The Common Good
May-June 1998

A Church Reborn

by Thomas Quigley | May-June 1998

The pope's visit has inspired Cuban believers.

The Catholic Church in Cuba, reduced to a shadow of its former place in society, at least has its own Web page. Introducing the page is not a scriptural text or a quote from Pope John Paul, but a line from Gandhi: "Truth is more important than peace, for the lie is the mother of violence."

On the pope’s flight to Cuba earlier this year, he was asked what he expected to hear from President Fidel Castro. The truth, he said, and the posters that seemed to be everywhere proclaimed him the "messenger of truth and hope."

It’s doubtful that he heard the truth from Castro, at least in public. In Castro’s "welcome" of the pope, the Cuban leader gave a jarring, almost childish review of the "great sins" of the Christian West—everything from the Inquisition to the despoliation of this hemisphere. Some would argue that Castro laid out some truths that the church should not be allowed to forget. But it stretches the point to argue that the distorted and hypocritical welcome was an exercise in truth-telling. More likely Castro was assuring his base that inviting the pope to visit didn’t mean he had gone completely soft.

But party hard-liners may still be working on their cost-benefit analysis. The more or less official government position is that the visit was an unqualified success. Since most of the U.S. media focused (it’s fair to say excessively) on the pope’s criticism of U.S. policy, especially the embargo, Cuba clearly won a PR advantage, at least abroad. But something has been unleashed in the Cuban spirit that cannot be comforting to those of the party faithful who may still dream of a socialist paradise.

It’s clear that the church has been strengthened and its place within the larger society implicitly acknowledged. The government allowed many things that had been proscribed for more than 30 years: open-air services and processions with statues of Our Lady of Charity; door-to-door visitations by thousands of active Catholics to tell their neighbors about the upcoming visit; publication in Cuba’s official newspaper of the pope’s Christmas message to the Cuban people; and, at the last minute, allowing all of the papal Masses to be carried live by Cuban television. It was even the first time Cubans saw their president wearing a blue suit in Cuba.

THE CHURCH has been immensely heartened by this visit. It is beginning to see the fruits of the long struggle to be true to itself during decades of persecution and marginalization—a time when many of the faithful remnant, like Nicodemus, came stealthily at night lest their religious practice doom their prospects for desirable education or jobs. Today, and even before the pope made "Be not afraid" a leitmotif of his talks, Christians are not afraid to practice their faith. There is a degree of unity in the Cuban church that bishops in most other countries might envy. The seminaries have begun to fill, and the cornerstone for a new seminary in Havana was blessed by the pope as one of the most encouraging signs that the dark night is lifting.

But has life improved for the average Cuban because of the pope’s visit? For a couple hundred or so who had been wasting away in prisons, the "humanitarian release" has clearly improved their lot, and perhaps given hope that the rest of the so-called dissidents may soon be free. The releases, however, have not signaled any change in the state’s readiness to tolerate dissidence. Just as scores of prisoners of conscience (Cuba does not acknowledge holding political prisoners) were being amnestied, several others were in pretrial detention for crimes such as advocating the release of such prisoners.

The pope spoke repeatedly and eloquently about the rights and dignity of the human person and the freedoms that all should enjoy. "Prisoners of conscience," he said, "suffer an isolation and a penalty for something for which their own conscience does not condemn them." He appealed for efforts to reinsert prisoners into society, saying this would be "a gesture of high humanity and a seed of reconciliation." The release of more prisoners—and the rearrest of fewer people on vague charges of "dangerousness"—would be a very positive development. Another would be signs of tolerance for ideas that "though dissident are nonetheless peaceful," as the pope said.

The Clinton administration and congressional leadership, however, seem unwilling to consider anything to be sufficient reason for altering the present U.S. embargo short of the dismissal of the brothers Castro and the announcement of free elections. The administration has stated its readiness to meet significant changes in Cuba with reciprocity at this end. That seems belied by the facts.

TOM QUIGLEY, policy adviser on Latin American and Caribbean affairs at the U.S. Catholic Conference, was in Cuba during the papal visit.

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