The National Catholic Review
Thomas H. Stahel
From November 16, 1985
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This interview with Miguel d’Escoto, the President-elect of the U.N. General Assembly, was conducted in 1985 when d’Escoto was foreign minister for the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega. At the time the relationship between the Reagan administration and the Ortega government was very strained, as there were suspicions (later confirmed) that the U.S. backed the revolutionary Contras against Ortega. D’Escoto himself was a figure of controversy within the church. A MaryKnoll priest, he had been told by the Vatican to cease celebrating Mass because of his political activities. Ortega served as president from 1985-1990, and was elected again in 2006. Among Ortega’s current supporters is Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo, who has commended Ortega for his efforts to outlaw abortion. The cardinal was once a strong critic of the Ortega government.

On Oct. 19, 1985, Miguel dEscoto Brockman, a Mary­knoll priest now serving as Foreign Minister of Nica­ragua, spoke with me in his room at the United Nations Plaza Hotel in New York City. He had accompanied Presi­dent Daniel Ortega Saavedra to the 40th anniversary ses­sion of the United Nations, where on Oct. 21 Mr. Ortega addressed the General Assembly.

The son of a Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States, Father dEscoto was born in Hollywood, Calif. He attended Maryknoll College in Glen Ellyn, Ill., spent a year in the novitiate and then studied theology at the Maryknoll Seminary in New York before being ordained in 1961. Immediately after ordination, he received an M.S. from the Columbia University School of Journalism.

As is well known, Pope John Paul II has long desired that Father dEscoto relinquish his Government post, in accord with the new code of canon law. Because Father dEscoto did not meet the deadline indicated by the Vatican in this matter, he has been required to relinquish, instead, the exercise of his priesthood until such time as he complies with canon law.

He discusses that issue in this interview, as well as the state of the church in Nicaragua, the recent suspension of civil liberties there and other issues touching on relations between the United States and Nicaragua.

You have lived for some years in the United States, I understand, and therefore you have the experience of living in the cultures of both North and Central America. Why is it that the statements of the Nicaraguan Government seem, from a North American point of view, to be so obsessed with the United States?

Well, more than any other country in continental Latin America, we have suffered the consequences of U.S. official interventionism. We have been invaded, we have been occupied time and time again. We suffered the imposition of one of the most hideous regimes in the history of Latin America for close to half a century, and we are at this present time experiencing a war that is characterized, even by people in the U.S. Congress, as not only illegal, but also immoral, and that has resulted in the systematic murder, kidnapping and torture of thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens. I think we have reason to be concerned about the United States.

As a matter of fact, I many times wonder what the reaction of the United States would be if it were to find itself in our situation. For that to be a possibility, there would have to be a country that is as least a thousand times more powerful than the United States. Of course, there is no such country. But I wonder what would happen if there were a country a hundred times larger in territorial size (which is the least important thing), and thousands of times more powerful economically and politically, and if that country were to be clearly committed to the overthrow and the destruction of American society! What would be the reaction?

You spoke about immorality and illegality. That word “illegality" reminds me of the action in the World Court at the moment. May I ask, how did you conceive that idea? Was it your idea, in fact, to sue the United States in the World Court?

From the beginning of the application of Mr. Reagans policy against the Nicaraguan revolution, it was quite clear to me that there was an illegality. But the United States has never been characterized by respect for law, in spite of the image that it likes to project internationally and within the United States. I think the fundamental principle is to do as much as you can possibly get away with. But you always try to keep a facade.

I had thought about going to the court, but never too seriously until the invasion of Grenada. But it was not the fact of the invasion that moved me to propose seriously to the President that we go to the court. It was that I decided to monitor American reaction to the invasion of Grenada, as presented mainly in editorials and op-ed pieces in the basic, leading newspapers across the country. I was concerned to see-there were a few notable and important exceptions-that the majority were willing to accept the fact of the invasion. They would formulate their argument in the following manner. They would say: "Surely, if one were to evaluate the decision to invade Grenada from the point of view of international law, this is an action outside the norms. But then again, international law has become obsolete"--I am summarizing. "Why? Because the interrelation between nations is increasing more and more, and as a result of this, one must redefine the principle of nonintervention. "

This is really what they were saying, the vast majority. Thats what I saw reflected in the United States. Well, where does that leave the small countries of the world?

Then, during an afternoon walk with the President, I said: "Daniel, you know I seldom lose sleep about anything. But I am thinking and thinking that this is really something. With international law, there can be war; but without it, for sure there will be nothing but war." We have to have more than only law. We have to have justice also, and a new international economic order, and other things besides. But there can be no greater damage to international peace and security than the destruction of the international legal order. So I said: "I think, Daniel, we have to go to the World Court. I am very concerned; I am very afraid. What I see happening cannot be taken just as a Reagan move, because look at what he has done and look at the reaction."

The other thing that concerned me was that international public opinion kept rather quiet. I mean, President Reagan comes out and says the most flagrant things. For example, he says publicly, for the world to hear, that he believes in the right of the United States to utilize covert action, which is the euphemism to signify activities to destabilize or overthrow another government. He says that he believes in the right of the United States to utilize covert actions against another nation whenever, in the mind of the President of the United States, that serves the interests of the United States. And everyone keeps quiet!

About freedom of the church, another subject I wanted to raise with you: What is your view of the causes of the tension between the Nicaraguan hierarchy and the Government? Do you have better relations with some bishops than with others? It is well known that there is tension between Monsenor Obando y Bravo [Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, Archbishop of Managua] and the Government.

Well, it is a sad fact, but something that is a part of history, and undeniable: The church has never ever, as church, in our history in Latin America at least-and in the whole world, I think-supported profound changes in society that are being promoted precisely to benefit the majority of the people. On the contrary, the church historically-and this is sad-has defended the maintenance of the most un-Christian status quo by fomenting something that can only be characterized as sin, because the church has preached resignation in the face of exploitation and injustice. This is in total contradiction to Christs mandate that we should be a leavening agent in society, a transforming agent. To transform what into what? Selfishness into brotherly concern for one another.

The Lords words, "The poor you shall have always with you," are manipulated to justify a political quietism, which again is sinful. No wonder the church was characterized until not too long ago-even in the Rockefeller Report when Mr. Nixon became President-as one of the fundamental pillars of the maintenance of the system, together with the military.

How has this happened in practice? Well, just look at the time when we were trying to become independent from Spain. The Holy Father was Pope Pius VII-at that time he was living not in Rome, but in France. He received the emissary from Spain, heard one side of the story and wrote in the name of Christ to his dear children in the Lord, and ordered us to submit to the Spanish Crown and desist from trying to become independent. In the name of God. What abuse!

And you know what happened? We were on the verge of the biggest schism in the history of Christianity. For years we did not have bishops in Latin America, until Muzi finally came on his mission to Chile, you remember. [The Muzi Mission, 1823-25, by Giovanni Muzi, Bishop of Citta di Castello and first papal representative to the Americas. He came with faculties to name and consecrate bishops in the new Spanish American republics without further recourse to Rome.]

You know, Our Lord says He came to bring fire to the earth and that He wanted this fire to be enkindled-the fire of His transforming love, to push forward to new heights of brotherhood. But many of us church people have acted like frustrated firemen, putting out the fire. We question change, any change. Ffffftttt [sound and gesture of a fireman managing a firehose]. Dangerous, you know. So put it out with the hose.

Its not surprising that, in Nicaragua, where we are embarked at this time, also, on a profound change, you see a church whose leaders--like the rest of us priests--have been formed in a reactionary and anti-Communist tradition when it comes to social doctrine, and especially those who make it to higher echelons of authority within the church. Not all, of course, but a great majority are of that bent. I always say to newspeople that it is not worth commenting on, because if you tell me that there is a revolution somewhere and the church is against it, I will say, "What else is new?" I mean, what would be newsworthy is to tell me that the church is for it. So in Nicaragua the new thing is, and the question is: How come so much of the church is in favor of it [the revolution]? How come so many of the priests, even of the bishops?

Now, that was a question I wanted to ask: How many of the bishops?

I do not like to speak for the bishops, but I can tell you that, in my very serious opinion, the fundamental problems are in Managua and a couple of other dioceses, and that the rest of the bishops understand the situation quite well. Now, we have a difficulty in Nicaragua. You see, some of our bishops are not Nicaraguans. From our point of view as Christians, we should not even consider whether or not someone is Nicaraguan. But what is sad is that the local bishops really make the nonnationals feel that they are not Nicaraguans--although they have given their lives in our country because they came as missionaries and have been there a long time, 30 years or whatever. So they are intimidated, in the face of people like Monsenor Obando. I mention his name, because this is a fact.

As far as I know, we get the impression in this country that the Nicaraguan bishops speak as a unified bloc, under the leadership of Monsenor Obando y Bravo.

I have myself clearly established in many cases that at least some of the bishops knew nothing about these documents that have come out. They saw them only when they returned to the country, had never even read them, no draft being presented to them, or anything of that kind. Sometimes they are signed only by Monsenor Bosco Vivas, who is Auxiliary Bishop of Managua and acts as secretary to the bishops conference. Oh, yes, that happens.

They have some kind of lamentable principle that any Christian should find hard to accept: They will not say something about a certain issue unless everyone says it. How can that be? That is, if one decides to keep quiet on something that another feels morally obliged to say something about, this other will not say it because there is an agreement not to say anything unless everyone agrees to it. We cant say that to our Lord on the day when we come to Him: "I kept quiet because the others didnt speak."

You are saying that the bishops, or some of them, are not speaking up as they ought.

They are not speaking up. They say it is very difficult; they are intimidated by Monsenor Obando. But of course in the final analysis the responsibility does not end with Monsenor Obando. There is an authority higher than his that has a very important responsibility in this whole issue.

Let me ask you another question about the freedom of the church. That was how we started this part of the discussion, and then I asked you about the bishops. How do you think the church will be affected by President Ortegas recent announcement about the suspension of civil liberties in Nicaragua? Will the Cardinal be prohibited from traveling around the country, as is said in some newspapers here?

No one is prohibited from traveling anywhere. There is no restriction on the mobility of people from one place to another.

What about a prohibition on his assemblies?

There is a prohibition on assemblies, but it must be clearly understood what is meant by that. It does not mean, for example, that if a political party wants to have an assembly tomorrow, it cannot have it. What it means is that now, because of certain things that are happening, they have to ask for permission, and they will get it. Now, let us say there is going to be a procession. They ask for it, and they will get it. But you can be sure that they will be told, again, that it has to be a religious procession, and not an occasion for political parties (and all those with whom the Cardinal is especially identified) to use the church. An abusive utilization especially of the Cardinal, to project him as a symbol--this really has been the role that the Central Intelligence Agency has assigned to Cardinal Obando. I’m sorry to say it, but I will say it here. This is his role, and it is not surprising that he got a medal from the C.I.A. Who is Constantine Menges?

Excuse me?

Who is Constantine Menges? The director of the C.I.A. in Latin America, or he was. Along with Michael Novak and other people, he created this Institute on Religion and Democracy. For what purpose? It has been amply written up in the United States. It is clearly a C.I.A.-front organization, and the first medal they gave was to Cardinal Obando. For what? He is regarded as their most valuable asset in Central America, and in Nicaragua in particular. Has he knowingly accepted this role? Is he being used? Well, a person does not make a long trip to get a medal without having investigated previously why they are giving him such an honor, and who it is that is giving him the honor.

The thing is this. Nicaragua will always have freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. Nicaragua is truly committed, not hypocritically committed, like Mr. Reagan, to democracy. We fought to overthrow a regime that was sponsored by the United States, because we could never have democracy under that regime. We are building our democracy. But even the most important of all human rights, which is the right to life, can have exceptions. Catholic morality accepts the principle that one can kill in self-defense, and talks about "just war." The U.S. Government throws its arms up to the skies in horror because of the limitation of rights in Nicaragua. But this is done precisely to defend our most basic right, which is to sovereignty and the life of our people. We will not allow the use of liberties that never existed in Nicaragua before, but that now exist because of the revolution, to reverse the revolutionary process-in the way, for example, that freedom of the press in Chile was used in EI Mercurio to do in President Allende [Salvador Allende Gossens, the democratically elected Marxist President of Chile, overthrown in a bloody coup in September 1973].

No one who is doing the proper type of activity has anything to fear, and as a matter of fact there is no properly religious activity that is in any way, shape or form going to be limited. But, of course, what we are talking about is not only not a religious activity, it is an activity that I myself--not the Government of Nicaragua, but I myself--call treasonous activity. And history will condemn the church, and the Cardinal-and not only the Cardinal, but many of the bishops-for having kept what I call a silence of complicity in the face of the aggression of the strongest and richest nation in the world against our people. Even the American bishops have said a few things against it. But what have the Nicaraguan bishops said? Nothing to condemn it, and a few things-some of them-to support it. I have spoken to certain bishops, and I have said: "Dont you see what you are doing to the church? Dont you see how you are hurting the church?" All they have acknowledged to me that that’s right. They do not know what to do because this other man wont move.

I am speaking more than I have ever spoken. But some bishops have acknowledged to me that they are very concerned about the future of the church. They are guilty of high treason by becoming accomplices of a foreign power in its efforts to destabilize and to overthrow our Government. And how are they manifesting this behavior now? At this point in time by going against the draft. What would the United States do if it were being attacked by another country and the church came out against the draft?

They say that the draft is to defend a party. Now they know that in Nicaragua we had elections that were broad based, and with great participation, for the first time in history. Every political party that wanted to participate could participate, and in fact seven participated. Unlike elections in other parts of Latin America, there were no candidates in jail, and no one was prohibited from becoming a candidate. It was a direct vote, by the people. So we had elections, and we have a Government that is the result of those elections. President Reagan has acknowledged that he is trying to overthrow that Government, and then the bishops have the gall to say that the army, in defending our Government, a system that was voted in democratically by the people, is being used to defend a party. You know, this is extremely damaging to the church. Anyway, the church may have betrayed the people, but we must defend the wishes of the people, and we must defend them legally, through the established Government, and we must not allow the church to blemish further the name of Christianity and abuse the cross of Christ to spread imperialistic ideals, political ideas that would have Nicaragua become submitted again to United States dictates. This was the position of the bishops during the colonial days, and that is why for many, many years there were no bishops after independence. They were total lackeys.

Let me put the question in another way. Some American bishops, as you say, have tried to speak out against U. S. interference in Nicaragua. But the deprivation of civil liberties—or whatever you want to call this statement by President Ortega on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 1985-makes it more difficult for U.S. bishops to defend Nicaraguas right to self-determination.

We dont want the American bishops to defend Nicaragua. We dont need the American bishops or anyone to defend us. We are more than able to defend ourselves. I would ask the American bishops to defend themselves and their own souls. The hands of every American are bloodied with the blood of innocent Nicaraguan people. The American Catholic Church is very big. It is also American. It is an accomplice, unless it protests. These are crimes in which every American citizen is implicated because this is--or isnt it?--a democracy. Is not everyone co-responsible?

What would happen if a few American bishops really wanted to put an end to these crimes that their country is committing in their name? If they decided to take some dramatic sort of action until the policies ended, and appealed to the rest of the American Catholics and community of believers to protest? They can do it. Especially since this President of the United States has the nerve to say that he does what he does to defend the most sacred values of our Judeo-Christian tradition. He is now the spokesperson, the defender of God. And he is allowed to play that role. He sprinkles all his speeches-I have heard him many times-with references to the Pope, and "God bless you" here and "God bless you" there, and he gets away with it. Let him take full responsibility for his actions but not implicate God, much less give an appearance that he is doing all this to defend persecuted Christians.

Some of the U. S. bishops might say, "We are trying to protest, but we have to do it through means of political discourse, and the suppression of civil rights in Nicaragua makes it more difficult for us."

Through means of political discourse? How did the prophets protest? No one is trying. Our Lord would say, "Close, but no cigar." They should protest. And one is better than none, and then maybe others will follow. But not only bishops.

How do you feel, as Foreign Minister, about the fact that this pronouncement by President Ortega about the suppression of civil liberties was made just before you and he came up to the United Nations? Do you find that an embarrassment? It seems from a political point of view such an odd moment to have made that pronouncement.

We are not in a propaganda campaign. Circumstances are there that oblige us to move. Others, more Madison Avenue-oriented, would have said: "Go to the United Nations, give a great exhibition, and then come back and do it." After all, that is the way some other Latin American countries have done things. No, we do things when we have to do them, and we have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Let me shift over to the matter of your Christian ministry. Is that an acceptable topic?

Any topic.

Do you feel you are exercising your priesthood in your present work?

I think so, in a unique, strange, unsought kind of way--a way that I never envisioned because it had never occurred to me.·Basically, as a priest, I must try to excel always in those virtues. that should be the virtues of a man, and especially of a man who is a Christian, because I am first a man, and a Christian, and then by the grace of God also a priest. Now, the specifically priestly functions, the sacramental ones, have been deprived me by wishes of the Holy Father-not by my Society, and not by my bishop in Nicaragua, who would not do that.

Who is your bishop in Nicaragua?

Ruben L6pez Ard6n, who is the Bishop of Esteli. He is the bishop with whom I have been associated in Nicaragua, and with whom I have most cordial, fraternal relations.

And the same with your Maryknoll superior?

By the grace of God I have never had any but the best relations with all my superiors. Now we very much wanted to speak to Rome--because this thing [the order to leave the Government post] came from Rome-and Rome ended up saying there was nothing to speak about, that the law was the law, and it must be complied with.

Well, if it comes to that, and with all due respect to canon law--which I do in fact respect and mean never to disrespect--if it comes to the law being the law, I have to establish a priority. And the law of God has to come before canon law. I find that I would be in radical violation of the law of God, which is basically to love my neighbor, if, in the situation where my country finds itself, I were to comply with canon law and leave this post, which I never sought, never wanted ... even now. They talk about the "honor." Where is the honor? Its work. To me theres no difference-and I say this before God, because its true-between being a doorman or being a foreign minister. Its service.

I was asked at a certain point in time: "Would you help us do this? We need to establish decent and honorable and just relations with the international community. We need people to help us because of the conditions in Nicaragua, and the availability of human resources. We are among the privileged·few who have had an opportunity for some degree of formal education, and everyone has to pitch in. And to be a bridge of understanding between your nation and others is a very noble and also, in a sense, priestly work."

I am not in a parish, but I never have been in a parish since I was ordained. I do not know why this post should be less priestly than my work in Orbis Books [a Catholic publishing house run by Maryknoll in New York].

Is that what you did before?

I founded Orbis Books. I began it, and I was director of communications at Maryknoll, and before that in Chile I was giving technical assistance.

So, its very, very sad. But even my bishop was angry when I opened up the subject once (not that I was saying that I was going to leave my post). He told me how much it would hurt the church and the people. That is what matters, because we are transitory. The Lord may call us-we do not know when, today, in a minute. And so my idea is this: If I were to leave my post in order to have the satisfaction of saying Mass, I could not have that satisfaction as a matter of fact.

Because you feel you could not celebrate the Mass?

No, I would be in sin. I would be a traitor. And there has never been anything more important to me in my whole life, since I was a young man, than the Holy Sacrifice.

Do you look forward to resuming your sacramental priesthood someday?

Yes, but I am perhaps living that Mass now, with the pain, even more than if I did not have this difficulty. It is like the case of other priests who have been kept from saying Mass because they are in jail, for example. It is precisely in my fundamental commitment to living the Mass that I accept this prohibition from celebrating the Holy Sacrifice. Our Lord says, "Do this in commemoration of me." He did not mean that we repeat the words only, because we are not parrots, but that we repeat those words as human beings; that is to say, that we take on the inner dispositions that He had when He said, "This is my body and this is my blood." We make those inner dispositions our own, and then we say the words, because we speak as human beings, conveying what we feel. So, to live the Mass is to have that inner disposition of availability to God, including the giving of your life for the service of the people, and to ask to be strengthened in your love for the cross and the acceptance of the cross in whatever shape or form God decides you should carry it.

Thomas H. Stahel is a former associate editor of America.