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.
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.
Counter-Signs and Missing Symbols
These were profoundly challenging words of truth, deftly crafted, and delivered with calm assurance by a figure of indisputable moral authority in the face of the regime and its leadership. But virtually all that wisdom was undercut by the photos the next day of Benedict XVI in conversation with Fidel Castro. The Catholic Church has some two millennia of experience with the crucial importance of symbols and signs in the proclamation of the truth; the pope’s men seemed virtually clueless about that “sacramental” dimension of Catholicism in planning and executing the papal visit to Cuba.
In the run-up to the visit, the papal nuncio, or ambassador, celebrated a Mass at the Havana cathedral with the cardinal archbishop of the city, Jaimé Ortega, for the healing of Hugo Chávez, a persecutor of the Venezuelan Church, then in Cuba for medical treatment; both Chávez and Raúl Castro, neither noted for public displays of piety in recent decades, were present. The Ladies in White, the most prominent of all Cuban civil-society groups, requested a meeting with the pope during a session with the nuncio; 70 members of the group were subsequently arrested and others were beaten. Just before the pope arrived, Cuban dissidents frustrated by the Vatican’s unwillingness to announce that the pope would meet with members of Cuban civil society occupied a church in Havana; Cardinal Ortega had the police remove the demonstrators, and his ham-handed archdiocesan spokesman criticized the demonstrators for politicizing the papal visit — as if the impending papal pilgrimage would take place on some planet devoid of politics. Throughout the pope’s time in Cuba, cell-phone communication among civil-society dissidents was interrupted by the regime in order to make organizing more difficult; almost 200 pro-democracy leaders were arrested; and on the pope’s second day in Cuba, Cuban internal security texted several known dissidents a warning that, after the pope left, “you will be disappeared.” All of this was known, almost as it happened, throughout the world; it is inconceivable that the attack on dissidents during the papal visit was not known to the nunciature in Havana and to the papal party, and yet there were no public denunciations of the regime’s police-state tactics of intimidation and brutalization, nor was the regime challenged by a papal meeting with Cuban democrats.
To the contrary: Asked at the end of the visit why the pope had not met with the Ladies in White and other civil-society dissidents, the Holy See’s sometimes-hapless press spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., made matters worse by replying that the Vatican, in planning such a visit, had to take account of the wishes of the public authorities about the pope’s program.
That, however, was not John Paul II’s view of the matter. Prior to the second papal visit to Poland, which took place in 1983 during martial law, the regime insisted that the pope could not meet with Lech Wałesa, the imprisoned Solidarity leader; the pope insisted on the meeting and threatened to leave early if the meeting were not arranged; and the meeting took place. And if it be countered that, well, Benedict XVI is not a Cuban returning to his own country, then it should be remembered that John Paul II did precisely the same thing in Chile in 1987, when, much to the aggravation of the Pinochet regime, he had a lengthy meeting (arranged by local Catholic authorities) with the Chilean democratic opposition.
On the last day of Benedict XVI’s Cuban visit, when there was still hope that a previously unannounced papal meeting with civil-society representatives might be held, Vatican sources suggested that efforts had been made to arrange such an encounter, but that those efforts had been systematically thwarted by the regime. Assuming that was indeed the case, the claim nonetheless raises more questions than it answers.
If the pope was being prevented from meeting members of his flock whom he wanted to meet, why was a doddering and slightly gaga Fidel Castro granted a half-hour of the pope’s time? Couldn’t the Vatican planners have used the regime’s desire for an obvious propaganda photo-op as leverage to dismantle the obstacles the regime had put in the way of a papal meeting with pro-democracy Catholics and other civil-society representatives?
Moreover, Cuba is not North Korea. It may still be a gigantic prison, but it is not the country it was 30 years ago. If representatives of the National Endowment for Democracy could recently arrange to bring into Cuba an award for the founders of the Ladies in White and could bestow that award at a meeting with civil-society and pro-democracy activists, there is no reason why a competent Vatican nunciature in Havana, working with competent papal trip planners, couldn’t have figured out a way for the pope to meet representatives of Cuban civil society. At the very least, the Vatican could have extracted a high price from the regime (including international media exposure) for blocking such a meeting.
A week after the pope left Cuba, veteran Cuba analyst Carlos Alberto Montaner wrote in the Miami Herald that “ecclesiastical sources,” some of them “very close to the Holy Father,” had told him of the Vatican’s surprise at the sharp contrast between the spontaneous and joyful mass welcome the pope had received in Mexico (just before he came to Cuba), and the controlled atmosphere of an impoverished country the papal party had experienced in Cuba. Moreover, Montaner reported, Vatican officials “found it lamentable” that Raúl Castro had given a speech in Santiago “intended to justify the dictatorship,” a point reinforced during the papal visit by two other senior Cuban officials who insisted that political change was not on the horizon in Cuba. Those same Vatican officials, according to Montaner, found it “painful” that Cuban officials “reprised the most inflexible and Stalinist” orthodoxies whenever journalists were present. Further, Montaner wrote, the visit confirmed the Vatican’s sense of a division in the Cuban Church between bishops who want to support religious freedom by defending the free associations of civil society, and bishops like Cardinal Ortega who take a more benign view of the regime’s program of “reform” and wish to work with it — or, at the very least, not directly against it.
All of this, if true, raises even more questions, for everything Montaner reports the Vatican “learned” from the papal visit to Cuba was well known before the visit was even planned. There was no reason for surprise. The Castro regime behaved precisely the way any knowledgeable person would have expected it to behave. Thus the Vatican’s papal trip planners were either unaware of fundamental Cuban realities, or resigned to dealing with the regime over the long haul, or incapable of imagining effective counter-measures to the regime’s attempts to manipulate the visit for its own purposes. None of those three alternatives is very edifying.
The Future, in Cuba and in Rome
And that brings this discussion to questions of the future. One of those sets of questions involves the Church’s role in Cuba in the next several years. The second set of questions involves the future of the papacy.
As to Cuba: Everyone knows that a transition is underway on that long-suffering island. The question is whether that transition will resemble Spain, and result in a relatively swift and easy transition to democracy and the free economy, or whether it will resemble China, with the regime retaining (and enforcing) its political power while the country opens up economically. The social doctrine of the Catholic Church ought to impel the Vatican to bend every effort to support a Spanish-type transition. Yet that will require the Holy See to remember, and learn from, the example of John Paul II in Poland in the 1980s.
Ever since it was reported that John Paul II would go to Cuba in January 1998, inappropriate analogies have been drawn between the Church in Poland and the Church in Cuba. The blunt fact is that the Cuban Church has nothing resembling the grip on Cuban culture that the Polish Church had on Polish culture. Moreover, Cuban Catholicism has nothing like the overwhelming number of adherents the Polish Church had at the rise of Solidarity, a figure north of 90 percent of the national population. So expectations that Catholicism could play the pivotal role in Cuba that the Catholic Church played in Poland have usually been misplaced.
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.