Ernesto Cardenal, the renowned poet and Roman Catholic cleric who became a symbol of revolutionary verse in Nicaragua and around Latin America, and whose suspension from the priesthood by St. John Paul II lasted over three decades, died March 1, 2020. He was 95.
Cardenal received numerous awards during his lifetime including the Reina Sofia poetry prize in 2012, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1980.
Cardenal was also an essayist and sculptor, and the herons he fashioned from stone and metal are highly prized in Central American cultural circles.
Born Jan. 20, 1925, to a wealthy family in the colonial city of Granada southeast of the Nicaraguan capital, Cardenal became a priest in Colombia and later became involved with Liberation Theology movement that swept through Latin America during the 1960s, centered on ministering to the poor and liberating the oppressed.
On the Solentiname Islands in Lake Nicaragua, he founded a community of peasants, poets and painters in 1966 that came to symbolize artistic opposition to the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, who was overthrown in 1979 by Sandinista rebels.
Cardenal actively supported the revolution and served as culture minister during the first government of former Sandinista guerrilla Daniel Ortega — causing him to run afoul of then-Pope John Paul II, who firmly held that clerics should not hold political office. In 1983, John Paul publicly upbraided Cardenal at Managua’s international airport at the beginning of a tense visit. When Cardenal knelt in front of the pope and moved to kiss his hand, the pontiff withdrew it and pointed his finger at him in a moment caught in a widely circulated photograph.
“You should regularize your situation,” the pope scolded. Later that year he suspended Cardenal from the priesthood along with his brother Fernando, who was then serving as minister of education.
Only late in life was Cardenal’s suspension lifted by Pope Francis: In February 2019, as Cardenal was in the hospital, the Vatican noted that he had accepted the punishment, refrained from pastoral activity and long ago abandoned the political arena.
Cardenal continued to hold a dim view of John Paul for decades after their run-in, calling his canonization in 2014 a “monstrosity.”
He was more supportive of Francis and his calls to build a better world for those on the margins of society.
“I try to live with the message of the gospel,” Cardenal once said, “which is a political message, which is changing the world so that there is a better world after 100,000 years of inequality.”
While Cardenal never held political office again, that didn’t mean he shied away from speaking his mind, and the erstwhile supporter of Ortega distanced himself from his former Sandinista sympathizers over his disagreement with the ex-guerrilla’s partisan leadership.
After Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007, Cardenal denounced what he called the beginning of “a family dictatorship.” And in 2018, when anti-government protests broke out that posed the biggest challenge to Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian hold on power, Cardenal quickly aligned himself with the opposition.
As he turned his back on Ortega, Sandinista officialdom turned its back on him.
Roberto Bolaño got Cardenal right.
RAIOT remembers Cardenal via two piracies. First, an interview on Liberation Theology and second, his most famous poem ORACIÓN POR MARILYN MONROE / PRAYER FOR MARILYN MONROE
Is Liberation Theology Marxist?
An Interview With Ernesto Cardenal
Question: In what do you see the main task of Christians’ struggle for a more just world in general and in Latin American countries in particular, and how does the liberation theology contribute to this effort?
Ernesto Cardenal: First of all I should like to say that your movement, Christian Peace Conference, help us Christians in Latin America to follow the path of revolutionary struggle for justice in the understanding that peace cannot be attained in our region without complete liberation. In this endeavor liberation also plays an important role, which strictly speaking means a practical application of the message of the Gospel to the concrete situation of the people of our countries. This theology differs from traditional theology above all in the fact that it is not laid down by certain professional theologians for others, but grows up out of everyday practice, where it develops and addresses first of all the simple, oppressed Christian. Its representatives are persecuted, imprisoned, and sometimes murdered.
This theology, like traditional theology, was inspired by the classical philosophy of Aristotle, whose work, although he was not a Christian, clearly influenced the thinking of the whole Christian church. Liberation theology also draws inspiration from the philosophy of Karl Marx who, despite the fact that he didn’t confess to the Christian faith, was certainly nearer the Christian tradition than Aristotle. There is however further difference between the theology of liberation and traditional theology, the latter being based primarily On the Word of God made incarnate in the Holy Scripture Liberation theology is of course also inspired by the Word, but its representatives are convinced that God also speaks to us in everyday events and that, for example, information obtained through the mass media can be a special way in which God speaks to us.
Question: What does liberation theology take from Marxist thinking in concrete terms?
Cardenal: There are differences of opinion about this. Some liberation theologians maintain that they are not influenced by Marxist philosophy at all. In this case it is necessary to discern whether they say this for tactical reasons, so as not to be compromised politically or whether they are really convinced that Marxism doesn’t influence them in any way. I personally think that it is not possible to evade the influence of Marxism, as we cannot commit ourselves to the revolutionary struggle without drawing support from the conclusions of scientific socialism.
Another group of theologians claims that they only take the method of analysis from Marxism. Others maintain that it is possible to accept the philosophy of dialectical materialism in its entirety and that it can greatly enrich liberation theology. The problem of atheism is closely connected with this question. According to some liberation theologians atheism is not the cause of the conflict between Christianity and Marxism, but is rather the link between them. What Marxism calls atheism is basically the negation of an idol, which sometimes bears the name of God. I think that the proclamation of the Gospel is sometimes nearer to an atheistic point of view than to traditional religious attitudes, for when God calls us to judgment, as Jesus Christ told us, it will not be faith in God or lack of it which will decide, but whether we loved our neighbor or hated him during our lifetime. According to St. John the Apostle, he who loves his neighbor shall know God, and for that reason he who calls himself a believer and yet doesn’t love his neighbor cannot know God.
Question: In comparing the relationship between Christianity and revolution in Nicaragua and in our own environment we see that revolutions took place without the participation of Christians, and often even against them. The understanding of the real meaning of revolutionary activity was prevented by its atheistic character.
Cardenal: I fully appreciate this difference. You find yourselves in a different situation, because the anti-religious character of the revolutions in your environment was created by, among other things, the fundamentally anti-revolutionary and conservative attitude of the churches. If the revolutions in our sphere are different in this respect it is because they are supported by most of our believers. The revolution in Nicaragua was the first of its kind to be accomplished with the mass support of Christians, a fact that cannot fail to influence the further development of revolutionary movements in the whole of Latin America, whose inhabitants are predominantly Christian. Radical revolutionary changes can’t, therefore, be brought about without the active presence of Christians, or against their will, for this would be revolution without the people’s support and as such would have no chance of victory. You in the CPC [Christian Peace Conference] took, in your time, a bold and progressive step which substantially helped Christians in other countries and continents to find their place in the revolutionary process.
Question: How do representatives of official churches accept liberation theology?
Cardenal: Liberation theology was accepted positively not only by the Catholics but also in Protestant circles. I should mention that it affects our ecumenical life too: representatives of different churches and denominations meet round the table and their confessional differences are no longer as important as before. It is possible to say that in Latin America today there are basically two types of Christianity: first, the popular theology which has developed from the ritual traditions of each country. This is a rather superficial belief, although on the other hand it is also a deeply emotionally [sic] matter for our people. And for these people there is no contradiction between their faith and their participation in the revolution. The second type of Christianity is represented by the liberation theologians, who are in the minority and for whom revolutionary commitment stemming from Christian faith and theological reflection is a matter of course. It is possible to say in the case of Nicaragua that liberation theology is “the ruling power” because our people are the ruling power, although at the same time it retains the subversive character so typical of it. It is subversive towards imperialism and the traditional church hierarchy, even if, in rare cases, some bishops or even cardinals — a Brazilian cardinal for instance — are on the side of the people. Sanctions were imposed against some of them by the Vatican, as in my own case, that of several of my countrymen and those of the Brazilian theologian Boff and the Mexican bishop Mendez Arcea.
Question: How do Catholic priests react to these sanctions?
Cardenal: Those of them who are deeply convinced of the need for revolutionary changes don’t allow themselves to be intimidated. And they are in the majority. It is, in fact, a matter of individual conscience and fidelity to the Gospel, for if I am convinced that the orders of the Vatican and even those of the Pope himself are in contradiction with my conscience and with the orders of the Gospel, then I cannot obey.
Question: What role do women play in the revolutionary process in Nicaragua?
Cardenal: Women took part in the revolutionary struggle in all spheres: they stood by the men during the famine strikes, they were engaged in armed combat, we have women in our country with the rank of commandant (corresponding to the rank of general), and now they are active in all spheres of public life; not least I should mention the role of the woman and mother, who to a large extent shapes the revolutionary attitudes of her children of the new generation. Women are also gaining a new position within the Church, unknown in the past: a woman merely used to be a passive, obedient listener.
Question: What ought we in the Christian Peace Conference do to contribute to the victory of your people and to a better future for your country?
Cardenal: From all I know about your work — and this isn’t the first time I’ve come across it- – I can say that you are already doing it. I’d like to thank you for it, and I’d like to ask you to continue in it. And I’m convinced that you will.
This interview originally appeared in the Information Bulletin of the Christian Peace Conference, November 5, 1986.
Of all his works, “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” is the most famous. When asked how he came to write the poem, Cardenal replied:
Prayer for Marilyn Monroe
receive this young woman known around the world as Marilyn Monroe
although that wasn’t her real name
(but You know her real name, the name of the orphan raped at the age of 6
and the shopgirl who at 16 had tried to kill herself)
who now comes before You without any makeup
without her Press Agent
without photographers and without autograph hounds,
alone like an astronaut facing night in space.
She dreamed when she was little that she was naked in a church
(according to the Time account)
before a prostrated crowd of people, their heads on the floor
and she had to walk on tiptoe so as not to step on their heads.
You know our dreams better than the psychiatrists.
Church, home, cave, all represent the security of the womb
but something else too …
The heads are her fans, that’s clear
(the mass of heads in the dark under the beam of light).
But the temple isn’t the studios of 20th Century-Fox.
The temple—of marble and gold—is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands whip in hand
driving out the studio bosses of 20th Century-Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.
in this world polluted with sin and radioactivity
You won’t blame it all on a shopgirl
who, like any other shopgirl, dreamed of being a star.
Her dream just became a reality (but like Technicolor’s reality).
She only acted according to the script we gave her
—the story of our own lives. And it was an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production on which we all have worked.
She hungered for love and we offered her tranquilizers.
For her despair, because we’re not saints
psychoanalysis was recommended to her.
Remember, Lord, her growing fear of the camera
and her hatred of makeup—insisting on fresh makeup for each scene—
and how the terror kept building up in her
and making her late to the studios.
Like any other shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her life was unreal like a dream that a psychiatrist interprets and files.
Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
and when she opened them
she realized she had been under floodlights
as they killed the floodlights!
and they took down the two walls of the room (it was a movie set)
while the Director left with his scriptbook
because the scene had been shot.
Or like a cruise on a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception at the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
all viewed in a poor apartment’s tiny living room.
The film ended without the final kiss.
She was found dead in her bed with her hand on the phone.
And the detectives never learned who she was going to call.
like someone who had dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and only heard the voice of a recording that says: WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who had been wounded by gangsters
reaching for a disconnected phone.
whoever it might have been that she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one
or Someone whose number isn’t in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer that telephone!
(Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Cohen)