MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) – Fernando Cardenal, one of the priests who famously rebuffed a papal order to quit Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government, died in Managua on Saturday. He was 82 and long back in the good graces of the church.
The Jesuit was a practitioner of liberation theology and he who joined the Sandinista rebels after they toppled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, first leading a widely praised literacy campaign and then serving as education minister.
The participation of priests such as Cardenal, his brother Ernesto and Miguel d'Escoto in the leftist government irked Pope John Paul II, who publicly wagged his finger at Ernesto Cardenal during a papal visit to the country in 1983. A year later, they were among four suspended from the priesthood for refusing to leave their political posts. Ernesto Cardenal, perhaps Nicaragua's best-known poet, was culture minister and d'Escoto was foreign minister.
In an open "Letter to my Friends" published in late 1984, Fernando Cardenal defended his decision in theological terms, saying, "I believe before God that I would be committing a grave sin" by abandoning a post committed to the poor.
"I cannot conceive of a God that would ask me to abandon my commitment to the people," he said.
Fernando Cardenal left his Cabinet post in 1990 and, like his brother, eventually broke with the main Sandinista Front led by Daniel Ortega.
In a step even more unusual than his suspension, he was reinstated to the Jesuit order in 1997 and until his death was heading the Nicaragua office of Fe and Alegria, a Jesuit program that brings schools to poor parts of Nicaragua and other countries.
The agency confirmed the death in a statement, praising his "tireless struggle to defend the rights of the most vulnerable."
Local news media said the death resulted from complications following a surgery two weeks ago.
Pope John Paul II told Cardenal and other priests — including Cardenal's brother Ernesto — to quit politics. When they refused, he suspended them from the priesthood in 1984.
Cardenal left politics in 1990 and was reinstated as a Jesuit in 1997 — an extremely unusual step.
He spent his last years leading a Jesuit organization running schools in poor parts of the country.