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Dangerous liaisons: Nicaragua, China and Catholic integralism

Nicaraguan Catholic bishop Rolando Alvarez prays at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas church in Managua, on May 20, 2022. - Alvarez, a strong critic of Daniel Ortega's government, started on Thursday a hunger strike in protest against what he considers a persecution and police siege against him.
Nicaraguan Catholic bishop Rolando Alvarez prays at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas church in Managua, on May 20, 2022. - Alvarez, a strong critic of Daniel Ortega's government, started on Thursday a hunger strike in protest against what he considers a persecution and police siege against him. | STR/AFP via Getty Images

Catholic leaders in Nicaragua and China are facing extreme persecution by their governments. That's primarily the fault of those countries’ horrible rulers, of course — but it should also remind us that when representatives of the Church cozy up to authoritarian governments, ordinary believers end up paying the price.

The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega is an example. Ortega first came to power in the predominantly Catholic country back in 1979 when the Sandinistas, his Marxist revolutionary group, overthrew the brutal right-wing dictatorship of President Anastasio Somoza. 

Supporters of liberation theology, then the “flavor of the month” in many Catholic liberal circles, threw discretion to the winds. Some of them talked as if the Kingdom of Heaven had just materialized in Central America. The Sandinistas’ minister of culture was a Catholic priest and poet, Father Ernesto Cardenal. 

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Enter Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. 

During his 1983 visit to Nicaragua, John Paul famously chastised Father Cardenal for holding office in a secular government, something strictly forbidden by the Code of Canon Law. Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo — who today is the country’s vice president — were eyewitnesses to the papal rebuke. 

The following year, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued an “Instruction on Certain Aspects of ‘Theologies of Liberation.” The instruction cautioned against the temptation to place oneself “within the perspective of a temporal messianism, which is one of the most radical of the expressions of secularization of the Kingdom of God and of its absorption into the immanence of human history.” It adds that “in giving such priority to the political dimension, one is led to deny the ‘radical newness’ of the New Testament and above all to misunderstand the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, and thus the specific character of the salvation he gave us, that is above all liberation from sin, which is the source of all evils.”

This was a desperately needed corrective to liberation theology’s clumsy fusion of the gospels of Jesus and Marx. 

John Paul’s intervention, along with Cardinal Ratzinger’s instruction, were welcomed by many priests in the Americas. Among them was a future Nicaraguan prelate, Rolando Álvarez, now bishop of Matagalpa. 

Bishop Álvarez, an influential member of Nicaragua’s Conference of Catholic Bishops, has watched while Ortega — who to the horror of his Western admirers was voted out of office in 1990 — has twice reinvented himself. On becoming president again in 2006, Ortega ruled like a traditional Latin American leftist dictator, but with the unexpected twist that he presented himself as a devoted Catholic. He even banned abortion. The Vatican’s Secretariat of State, never an infallible judge of authoritarian rulers, was so impressed that it paid insufficient attention to the steady crushing of Nicaraguan democracy. 

But the Nicaraguan bishops were paying attention — and none more so than Father Álvarez, made a bishop by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 at the remarkably young age of 44. He has opposed Ortega’s brutal policies for years, and last year went on hunger strike in protest against them. He was put under house arrest and has now been sentenced to 26 years and four months in prison for being a “traitor to the homeland.” 

Heroically, he could have avoided imprisonment when Ortega offered him the alternative of expulsion from Nicaragua along with 222 other political prisoners, including priests and seminarians. He refused and is now being held in a maximum-security prison in Managua — a living symbol of the Church’s commitment to human rights. 

Across the world another bishop who endures persecution for the same reason — Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 91-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong — was already a priest and theologian when Ricardo Álvarez was born. 

Since 2018, the Holy See and the Chinese government have operated under a pact that allows the government to choose bishops subject only to a veto by the Pope. The pact, it seems, is not worth the paper it is written on. China has brazenly ordained an auxiliary bishop recently for a diocese that is not recognized by the Vatican — just as Cardinal Zen predicted it would. 

Like Bishop Álvarez, Cardinal Zen has been targeted with trumped-up charges for his pro-democracy views. He was convicted of failing to register a humanitarian relief fund and fined for supporting pro-democracy demonstrators during the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2019. 

Cardinal Zen is not alone in standing up to China’s assault on democracy. Jimmy Lai, a Catholic pro-democracy advocate and the founder of the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, is also one of China’s victims. Lai will stand trial on charges under the terms of the Hong Kong National Security Law. He faces a life sentence. 

Unbelievably, a tiny but vocal minority of American Catholic conservatives praise China and have been disturbingly silent on their persecution. They belong to a school of thought known by various names, the best known of which is integralism. That label has been used before: by fascists and other autocratic movements in 20th-century Europe that wanted to subordinate their national politics to the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church (or, at least, their understanding of it). Alarmingly, this revived American version of Catholic integralism is attracting the interest of some young orthodox Catholics. 

A handful of experts in political thought are trying to bring them back to clear thinking. In a commentary piece for The Washington Post, for example, University of Texas professor Justin Dyer observes that integralism is a “reaction to the illiberalism of the far left. As a political vision, it is monumentally imprudent.” 

Among the problems Dyer identifies are the very characteristics celebrated by its chief proponents — a return of confessional states, religion-based citizenship, and enforced orthodoxy. According to James Patterson, professor at Ave Maria University and scholar at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology, “neo-integralists,” as he calls them, “openly admire authoritarian regimes.” They have “embraced leaders of European parties with historical ties to fascism and contemporary ties to Russia’s government” — and some of them are mysteriously well disposed to the government of China, which is engaged in the largest-scale persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the world today. 

But then Beijing has its admirers in the Vatican, too. In 2018, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Argentinian prelate who was then chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, announced: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” Sordono astonishingly claimed that the Chinese government was “defending the dignity of the person” in its pursuit of “the common good.”

Such naivety, to put it charitably, was a reminder that a minority of Christians will always be susceptible to the temptation to secularize the Kingdom of God and the charms of repressive governments. They do not represent the authentic voice of the Church. Unfortunately, those faithful in persecuted communities who do uphold the dignity of the person run the risk of terrible retribution. Therefore, it is incumbent on us, as ordinary Christians, to watch their situation closely and make sure their heroic witness is never ignored.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer runs the Conscience Project and is a fellow at the Institute of Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. 

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