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

Pope Benedict XVI at mass in Santiago de Cuba

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George Weigel

Catholicism is not a “religion of the book,” but rather a faith built around word and sacrament — or, if you prefer, text and demonstration. Symbolic acts that convey the truths the Church teaches are of the essence of Catholic practice; this is true of the Church’s public life as well as of its worship. The Church teaches an ethic of charity toward the poor and marginalized; the Church embodies that teaching in its hospitals, schools, and social-service agencies. The Church teaches that the just society is composed of a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture; the Church embodies that teaching in its support for the institutions of civil society that make free politics and free economics possible — even when that requires challenging the existing political order, as it did during the pontificate of John Paul II in countries as diverse as Poland, Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines.

Viewed through this prism of word-and-sacrament, or text-and-demonstration, Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26–28 pilgrimage to the island prison of Cuba was a rather Protestant exercise: brilliant in word but deficient in “sacramentality.” The pope’s time in Santiago and Havana was by no means wasted. But it could have been used better by demonstrating in action the truths Benedict XVI taught with conviction; such a demonstration would have strengthened the hand of the civil-society associations on which the transition to a free Cuba ultimately depends. The gap between “text” and “demonstration” during the pope’s Cuban voyage is also instructive through the light it sheds on the Catholic future in a Cuba-in-transition, and on a crucial issue in the conclave that will choose Pope Benedict’s successor.

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The Texts
Benedict XVI’s addresses in Cuba were vintage Joseph Ratzinger: richly informed by Biblical and theological wisdom, and lucidly expressed. Despite his pre-papal reputation as a fierce defender of orthodoxy, Ratzinger’s papacy has consistently shown the world the real man his friends and colleagues knew and admired: a man who doesn’t raise his voice as a matter of habit (or tactic), but who makes his arguments calmly, drawing on an unmatched fund of knowledge in a variety of fields. Benedict XVI, on occasion, has had to use somewhat more elliptical constructions than is his wont. But his meaning is never much in doubt.

Thus, in a airborne press conference en route to Latin America, the pope who, a quarter-century ago, once referred to the “impossible compromise between Christianity and Marxism,” now spoke of Cuban Marxism as something that “no longer corresponds to reality” — a slightly less edgy formulation, one might think, except that it was a polite papal way of saying that Castroite Communism is crazy, mad, completely-out-of-touch-with-the-real-world: which is another way of saying that it’s hellish. There is little chance that what the pope meant was missed by Raúl Castro and the rest of Cuba’s jailer-class.

Then, in Santiago, which is both the devotional center of Cuban Catholicism (centered on the small icon of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre) and the heartland of the Castroite revolution, Benedict XVI insisted in his Mass homily that Christianity “opens the doors of the world to truth,” especially the truth that “apart from God we are alienated from ourselves and hurled into the void” — an explicit inversion (and thus rejection) of the Marxist theory of Biblical religion’s “alienating” role in history. This truth the Church bears, the pope concluded, has “crushed the power of evil which darkens everything” and opens windows through which new possibilities of authentic liberation may be discerned. Later, at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, the pope committed to the Virgin’s care “those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty.” In light of these unmistakable challenges, the pope’s words of greeting at Mass to “the civil authorities who have graciously wished to join us” came as close to public irony as Joseph Ratzinger ever gets.

Finally, at the Mass in José Martí Square in Havana, Benedict XVI returned to the theme of Marxism’s madness, in a homily that stressed the importance of truth and reason in building the just society. In contrast to those who seek authentic truth in a reasonable way and build freedom on that solid foundation, the pope deplored the “irrationality and fanaticism” that some “try to impose . . . on others” — which was not, one may safely assume, a reference to the division in Cuba between Yankees fans and Red Sox fans. Then, as if to ensure that no one present, including Raúl Castro, missed the point, Benedict XVI insisted that religious freedom is not just the freedom of public worship, important as that is. Rather, “the right to freedom of religion, both in its private and public dimensions, manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer,” so the just state must recognize that “believers have a contribution to make to the building-up of society.” Benedict then illustrated this point by paying homage to Father Félix Varela, a 19th-century precursor of Cuban independence and a patron of pro-democracy forces in Cuba today. “Cuba and the world need change,” the pope concluded, “but this will occur only if each person is in a position to seek the truth,” i.e., without coercive state power blocking the way, or keeping the truth-tellers in rancid prisons for decades.


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