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Fernando Cardenal, RIP



Fernando Cardenal, the leftist priest of the Sandinistas, has died. He was truly an amazing man.

The Rev. Fernando Cardenal, a son of privilege who embraced Latin America’s poor as a revolutionary priest and brazenly defied Pope John Paul II’s order to quit Nicaragua’s leftist cabinet in the 1980s, died on Saturday in Managua. He was 82.

The cause was an infection after a hernia operation, said Iñaki Zubizarreta, the country’s superior of Jesuits.

Father Cardenal was the brother of Ernesto Cardenal, the 90-year-old poet and intellectual voice of the insurgency that overthrew the dictator Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. Father Cardenal was one of four priests steeped in liberation theology, a Christian movement committed to a Marxist agenda of promoting social justice and alleviating poverty, who joined the revolutionary Sandinista cabinet.

As education minister from mid-1984 to 1990 under the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Fernando Cardenal oversaw a sweeping campaign that local officials credited with reducing illiteracy to 13 percent from 51 percent. His brother served as the culture minister.

After the Cardenal brothers and two other clergymen were warned by the church that their political and priestly posts were incompatible, Fernando Cardenal was the first to be disciplined. He was expelled by the Jesuits in 1984 and suspended from the priesthood by the pope.

“My problem with the Vatican was political,” he said in a television interview last year. “The pope was against the revolution because he had been marked by his experience as a young priest in Poland, when he was persecuted by the Polish Communist Party. This marked him forever.”

But Father Cardenal said his exposure to Marxism and earlier to the Sandinista revolution had the opposite effect.

“I had thought through my decision in 1973, being convinced that it was Jesus who had asked me to commit to this revolution for the poor,” he recalled. “I said, in my spiritual and communitarian discernment, that the voice of Jesus was stronger than that of the pope.”

When John Paul suspended him, Father Cardenal said, “I can’t conceive of a God that would ask me to give up my commitment to the people” by abandoning a post committed to the poor.

To his credit as well, when the Sandinistas became ridden with corruption and right-wing social policies by the 1990s, he heavily criticized them as well. Unfortunately, Daniel Ortega is still the (living*) revolutionary hero of Nicaragua, despite his horrible personal behavior and his war on women.

I saw Cardenal speak in 2009 when I was teaching in Texas. It was great. So inspiring, such dedication to fighting poverty. Really, he was just a great human. Everyone has flaws and I don’t believe in heroes, but Cardenal worked hard to make the lives of the Nicaraguan masses better at great sacrifice to himself. I don’t know how much more one can ask of a person.

* What would have happened if Carlos Fonseca, the Nicaraguan Castro, had lived until the Sandinistas took power is an interesting hypothetical. Ortega ended up being president because he was the military commander, but he by no means was the clearly respected leader of the Sandinista movement and the government was pretty split between various wings in the early years, including the Cardenal wing.

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