Its reign as the leading religion went unchallenged until 1893 when General Jose Santos Zelaya questioned the institution’s authority. However it was not until 1939 that its supremacy as the established state religion came to an end. It was then that the Nicaraguan government declared they were a non-secular country.
Although Nicaragua’s current constitution claims no official state religion, the majority of citizens identify themselves as Catholic. Out of a population of approximately 5.5 million, according to a census done by state.gov, over 90% of the population is Christian. 72.9% of Nicaraguans identify with the Roman Catholic denomination.
In comparison to the United States, a study done by Pew Research Company in 2002 shows that only 24% of US citizens are Catholic.
A separate study listed on catholicheirarchy.com, ranked 150 countries based on the percentage of their total population who are Catholic. Nicaragua was listed at number 21with 83.73%. The United States on the other hand was ranked as the 68th country on the list. This study claimed the Catholic percentage was 22.45%.
What these percentages illustrate is the overwhelming influence the Catholic Church has had on the people of Nicaragua. Despite Catholicism’s prominence in this country, the majority of the church’s efforts go to the people in the urban cities.
In an article on Nicaraguan religion on photius.com, it says, “Urbanites, women, and members of the upper and middle classes are the most likely to be practicing Roman Catholics, that is those who attend mass, receive the sacraments, and perform special devotions with some degree of regularity.”
Photius goes on to say that the people in the rural areas of Nicaragua are just as religious as the city-dwellers, if not more so. However, they do not observe the religious holidays or attend church with the same amount of regularity. They do believe just as wholly as those in the urban cities in the beliefs of the Catholic Church and everything that accompanies those beliefs.
Besides the significant majority of Catholics in Nicaragua, there are a few other religions that are practiced in the country. Most of the other Christian sects that are present today were established by the United States.
Evangelical Protestantism originally appeared in the country during the 1800s, but it was not until the twentieth century that the religion became as popular as it is today. It is currently the second most popular religious affiliation in Nicaragua, claiming 15.1% of the population.
In the survey done by the Pew Research Company mentioned above, Protestantism holds the position as the most popular Christian sect in the United States. Catholicism follows immediately behind as the second largest.
The Moravian Church has a substantial number of followers in Nicaragua. According to state.gov it is the third largest religious group in the country. It consumes a mere 1.5% of the population, yet its only predecessors are the Roman Catholics and the Evangelical Protestants. Most of the non-Hispanic citizens of the country belong to the Moravian faith.
There has been a substantial movement concerning the religious affiliation of rural Nicaraguans in recent decades. Pentecostalism has become very popular, specifically The Assemblies of God, which was introduced to the people of Nicaragua in 1926. According to photius.com, “Pentecostalism reportedly has particular appeal to poor women because it elicits sobriety and more responsible family behavior from men.”
Just as religions have changed throughout the years, the country of Nicaragua has also seen much political tumult and struggle throughout its history. Interestingly enough the Nicaraguan Catholic Church seems to rally together during these times of turmoil and political revolution.
This was seen explicitly during the 1970s when the Nicaraguan citizens overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. During this time, the Catholic Church gave its full support. Photius.com states that, “In the 1970s, priests, nuns, and lay workers committed to social change organized community development projects, education programs, and Roman Catholic base communities.”
The Catholics were by far the most supportive of the revolution. Many of the others religious denominations followed the lead of their founder, the United States, by taking a conservative stance on the issue and keeping their distance.
However at the beginning of Catholicism in Nicaragua, unity was not always what brought down suppressive leaders. In 1811, when Spain still controlled much of the Nicaraguan government and therefore the religious life of the country, a move toward independence divided the church.
According to a book entitled The Catholic Church and Social Change in Nicaragua, posted on questia.com, there was a huge movement in Latin America for independence from the Spaniards. At the beginning of this move toward independence, the Nicaraguan Catholic Church was divided between the powerful bishops, who sided with Spain, and the lower-ranking priests and clergymen who worked alongside the rebels.
The latter group wrote a letter which according to questia.com demanded, “A change in authorities, cutes in taxes, suppression of monopolies, abolition of slavery, and freedom of prisoners.” They sent this to the governor and eventually got their wish.
The Catholic Church has had its ups and downs in every country, on every continent, throughout its long history. In the case of Catholicism in Nicaragua, it has reigned as the leading religion since it came to the country. Throughout turmoil both within the church and without, Catholicism has remained a guiding force in Nicaragua for over four hundred years. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future.