope that the Society of Jesus needed thorough reform in its theologians, in its writers, in its social activists, in its method of training Jesuit candidates, in its colleges, universities, and institutes of higher learning, in its colleges, universities, and institutes of higher learning in its missionary methods in Africa and Asia, and in its parishes, and in its social apostolate. In fact, throughout, from top to bottom in the Society, reform and housecleaning were imperative. Father Arrupe's own usefulness as General was also represented as nearing zero-point. (13)

Arrupe placated the pope, as usual, knowing that it would take a year or more to prepare. John Paul stood his ground and in April of 1980, Arrupe notified the Provinces of the Society to begin preparation for the General Congregation to be held in 1981 or 1982.

Arrupe could see the writing on the wall and knew that his position in the Generalate hung in the balance. In August of 1980, he addressed John Paul with regard to his intentions. The pope had no desire to punt this time and was determined to maintain control of the procedure, ensuring that Arrupe be held accountable for the "mess" he had created while Superior General.

This was not a simple removal of one or two men; it was an overall restructuring of the entire Society.

The status of the Society could be changed. The draft text of the Church's latest version of Canon Law was in its final stages; one small paragraph in it would suffice to deprive the Society of Jesus of all its privileges in the Church and of its special status in relation to the papacy. It could be reduced to the rank of an ordinary diocesan congregation governed locally by single bishops. There were still other and more drastic possibilities. It might be necessary to suppress the Society, at least for a time, and perhaps reconstitute it later according to its original principles; certain more traditional-minded Jesuits had in fact already petitioned Rome to do just that. (14)

"It" was about to hit the fan and Arrupe knew that if he didn't get in with the program, he would be out the door. It was time for damage control. Fernando Cardenal, however, was an unmanageable fly in the ointment.

While John Paul was touring the world, promoting solidarity and denouncing Marxism, Cardenal went on his own lecture tour, proclaiming his support of the Sandinistas and their Marxist ideology. To inflame the situation, Cardenal was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by both the British House of Parliament and the European Parliament.

Arrupe's plan wasn't going so well. Jesuits in Nicaragua ignored his directives. Across the globe, Jesuits demeaned John Paul's social teaching and religious doctrine. Rumors circulated that the European and Latin American Masonic Lodge's were organizing in opposition to the pope, and that 20 Vatican prelates were formal members of the Italian Lodge.

As vehemently as John Paul's advisors urged him to act swiftly, the pope had to consider all aspects of the situation.

Very likely, given the prestige of the Jesuits and the widespread rebellion against the papacy, to take unilateral action against Arrupe and his Jesuits could provoke repercussions that could damage his own papal policies and perhaps damage the Church.

For one thing, precisely because of the blatant Marxist outlook and Moscow ties of the Jesuits in Nicaragua in particular, unless the forced withdrawal of the priests in the Nicaraguan government were neatly done, it might be taken as an overt violation of that secret pact formed nearly twenty years before between the Moscow politburo and the Vatican. (15)

In addition, Agostino Casaroli was a key player in the development of the Ostpolitik and John Paul feared his resignation. The pope could not afford to lose such an important cog in the diplomatic policies wheel that that he used with the Soviets. A resignation would afford Casaroli even more freedom and John Paul feared losing what little control he had.

John Paul could not be sure who was on his side; nor could he discern which of the members of the Vatican Secretariat and the bureaucracy were Moscow supporters.

With all the weights on the scales, and as insane as such a thought would have been a scant forty years before, it began to seem not only that there really could be a war between the Pope and the Jesuits, but that it would be open and bloody. And not far off. (16)


(7)Martin, Malachi, "The Jesuits: The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church," New York: Simon Schuster, 1987, p. 56.
(8) Ibid., p. 60.
(9) Ibid., p. 62.
(12) Martin, p. 67. (13) Ibid., p. 72. (14) Ibid., p. 73. (15) Ibid., p. 76-7.
(16) Ibid., p. 78.