On the Pope’s Trip to Cuba: Churches and Me

Armando Chaguaceda

The Catholic Church's new seminary on the outskirts of Havana. Photo: Isbel Diaz Torres

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 12 — Roque Dalton, in his work “Un libro levemente odioso” (A slightly hateful book), presents three Communists who talk about their experiences with the party and the church.

The first emphasizes the ferocity of party orthodoxy: “I was expelled from the Communist Party long before the Catholic Church excommunicated me.”

The second adds: “That’s nothing. The Catholic Church excommunicated me after I was expelled from the Communist Party.”

The third concludes: “I was expelled from the Communist Party because the Catholic Church excommunicated me.”

Whether true or not, this delightful vignette brings to light the dilemmas that currently could be going through hearts and minds of more than one of our compatriots.

In the work by this immortal Salvadoran writer, he draws attention to the abundant similarities between the party and the church: Both are hierarchical, top-down and authoritarian entities. Both limit and marginalize dissidents, and each of them usually presents a virtuous public face while engaging in practices that cannot be described the same way.

With both there appear — from epoch to epoch — settings and groups (whether Jesuit priests or Marxist critics) who carry out analyses and social actions that cross the “danger line,” thereby triggering surveillance or reprimands from the “General Headquarters.”

Likewise, both harbor honest and decent individuals within them, those who present us with their integrity and personal affection daily, giving meaning and legitimacy to the shroud that protects them.

In response to my criticism, any good Catholic might object saying “But the church consists of all of us, not just its bad examples,” which is partially true.

However, in hierarchic orders that are so rigid and meticulously structured, decisions and responsibilities usually rest in the upper echelons, which establish the dogma and enforce discipline.

Therefore, it would be consistent for leaders and bureaucracies to assume the responsibilities for those events and behaviors that structurally contradict, corrupting and impacting upon their organized communities.

As someone who (for thirteen years) actively participated in communist organizations, without calling into question my belief in Marxism as a worldview or socialism as a societal mission, I feel every right to express this opinion without offending friends who are believers.

I remember that it was precisely from liberation theologians such as Giulio Girardi that I learned the concept of “critical engagement,” which I have applied to my thoughts and actions, both inside and outside the organizations in which I have participated.

Through three years of involvement with progressive Christian organizations on the island, I was able to become familiar with both the good and bad points that accompany their practices.

When John Paul II Came to Cuba

In debates with my virtuous friends, I’ve outlined the reasons why I didn’t attend the welcoming of Pope John Paul II in 1998, being a student leader.

I disobeyed the official instructions to receive the pontiff “with affection and respect,” leaving to each of my classmates the decision about going after explaining the Polish priest’s past.

Now that Benedict will make trips to Mexico and Cuba in March, I regret having upset them with my lack of enthusiasm for the much heralded visit.

Wojtyla and Ratzinger meant a shift to the right for a Church that had made a great deal of social and political progress since John XXIII with his “Pacem in Terris” encyclical (1963) and following the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference in Medellin (1968).

Both of these popes were active players in the relentless pursuit against Liberation Theology, which I have been close to in the study of its ideas and from my friendship with several of its followers in Cuba and Latin America.

The siege was systematic and coordinated from the Vatican, and at the very time the Latin American dictatorships massacred practitioners the Church of the poor and Christian-base communities. Yet, as we know, reality is not of one single color.

We also have the examples of Samuel Ruiz in his diocese in Chiapas defending indigenous peoples and denouncing the causes that led to the 1994 Zapatista uprising; the work and legacy of Ernesto Cardenal, a motive force of Nicaraguan popular culture and a fighter against the authoritarian regimes of Somoza and Ortega; and the martyrdom of priests, nuns and lay Salvadorans by the henchmen Roberto d’Aubuisson, as well as the Chilean victims of Pinochet. They were all part of the heritage of sacrifice and kindness that Catholicism possesses, for its own sake and that of humanity.

The work of the Catholic Church often has multiple faces, which are also revealed in the current situation in Cuba.

Strategically — and we know that in this respect it has millennial experience and patience — the church is attempting to gradually increase its influence in society with a logic of realpolitik behind each of its acts and declarations.

Paradoxically — or not so much, since one always prefers someone similar as an interlocutor — the Cuban government is providing or guaranteeing it a platform (media access, the dedication of buildings and forums, political leadership) that are not provided to other spiritual bodies and religions, be they Afro-Cuban, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim or Protestant.

In the latter case, what’s ironic is that I’ve heard complaints from several leaders who resent having been relegated to second rank, despite having maintained a very uncritical record and compliant with the government.

It is in the dimension of their daily actions, where people weigh and make concrete decisions, in which I find the greatest (and most grateful) similarities between the action of the Catholic Church and the hopes of millions of Cubans.

Calls for reconciliation and changes, like the 1993 pastoral letter “El amor todo lo espera” (Love endures all things) or efforts such as mediating — and succeeding — in the 2011 release of dozens of political prisoners are worthy of recognition and support, beyond the ideological postures that everyone professes.

The same goes for the church’s nursing homes for the elderly attended to with loving devotion by nuns — a true example for their state-run counterparts.  It also has settings and magazines for education and debate, sponsored by lay Catholics, where there exists a social network that connects with the most noble virtues and potential of the Cuban people.

A benchmark for “order and virtue.”

These communicate the ideals of sovereignty, justice and freedom that have sustained the Cuban nation throughout its century and a half of frantic existence. For this aspect of Catholicism, many of us feel gratitude and closeness to it.

However, what worries me is thinking that, in the face of the gradual expansion of the wave of conservatism that Cuban society is experiencing today, the Catholic Church is converting its project into a benchmark for “order and virtue.”

A few months ago, friends in Havana told me about programs and activities being offered to religious youth (Catholic and Protestant) to pull them out of the pockets of violence, marginalization and consumerism that have emerged in their neighborhoods.

Those who talk about such opportunities — whites, professionals and the middle-class — are not without reason in feeling anxiety, though one immediately thinks about how status, race, class and creed can be configured to restructure social relations in a context of crisis.

Another journalist colleague told me about the surreptitious difficulties that were posed by hospital authorities against her getting an abortion. They told her in private that they were attempting to comply with instructions to increase the birth rate in this aging country. Though in the end she managed to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, she told me she had never believed things like that were going on.

When I connect such an experience with certain anti-abortion Christian preaching, and when I remember that in societies where women had made progress — like Nicaragua and Poland — it comes to mind that they have seen reverses due to the impact of religion in public life, which is a cause for alarm.

The Church, like the party, is an institution of people — though not necessarily humane — with pragmatic goals and where rhetoric and actions don’t always go hand in hand. Its history is full of dark chapters as well as contributions to the liberation struggles of our peoples.

In the first, the inertia of the institution has largely prevailed, while in the latter social commitment of its faithful has been instrumental.

In Cuba it’s desirable that this contribution continues — by legitimate right and in communion with the rest of the population — in building a better country, one that cannot be governed by boots or robes, but through the secular and democratic participation of all its children.

Armando Chaguaceda

Armando Chaguaceda: My curriculum vitae presents me as a historian and political scientist. I'm from an unclassifiable generation who collected the achievements, frustrations and promises of the Cuban Revolution and now resists on the island or contributes through numerous websites, trying to remain human without dying in the attempt.

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One thought on “On the Pope’s Trip to Cuba: Churches and Me

  • As the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his book ” God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” when you think about it, there have been very few instances where the good done by churches would not or could not have been done by humane atheists whereas there are countless incidents throughout history where religion has been directly and solely responsible for horrible acts against humanity.

    Religions are needless fictions and none more so than the Roman Catholic Church or as I call it, the Church of the Pederasts.

    How, in the name of decency can anyone have anything good to say about an organization in which the clergy rapes young boys by the thousands and the head of that organization not only does not excommunicate the miscreants but hides their crimes and moves them to places where they continue their horrible crimes.

    Equating the totalitarian nature of the Cuban government with that of the Church is just nonsense.
    You cannot justify wrong with another wrong.

    The government of Cuba is reforming.

    The Church is not reforming and will not reform. It will not rid itself of its pederasts because given the shortage of people nowadays who are willing to become priests and practice the most unnatural and deviant sexual perversion of all: celibacy, the Church is willing to keep the criminals rather than have not enough priests.
    Seminaries should be renamed semenaries

    Support of the Church in anyway is support of a top down organization of child molesters, misogynists, counter revolutionaries /anti-socialists and totalitarian minded people that have no place in any revolutionary country that cares about its people and especially its children.

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