It says something about Cuba that Pope Benedict XVI, at age 84 and traveling with difficulty, will spend three days on the island after visiting Mexico to greet the local faithful and meet bishops from around Latin America.
Benedict’s pastoral visit will cap Cubans’ celebration of the 400th anniversary of their patron saint, the Virgin of Charity. Thousands greeted the statue of the virgin in its just-completed pilgrimage through every Cuban province, taking two months to make its way through the Havana archdiocese alone. Cardinal Jaime Ortega called the celebration a “springtime of faith” that drew out a hidden but latent religiosity in a people whose government once stigmatized all faiths except that of the communist party.
When Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, Fidel Castro was in charge and many expected the presence of a charismatic pope to spark big changes.
Today, Cuba is changing on its own. President Raul Castro is leading a deliberate but significant economic reform that promises to move more than one million Cubans from public to private payrolls and has already expanded the ranks of small entrepreneurs by 200,000. Government enterprises are to turn a profit or be dissolved. “We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working,” he says.
Cardinal Ortega puts it a little differently. The economic system is “bureaucratic and Stalinist,” he said in a 2010 interview, and “creates apathetic workers with low productivity.” With a “national consensus” solidly backing reform, delays only lead to “impatience and dissatisfaction among the people.”
Castro and Ortega make an odd pair – a communist who served four decades as defense minister, and a pastor whom the communists tried to re-educate in a work camp in the 1960’s.
Yet their relationship is respectful. Raul Castro attended a beatification ceremony in eastern Cuba and the opening of a seminary outside Havana. They have a regular dialogue that marks the church’s acceptance by the government as an interlocutor about Cuban domestic policies. In his day, Fidel Castro always preferred to speak to the Vatican over the heads of the Cuban bishops.
Cuba’s Catholic magazines are pushing the boundaries of the reform debate with articles – written by clergy, Catholic laity, Cuban academics, and Cuban Americans – making the case for a greater economic opening and freedom to travel abroad, and for the communist party to embark on political reform.
In a sense, the church is serving one function of a political opposition by pressing the government to form policies that serve the public good, and to keep its promises. But the church is anything but a political organization, and its public policy voice derives from what it conceives as its mission to look out not only for Cubans’ spiritual needs, but for their general welfare. As an editorial in a church publication put it, ideologies “should be at the service of the Cuban people, not the other way around.”
This role comes with its share of controversy. The church’s good offices were essential to the release of 130 political prisoners serving long sentences – reducing the number of prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International to zero – but when all but twelve accepted an offer to leave for Spain with their families, the church was accused of weakening the political opposition and accommodating a form of government antithetical to Christianity.
This argument will not be resolved. The Cuban Catholic church has reached a prudential judgment that as a religious institution and Cuba’s largest civil society institution, it does best to use dialogue and debate to push for change from within, even if that change is incremental.
That’s an unpopular posture among those who want all Cubans on the island to take on greater militancy. But my guess is that Cubans on the island want changes that improve their daily lives and support the church or anyone else who promotes them. Which is not to say that Cubans don’t cover the complete spectrum of opinions about the kind of government they would like to have and the kind of policies they would like it to adopt. But they don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. And militancy is easy from Miami.
Where does this leave Benedict, the “intellectual” pope described by Cardinal Ortega in remarks on Cuban state television?
His visit will surely be more than pastoral. One can imagine that he will seek greater space for Catholic religious or charitable activity, and make some requests of a humanitarian nature.
But Benedict is not likely to “open a new chapter in the history of Cuba,” as Lech Walesa predicted dramatically last week. His embrace will be a vote of confidence in Cardinal Ortega and the Cuban church, and as the Vatican’s head of state he will applaud improved church-state relations in Havana. But he will leave it to the Cubans to make their own history.