Pope John Paul II travelled around the world as no Pope had before and no Pope since. He flew into quite a number of varied situations. But few of them had the tension of his arrival in Managua, Nicaragua in March 1983.
The cabinet of the Marxist Sandinista junta were lined up to greet him on the tarmac, and John Paul was escorted down the line. And, almost as soon as he had arrived, he was put on the spot. Ernesto Cardenal, one of the priests in the Sandinista government, who remained in the government against the Pope’s clear instructions, was in the line. As the Pope came to him, Cardenal kneeled down and reached his hand out in order grasp the Pope’s hand and kiss his ring….
Karol Wojtyla had long exercised courage in the midst of the idolatrous demands of totalitarianism. As a young man under the Nazis, he wrote and performed in clandestine plays designed to keep alive cultural memory of Polish history and Catholic Christianity. He also helped protect many Polish Jews from the Nazis.
As the Archbishop of Krakow and later as Pope, Wojtyla was an active symbol of Polish resistance against Communism. His June 1979 visit to Poland as Pope was a significant event in that resistance watched around the world. He is widely credited with weakening Poland’s Communist regime with his exercise of “soft power.”
But not all Roman Catholics shared his opposition to Communism. Some, particularly in Latin America, attempted to marry Marxism and Christianity into Liberation Theology. John Paul and his Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), would have none of that. With Ratzinger experiencing his youth under the Nazis, they both knew very personally that the predatory idolatries of totalitarian ideologies are opposed to the Lordship of Christ. The two cannot be combined any more than the demonic idols of the Canaanites and the God of Abraham.
The Sandinistas, on the other hand, found Liberation Theology useful. Unlike some Communist regimes, they courted the church and cultivated the illusion that Marxism and Christianity were indeed compatible. And, under the influence of Liberation Theology, many priests were gladly supporting that intermarriage, including several priests who joined the Sandinista junta, Ernesto Cardenal being one.
Those priests in the junta made the tensions that day in 1983 even worse. For in 1980, John Paul decreed that priests may not hold partisan government offices. The reasons for and against that are beyond the scope of this article. But it suffices to say that a priest holding public office in a Marxist government no less was well beyond what John Paul would tolerate. He had already made that clear well before he landed in Managua.
And now one of those disobedient priests, Ernesto Cardenal, reached to take John Paul’s hand.
John Paul pulled his hand back. And instead of letting Cardenal kiss his ring, he wagged his finger — the finger wag seen around the world — and sternly lectured him on the spot. It was noisy on the tarmac, but the consensus is that he instructed Cardenal to “straighten out your position with the Church.”
John Paul had not even left the airport before making it clear he was not going to play the Sandinistas’ games. If the junta thought they could manipulate the Pope to their ends, they were quickly disappointed. And that did not stop at the airport. In his outdoor mass homily before about 350,000 people, he raised his voice above Communist hecklers and made clear that Liberation Theology and the Catholic Faith are not compatible:
When a Christian, whatever his condition, prefers whatever other doctrine or ideology to the teaching of the apostles and the church, when one makes these doctrines the criterion of our vocation . . . and when one installs ‘parallel teachings,’ then the unity of the church is weakened.
And, after he left, John Paul II followed up on his warnings to the disobedient Sandinista priests, including Ernesto Cardenal. When they still refused to leave the Marxist government, he suspended their right to minister as priests. He proclaimed with both words and deeds that one cannot serve two masters. One cannot serve the regime of a totalitarian ideology and Christ.
Why do I recall this pivotal moment? Do I think John Paul’s stern actions have application to the Anglican Church in North America and other orthodox churches today?
Why, yes. Yes, I do.