Has the Catholic Church gone soft on Communism? It seems an absurd question, given the Church’s record against it, but one might have thought as much, given some of the commentary leading up to Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba.
A week ago, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the respected Latin affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal, reported on the “deep frustration” of Cuba’s human-rights defenders who feel abandoned by the Church. She was followed by Senator Marco Rubio, who expressed fear that the Catholic hierarchy had “negotiated themselves a space of operation” in Cuba, “in exchange for looking the other way” regarding the regime’s crimes. National Review, usually very supportive of the papacy, posted numerous threads criticizing Benedict and the local Church for not publicly embracing Cuba’s dissidents; and one Miami Herald columnist went so far to declare: “The Cuban Church hierarchy will go down in history as siding with the oppressors, rather than the oppressed.
What’s going on here?
Part of it is the legitimate frustration toward a regime that never has received the worldwide condemnation it deserves, particularly from certain celebrities, intellectuals and even, alas, Christians. After seizing power in 1959, “Fidel Castro jailed, killed, or exiled 3,500 Catholic priests and nuns,” reports Foreign Affairs. “His regime confiscated seminaries and nationalized all Catholic properties. The first Cuban Cardinal, Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt, took refuge in the Argentinian embassy. From 1959 to 1992, Cuba was officially an atheist state.”
Despite moderating somewhat after John Paul II’s historic visit to the island in 1998, Cuba is still a grim dictatorship by any civilized standard. In its 2012 Annual Report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom detailed the country’s continuing suppression of religious liberty, and Amnesty International reports that “Cuba has intensified its harassment of dissidents and human rights activists. . . . there were 2,784 cases of human rights abuses between January and September 2011, which is 710 more than in the whole of the previous year.”
The Church’s controversial response has been to adopt a diplomatic, rather than confrontational, stance, and to look toward a post-Communist future—even though Communism remains very much alive on the island. The debate came to a boil recently when Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, frustrated by a standoff with dissidents occupying one of his church’s, asked the authorities to remove them (after winning assurance the group would not be prosecuted). The Vatican has also announced that the pontiff has no plans to meet with dissidents or their relatives during his trip (perhaps fearing it would do no good and/or lead to even more reprisals).
These are questionable judgments, and the Church should be open to “fraternal correction” from those who have fought so long and courageously for freedom in Cuba. At the same time, and in fairness, Cardinal Ortega has had much better moments. As recently as 2010, the BBC reported how the Cardinal openly compared Cuba’s socialist system to a “Stalinist-style bureaucracy,” and “also urged the Communist authorities to free all political prisoners.”
As for Benedict, he is hardly an appeaser of Communism. In fact, on the plane trip from Rome, the Pope consigned Cuban Communism to the ash heap of history (to recall Ronald Reagan’s memorable phrase), asserting: “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality.” Reuters reported that Benedict’s comments were surprisingly blunt, noting: “The 84-year-old pontiff’s comments reflected the Church’s history of anti-Communism and were more pointed than anything his predecessor John Paul II said on his groundbreaking visit to Cuba 14 years ago.” Benedict added: “It is obvious that the Church is always on the side of freedom, on the side of freedom of conscience, of freedom of religion, and we contribute to this sense.”
Even after he made these bold comments, Ronald Radosh commented: “We do not have any evidence that the current pope will follow in the tradition of John Paul II.” But, as just noted, Benedict actually went beyond his predecessor; and Blessed John Paul surely would have applauded Benedict’s first two speeches in Cuba.
“I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be,” Benedict said upon his arrival, specifically mentioning “their sufferings…those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need.” (emphasis added).
The reference to prisoners and their families was important, for critics had predicted Benedict would not raise a word about them, but they were mistaken. The statement is “likely to be well received by political dissidents on the island as well as Cuban American exiles in the United States,” said Reuters.
There was more: the pope prayed for the future of Cuba “in the ways of justice, peace, freedom, liberty and reconciliation.” The Miami Herald noted: “The word liberty, a politically charged word, was not in the prepared remarks that had been distributed to reporters in advance of the pope’s arrival and was added by the pope apparently at the last minute.”
Sounds like something a dissident might do.
In the solemn papal mass Monday evening, Benedict, the master catechist, gave a magnificent homily on the Incarnation—tying it to the family and personal faith in Jesus Christ—and ended with an appeal for Cubans to “strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God.” It was the first such homily that many oppressed Cubans had ever heard, bringing tears to their eyes.
When critics say the Church has sold out the anti-Communist resistance for limited religious freedoms, they overlook an obvious fact: religious celebrations like the one the pope just led, which speak to the deepest parts of the human soul, are themselves massive acts of resistance against a tyrannical Communist state, and should inspire freedom-fighters everywhere.
We can debate the prudential acts of Catholic leaders toward the Castro brothers, but let us not doubt where the fundamental sympathies of the Catholic Church—and especially Pope Benedict—lie. Reporting on the papal Mass, the Herald revealed: “Politics, however, were not far away. Shortly after two white doves were released as the Mass began, a man charged the stage shouting in Spanish, ‘Down with Communism.’ He was quickly subdued, and none of it was visible to television viewers.”
He may have been physically subdued, but his spirit was alive with the power of truth. That is the power the Church represents, and why it will outlive and vanquish its persecutors in Cuba, like it has everywhere else.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
The Pope’s Cuba Gamble by Mary Anastasia O’Grady, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2012
Will Pope Benedict XVI Stand Up for Cuba’s Oppressed People? By Ron Radosh, PJ Media, March 24, 2012
Pope Says Communism Has failed in Cuba, Urges Change by Philip Pullella, Reuters, March 23, 2012
Pope Benedict Receives Enthusiastic Welcome in Cuba by Mimi Whitefield, Kevin G. Hall and Franco Ordonez, Miami Herald, March 26, 2012
At Mass, Pope Recognizes Cubans’ Struggles, Calls Freedom a Necessity, by Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service, March 26, 2012
How the Catholic Church is Preparing for a Post-Castro Cuba by Victor Gaetan, Foreign Affairs, February 27, 2012
Pope Benedict’s Addresses in Cuba, EWTN
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.