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Why Nicaragua's cardinal is facing criticism over 'collaboration' with the Ortega regime

An anonymous letter has made waves in Nicaragua, after it accused the country’s cardinal of being too close to the country’s dictator, President Daniel Ortega.

While persecution against the Church in Nicaragua continues unabated, a debate has cropped up among clergy in the country about the controversial, anonymous letter, reportedly written by seminarians, which accuses Managua Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of fostering a culture of silence in the country’s seminary about ongoing religious persecution.

Cardinal Managua Leopoldo Brenes. Credit: Pufui Pc Pifpef I, CC BY-SA 3.0

The letter, published March 28 by Spanish Catholic outlet Religión Digital and reportedly written by three current and former seminarians, also claimed that the Nicaraguan dictatorship has infiltrated seminaries, to report to the government the most politically active priests and seminarians.

Cardinal Brenes has been frequently criticized in Nicaragua by Catholics who believe the cardinal has been unduly cordial toward the Nicaraguan regime, which sentenced Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years in prison, and has exiled around 20 priests and seminarians—while two other priests remain in prison.

But the March letter has amplified that criticism, and created an unexpected uproar against Brenes among clerics — especially after the cardinal’s own auxiliary bishop, Silvio Báez, now exiled in Miami, shared it on social media.

But why is Brenes accused of having sympathies for a dictatorship that has persecuted the Church in Nicaragua for years? Are the allegations true?


The letter was purportedly written by two current and one former seminarian at the Seminario La Purísima, a major seminary administered by the Archdiocese of Managua.

It included a broad set of criticisms, including a claim that the seminary has an unbalanced culture of traditionalism, a hypocritical homosexual subculture, and an aversion to the witness or teachings of Pope Francis.

But the most striking charge is the claim that seminary administrators have forced a culture of silence about the persecution of the Church by the Nicaraguan regime. 

“The seminary is currently the most disappointing and mediocre place to be in Managua. We have been forced for some time now to absolute silence: talking about the reality of the country in class, at meals, in our social networks, and in prayer is forbidden,” the letter’s authors claimed.

“When Monsignor Silvio Baez was exiled [in 2018], we were not allowed to say anything. When they began to take civil society leaders prisoner, we were not allowed to say a single prayer in any of the many liturgies of the hours that we do.” 

“When they took Matagalpa, and Bishop Rolando Alvarez was imprisoned, he was mentioned very few times in the Eucharist,” the letter added.

The authors charged that despite a culture of silence in the seminary, there are “seminarians sympathetic to the Sandinista Front who report our activities” to political authorities — seeming to allege that seminary administrators had failed to address the presence of government informants in the seminary.

The seminarians’ criticism of Cardinal Brenes was sharp. 

“His Eminence, as so many sweet-talking seminarians love to call him, has never once expressed himself about the reality of the country and the Church, or about Bishop Rolando,” the letter said.

“Hopefully the episcopal conference — hopefully Cardinal Brenes — will see that what our Church is experiencing is their responsibility, that the more silent they are, the harder the blows will be,” the authors wrote.

Letters from anonymous seminarians do not usually make much of a splash in the life of the Church. But after it was published, the letter from La Purisima spread like a wildfire in Nicaragua. 

Independent media outlets in Nicaragua typically refrain from criticizing the Church in the country — because it is often perceived as a uniquely powerful opponent of the country’s regime. But the letter was reported on in the country, surprising many observers.

It was also widely shared on social media—including by the exiled Bishop Silvio Báez, Managua’s auxiliary bishop, who has refrained from publicly criticizing Brenes.

The Archdiocese of Managua has not made any official statements and did not respond to requests for comment.

But on the day the letter was published, a diocesan official in Managua tweeted that it was, “in baseball terms, a poisoned spitball.” 

“It’s odd that this news outlet publishes speculation from people in incognito. Things are more serious than a digital war, pray for us,” Fr. Boanerges Carballo Madrigal wrote.

Nicaraguan priests who spoke with The Pillar said some parts of the letter were not reasonable — like the notion that a Nicaraguan seminary would be a hotspot of traditionalism. 

They pointed out that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is almost non-existent in the country, and that most Nicaraguan bishops are relatively liturgically liberal, including both Brenes and the imprisoned bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez.

“Some of these claims in the letter simply contradict common sense, so it’s hard to form an opinion,” an exiled priest told The Pillar.

Furthermore, Brenes is well-known to be a close ally and advisor of Pope Francis —  hardly the kind of bishop who might be accused of leading a traditionalist revolution in Central America.

But Nicaraguan priests said the letter was right about a culture of silence reigning in the seminary on persecution, and right about the presence of pro-Ortega seminarians denouncing other seminarians to government authorities.

“This climate of silence is everywhere. The infiltrated seminarians are old news. It is happening now, and has happened before,” one exiled priest told The Pillar.

“There have always been people who infiltrate into the Church, who pretend to be faithful Christians but are the eyes and ears of the government. They tell them who is in favor of the opposition or supports Bishop Rolando. And then those seminarians are threatened.” 

“I know of seminarians who have left the seminary because of these threats. This is common in Nicaragua,” the priest added.

Brenes, who has led the Managua archdiocese, has frequently been accused of silence in the face of Nicaraguan persecution, and at times accused of collaboration with the Nicaraguan dictatorship. The cardinal’s supporters, on the other hand, typically say that he has aimed to defuse tension when possible and to preserve liberty for the Church.

But after Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced in February to decades in prison — and with Pope Francis himself denouncing the Ortega regime — Brenes’ silence has become more acutely criticized by Churchmen in Nicaragua — with some Church leaders saying the cardinal lacks the courage to confront the regime. 

“I think the letter has merit,” a foreign priest and long-time missionary in Nicaragua, told The Pillar

“The Church has two faces in Nicaragua: that of Bishop Álvarez, capable of convoking Catholics around a prophetic dimension, and that of the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference, and especially the Cardinal [Brenes],” said the priest, who requested anonymity because of concern about retribution from the regime.

“I shared a parish with Brenes before he became a bishop, I’ve been in many meetings with him and I know him very well. I know he is too timid, too shy to denounce persecution,” the priest said. 

“He also has a lot to be grateful for from the government. He has received favors from them, and they want to use him—and he allows them to. That’s why he doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t denounce anything, and he doesn’t show any solidarity towards his brother bishop,” the priest added.

But the priest said that many clerics in Nicaragua believe Brenes can be pushed into speaking out on behalf of Álvarez, priests exiled from the country, and other Catholics facing persecution.

“I think it’s important to unmask the Cardinal so he’s braver and stronger in his role as leader of the Church in Nicaragua,” the priest said.

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Questions about the cardinal’s independence are not new. 

In 2017 he was criticized for blessing the pro-government candidate running to become mayor of Manaugua — and for doing so after the legal window for campaigning had ended. (Under Nicaraguan law, political campaigns must end three days before the election)

Brenes blessing Reyna Rueda in 2017, then-candidate to the mayorship of Managua for the government party, FSLN (Periodista Digital).

He has also been criticized for choosing public supporters of the Nicaraguan dictatorship in his inner circle, even while the bishops mediated a standoff between Ortega and his political opponents in 2018.

The head of Breness’ security detail was until 2020 also an outspoken supporter of the Ortega regime. Local activists said the security official was with Brenes constantly while the Church mediated the national dialogue in Nicaragua, serving as both his secretary and driver.

And during the 2018 mediations, local media reported that an official photographer of Ortega’s — with close and regular access to the Nicaraguan president — had been hired by the Archdiocese of Managua to photograph the cardinal. 

The move drew criticism in some Church circles, especially once it became clear that government officials knew the cardinal’s schedule in detail, usually days before it was made public or other Church officials knew it. 

In 2018, when the regime moved to ban social media in Nicaragua — prompting major outrage from democracy activists — Brenes was criticized for taking questions after Mass from regime-affiliated media, even while he knew his answers would be used for propaganda.

In the same year, while Brenes was head of the country’s bishops’ conference, he prompted another controversy when he said the conference had no opinion on the arrest of an outspoken local journalist.

In the same year, Brenes prohibited political protests in the churches in Managua.

The move came after an Oct. 28 demonstration at the city’s cathedral in support of auxiliary bishop Silvio Báez, who had been threatened by government supporters. 

During and after a Mass for Baez, local Catholics chanted “freedom!” inside the cathedral, and at the end of the Mass, they put crosses in front of the altar to remember those killed by the government amid widespread protests.

But just weeks after the cardinal prohibited protests,images surfaced of Fr. Antonio Castro, a well-known supporter of Ortega, celebrating a Mass with an image of Fidel Castro on the altar and the flag of the FSLN, the government party. It emerged that on the feast of Christ the King, Castro had dedicated his homily to praising the Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes. 

The priest was not sanctioned.

Even more controversial was Brenes’ role in the exile of his auxiliary bishop, Silvio Báez.

Báez, who had served for 10 years under Brenes as auxiliary bishop, was, by far, the most outspoken Nicaraguan bishop during the 2018 protests — putting him squarely in the crosshairs of the regime.

The bishop received numerous death threats in 2018 and the government publicly called for him to leave the country. 

Eventually, in 2019, Pope Francis asked Báez to leave the country for Rome. He then settled in Miami, where he still lives.

“I did not request to leave the country, the Holy Father has called me. This decision of abandoning Nicaragua is a responsibility of the Holy Father,” Báez said at the time.

But priests and activists in Nicaragua told The Pillar they believe Brenes urged the pope to see Báez leave the country. 

“Brenes wanted to get rid of Bishop Báez. Báez was shining with his own light, and Brenes does not have the sort of leadership to preside over the Church in times of crisis,” Israel González, a Nicaraguan Catholic journalist, told The Pillar.

Initially, it was said that the pope had asked Báez to remain in Rome—something that Báez denied. 

“The pope did not call me [to Rome] for a particular mission. He just asked me not to be in Nicaragua for a while. I’ve lived this year in many communities of my religious family, the Discalced Carmelites, I’ve been in Ireland, in Peru, in Spain, in Italy, and now in Miami,” he said in an interview.

Nicaraguan media report that since his exile, Báez has become an outcast in the bishops’ conference — a move some priests attribute to Brenes. 

“In the messages and statements they sent out, they don’t even add his name (...) they do not include them in the meetings, not even when they do them via Zoom,” La Prensa reported.

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As the Church has faced persecution in the last year, Brenes has again faced charges of both timidity and government collaboration.

According to La Prensa, the cardinal has pressured the current president of the country’s bishops’ conference to stay silent in response to the deportation of priests and the incarceration of Álvarez.

And clerics in the diocese of Estelí, where Álvarez was apostolic administrator, have told local media that Brenes approved a plan hatched by Fr. Frutos Valle, temporary administrator of the diocese, to transfer to rural parishes eight priests who have been outspoken opponents of the Ortega administration.

While some claim that Valle was acting to protect the priests, others note that the priests has been seen taking part in pro-government ceremonies, and in 2018, local media reported that he refused pro-democracy protestors access to his parish, even while they faced attacks from paramilitary forces.

Another local media outlet, Divergentes, reported in February that Cardinal Brenes directed Managua’s priests to obey police orders prohibiting Lenten and Holy Week processions, even while clerics in other parts of the country have defied prohibition orders.

And, when the Nicaraguan dictatorship announced in March it had formally suspended diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Brenes again refused to condemn or criticize the move. 

“These are terms I don’t know about; some say breaking of relations, others say suspension. These are matters of law and of state, so I don’t want to get in any trouble,” the cardinal said.

At the same time, some Nicaraguan activists have claimed that Brenes has directed exiled priests not to speak with the media, even while they are abroad, lest they lose their faculties for ministry.

“I can confirm that priests who have been critical of Ortega and gone into exile, have been told by Brenes not to talk to the media or they won’t be given the letter that accredits them as priests ordained in Nicaragua,” Israel González told The Pillar.

One exiled priest from the Archdiocese of Managua confirmed to The Pillar that he had been directed not to speak with the media.

Brenes will turn 75 in 2024, but his controversial place in Nicaraguan Church affairs seems likely to continue.

Indeed, the matter of his successor is unclear — traditionally, the bishop of Matagalpa is appointed to succeed the Archbishop of Managua, as did Brenes himself. But the current bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Alvarez, is in prison. The auxiliary of Managua, meanwhile, is exiled in Miami.

Under those circumstances, it seems unlikely the cardinal’s resignation will be accepted anytime soon. But as long as he remains in office, at least some Nicaraguan churchmen will ask if the cardinal is fairly serving his people — and his tension mounts, the next round of critics are not likely to be only anonymous seminarians.

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