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New Trends in Popular Religion in Nicaragua - Francois Houtart

A certain confusion exists in the concept of popular religion. For many it means exclusively a folkloric reality related to a lack of rationality and bound to disappear with the development of economic progress. It is more complex, however, especially if we define popular religion as the religion of the lower classes. In a country like Nicaragua, as in many other Latin American countries, many religious forms exist among the lower classes; what interests us for this article are the new ones which do not correspond to the above definition.

Traditional Religious Forms in Popular Religion

Among the various traditional expressions, the feast of Santo Domingo in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, is one of the most typical. The statue of the saint, located in a parish church outside the city, is brought in procession to the city center where it remains for ten days in the church of the Jesuits, the only one rebuilt after the earthquake of 1972. A full day of festivities precedes the procession. Thousands of people come to the church, where they dance to a slow rhythm as they approach the statue. Some crawl a long way on their knees before entering the church. Outside, fireworks are cracking; quite a few people are drunk. The procession to the center of the, city is accompanied by music and dancing people, many of whom are clothed as Indians. Some, especially the children, are painted in black. Groups of adults wear white masks, while others carry representations of cows.

All of those rites and expressions, too numerous to explain fully here, manifest a whole set of representations in which nature is seen to be manipulated by external forces--spirits, saints, God. It is necessary for human beings to get their favors from those forces or to protect themselves against their evil influence, an attitude which reflects the various influences of the former Indian cultural forms and of the Spanish colonization. It is also related to the various economic systems; for example, lineage-based production or cattle breeding brought by the Spaniards. Such a belief creates a strange relationship with the institutional church, which is the guardian of the statue and plays a predominant role during the whole devotion, but which is unable to change the content of the indigenous beliefs. The Sandinista Youth assure an orderly procession and a certain measure of public order in Managua. The new Basic Christian Communities are trying to change the ceremony’s content by taking part in the procession, communicating their message over loudspeakers and in written slogans.

Such religious forms, still very important among both rural and urban lower classes, manifest a way of thinking that Levi Strauss calls »analogical« versus »analytical.« That means that the causality of the phenomena of nature and society is attributed to supernatural beings, analogous to human beings, who possess a free will but a higher power. As long as the lower social strata do not create or import other forms of production or experience social reorganization, such a system of explanation will remain. The rhythm of change in Nicaragua is not the same as far as the explanation of nature and social vision are concerned, however. Neither is it the same in all regions of the country.

Capitalist forms of economic organization have disrupted the traditional social relationships for more than 50 years in some rural areas. The introduction of cotton in the 1960s provoked the eviction of many peasants and created the ground for social revolt. The Sandinista revolution involved a great part of the lower classes in a process of real struggle, and the land reform and cooperatives have created a new economic environment for the majority of the peasants. That has provoked a new social awareness and, to a certain extent, a rapid desacralization of the social order. The consciousness of being actors in society, not only followers of an established order, has immensely increased. Relations to nature, however, remain largely represented according to the traditional patterns, as the process of change in the productive forces is very slow.

New Religious Forms in Popular Religion

What we have described till now is quite typical of what is happening in almost all the developing countries. But there are also new trends in Nicaragua. In a survey done in Jalapa (near the Honduran border) with the delegados de la palabra (delegates of the word, or peasants in charge of the religious teaching), the contrast between the religious representations of the past and of the present is well described.’ Before the beginning of the religious renewal, God was viewed by the peasants as being above everything, directing the world like »the president of a world republic.« The saints were his intermediaries, protecting human beings against evil. The human beings were a source of evil and had to offer a ritual of submission to God, namely, the mass. Now God is love. He is manifested among men in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to announce the Good News to the poor and who chose his disciples from among peasants. The main opposition in the gospel lies between the God of love and the god of power and money. On that basis human beings are opposed to each other and oppression and sufferings develop. It is also the reason for the death of Jesus Christ. But his resurrection means the presence of the Spirit among men. Hence, the necessity for Christians to be preoccupied with the salvation of others, soul and body. A brother carrier of the Spirit cannot be exploited, tortured, or die of hunger.

Many enquiries that we conducted in 1983 in the whole of Nicaragua--both rural areas and cities--show that that transformation in the conception of God is widespread. Although it has been unequally diffused, the influence of that vision is considerable, and it has also influenced the interpretation of the Bible. The first access to the Bible, quite new in a Catholic environment, was also exclusively limited to the New Testament. Very rapidly, however, the Old Testament also became central. The Bible appears not only as the Word of God but also as the history of a people struggling for spiritual and material liberation. Such a discovery, at a moment of deep economic exploitation and of political repression, was quite significant and became subversive.

What has been the history of such a religious transformation which today has influenced an important part of the popular religion of Nicaragua? It is linked with the current of renewal in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II and with the Conference of Medellin (Colombia) in 1968 of the Latin American bishops. The Council opened the Catholic Church to possibilities of change, namely, in the liturgy, in the pastoral organization, and in the utilization of the Bible. The Conference of Medellin, influenced by a local renewal of the Latin American church and provoked by the awareness of the social consequences of the increasing penetration of capitalist economy in the continent, opened the church to new theological currents--the theology of liberation, new ecclesiastical forms of organization, a decentralization of the pastoral work through laypeople, and the organization of »basic communities.«

The appeal to foreign clergy, the work of missionaries coming from Europe or North America, and the transformation of the mentality of a part of the local clergy all brought about an important change in the whole organization of the church and the multiplication of the Comunidades Eciesiales de Base, or CEB (basic communities). Today, they are the most developed in Brazil and in Central America, but they exist in practically the whole continent. In Brazil they already number more than 100,000. The initial move coming from the institutional church was thought to be a decentralization of the pastoral work in response to a situation of social change that had resulted in the inefficiency of the existing ecclesiastical organization, centered exclusively on the priestly function. The lack of priests in the continent had been a reality for more than a century. The change was also the result of the awareness that the traditional cultural and social channels of religious reproduction--the family, the small village, the rural society--were precisely the most affected by the transformations of the agrarian economy and by the tremendous population increase in the big cities.

Only among a minority of religious agents did the social awareness go so far as to make a class analysis of the Latin American societies. That was the basis of the theology of liberation developed by Gustavo Gutierrez, a priest-theologian from Peru. But the religious renewal provoked some unexpected results for the institutional church. The Bible, the Gospels, the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles became for poor peasants, very attached to their religious beliefs and representations, not only a way of transforming their religious representations and of building more adequate local communities but also a tool of social consciousness-raising.

It is interesting to discover, in Jalapa, for example, that the CEB were founded without any political intention by American Capuchins of the Franciscan tradition. Their pastoral work was at first based on the renewal of the family in a society where the marriage links were very loose. The accent they put on human dignity in the area of the family and on the local community as a place to live out better social relationships (concepts built on the model of the first Christians) helped the peasants themselves to discover other aspects of their social and economic situation. That was especially important when the local landlords introduced new work methods and evicted the peasants from their land, or when Somoza’s regime began to send the National Guard to terrorize them when they were resisting. Both the peasants and the missionaries began to be socially and politically aware. Such a process happened not only in Jalapa but in many other places as well. Ernesto Cardenal, now Minister of Culture and who was formerly responsible for the community of Solentiname (an island on Lake Nicaragua), lived through the same process until the destruction of the community by the guards and his exile.

The basic communities (CEB) of El Salvador and Guatemala share the same history. For many, they have been the way of entering into a social and political process led by liberation movements or political parties utilizing a Marxist analysis with a socialist program. Because the social awareness had originated in a religious transformation, however, no divorce between Christian belief and political commitment exists among those people. Entre cristianismo y revolucion no hay contradicion (Between Christianity and revolution there is no contradition) is their leitmotiv. In that sense the revolution in Central America has had a different character than the Cuban revolution where religion played almost no role.

Of course, revolutionary movements in Central America have other sources, and it is only fair to say that the socialist and Marxist traditions have played a leading role in building coherent analyses, political programs, and organized struggles. Nonetheless, a great many of their social bases have been produced by the CEB, especially among the peasants. That is also the reason why most of the revolutionary movements have changed their attitude toward religion, not only tactically but also strategically: many of their leaders are Christians and Marxists. The Sandinista movement is preoccupied with overseeing the continuity of the training of »delegates of the word in the local CEB, not for religious reasons, but because their action assures a very profound foundation for the political construction among the popular classes. Many delegates have become the local leaders of the Sandinista party, the militias, or the health and education services.

It is quite interesting to see how a renewal in the religious field has been conducive to the mass participation of peasants in revolutionary movements. It is true that in the long history of the transition to capitalism in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, peasant revolts have been inspired or symbolized by religious representations. One has only to recall the many messianic or millenarian movements. But all those movements were generally fundamentalist; religious utopias were produced, not political programs. In Nicaragua, to the contrary, we find the mediation of a social analysis, more or less explicitly Marxist, and the pursuit of an economic and social transformation based on a transition toward socialist forms of production and distribution.

Religious Conflicts as Expressions of Social Conflicts

Since the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, profound religious conflicts have taken place. A division exists between the Catholic hierarchy and the clergy and laity associated with the basic communities.2 The visit of Pope John Paul II in March 1983 increased the distance between the two parts of the church. He condemned severely what he called »the popular church« as being the cause of the division in the church.

It would be too simple to speak about a bourgeois church on one side and a popular church on the other. As a matter of fact, the institutional church in its majority maintains quite a traditional, authoritarian vision of the institution while trying to establish links with the traditional popular religions. Bishops and priests assure an active presence in the religious festivities. Nevertheless, they have little contact with the new forms of Christian religious representations and forms of organization as they have been developed by the »Church of the poor.« They even try to constitute new types of basic communities and new delegates, but under their direct supervision. The social doctrine that the Catholic hierarchy diffuses is definitely prejudiced against certain classes and is thus opposed to the new organization of society in Nicaragua. Their opposition corresponds to that of various sections of the bourgeoisie and, to a certain extent, the counter-revolution. That is why the bourgeois class is using religious symbols (the picture of the Pope being one of them) to manifest its opposition to the regime.

On the other hand, the people who constitute the »Church of the poor« are quite in agreement with the political process of the country and affirm that they do not see a contradiction with the Christian faith. On the contrary, their religious conceptions are built on the renewal that we have indicated before. Most of them belong to the popular classes, but intellectuals and a part of the clergy are also numbered in their ranks.

The form of religious movement that we have briefly analyzed and the conflicts inside the religious institutions are sociologically linked with a process of transition from a capitalist society to flew forms of economic production linked with a socialist project. We have tried to show that the new religious forms are not dependent variables but are the result of religious agents, laity or clerics, inside a dialectical process between economic factors and cultural ones. Those religious agents provide genuine drive in the concrete processes of social transformation, even if the conditioning factor remains an economic one.

Francois Houtart holds an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame University and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Louvain, Belgium. He has served as the director of the Centre de Recherches Socio-religieuses, editor in chief of Social Compass, secretary general of the Conference Internationale de Sociologic Religieuse, and both secretary general and vice president of the Fédération Internationale des Instituts de Recherches Socio-religieuses. Dr. Houtart currently teaches at the Université Catholique de Louvain.


1. Les croyances religieuses chez les catholiques de Jalapa (Louvain-la-Neuve: Centre Tricontinental, 1983), based on the research of Luis E. Samandu of the Derde Wereld Centrum of the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Holland.

2. See the special issue of Social Compass titled »Religion, Political Society and Social Consciousness in Central America,« 30:2-3(1983).