HERALD FOCUS ON CENTRAL AMERICA
CENTRAL AMERICA is probabl■, undergoing its greatest over exposure to the Western media.
All eyes are on El Salvador because of the elections and civil war. Guatemala has been the scene of atrocities and violations of human rights and Tuesday's coup could make things worse. Nicaragua continues to stand up defiantly to continued US charges that it has been infiltrated by Communists.
What is less clear is the position taken by the Church. Clearly there are divisions in thinking not only between the different countries of Central America. but often within those countries themselves, on exactly what role the Church should be playing. Added to this, there is considerable opposition by many US Catholics, including the bishops conference, to President Reagan's Central American policy, and the Vatican's view remains almost a total enigma.
El Salvador provides the best example of how these divisions work in practice. When Archbishop Romero was alive there were six bishops in the country. Now there are only four. After his assassination, Bishop Rivera y Damas was appointed Apostolic Administrator. a position he still holds. Shortly alter Romero's death, one of the other bishops retired.
Bishop Rivera was Romero's only supporter in pleading the case of the poor and oppressed. Even Romero's Vicar General Bishop Rene Revelo (now Bishop of Santa Ana) could not be relied upon to support his archbishop.
Now Rivera is on his own. The other three bishops are opposed to what the vast majority of priests and religious are doing for the poverty-stricken mass of the population often disowning them as Marxists.
Rivera has done his best to steer a middle course. To take as committed a position as Romero would be to invite his own assassination, leaving priests and peasants with. no authoritative voice at all.
It is probably for this reason that Bishop Rivera is more or less forced into the position of signing recent joint statements on the forthcoming elections by the Salvadorean bishops' conference.
Bishop Rivera explained: "To have a decent climate for elections, it's necessary to have a full dialogue with all the parties in any conflict. This is lacking here. Nonetheless, I support the March 28 elections, because perhaps they will bring to power a legitimate government that can use its powers to call for dialogue."
It is not entirely appreciated that Rivera is also Bishop of Santiago.
The attitude of the Vatican is therefore something of a mystery. Bishop Rivera
has now stood in Romero's shoes for two years, but without his predecessor's authority. Yet he is looked upon by the priests and people of the diocese as their 'de facto archbishop. Why then, is the Vatican dragging its heels about promoting him? So far, no one has provided a satisfactory answer.
But Pope has spoken about the violence in El Salvador and Guatemala, referring in Salvador's case to a "martyred people" and deploring "external interference", as much a refernece to US military policy as those supplying arms to the left. On Guatemala, he wrote to the government in 1980 about the increase in killings and the social injustices that had led to the wholesale closure of the Quiche diocese.
The bishops have taken a more timid stance on social justice than some might have hoped, leaving it to the priests, nuns and catechists. In 1976 when Cardinal Casariego of Guatemala was on a visit to Rome, the other bishops wrote a justice oriented pastoral letter. When Casariego returned, he disowned it.
Since 1978 at least 13 priests and one nun have been killed, often for making relatively mild statements against the military. In Nicaragua the Church's position differs again from its neighbours. After Somoza's downfall in 1979, three priests were invited to join the new cabinet of the Socialist Sandinista government. There was a rift in the hierarchy. Some of the Nicaraguan bishops were unhappy with the situation that followed, believing priests should not be so closely involved in politics. Archbishop Abando of Managua was deeply suspicious of the Sandinistas, but two or three of the bishops gave their verbal support to the priests.
In June 1981, the bishops ordered four of the 20 priests holding government office to step down and return to their pastoral duties. But the Vatican was sympathetic to the priests, who live in a compromise situation of working for the government while their sacerdotal roles remain in suspension.
Nicaragua has continually to combat US allegations of Communist influences in its affairs. The Church in Guatemala and El Salvador has to walk the tightrope of keeping its credibility as the champion of social justice, without being tempted to identify with leftist guerilla forces. Provided that it can preach liberation theology, rooted in the genuine message of the gospels, it has some hope of commanding the loyalty of the common people.