Cuba: Church-State Dialogue

Fernando Ravsberg*

Its relationship with the Cuban government is vital for the Catholic Church given its limited popular support. While other religions are growing, Catholic churches are rarely filled. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, March 27 — Relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government have gone through various moments, from the head-on-collision of the 1960’s to their current collaborative efforts around issues as sensitive as the release of prisoners and mediations with other governments.

The tension reached such a point a half-century ago that President Fidel Castro was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII, though this didn’t prevent Pope John Paul II from visiting the island in 1998 or Benedict XVI from repeating that journey 14 years later.
Nonetheless, this visit has a very well-defined character, according to Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religion at the University of Havana. The Pope “is coming firstly to give a boost to the policy of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega” in his rapprochement with the government.

Bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez confirmed that “there’s a respectful dialogue that has been and is occurring – sometimes with certain accents, sometimes with others.” He added, “The church has always tried to build the bridge of dialogue.”

The Catholic Church Makes Headway

Lopez Oliva explained, “The sector of the church most prone to negotiation are the Episcopalian Catholics, a denomination that has been renewed with youth, people who perhaps don’t suffer from or didn’t participate in the church-state conflicts of the ‘60s or ‘70s.”

Enrique Lopez Oliva, who is a Catholic and a professor of religious history at the University of Havana, said that during the government of Raul Castro, the church has made substantial gains. Photos: Raquel Perez

According to the professor, the church hopes to regain the possibility to provide religious education and have access the media, “and we already have the only independent magazine of political criticism in Cuba, Espacio Laical, where one can find writings by academics, critics and from the church.”

Furthermore, he noted that the Father Félix Varela Cultural Center, located in the old San Carlos y San Ambrosio Seminary, “has turned into a place for dialogue where we have had national figures of the revolution, voices of the church and even some opponents come to discuss problems facing the country.”

These settings are important for the clergy because: “The church has lost many of its members in Cuba. If you go to Catholic churches on Sunday, they’re empty or half empty; whereas in the Pentecostal churches, not everyone can fit inside.”

Burning dissent

In recent years, the Catholic Church distanced itself from the laity that was opposed to the government, people such as Osvaldo Paya, the leader of the Movimiento Cristiano Liberacion. It also closed the magazine Vitral, which was led by another dissident, Dagoberto Valdes.

Dissident Osvaldo Paya, the leader of the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación, says the voice of the church has been hijacked by those seeking to give a vote of confidence to Raul Castro. Photo: Raquel Perez

Paya said the government’s moving closer to the church is being promoted by the “laity who run the magazines (Espacio Laical and Palabra Nueva). They’re in positions with a lot of influence, plus they have the support of the cardinal (Jaime Ortega).”

He added that “the voice of the church has been hijacked by these publications, and in an open and direct manner they have broadcast political positions in support of the government, ones which are not shared by most of the people of God in Cuba, the non-religious, the laity, bishops or the priests.”

“I’m part of this community; Jaime is my pastor and I respect him. But I don’t share his political opinions. They’re spreading the doctrine that we need to give a vote of confidence to Raul…that we need to support the changes. This constitutes the church taking political positions.”

Dialogue with Raul Castro

Bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez confirmed that the church participates in dialogue and aspires for “a more systematic space in the media” and also “the possibility for an educational role” (i.e. regaining the Catholic schools that existed prior to 1959).

The bishop holds a degree in theology from the Pontificia Universidad Gregoriana in Rome, a Masters from the La Compañia de Jesus, and is the spiritual director of the seminary and of the Centro de Espiritualidad.

Bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez. Photo: Raquel Perez

“Any opportunity that the Church gains in this dialogue is also an opportunity for the people, those of faith, obviously. The release of the (political) prisoners wouldn’t have been possible without such a dialogue, nor would it have been possible to pardon the more than two thousand other (common) prisoners,” he explained.

The bishop participated in meetings with President Raul Castro and describes him as “very direct, focused on the agenda and onto specific points, not someone who beats around the bush, and a person who has an operative concept of life with a great sense of efficiency. He tries to make things happen and not let them remain only in the realm of pure speech.”

As for the criticisms leveled by the dissidents, the bishop replied that the church refuses to “associate itself with them completely, because that in itself would make the church exclusionary, and if there’s something the church can’t be – it’s exclusionary. On the contrary, we must educate around the themes of plurality, differences and dialogue.”

(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times from the Spanish original published by Cartas Desde Cuba.