Pope Francis’ restoration of former Nicaraguan Sandinista Foreign Minister Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann to his priestly powers after a 29-year suspension summons many memories from Liberation Theology’s Marxist heyday in the 1980s.
An iconic moment of that decade was Pope John Paul II’s publicly chastising the then priestly foreign minister during his 1983 papal trip to Nicaragua. D’Escoto was relieved of priestly duties in 1985 for defying canon law against clergy holding public office.
Now age 81, d’Escoto had asked for reinstatement “before dying.” But apparently he’s still robust and an advisor to the Sandinistas and their infamous president, Daniel Ortega, who’s back in power, although now defanged of 1980s-style Soviet ensnarement. And as recently as 2009, d’Escoto was president of the United Nations General Assembly. He’s seemingly expressed no regret about a career devoted to Marxist liberation nor about his defiance of his church.
In 1985 d’Escoto received the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union. No doubt the award was well deserved. A member of the Maryknoll Order, D’Escoto is ecumenical and previously served with the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, to which Roman Catholicism doesn’t belong and which has always been dominated by liberal oldline Protestants from the West.
D’Escoto is not unique as an aging radical churchman who never expressed public regret for aligning during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Perhaps 100 million or more were murdered during the last century by the Soviets and other totalitarian Communist regimes, but the butcher’s bill rarely seemed to plague the consciences of zealous religious prelates who equated God’s Kingdom with a Marxist charnel house. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, officials with the National and World Councils of Churches briefly expressed regret for not advocating for persecuted believers behind the Iron Curtain. But there was no searing reevaluation of what led once great church bodies to discern holiness in the oppressive materialism of Marxism-Leninism.
Liberation Theology was the justification for Catholics and Protestants from the 1960s forward in equating Christian salvation with Marxist conquest. It was the Social Gospel on steroids, having little to no patience for democratic process or gradual societal reformation, preferring the absolutist certitudes of revolution and dictatorship by the proletariat. Missionaries for once great U.S. missions boards of Protestant denominations replaced the message of personal redemption with the new more compelling demand for class struggle. Nicaragua was the perfect laboratory for the stew of Christianity and communism.
Radical churchmen like d’Escoto helped the Sandinistas shoot their way to power in 1979, overthrowing a stereotypically repressive rightist dictator historically tied to the U.S. After twenty years of repression in Cuba, even leftist churchmen were sometimes reluctant to romanticize Fidel Castro at that point. But the new Sandinista regime, headed by dashing commandants, was young, fresh and new, although remarkably similar to Castro twenty years before. Church idealists were glad to project onto Daniel Ortega et al. their dreams for the Gospel fully realized throughout a classless society.
Countless U.S. delegations of United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians, among others, including leftist Catholic orders, eagerly trooped to Nicaragua throughout the 1980s to behold the revolution for themselves, warmly hosted by Ortega, d’Escoto, and other Sandinista officials, not to mention the Protestant “missionaries” on site who reinterpreted their mission public relations for the regime.
Such ecclesial delegations often were featured at staged press conferences in Nicaragua, orchestrated by the regime and its state media, both to herald the Sandinistas as God’s viceroys while also of course denouncing U.S. hostility to Nicaragua’s ongoing “liberation.” That the Sandinistas’ version of God’s Kingdom was subsidized, armed, and staffed by the Soviet Bloc didn’t typically bother these visiting church delegations much at all. After all, didn’t this small country need fraternal solidarity from its socialist brothers against the imperialist colossus to the north? And many of these same church elites had themselves been to the Soviet Union on somewhat similar delegations seeking peace. When in Moscow they were usually more restrained in romanticizing a by then almost seventy-year-old dictatorship. But they served Soviet interests by their usual silence about human rights in the workers’ paradise, and by effusively embracing the Soviets as partners in peace against the Reagan Administration’s dangerous rearmament of America.
Throughout the 1980s church denominations in the U.S. dutifully approved countless resolutions at their governing conventions embracing the Sandinistas, denouncing U.S. policies, especially support for the anti-Marxist Contra rebels, and, most egregiously, ignoring the orthodox Catholics and Evangelicals there and in other Marxist lands who were persecuted for their faith, not to mention other persons of conscience. Denominations churned out Sunday school material and other church resources touting Liberation Theology and the Sandinistas as its most illustrious incarnation. Their denominational lobby offices on Capitol Hill, often located in the Methodist Building, strenuously denounced Reagan policies in Congress and hosted pro-Sandinista demonstrations in the nation’s capital.
The churchly infatuation with Marxist Revolution imploded with the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989, the Sandinistas defeat in 1990, and the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. The Marxist regimes around the world that church elites had celebrated for incarnating Liberation Theology began to fold or renounce doctrinaire Marxism as Soviet aid abruptly ended and the new global market economy surged forward.
D’Escoto’s reinstatement by the Pope doubtless was intended as an act of mercy toward an old man. But d’Escoto’s career as a priest in service to a global totalitarian movement that across 70 years enslaved hundreds of millions and murdered millions is instructive. The Apostle John warns in Scripture, “Try the spirits, whether they be of God.” Tragically, too many church elites in the final quarter of the 20th century, and before, lacked discernment and, knowingly or not, betrayed their faith for the promise of an earthly kingdom.