The National Catholic Review
The re-emergence of the Cuban Catholic Church
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The visit to Cuba last March by Pope Benedict XVI focused attention on the emergence of the Catholic Church as an influential actor in that island nation. If, by comparison, the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II was heralded as a watershed in church-state relations in Cuba, the more recent visit reflected the increasing influence of the church at a crucial time in the country’s history.

A nominally Catholic country, Cuba historically has been religiously diverse, with low levels of practice and high levels of syncretism. From the 16th century to the 1959 revolution, mostly Spaniards staffed the Catholic Church in Cuba, with priests and religious concentrated in educational institutions in urban areas. Wide swaths of the island were relatively unchurched. A survey in 1957 of 400 rural families by Agrupación Católica revealed that only 52 percent identified themselves as Catholic and 53 percent of the Catholics had never laid eyes on a priest. A very high percentage (41 percent) of the families surveyed claimed to have no religion, while 3 percent identified themselves as Protestants. Both Catholics and Protestants traditionally had low levels of practice, ranging from 3 percent to 4 percent for the former and 5 percent to 6 percent for the latter, ratios that still hold true today. Surveys in the 1990s, however, revealed that over 80 percent of Cubans believed in the divine, although not necessarily in Jesus, Yahweh or Shango. In short, Cuba is a nation of believers, if not of churchgoers.

Cuba emerged early in the Spanish colonial period as a commercial entrepôt that saw a continual flow of individuals not only from Europe and Africa, but also from the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. While commercially important as a rendezvous point for the Spanish fleets, it never developed as a colony to the same extent as the Viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru. Indeed, it was not until the emergence of Cuba as a major sugar producer in the 19th century that Spain paid much attention to the island. As a consequence, Cuba enjoyed more autonomy than many of the other colonies.

In the early 19th century, as both the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church attempted to exercise more control over the somewhat unruly island, political, economic and ecclesial conflicts heightened. These were reflected in the writings of the Rev. Félix Varela (d. 1853), who called for independence, democracy and human rights. The influx of clerics from the newly independent Spanish colonies, as well as Haiti, deepened tensions and strengthened the anti-independence image of the institutional church. The upsurge in the importation of slaves from Africa from the late 18th through the mid-19th century fed not only the independence armies of 1868-78 and 1895-98, but disseminated African religious beliefs widely. These became merged with Catholic beliefs, as well as the spiritism of Allan Kardec (d. 1869) from Europe. The result was widespread syncretism, together with flexibility and adaptability of religious beliefs and practices, and limited denominational and institutional loyalty.

A Diversity of Faiths

The onslaught of Protestant missionaries in the early 20th century helped reinforce religious diversity. This was also a period of heavy immigration from Spain, Eastern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, which spread secularism, Protestantism and Judaism. By the 1950s Cuba, an ostensibly Catholic country, was religiously diverse and selective in terms of practice. Popular religiosity focused on devotion to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba, who was also identified with the African spirit Oshun. Today surveys suggest that well over half of Cubans engage in informal religious practices, but only a handful attend services regularly. It is not surprising that when the Castro revolution triumphed in 1959, institutional religions did not serve as a major impediment to the consolidation of a Communist state. Nevertheless, in 1959-60 the Catholic Church, still heavily Spanish in personnel, initially served as an institutional base for some anti-Castro movements, which quickly petered out as more and more of the laity, clergy and religious left the country.

Approximately 85 percent of Catholic personnel departed; all of the Episcopalian clergy left; the Methodists and Presbyterians lost virtually all their ministers. Only the Baptists in the eastern part of the island retained a good portion of their clergy, which helped them survive and grow. The bulk (90 percent) of the Jewish community left. Since the 1980s, however, virtually all the historical religions in Cuba have experienced a resurgence. In recent years new groups have emerged, including Pente-costals and neo-Pentecostals. Seminarians frequently come from nonreligious families. Interviews with them have found that many hunger for a belief system other than materialist atheism. In the early 1990s the Cuban constitution was changed to eliminate atheism as the official position. Today the Cuban state is described as secular, and the Communist Party admits believers to its ranks.

The exodus of religious personnel in the early 1960s and official discrimination against individuals “who made religion a way of life” stripped the institutional churches of much of their capacity to maintain their activities. Some church members, including the current cardinal of Havana, Jaime Ortega Alamino, were interned in the Military Units to Aid Production. Many congregations became refuges for the disaffected. Protestant and Catholic schools, where many of the revolutionary elite had been educated, including the Castros, were shuttered for lack of personnel. Education was secularized. Most Catholic publications ceased, and religions retreated to the margins of Cuban society. In 1968 and 1969 the Catholic Church began a process of rapprochement with the state, issuing pastoral letters criticizing the U.S. embargo of Cuba and urging the faithful to cooperate with government programs conducive to the common good, particularly those related to education and health care. Some Catholics, including youth activists, were alienated, feeling that the church should take a more critical stance.

In the early 1970s Fidel Castro issued a number of statements noting that there were no major impediments to church-state cooperation. Influenced somewhat by the spread of progressive elements within the Catholic and Protestant churches in other Latin American countries, as well as pragmatism, the Cuban government slowly began to reduce the antireligious orientation of the revolution. The process was slow, but it gained speed as the government, which based its legitimacy upon meeting the basic needs of all Cubans, increasingly failed to do so, particularly after Soviet economic aid stopped in 1990-91.

In the 1980s the Catholic Church engaged in a nationwide series of reflections at the parish and diocesan levels that culminated in the National Cuban Church Encounter (ENEC) in 1986. The process was stimulated by an increasing sense that the church had to speak out about moral decay and the abandonment of traditional values, as well as socioeconomic problems. Among the meeting’s conclusions was that the church had failed to identify strongly with the people’s struggle for social justice in the pre-1959 period and had identified too strongly with counterrevolutionary stances after 1959. ENEC urged Catholics to promote peace, disarmament, sustainable development, a new international economic and social order and increased East-West understanding. The objective was to make clear to Cubans the relevance of the Scriptures to global and Cuban realities. In the aftermath of the cold war and the Cuban economic crisis of the early 1990s, when the gross domestic product declined by over a third, the Catholic Church became even more assertive in its statements and more active in occupying political and social space as the state receded.

A Call for Reconciliation

In 1993, in the depths of the economic crisis, the Catholic episcopacy issued a pastoral letter, “Love Hopes All Things,” which was an urgent call for dialogue, reconciliation and moral reform. It argued that the time had come for a review of government economic programs, which had been undercut by excessive centralization and ideology. This theme has been repeated in subsequent statements and has found increasing receptivity under Raúl Castro, who assumed power in July 2006 and became head of state in 2008.

The church’s call for dialogue and reform has been facilitated by the expansion of church publications like Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical and the establishment in 2011 of the Félix Varela Center in a former Catholic seminary. The latter has become a center for discussion of current societal problems and raised the visibility of the Catholic Church. It has sponsored seminars and lectures incorporating Cuban American scholars and entrepreneurs. The Archdiocese of Havana has also established a graduate program in business together with the University of Murcia in Spain. The program attempts to meet the needs of people involved in the process of implementing the economic changes proposed at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in 2011, particularly the expansion of the nonstate sector. Demand for the course of studies, which began in September 2011 with slightly over 30 students, was high. And many families, Catholic and non-Catholic, have requested after-school programs at local parishes for primary and secondary students. This reflects the degree to which parents are increasingly seeking technical and supplementary courses for their children outside the state school system.

The Catholic Church has also increased its welfare activities, particularly in the areas of health and elder care. Caritas-Cuba is a major provider of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment in cooperation with the Cuban government. Religious sisters from both Cuba and abroad are heavily involved in staffing facilities for the elderly. Throughout Cuba there has been a proliferation of church-supported programs and publications. The diocese of Pinar del Rio had at one time the most controversial religious publication in Cuba, Vitral. Founded in 1994, it aimed to create links within civil society that would encourage greater participation in solving societal problems. It encountered increasing difficulties not only with government officials but also with some in the church for its criticisms of the state. By 1997 some of the editorial staff had left to establish an independent journal. Other church publications, like Imago, have emphasized evangelization, while Vida Joven promotes engagement within Cuban society through the arts. In addition, the church is emphasizing the formation of young people and professionals who may someday assume leadership roles in Cuban society.

Two Papal Visits

The papal visit in 1998 brought together two of the world’s most charismatic figures—Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro. It came at a time when the Catholic Church had not yet assumed a substantial role in Cuba’s domestic affairs. After the visit, some church leaders expressed disappointment that an expanded role had not been achieved. Few in the late 1990s apparently imagined that the Catholic Church would become as much of a political and social actor as it is today. The involvement of the Cuban episcopacy during 2010-11 in the release of political prisoners and the ongoing dialogue between the Cardinal of Havana and Raúl Castro reflect the increasing space that the Catholic Church in Cuba is occupying.

Such developments have not been without controversy both in Cuba and abroad. Some opponents of the Castro government have sharply criticized the increasing contacts between church and state, especially the role of Cardinal Ortega as an interlocutor. Indeed, some 300 Cuban Catholics wrote the Vatican prior to Pope Benedict’s visit alleging that Ortega was letting himself be used by the government. In June 2012 the U.S.-funded Radio/TV Martí published an editorial that called Cardinal Ortega a lackey of the Castro government. These and other attacks have caused several Cuban bishops and leading laypeople to come to Ortega’s defense. They point to the progress that has been made in church-state relations, as well as to the commitment of the Catholic Church to work for the common good in Cuba and reconciliation between Cubans on the island and those abroad.

The church in Cuba still faces significant challenges, notably the weakness of Cuban civil society, which is relatively unorganized and fragmented. There is a diffuse desire within Cuba and the church for better socioeconomic conditions and more effective political participation, but this desire has not been shaped into a broadly supported societal agenda. The Cuban hierarchy does not appear to favor regime change, which is supported by the U.S. government and some Cuban Americans. Instead, it supports gradual, evolutionary change.

In the absence of an organized and proactive civil society with recognized national leadership, the church has assumed a critical role as an intermediary between the state and society. While the Catholic Church in Cuba may be somewhat weak institutionally, it has become a leading protagonist in the country’s affairs. What will happen once civil society strengthens and secular options increase? That is unclear. What is apparent is that the Catholic Church is no longer on the margins. It has become a key player in Cuba’s evolution.

Margaret E. Crahan is a senior research scholar at the Institute of Latin American Studies of Columbia University in New York.