For many years following the triumph of Castro’s revolution in January 1959, right up to the time of the papal visit of January 1998, there was a view that the Catholic Church was little more than a shell, a small remnant of an essentially pre-Vatican II old church, one that had failed to respond adequately to the challenge of the times and that the rest of the world was content to ignore. There is some truth to the last point, that the church in Cuba lived much of the last four decades in considerable isolation from much of the church beyond its borders. The reality, however, is far more complex.
By the 1940’s and 50’s, Cuba was one of the Latin American nations that best exemplified the growing awareness in Catholic circles of the centrality of Catholic social teaching in the life of the church. Cuban Catholics formed the linchpin of the Inter-American Social Action conferences organized in those years by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s social action department.
The political tensions arising between the two governments, however, brought those church ties to an abrupt end in 1959. The next two years saw the massive hemorrhaging of the church, the expulsion or coerced departure of a high percentage of the country’s clergy and religious, and the departure of some 800,000 Cubans, many of them active Catholics. Contacts between the church in Cuba and the church in the United States became less frequent and more difficult. The church in Cuba indeed became a church of silence, and an increasingly isolated one. The sense of isolation was even more bitter as Catholic visitors and writers, including world-renowned Catholic sociologists and theologians, accepted uncritically a litany of charges against the church propagated by the Cuban government.
Following two years (1960-61) of frequent confrontation, growing repression and genuine if largely bloodless persecutionculminating in the expulsion in September 1961 of Bishop Eduardo Boza Masvidal, auxiliary bishop of Havana, and 132 priests and religiousthe church in Cuba quietly endured more than two decades of very limited contact with the rest of the world. Relations, of course, with the Holy See never faltered, nor were diplomatic ties between Cuba and the Vatican severed. Although the Vatican mission in Havana was led for many years by a chargé d’affaires, not by a nuncio, the Cuban government confined its contact with the Catholic Church exclusively to the Vatican’s representatives. The bishops of Cuba were effectively excluded from any recognition by the government.
Toward the end of the 1970’s, partly through the patient diplomacy of the Vatican chargé, Msgr. Cesare Zacchi, relations between the government and the Holy See gradually improved. An Office of Religious Affairs was created to deal with some of the church’s concerns and, with the appointment in late 1981 of Jaime Ortega as archbishop of Havana, the church would soon be poised to reach out to the world beyond. For his installation, Ortega invited Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami, whose visit was the first by a U.S. bishop in over 20 years. In March 1984, Archbishop Ortega came to New York to preach a retreat for priests engaged in Hispanic ministry, and at a meeting with staff members of the U.S. bishops’ conference, he spoke of the importance for the Cuban Catholics of knowing that they were not alone and forgotten by the rest of the world. He then extended an invitation for a delegation of U.S. bishops to visit the church in Cuba.
In 1985, the first U.S.C.C. delegation, led by the conference president, Bishop James W. Malone, together with Archbishop Bernard F. Law and Archbishop Patrick Flores, visited the island. This was the visit that first opened the church of Cuba to the world, if not yet the world to the church in Cuba. In subsequent years, it became feasible to arrange more visits back and forth. During his visit in 1988, Cardinal John O’Connor made repeated reference to the role of the church as a bridge that unites people of varying backgrounds and points of view, and that can also serve as a bridge between peoples divided by distance and ideology. Thus, the idea evolved that the church could help bridge the divide between Cubans on the island and those in exile and, perhaps more directly, between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
What appeared to be an ever-warming relationship between the government and the church, however, suffered a major setback at the end of the decade. At issue were the dramatic changes occurring in eastern Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the still more decisive blow for Castro, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end, by December 1991, of its multibillion-dollar annual subsidies, which had fueled the Cuban economy. On the other side was the growing sense of self-confidence within the church in Cuba, aided in part by its ties to the church in other countries, notably in the United States, and with the imposing leadership given the universal church by the papacy of John Paul II.
The pope’s visit to Czechoslovakia in April 1990, and the harsh judgment he passed on the system that had until lately controlled every aspect of life in that countryhe referred to the Tower of Babelsent up flares in the Cuban sky warning that those presumably subdued Cuban Catholics, by virtue of their ties with the church in the rest of the world, might still pose problems for the party’s continued hegemony. This led directly to Castro’s verbal denunciation of his country’s bishops at a meeting of base Christian communities in Brazil in March 1991. There, he accused them of being lackeys of the U.S. bishops and even of the U.S. government and suggested that they really would rather be in Miami than in Cuba.
In time, Cuba adjusted to the new economic realities. International tourism and remittances from diaspora Cubans became ever more important to the country’s well-being. Visits from abroad were encouraged as never before, if only for the hard currency they brought in. Organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and various European nongovernmental organizations that offered humanitarian aid to the needy in Cuba were welcomed. In early 1991 the Cuban bishops organized Caritas Cubana, and local Caritas offices were eventually opened in each of Cuba’s 10 dioceses. It was this outreach of the Cuban Caritas to its homologues in other countries, especially to C.R.S., that symbolized the church’s emergence, if not from the catacombs, at least from its implicit status as a second-class member of Cuban society.
The rapid deterioration of much of Cuba’s vaunted health care system prompted the authorities to accept the church’s offer to provide at least some relief to the growing numbers of poor Cubans who had no access to needed medicines. Through its international ties, Caritas was able to broker the delivery through C.R.S. and other Catholic entities of many millions of dollars worth of medicines, medical equipment and other necessities.
While relations between the church and the Holy See remained strong, Cuban bishops and clergy suffered a twin obloquy through most of the 1960’s and 1970’s: they were castigated by progressive Catholics abroad for not fully supporting the reforms brought about by the revolution, and equally rebuked by some in the Cuban exile community for their supposed acquiescence to the dictates of the government. Monsignor Zacchi was especially reviled by some in exile as the architect of a Cuban Ostpolitik, but he is more generally seen today as one who helped preserve the church from even greater isolation and persecution than it did suffer, and who helped pave the way for the emergence in the last few years of a church more united, vibrant, zealous and courageous than ever.
The active diplomacy of successive nuncios, the visits to Cuba of senior Vatican prelatesand particularly the events leading up to and culminating in the January 1998 papal visitplayed an enormous role in affecting not only the life of the church in Cuba, but also the relation of Cuba itself to the rest of the world. The fact that many Cubans in exile who had vowed never to return until Castro was gone but did go for the papal visit and returned changed, has contributed to a more open and realistic diaspora view of the church in Cuba.
Many of the hopes for greater relaxation of government controls, for greater space for the church and civil society that were generated by the papal visit, have yet to be realized. Indeed, events since late 1999 and continuing to this day signal some reversals both in relations between the church and the government, as well as between Cuba and the United States. Still, the advances of the recent past are unlikely to be set back for long, despite the new uncertainties since Sept. 11. Should the Castro regime recognize that a newly unified global campaign against terrorism offers its government a unique opportunity to come in from the cold, and finally grant genuine political and religious liberty, a new day of freedom could dawn on that lovely land.