Three Nicaraguan officials recently met in Rome with Vatican authorities in an unpublicized session aimed at blunting a papal order that would bar Nicaraguan priests from politics.
The papal ban, which is not limited to Nicaragua, could have far-reaching repercussions in that Central American country, where three priests are in the Cabinet and three others hold high-ranking jobs. Their presence has been regarded as a moderating influence on the left-leaning Sandinista leadership in Nicaragua.
In addition, the issue involves the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the politics of Latin America, where many priests have become political activists. Some priests have served with guerrillas, others have spoken out sharply against perceived human-rights violations, and many have run counter to some of the conservative governments, opposing political, economic, and social practices.
There is no indication that the Nicaraguans who met with Vatican officials were successful in their pleas. But there is hope in Nicaraguan circles that Pope John Paul II will somehow exempt their countrymen from the prohibition.
The three priests in the Cabinet are Miguel D'Escoto Brockman, who is foreign minister; Ernesto Cardenal Martinez, A noted poet who is minister of culture; and Edgar Parrales, the minister of social welfar e.
Fr. Cardenal's brother, Fernando Cardenal, also a priest, is head of the government's basic literacy program. His position may be affected as well.
The papal effort to get priests out of politics, which came to light last May when the Rev. Robert F. Drinan (D) of Massachusetts announced he would seek reelection to the US Congress, was thought by some observers to be limited largely to the United States.
It is believed the Pope did not make a blanket statement on the issue in May because he wanted to allow each Roman Catholic order to handle the issue in its own way.
Fr. Drinan is a Jesuit, And officials of that order were quick to implement the papal decree. Moreover, since Fr. Drinan was perhaps the most visible priest in Politics, Vatican authorities thought it necessary to act on his case before tackling the cases of activists priests in smaller, poorer, third- world lands such as Nicaragua.
Now, with Fr. Drinan's case resolved, the issue is coming to the fore in other nations. Officials of various other Catholic orders are beginning to implement the decree. Nicaragua is easily the most visible of third-world lands with priests in political office.
Nicaraguans point out that none of the priests serving in its government is elected and that they broaden the base of the Sandinista government, which seized power after an 18- month civil war that toppled the 45-year-old Somoza family dynasty in July 1979.
The priests are needed, the argument goes, because they have skills that are solely lacking in this Central American country.
"They are not political, but really civil servants," says a communique issued by the Sandinista government. "None has a constituency. They serve a pluralistic government."
The Nicaraguan bishopric organization is appealing the papal decision, staunchly supporting the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the ultimate political authority in Nicaragua, which sponsored the visit of the Nicaraguan lay officials to the Vatican last month.
The priests in the government, however, have said little about the problem, allowing both their religious and lay associates to press their case for remaining in government.
The Vatican finds itself in something of a dilemma on the issue.
On the one hand, Pope John Paul is determined to get churchmen and women (for the issue including nuns as well as priests) out of politics and back into pastoral roles the world over.
But in the case of Nicaragua, he is particularly pleased with the literacy campaign run by Fr. Fernando Cardenal. He also has spoken out on the need for close collaboration between the church and state in Nicaragua to assure the development of the country.
That apparently does not mean the collaboration of churchmen, however, when it comes to government jobs as Frs. D'Escoto, Cardenal, and Parrales are learning.