A Special Concordat: The Price for Cuba

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Statue at the entrance of the new Catholic seminary on the outskirts of Havana. Photo: Isbel Diaz

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 7 — For months I had kept an article in my computer for when I found time to enjoy a peaceful read. The text is commendable for the high quality of its argument and for its good writing.

But since I think my days of peaceful reading have already passed me by, I decided to read it and share my views with the patient readers of Cubaencuentro. The article is “The Catholic Church and the Destiny of the Nation,” written by Roberto Veiga, the director of Espacio Laical (the magazine put out by Havana’s Archdiocese).

In discussing this article, we must always consider to what degree opinions like those of Roberto Veiga might be those of the Cuban Catholic hierarchy. The fact of the matter is, the Catholic Church — besides all the dogma — is actually quite diverse, and so is the Catholic Church in Cuba.

Veiga and his colleagues represent an orientation that someone once called “social democratic,” and that I would call “social Christian.” He’s a sort of left Christian, someone who should be welcomed.

But I think that the basic views that Veiga can express on the subject of so-called national reconciliation are essentially those that are determined at the highest levels. There are sensitive issues for which the Church — a seasoned survivor of many battles — leaves no loose ends, and this is one of them.

Veiga’s central idea is that the Church should play a distinguished role in what he calls “the path to harmony and national progress.” This should be done, says Veiga, “with humility, humanity, and brotherhood,” among other soothing words making up the jargon of his own guild.

This will be achieved, he concludes, “…if all parties are able to incorporate a new political behavior that is mature, if they are able to recognize others as partners, basing themselves on the willingness to accept the legitimacy of all opinions and shared analyses with the purpose of marching together to achieve consensus.”

For many reasons I’m inclined to salute these generous intentions explained in the Cuban ecclesiastical discourse that Veiga synthesizes. It’s very difficult to disagree with it. At most, I only have some doubts, but they’re some very serious ones. I’ll try to explain.

A respected role, but…

Personally, although I’m not a believer I have a high regard for the values ??that can be generated from Christianity. I know the histories of many Christians who expressed dissent in the interests of human salvation, though most of them ended up at the stake or on the gallows.

I have close relations with Catholic groups in the Dominican Republic that have taken on social questions with unmatched self-denial, including the plight of Haitian migrants here.

I’m familiar with the hard work and sacrifices made by some Catholic congregations in Cuba to assist the disabled, the sick, the elderly and other vulnerable groups, just as I have high esteem for many friends whose virtues emanate from their belief in the infinity of Christian kindness and modesty.

Finally, I appreciate the editorial work that Veiga and his colleagues are realizing through Espacio Laical, which I always enjoy reading.

But I fear that almost none of this has anything to do with the way the Cuban Catholic hierarchy has conducted itself throughout the nation’s evolution.

The Catholic Church is usually conservative, undemocratic, elitist and exclusionary. But ours — that’s to say, its leaders — have acted this way in such a blatantly arrogant fashion, and whenever presented with an opportunity to place themselves on the wrong side of history, they’ve always done it.

That’s why I think the writing by Veiga, like all of the articles that have been produced on the subject — from the chapels to the office annexes — stir many reasonable doubts.

Except for brief quotations, there is no self-critical account of the past. On the contrary, there is an ideological construct that disguises reality.

There is a substitution of the real and concrete church — with its errors, calculations of expediency, dogmas, atavism, traps, ungodly covenants, etc. — for a pipe dream directed beyond those past times and previous existences.

The church that Veiga describes to us is not the church that denies the right of women to control their bodies, prohibits abortion, discriminates against homosexuals, stigmatizes condoms and has frequently made pacts with the worst of global politics for the sake of institutional survival and its anti-communist creed.

The Church, the people and the state

It’s definitely not the Church that we Cuban keep far enough away to build a liberal secular society, which today constitutes one of the great advantages of our society.

That’s why, for example, Veiga believes that the legitimacy of the Catholic Church to act as mediator in the process of national reconciliation has been derived from its having historically both led a discourse along this line and possessed experience in offering it.

There are two spiritual, vaporous, ethereal characteristics that have little to do with the other reality that led to its selection by Raul Castro as interlocutor: 1) The Catholic Church is the only organization that possesses a national institutionalized structure, unlike the decentralized Afro-Cuban religions and fragmentation of the Protestants, and 2) it is a part of a continuum of power that flows into the Vatican.

It is an institution whose secular horizons don’t endanger the continuation in power of the Cuban political elite, which — like the Church — is conservative, undemocratic, elitist and exclusionary. It is a bankrupt elite willing to concede everything except its monopoly control over the state, which guarantees its members privileges and their orgasmic bourgeois metamorphosis.

This selection has given the Catholic Church a unique opportunity in Cuban history to be at the active center of the island’s politics, and it’s taking full advantage of it.

But it’s a dubious opportunity that could lead to a situation in which the Church (remember Machiavelli’s dilemma here) exploits its fortune and diminishes its virtue.

In taking on the role as the almost only space where debate is allowed, the Church also accepts the conditions imposed on it by the political elite, and therefore it engages in discrimination – less exclusive than what previously existed, but exclusion in the end.

The only problem was that the Communist Party never bothered to say there was indeed discrimination and it sincerely proclaimed that it was kicking out all of the enemies of the fatherland, the revolution and socialism.

The Catholic Church is obliged to say that its doors are open to everyone, when in fact they only are for technocrats, toned-down reformists, liberal ranting officials and a few exiles who have been “pardoned” for various reasons.

Surely many of them possess sufficient merit to be part of this debate, but only some of them: those who advocate an orderly transition where there is a lot of order and very little transition.

Once again,  I ask is this out of conviction or convenience?

The cost to society

Another assessment that must be made has to do with the cost of all this to Cuban society.

Ultimately the Church can say that it used an opportunity to change things when things were inevitably changing, and that the end (Machiavellian yet again) justified the means.

But the Cuban people are going to be left as a society with a church erected as an arbitrator of issues that go beyond faith. When this happens — observe what happened with respect to this in more than one experience in Latin America — the price will be paid by everyone outside the discriminatory tenets of the institution.

That is why, even though I understand the correctness of the idea that religious expression cannot be confined to the private sphere, I worry about the image of the churches (Catholic, Protestant or whatever denomination) invading public space.

I’m terrified that they are doing this without autonomous counterparts being permitted by virtue of this special concordat that will be blessed in March by Ratzinger, a very controversial pope who moves in the public arena with the fury of an inquisitor and the hostility of a bear.

I think one undeniable virtue of Cuban society — republican and revolutionary — has been its secularism.

This has fostered a true liberal thinking which when connected with our Caribbean mentality has promoted a hedonistic, free-thinking and open social psychology freer of subjectivities. In this lies our main strength as a society.

This is a virtue that we must preserve at all costs and against all temptations – secular and divine.

One thought on “A Special Concordat: The Price for Cuba

  • Thank you for a very well written piece Haraldo,

    As in any large organization, the Roman Catholic Church like the CIA and other groups that are, in the end , evil in what they do, start out with a noble purpose that becomes quite the opposite in what they actually do.

    You can find quite honorable people doing the honorable lower level work that does not directly involve them in denigrating women, molesting young boys on a wholesale level, rescuing Nazis from justice, supporting inhumane counter-revolutionary governments against the people and all the rest of Church crimes against humanity that are well documented.

    The RCC has absolutely no place in a country that is democratically run, supports the rights of women and the Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Trans community, and gives women control over their own bodies .

    The RCC involved itself and the many pro-fascist Spanish priests who served in Cuba back in the 50s in opposing the revolution as they do in every country by forbidding their priests from practicing liberation theology .

    It can do Cuba and Cubans no good to take into their country, homes and thinking the concepts that make the RCC what is was is and always will be and that is an anti-social, anti-democratic example which both Cuba and the world would be far better off without.

    You are totally correct in pointing out that the present government of Cuba is uncomfortably close to the authoritarianism of the not-to-be-questioned RCC but at least in Cuba there is a chance for political reform and the (admittedly limited) ability to both question and criticize the leadership that cannot and never will be allowed to exist in the Church.

    That reform can only be slowed if institutions that practice unquestioned authority from the top down are in any way honored, respected or accepted as good by the people of Cuba.

    The U.S war against Cuba continues and the RCC plays a fairly big part in that war against socialism the tenets of which are anathema to both.

    You cannot clasp the asp to your bosom and not expect to be bitten.


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