Four top government officials in Nicaragua, who also are Roman Catholic priests, are on a collision course with their church. Ever since Pope John Paul II began his effort a year ago to get churchmen out of active political roles, speculation on the future of the four, including Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto Brockman, has been widespread. All four played key roles in the Sandinista revolutionary struggle in Nicaragua during the late 1970s and then took top government positions after the Sandinista triumph.
Now the priests have been told by the church in Nicaragua that they must leave their secular jobs and return to the active priesthood. But the four, together with a dozen other Nicaraguan churchmen who hold lesser or advisory roles, are resisting.
In a statement last week, issued by Fr. D'Escoto, the four priests affirmed their "unbreakable commitment to the popular Sandinista revolution in loyalty to our people, which is the same as saying, in loyalty to the will of God. We will continue in whatever place our presence and service might be necessary.
The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in Nicaragua, without naming the priests, then stated emphatically that priests who remain in "public positions" are in "open rebellion and disobedience of the ultimate ecclesastical authority."
What next? The four could be forbidden to say mass and to function as priests. They could removed from their priestly responsibilities either temporarily or permanently. They could be placed on a form of ecclestiastical probation. Or they could be defrocked.
The church is likely to go slow in taking punitive action against the priests , hoping they will of their volition leave government and return to priestly roles. But if the priests continue resisting papal orders, they are certain to be censored.
Both sides in the controversy are clearly making it something of a test case. Moreover, church observers are watching the Nicaragua situation carefully for its possible effect on the rest of Latin America.Priests throughout the area are active in government, business, and labor.
The papal prohibition on secular political roles for churchmen came to light when former Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D) of Massachusetts, a Jesuit, was forced to retire from the United States Congress last year. The question of whether the shoe would fall on Latin American priests has been present ever since. For a time, some church commentators insisted that the papal order did not apply to Latin Ameri ca. But that is not the case.