The church in Cuba today
December 13th, 2016
By Father Kenneth Weare
Almost immediately following the announcement of the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, every shade of political pundit on social and mainstream media speculated on Cuba’s future. Some ventured to proclaim “the church will be free again,” assuming a current repressive state of affairs. On church-state relations, however, history reveals a very different and very significant but seemingly unreported story.
Ever since the 1959 revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba, a largely Catholic nation, has maintained active formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
For the last 35 years particularly the attitude of the political leadership, including Fidel Castro himself, has evolved progressively and favorably toward the church. Back in 1982, for example, within a two-week period, Cuba welcomed a delegation of U.S. Catholic clergy and laypeople, including a representative of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Also welcomed was noted Catholic liberation theologian Father Leonardo Boff of Rio de Janeiro and Catholic sociologist-theologian Father Francois Houtart of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. The Cuban people continued to be free to openly practice their religious faith. The churches were packed. The government was even assisting in the renovation of the archbishop’s residence.
In July 1982, Archbishop Jaime Lucas Ortega stated: “Basically I think we can live as Christians while collaborating and working together as Catholics and Marxists, mutually respecting the Christian view and the Marxist view, trying to reach a common way of thinking”.
The self-sacrifice which is characteristic of the Christian tradition was evidenced during the 1980s by the Catholic martyrs of Latin America, especially in El Salvador by the blood of Archbishop Oscar Romero and nearly 40,000 Christians, mostly civilians and campesinos. Such martyrdom did not escape the attention of Fidel Castro. He invited various liberation theologians to Havana to discuss with government leaders a variety of issues particularly liberation theology and Catholic social teaching.
Ramon Castro, brother of Fidel, told a visiting delegation that there were at least three events that were occurring in the Catholic Church of Latin America which had so strongly impacted Fidel Castro that his perspective toward the church was advancing significantly. He had developed a more open, positive attitude. He viewed the church far more seriously. He broadened his respect not only for grassroots Christians but for many Catholic leaders including priests and bishops, as well as theologians.
The three interrelated events that influenced Fidel Castro so profoundly were the church’s unequivocal commitment to the poor; the advent and development of liberation theology; the church’s participation in revolution.
The starting point for Fidel Castro was the 1968 Medellin CELAM, an organization of bishops in Latin America, Conference. At that meeting the Latin American bishops announced they were on the threshold of a new epoch in the history of Latin America, a time “of zeal for full emancipation, of liberation from every form of servitude, of personal maturity, and of collective integration.” They opted for a “theology of liberation.” Jesus, they declared, came to liberate all of humanity from the slavery to which sin had subjected them: hunger, misery, oppression, ignorance, justice, and hatred. They further identified institutional violence, and recognized the consequent temptation to violence surfacing in Latin America as a response to injustice. This commitment to the poor and oppressed dramatically shifted the direction of the church, as well as the very thinking and attitude of Fidel Castro.
Ever since the 1980s, and right up until today, Fidel Castro was deeply impressed by the church’s commitment to the poor and by the advance of liberation theology. He was especially impressed by the participation of avowed Catholics in revolution. The presence of Catholics actively supporting efforts to bring liberation and justice to the oppressed peoples convinced Castro that the church is serious about justice. He looked upon those Christians who struggled in the cause of the poor and oppressed as models for his fellow communists. Those Christians were evidence for him and for all Cubans that the church is truly present in the struggles for justice in Latin America.
Father Weare, pastor, St. Rita Parish, Fairfax, served on delegations to Cuba in 1982 and 2004.
From December 15, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.