The Corner

The Pope and Cuba: A Cardinal and a Biographer Weigh In

For those wondering about the Vatican’s role in this week’s Cuba news, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan shared his thoughts during his Catholic Channel radio show on SiriusXM Wednesday afternoon.

(Dolan has a doctorate in Church history – from my alma mater, the Catholic University of America – and worked briefly in the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C.)

He said:

My view would happen to be that of the Holy See’s, the Vatican’s: this is a good thing. … Why is it good? Point number one, just to kind of maybe counter those who might fear, ‘Is this almost the United States blessing Castro oppression?’ Not really. Diplomatic relations do not mean that you approve of the government. There [are] many governments in the world that we could not have diplomatic relations with if it meant an approval. So that’s the first thing to say, [that] this does not necessarily mean the United States is saying, ‘Castro’s ok, the Cuban government is alright.’”

He went on to say:

Number two, diplomacy is always preferable, isn’t it, to aggression and military stuff? And nobody should be surprised that the Holy See would always favor diplomacy. And actually that’s been a strong part of American foreign policy, that diplomacy is best. And the ordinary way to carry on diplomacy is through the exchange of diplomatic relations. So this is somewhat consonant with, certainly, Christian international moral theology and, really, American tradition.

He added:

Number three, and this is very important to remember, if we want to change the Cuban government, and I think we would, and I’m sure President Obama is going to say we’re not all that happy with the government — and the Holy See has expressed some criticism of the Castro government — isn’t it better to have an entrée to bring our concerns and worries to them instead of isolating them? So diplomatic relations might provide a more credible, compelling way to bring about the legitimate changes that we think need to happen.”

Finally, he said:

And number four, not to have diplomatic relations and to have an economic embargo of a country — sometimes that’s justified, isn’t it, no doubt about it — one can say, for crying out loud, I think that’s been the case since [the early 1960s]…and it doesn’t seem to have had any effect. The same guy with the beard and the cigar is still running the thing. It doesn’t seem to have hurt him. If anything he might be able to brag about it. Who gets hurt? The people get hurt. So when our crops, our medicines, our know-how, when our investment can’t get through, the people are hurt. Castro’s not hurt. You think he doesn’t get antibiotics when he’s sick? So is this not really better, not only because it’s the noble, virtuous thing to do, diplomacy, but it’s the pragmatic thing to do. Now that’s been the Holy See’s, the Vatican’s, approach for a long time. We’re a lot better off when we talk.

One biographical point about Pope Francis. Long before he was pope, he was in Cuba for John Paul II’s visit there in 1998. Afterward, he wrote/edited a book about the trip, according to Austen Ivereigh’s new book on him, The Great Reformer: The Making of a Radical Pope (which I’ve mentioned here and here). Ivereigh writes:

The regime comes in for heavy criticism—for the totalitarian state’s restrictions on freedoms, both religious and political, as well as for the “anthropological error” of socialism and the destitution that sat alongside the wealth of the dollar (tourist) economy. Bergoglio was particularly devastating about the way communism had destroyed the popular culture that passed values and virtues from one generation to the next, as well as the dismemberment of the family through sky-high rates of abortion, divorce, alcoholism and promiscuity, not to mention emigration and the imprisonment of political prisoners.

Having seen too, the dance the Vatican has tried on these trips, not entirely successfully, to both bolster the sheep pastorally while speaking of freedom in a way that might humiliate the regime (The trip was “a success for John Paul II, yet without humiliating the socialist regime,” is how Ivereigh puts it.), Pope Francis may have felt a particular responsibility as the first pope from the Americas to “untie knots,” as he is wont to want to do. (Mary, Undoer of Knots, is a devotion he popularized, now even here in the U.S. a bit.)

As Ivereigh comments over e-mail:

concerned with the values and culture of the Cuban people which he sees as being suffocated both by communism and liberal capitalism. Like the Cuban bishops he believes in a government founded on Christian humanist principles rooted in popular values, and like them he believes the isolation of Cuba has served only to give the Castro regime a false or undeserved legitimacy. What Francis has done here is typical of him: he’s opened up a space for new thinking beyond the existing polarities — “untying the knots”. And he’s done so by appealing to mercy — which means renouncing the demand for demand justice for past wrongs in order to allow a breakthrough. 

In regard to Alan Gross’s release, he adds: it’s an important ice-breaking act: by showing a prisoner clemency, you allow mercy to flow into other areas. The Cuba-US situation can only be normalized if both sides gives up their list of grievances in favor of working together for a better future.

His involvement also struck me as quite Pope Francis inasmuch as he often goes right for the gesture: A man is suffering and so you help him, messy thought it might be.

Aside from all legitimate trust issues one might have with the current White House, the pope’s involvement isn’t a surprise. And, however one may see to use it, doesn’t strike me as a bad thing, whatever you think of the U.S. policy change. You’d want a pope to work to untie some knots to set men free …

I certainly pray … maybe some added Christmas prayers for the people of Cuba are in order …



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