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Bill McCormick, S.J.August 28, 2023
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo sing the national anthem during the opening ceremony of a highway overpass in Managua March 21, 2019. (OSV News photo/Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters)

When Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, shut down the Jesuit university in Managua on Aug. 16, it was part of an all too predictable series of events.

Mr. Ortega’s crackdown on the Catholic Church has escalated since 2018, when anti-government protests left more than 300 dead. In the week following the closure of the Universidad Centroamericana (U.C.A.) in Managua, Mr. Ortega’s government has evicted the Jesuits from their residence—which is privately owned by the Society of Jesus, not the university—and has now effectively suppressed the Society in Nicaragua.

As shocking as these actions are, they are also a play straight out of the dictator’s playbook.

The essence of totalitarianism is the elimination of any competitors to state authority. The great enemies of any unjust regime are the family and marriage, the church, unions—and any social bodies with their own justifications for existence and activity apart from the state. Such bodies are the bedrock of a healthy civil society, but for an unjust regime, they are sites of resistance. And modern would-be totalitarian states, with the benefits of technology and mass communications, economic resources and absolutizing ideologies, have new ways to exercise control over their citizens by eliminating the social bodies that come between the people and the state.

As shocking as these actions are, they are also a play straight out of the dictator’s playbook.

So when the Central American Jesuits decry the “total helplessness” of the people, that is tragically the point of Mr. Ortega’s actions.

Mr. Ortega has shown his desire to subjugate the people through a host of activities, whether eliminating political rivals or exiling foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide valuable services to his people. For Mr. Ortega, such actions are worth the cost of increasing disapproval of his government, because his primary incentive is to punish those who do not recognize his authority and to further consolidate his power over the Nicaraguan people.

This is where the Catholic Church, at its best, has been a thorn in the side of dictators around the globe and across history. (And it has not always been at its best.)

Many dictatorships have targeted the Catholic Church in their territories because it is a community with principles, values and social order that ultimately do not depend upon civil governments for origin or support. The church offers a set of criteria to judge governments independent of the reigning ideologies. It also offers spaces for potential dissent against and resistance to regimes, as indeed U.C.A. and Nicaraguan Jesuits did for protestors against Mr. Ortega.

To the extent that authoritarianism is fundamentally “post-truth,” or seeks to shape narratives justifying its power, then the church’s mere existence confronts the raison d’etre of the dictatorship where it is most vulnerable: its attempt to reshape reality.

This is where the Catholic Church, at its best, has been a thorn in the side of dictators around the globe and across history. (And it has not always been at its best.)

The Society of Jesus has had a complicated history with politics and politicians since its founding, and it has been at the receiving end of dictatorial ire in many locales at different times. The Vatican suppression of the Jesuits due to pressure from secular governments from 1773 to 1814 was part of a multinational campaign to stamp out the Society as a source of opposition to centralizing political authority throughout Europe, as (at least perceived) agents of the papacy. For many monarchs, the existence of the Jesuits was a check on their ability to control the church within their own borders. The resistance to the Jesuits came in part from their nature as a transnational network: An autocrat in France could not hope to control the Jesuits on French territory so long as they could appeal to Jesuits in other countries or Rome for assistance.

In persecuting the Catholic Church and expelling the Society of Jesus, Daniel Ortega is carrying on this terrible legacy.

But will it work?

Probably not. In the short term, Mr. Ortega can make life very difficult for Catholics, as he indeed has. But his actions against the church come at some cost to him. Very few authoritarian governments can afford to keep consistent pressure on the Catholic Church, however many more divisions Stalin had than the pope.

In persecuting the Catholic Church and expelling the Society of Jesus, Daniel Ortega is carrying on this terrible legacy. But will it work?

Moreover, Mr. Ortega is creating martyrs—hopefully not literal ones. If he is overthrown, then it will no doubt be in part because of the part the church has played in defense of justice.

Religious oppression can have the opposite of its intended effect, as the example of Polish Solidarity Movement reminds us. And it is no small thing that Mr. Ortega’s injustices are playing out not far from another U.C.A.: that of neighboring El Salvador, where six Jesuits and two laypeople were murdered in 1989 by another unjust regime. That massacre was part of a long history of violence against Catholics in that country, including the “Four Churchwomen of El Salvador,Rutilio Grande, S.J., and Archbishop Óscar Romero, and untold numbers of the Salvadoran poor.

The stories of such martyrs matter because they bear witness to the lie of totalitarianism, that man is the measure of all things and that politics has the final word about the shape of justice and the legitimacy of violence. Many Catholics have been complicit in this kind of injustice, and that is a source of sorrow and humility for the entire church.

But for all of the church’s limitations, we cannot turn away from the example of saints like Thomas Becket, Edith Stein or Óscar Romero. They were finally not mere victims of overweening claims to power but men and women who opened themselves to God’s grace and persevered in the face of terrible persecution—sustained in the hope that, united with God’s son in a death like his, they might also be one with him in his resurrection.

That hope goes far beyond anything like politics. But as tyrants and dictators tactitly admit again and again, it is a hope with tremendous power for politics.

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