Brief hopes that Nicaragua's government and its Roman Catholic Church critics might be resuming their search for a modus vivendi appear to have been dashed. Two recent official slaps at senior church figures mark the harshest point yet in a long-running battle between Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas and the Catholic hierarchy. Last Friday the government expelled from Nicaragua the second-ranking church leader, Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega Mantilla. On June 28, the government barred a church spokesman, Msgr. Bismarck Carballo, from returning from a trip to Miami.
Only two weeks ago Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez Mercado returned from Europe saying that his ``cordial'' visit with Pope John Paul II had ``opened the possibility of a space for understanding with the ecclesiastical hierarchy.''
On July 5, the Pope, who is visiting Colombia, said Bishop Vega's explusion ``saddened [him] profoundly . . . because the action against the church evokes dark eras . . . which one could have believed overcome.''
Nicaraguan state security officials dropped Vega off at the border with Honduras on July 4 because of what the government here called his ``antipatriotic and criminal behavior.''
A Sandinista statement accused Vega of campaigning in favor of United States aid to the Nicaraguan ``contra'' rebels. The statement recalled that during Vega's March visit to the US, he met with two leaders of the main contra force, the Honduran-based Nicaraguan Democratic Force. But the decision to expel Vega was sparked by comments he made to foreign correspondents here last week, after President Daniel Ortega Saavedra had warned that an eight-month-old state of emergency would be enforced in all its rigor in the wake of the US House of Representatives June 25 vote to give the contras $100 million.
Vega refused to condemn that aid, saying that though it was ``neither desirable nor efficient . . . one cannot deny the people the right to defend themselves against repression.''
He also argued that the World Court had been ``partial'' in its recent judgment endorsing Nicaragua's demands that Washington should cease its support for the contras.
The Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano said Saturday that banishing the Catholic bishop was a grave act of persecution. President Ortega denied the charge, insisting that all Nicaraguans were free to worship and express their religious beliefs.
Prominent opposition leader Virgilio Godoy agreed with Ortega. ``There is no religious persecution here,'' he said. ``There is political persecution of the church over political issues.''
Those issues began to surface in 1980 when Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the church's senior bishop, fired his first broadside at the Sandinistas over the political content of textbooks in the government's literacy campaign. By 1981, the two sides were exchanging bitter accusations. Cardinal Obando y Bravo said the government was ``capable of any barbarity.'' Ortega charged that the bishops' call for peace talks with the rebels had been ``conceived, calculated, and structured by the CIA.''
Since then, one Western diplomat says of the conflict, ``there has been only one word for it: escalation.''
``Right from the start,'' the diplomat continued, ``disagreement focused on the presence of numerous Catholic priests in the government, most prominently Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto, Culture Minister Ernesto Cardenal, and his brother Fernando, now education minister. . . . The government did not appreciate the church's sensitivity to this problem, which is a violation of canon law.''
Other problems soon arose, notably the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to compulsory military service in the Sandinista Popular Army, which it said is a wing of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front rather than a national institution.
Government and church leaders began a series of talks on these and other questions in December 1984, but the talks broke down 11 months later. Both sides expressed a willingness to continue the talks but also accused one another of insincerity.
Underlying the specific issues dealt with in the talks, and proving an increasing bone of contention, was the church's call for negotiations between the government and the rebels. The Sandinistas have repeatedly rejected this on the grounds that only a direct deal with the Reagan administration could end the war.
``The problem is that there is a sector of the church that wants us to do what they want, not in religious affairs, which would be understandable, but in government, and that is something else,'' said Interior Minister Tom'as Borge Mart'inez in an interview earlier this year. ``What Christ said is still valid,'' he added. ``Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.''
Such a dividing line is hard to draw, in a country where ``there isn't one commandant who doesn't preach sermons and there isn't one bishop who doesn't make speeches,'' said the diplomat.
That line is further blurred by a split within the church between the Vatican-backed hierarchy and the ``popular church'' which supports the revolution and the Sandinistas.
Although ``popular church'' leaders claim around half of Nicaragua's 350 priests among their number, independent observers push the figure far lower. Obando y Bravo loyalists say there are no more than 20 priests who do not owe allegiance to the cardinal.
Whatever the numbers, the ``popular church'' is an important force. It is a vociferous, forceful body with access to the progovernment media and widespread support abroad. It has campaigned fiercely against the church's refusal to condemn the contras openly.
Father d'Escoto, for example, accused Obando y Bravo in March of being ``the principal accomplice of North American aggression against Nicaragua,'' and asked him to ``repent.''
The cardinal responded by accusing d'Escoto of sowing ``bitterness and hatred.''
These verbal recriminations have been echoed in hostile actions by both sides. D'Escoto and the Cardenal brothers have been forbidden to carry out their priestly functions while the hierarchy has threatened other disciplinary measures against ``popular church'' leaders and removed dissident priests from their churches.
The government has also withdrawn residence permits from Obando y Bravo's supporters, closed down the church's radio station, and forbade publication of the bishops' pastoral letter last Easter.
With Vega's expulsion from the country, this series of attacks has now reached the center of the church. Many observers here speculate on the future of Obando y Bravo -- another regular target of official wrath.
In Washington, the head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said over the weekend that Nic-aragua's banishment of the two priests reflects ``a new and dangerously repressive policy'' toward the church.