Pope to face church-state conflict in Central America

Pope John Paul II is no stranger to controversy and turbulence. His trip to Central America this week puts him squarely in the center of both.

Not only is the region buffeted by deep political and economic turmoil, but the Roman Catholic Church itself is caught up in a swirl of church-state controversy in Central America. The clergy has also become divided over what role it should play in the strife-torn region.

All the more reason to visit the area, say some papal advisers. After all, the Catholic Church is one of Central America's strongest institutions, if not its strongest, they add.

''It has the key role to play in the current turmoil,'' says Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, head of the church in Nicaragua. His view on the importance of the Catholic Church is echoed by members of the papal advance party preparing the trip.

The Pope would clearly like to end the church-state controversy in Nicaragua, where that country's leftist Sandinista leaders are increasingly at odds with the church over a number of issues, including the presence of five priests in the government. Pope John Paul has repeatedly ordered them to quit these posts, but they have defied him. Divisions within the clergy and church membership are deepingly as the church-state controversy escalates.

Underlying the conflicts is a deep papal concern over the growth of the so-called ''liberation theology'' throughout Latin America. This theological view holds that the church's mission is to help relieve poverty and social injustice. It emphasizes ''consciousness-raising'' by alerting the poor that their rights are abused and that they can unify themselves to change a political and economic system that oppresses them.

Liberation theology is growing strong in Nicaragua and El Salvador on the papal route. Indeed, the five priests in the Nicaraguan government, including Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto Brockman, advocate this view.

''This is the church's key mission,'' says Father D'Escoto.

Monitor special correspondent Jean Hopfensperger reports that D'Escoto told her the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is neglecting the poor and has realigned itself with the rich classes. ''I hope the Holy Father will manifest his preferential love for the poor, which is not being manifested by Archbishop Obando y Bravo,'' he told the Monitor.

In earlier visits to Mexico and Brazil, Pope John Paul argued that priests have first and foremost a pastoral role. He has not entirely denied them a secular role. In fact he argues that the church must take stands on such issues as birth control and abortion, but he repeatedly says that priests must not assume secular duties.

Such papal views have deterred many Central American priests from taking part in government. But many are not swayed by the Pope's admonition - as the case of the Nicaraguan five indicates. (All five are scheduled to be out of Nicaragua during the papal visit.)

This church-state conflict is just one of several confronting Pope John Paul on his Central American swing.

He will visit El Salvador, where civil war has resulted in more than 100,000 Salvadoreans deaths in the past three years. The Pope would like nothing better than to get the contending Salvadorean forces to begin talking.

It is unlikely, however, that Pope John Paul will make much headway in defusing that war or in resolving the church-state controversies. Divisions in the region and within his church are simply too deep to be resolved by a single visit. Yet his mere presence is bound to give some pause to the combatants.

The logistics of the papal visit, which runs March 2 to 9, in themselves are challenging.

The Pope's first stop is Costa Rica, the one stable democracy in the area. He will use that nation as his base for daytime visits to Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador. Then he goes to Honduras and Guatemala. Finally he heads home via Belize, a former British colony, and the Caribbean island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

This trip may prove to be the peripatetic Pope's most grueling. Other than the problems he encountered in his native Poland, the problems he will encounter in Central America are more challenging than those he met in his travels in Mexico and Venezuela, and in Asia and Africa.

Some papal advisers urged him to stay out of the ''Central America quagmire, '' according to one bishop in the advance party. The advisers were also divided on whether the pontiff should visit all the countries in the region.

They were not sure he should visit El Salvador because of its civil war. The sharp church-state controversy in Nicaragua also will present problems.

But in the end, it was the Pope himself who decided to include all countries. ''He told us,'' said an advance party spokesman, ''he must not omit any people in the area, for more than most areas this region needs to be assured that it is not forgotten by God.''

Except for Belize, all the countries John Paul is visiting are largely Roman Catholic. However, significant Protestant congregations exist in many countries, and born-again evangelical missions are making headway in converting people.

Many Roman Catholic churchmen worry about the trend. Visiting Guatemala, the Pope will fly into the one country where this trend is most evident. The nation's President, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, is a Protestant - and a lay preacher of a fundamentalist congregation in Guatemala City.

The Pope is expected to say nothing against this trend, but papal authorities hope his visit will slow it.

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