Dissecting the Cuban Catholic Church’s Latest Missive

Lenier González (Progreso Semenal)

An interview with Aurelio Alonso: “Pastoral Letter is a ‘tepid pronouncement”
An interview with Aurelio Alonso: “Pastoral Letter is a ‘tepid pronouncement”

HAVANA TIMES — Several days ago, the Cuban Episcopal Conference made public a Pastoral Letter titled “Hope Does Not Deceive.” It is a document that comes to life on the 20th anniversary of [the Conference’s Pastoral Letter] “Love Hopes for All Things.”

Not since 2005, when the Pastoral Theological Instruction “The Social Presence of the Church” was published, had the Cuban bishops expressed themselves publicly in a manner so direct about the nation’s socio-political reality.

Sociologist Aurelio Alonso, perhaps the best Cuban specialist on Church-State relations, has agreed to answer in writing some questions about the thematic lines and the context in which the document was produced.

Q. The Cuban episcopate has just made public a Pastoral Letter, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the document “Love Hopes for All Things.” What are the fundamental axial themes broached this time?

  The new Pastoral Letter is an express exaltation of “Love Hopes for All Things,” and that intention marks, by itself, an axial perspective, because the document by the Cuban bishops in 1993 outlined a diagnosis of Cuba’s social and economic juncture and made political and institutional proposals for an alternative way out, in the face of the collapsing Soviet socialist system.

The 1993 letter, whose style seemed to blame the system for the difficulties of the Special Period, was perceived as a change in the Cuban Church’s positions when compared with the Final Document of the Cuban National Ecclesial Encounter (ENEC) in 1986.

In that text, the result of a process of debate, we can see, along with the different criticisms, a notable advance in the points of institutional understanding, which indicate, from the standpoint of the Church, the start of the coupling that we can appreciate in recent years. The socialist collapse generated hardships and uncertainty, and it was normal for them to be reflected in the ecclesiastical outlook.

I would immediately underscore the significance that the bishops attribute in this new document to the pastoral visit of John Paul II (“the Cuban soul and the Church in Cuba were not the same after that memorable visit.”)

If we consider the ecclesiastical changes that preceded the visit (a broadening of the diocesan structure, the designation of a Cuban cardinal, an increase in the admission of priests and others), the successful outcome of the visit (for the Church, for the religious faith in general, for the population and the national culture, for the authorities and the politico-social system, for the dialogue) and the subsequent evolution in the relations with the State, we can consider that statement as being accurate.

In the context of time, the visit of Pope Wojtyla can be placed halfway between the bishop’s Letter of 1993 and the current Pastoral Letter.

These two initial considerations having been made, I would say that on a thematic level, the axes of “Hope Does Not Deceive” are well delineated in the epigraphs in which it is divided. They rest upon: (1) freedom and the common good, (2) overcoming poverty, (3) a change in political order, (4) the self-fulfillment of individuals and the human capital, (5) the recovery of the eroded family values, and (6) the dialogue among Cubans, inside the island and outside.

And all these rest on the weight of hope, which I like to interpret in the words of Eduardo Galeano, who states: “In the Spanish language, when we want to say that we are hopeful, we say ‘we embrace hope’ […] embrace hope so it won’t die of the cold in this implacable outdoor weather we’re living through.” (“Upside Down: The School of the World – Reversed,” Siglo XXI Publishers, Buenos Aires, 2010.)

Q. What continuities and discontinuities can be seen in the Letter with relation to the pastoral and socio-political agenda made explicit in previous Church documents?

Aurelio Alonso: The classification of continuities and discontinuities in Church documents can entrap us, and that’s a risk of interpretation.

Of course the current and previous pastoral documents are full of signs of continuity that are usually explicit, and they can simultaneously be sprinkled with indicators of rupture, or discontinuity as you put it, that are almost always implicit, occasionally camouflaged, and often have to be read between the lines or in the context of the document.

This is something that I discovered through a critical study of the pontifical encyclicals, especially those that form the Social Doctrine of the Church.

In reality, the polemical perspective can become a game that ends up conditioning the results to theoretical presuppositions, more so than to the contents and the true social (and political) outreach of the document.

I was among several who wrote a critical response to “Love Hopes for All Things” in 1993, in which, on the margin of some observations, I cautioned:

“It would be incorrect, however, to see in the message a strict return by the Church to the confrontation of the 1960s. The text does not exhibit the exclusive aggressiveness of the pastoral letters that attacked a regime they defined as ‘intrinsically perverse’ and challenged the political authorities to declare themselves anticommunists. At that time, the Catholic hierarchy demonized; today, it calls for dialogue.” [1]

I see there an attempt to adapt the Catholic social doctrine to a world that had ceased to be bipolar, where attention had to be drawn to the failure of socialism and the coordinates had to be set for an alternative project, a third path, reserving in it room for Catholics as leading characters.

Today we could make a similar thematic match that would force us to start from what you call “the continuities,” beginning with the recognition of the truth outside the gnosiological plane, as an immutable truth that characterizes dogma and indicates whether we are believers or not.

And I want to perceive an ecumenical advancement when it goes beyond faith in terms of hope, or when [the Church] acknowledges the government’s responsibility for protecting the common good (which is what it is trying to do in Cuba) and favors a participatory State rather than a paternalistic State.

Expressed thus, this critical look at paternalism in the institutionalization of authority is already very widespread among Cubans, in the academic media and in some sectors of the administration. And this need not surprise or alarm anyone.

The recent Bishops’ Letter characterizes the current stage through the appearance of “new possibilities when a set of measures is put into action in the country that affect the economic, social and, to a certain point, political environments.”

In sum, it leaves the impression that the bishops’ view of the package of measures adopted recently by the Cuban government is positive, and the points of dissent are mainly focused on the absence of response (“a clear though incomplete reflection of demands that have been desired by the population for a long time.”)

I believe that if their opinions are not more explicit they do not deserve to be considered as adverse to the ongoing changes.

As to the priority of solving the problem of poverty in Latin America, until Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela no other country had experienced a model of social justice and equity as deep and coherent as the Cuban model.

To the point that, if we guide ourselves by the universal indicators, in the 1980s overcoming poverty in Cuba was not a social concern. We even thought about it as an accomplished fact. It has again become a problem as a result of the economic disconnect brought about in 1990 by the loss of beneficial international articulation that the CAME [COMECON] propitiated.

“Hope Does Not Deceive” does not go into the legacy of that achievement against poverty but admits that “Cuba has a historical tradition of recovery and has scientific-technical foundations on which it can build the reforms that the country needs.”

Much of what worries the bishops is what also can be seen in the official agenda. And other aspects – not yet assimilated but likely to be placed on the agenda in due time – can be identified mostly in the proposals that originate in the national academic media.

Even the call for “a new political order,” which could be the most controversial item in the document, would have to be based on other specifics in order to motivate a rigorous debate. The pastoral letter does this in terms of “an actualization or update of the national legislation in the political plane,” which reduces its proposal to a formal juridical result and overlooks the very content of the changes.

That’s an idea that seemed clearer when it referred to a “participatory,” not “paternalistic” State, which defines the option of a socialist democracy vis-à-vis a government that gradually distances itself from the socialist ideal, as happened during the socialist experience in the 20th Century.

To summarize, it is difficult to get oriented inside the document to find out if the change that is needed in the Cuban environment is linked to an economic opening that fosters market spaces subject to a socialist projection, under a State that guarantees the common good and is set up under the principle of the power of the people – or if something else is being proposed.

Q. In the current context, what is the relationship between the Church, society, and the authorities of the island?

Aurelio Alonso: I don’t think my views are very different from the ones I had before the pastoral letter, and I have written them down in more than one place. One time I characterized it as an “accident-pocked normalcy.” I have never linked it to immobility, much less when:

“The multiplication of channels of understanding between Catholicism and the complicated socio-economic dynamics of the Cuban system are evident […] and account for the government’s acceptance in 2010 of the mediating role of the Cardinal (representing the Church) so the demonstrations by the opposition could be tolerated, and also the attainment of a solution regarding the release of prisoners tried for acts of active opposition that violate the existing laws.” [2]

When inaugurating the Sixth Congress of the PCC, Raúl Castro referred to this mediation, saying that “we accomplished it in the framework of a dialogue with mutual respect, loyalty and transparency with the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which, with its humanitarian labor, contributed to bring this action to a harmonious end. In any case, all credit is due to that religious institution.” [3]

I daresay at this point that Catholicism has rescued an institutional influence and, at the same time, a significant place in Cuba’s religious demography. A place has been made for the Catholic Church that is more proportionally shared with the Protestant denominations and with the presence of the religiousness of African origin, which is not limited to santeros and paleros in a strict sense but permeates to varying degrees broad sectors of the Catholic membership.

In any case, Cuba’s religious spectrum today may be the one that reflects the most achievements in the history of Cuba, in the overcoming of discrimination, and in its contribution to the fostering of a climate of religious freedom without distinction of creed.

No way do I wish to see in this document by the bishops an attempt to explain away a reversal or anything like it. And it does not force us into anything that legitimizes the 1993 pastoral letter in any way. I do concede that, in some sense, it is a pronouncement that could be qualified as tepid.

For example, if I stop at their rejection of the United States’ blockade, made in epigraph 36, I notice that it is made in line with John Paul II’s position during his visit to Cuba. It is legitimate, but I confess that I would have preferred to hear the Cuban bishops condemn [the blockade] in their own, clear words, as they did in 1969, less than one decade after it was imposed, in the document that I quote to end these comments:

“We denounce this unfair blockade situation, which contributes to add unnecessary suffering and render more difficult the search for development. We appeal, therefore, to the conscience of those who are in a situation to solve it, so they may undertake firm and effective actions to bring this measure to a halt.” [4]


[1] “The Catholic Church and Politics in Cuba in the 1990s,” by Aurelio Alonso; Cuadernos de Nuestra America, No. 22, Havana, July-Dec. 1994.

[2] “The Catholic Church, Politics and Society,” by Aurelio Alonso; in the magazine Estudos Avançados of the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, No. 72, May-Aug. 2011.

[3] Main report to the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba; Granma (special edition), 17 April 2011, Havana.

[4] “The Voice of the Church in Cuba; 100 Episcopal Documents,” Obra Nacional de la Buena Prensa, 1995, Mexico, pg. 175.