Benedict XVI in Cuba
A retrospective, with lessons for the next conclave.

Pope Benedict XVI at mass in Santiago de Cuba


George Weigel

But there is a relevant Polish-Cuban analogy with lessons for the future. As martial law was winding down in Poland in 1983, the Jaruzelski regime hinted that it was open to an arrangement in which the Catholic Church would become its negotiating partner over the future of Polish society. Some churchmen were tempted (including, one suspects, the primate, Cardinal Józef Glemp). But John Paul II refused the deal, insisting that the nascent associations and institutions of Polish civil society, like Solidarity, had their own integrity, which the Church was duty-bound to respect and support. There would be no deal, then, in which Solidarity was quietly interred while the Church became the de facto institutional opposition to the regime. The Church, as its doctrine required, would support civil society.

Raúl Castro may well be taking a page from the Jaruzelski playbook, hinting to Cardinal Ortega and those of his cast of mind that the regime will work with the Church on certain changes, on the understanding that the Church will not ally itself with Cuban civil society and pro-democracy dissidents. That deal, like the Jaruzelski deal, should be firmly rejected. Doing so will require new, vigorous, and courageous leadership in Cuban Catholicism, of the sort displayed by Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez of Santiago, who snubbed Raúl Castro in a receiving line at the papal arrival ceremony. Cardinal Ortega is already six months past the normal retirement age of 75, which means that his letter of resignation has been received by the Holy See. One hopes that it will be swiftly accepted, and leadership capable of leading the Cuban Church in support of Cuban civil society brought to the fore.

And as to the next conclave: The re-Italianization of the Roman Curia under Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., must be critically scrutinized before a new pope is elected. That process has proven deeply problematic on any number of counts; what the Cuba visit suggests is that re-Italianization has brought with it a return to the international perspective of the late Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, architect of the failed Vatican strategy of “saving what could be saved” behind the old Iron Curtain, which meant reaching accommodations with Communist regimes. That strategy not only failed politically; it created enormous, post-Communist obstacles to the Church’s evangelical mission in free societies that had thrown off the Communist yoke. Accommodation is morally offensive in itself. And while prudence remains an important political virtue, prudence does not equate with appeasement, as history has taught time and again in a variety of circumstances.

The Casaroli approach, which seems to have shaped the planning of the papal visit to Cuba, also fails to grasp the nature of papal power in the 21st-century world. A century and a half after the demise of the Papal States, many Italian curialists and more than a few Vatican diplomats still habitually think of the pope as the sovereign of a mid-sized European power, who deals with other political sovereigns according to the usual rules of the sovereignty game: thus Father Lombardi’s clumsy response to journalists at the end of the papal visit, asserting that Benedict XVI had to play by the established ground rules. But he doesn’t, and neither does any other 21st-century pope. Yes, the pope is a sovereign under international law. But his authority in world affairs does not derive from the fact that he is the master of 110 acres in the middle of Rome and issues his own stamps and coins. As John Paul II demonstrated, and as Benedict XVI has also shown in many of his major public addresses (including those in Cuba), contemporary papal power is a unique form of moral authority that comes from an unshakeable determination to speak the truth, even in the face of worldly power.

Benedict XVI has been ill-served during his pontificate by associates who too often seem to have forgotten that fact. Putting that truth about the nature of papal authority in world affairs back at the center of the Church’s global role — and getting the next pope the kind of assistance he needs to live that truth out — ought to be high on the agenda of discussion in the College of Cardinals at the next papal transition.

Nothing less than the Church’s commitment to a New Evangelization of the 21st century is at stake.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.