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The Pope in Cuba: too many concessions to the Castro regime?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 28, 2012

Some analysts worry that Pope Benedict’s trip to Cuba might help prop up the Castro government. Others believe that the papal visit could prove the tipping point that finally leads to the collapse of a bankrupt regime. There are intelligent arguments on both sides.

Since the plans for the papal visit were first announced, critics of Vatican diplomacy have worried aloud that the Castro government would exploit the Pope’s presence. In one sense that outcome was unavoidable. Any politician, in any country with a heavily Catholic population, will pounce on the opportunity for a “photo op” with the Pontiff. Sure enough, President Raul Castro rushed toward the altar to wring the Pope’s hand after the final Mass in Havana. The Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel, did their best to portray themselves as friends of the Catholic Church. That much was predictable.

Moreover, in order to secure an invitation for the papal visit, Church leaders had to negotiate with the government. Any such negotiations leave the Church open to complaints that the organizers of the papal trip conceded too much. Did Vatican representatives promise that the Pope would not directly attack the government? Did the government insist that the Pontiff could not meet with anti-Castro activists? There can be little doubt that the Cuban government tried to set some conditions for the visit, and that the Vatican negotiators resisted. How many compromises were made? Cynics will always tend toward the belief that the Church conceded too much.

In Cuba, skeptics were already complaining that their country’s own bishops had made imprudent deals with the regime. The Catholic Church has undoubtedly enjoyed greater freedom of activity in recent years, and the hierarchy, led by Havana’s Cardinal Ortega, has been instrumental in securing the release of political prisoners. Still Castro’s opponents are unsatisfied. The Church remains restricted, they point out—quite accurately. And the political prisoners were sent into exile, not released to rejoin their allies in the Cuban opposition. So the Church in Cuba has brought some change, but the change has come at a price. To extract concessions, the hierarchy made a few of its own concessions to the regime.

So too with the Pope’s visit. During his 3-day stay in Cuba, Pope Benedict met with the Castros but not with their leading opponents. That was a victory for the regime, unquestionably. Yet the Holy Father also called for change, remarked that Marxism has failed, and rallied the forces that could eventually oust the Castro government. Both the Pope and the enthusiastic crowds that greeted him keyed on a single word--libertad--as the key to a successful future. That word, with all it represents, is an imminent danger to an authoritarian regime.

There’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of conundrum here. Which comes first: the concessions to the regime or the challenge to the regime? The willingness to negotiate with an unfriendly government or the determination to press that government for change? If there are no negotiations, there can be no pressure for change. If there are no concessions, there can be no challenge. Political negotiations always take place on a two-way street.

If the Vatican and the Cuban hierarchy had not been willing to make a few deals, the Pope could not have visited Cuba. If he had not visited Cuba, he could not have rallied the Catholic opposition and stirred the cries for liberty. For all we know, the Pope’s visit may prove to be the first step in a series of events that triggers the downfall of Cuban Communism. Who can ever forget how a visit to Poland by Blessed John Paul II led eventually to the collapse of the entire Soviet empire?

Evidently the Pope, the Vatican diplomatic corps, and the Cuban hierarchy reached an agreement that the potential benefits of a visit to Cuba (the chance to energize Catholics and to issue a clarion call for change) outweighed the disadvantages (the necessary compromises and the likelihood of being exploited). Was that judgment wise? We don’t know—yet. If the papal visit does indeed spark a powerful movement for change, history will judge the Pope’s decision a success, and even the skeptics may concede that the trip was a worthwhile venture. If the calls for change sputter out and the Castro regime clings to power, the critics of Vatican diplomacy will have the better of the argument.

The questions that arose about the Pope’s trip to Cuba could be asked whenever a Roman Pontiff contemplates a visit to any country under the grip of an unjust regime. Should the Pope never travel to a country under authoritarian rule? That would mean that the people of those countries, already suffering from political oppression, would be deprived of the chance to greet the Vicar of Christ. It would mean that the Roman Pontiff could never appear in person to make a plea human dignity where it was most needed. It would mean that John Paul II should never have visited Poland.

Papal travel requires advance planning, and advance planning entails working with local government officials. Even the friendliest host country will place some restrictions on the Pope’s travel plans, if only to avoid traffic snarls. Corrupt regimes, fearful that the Pope will undermine their power, will naturally try to impose more conditions on the papal visits. Some compromises will be necessary; that much is a foregone conclusion.

These same concerns arise whenever the Church becomes involved in any form of political negotiation. A willingness to compromise is essential to political success. But compromise does not sit well with the demands of religious orthodoxy. The Church can compromise on the details on papal travel, but not on the message of the Gospel.

And that, I suggest, constitutes the bottom line of this complex equation. When Church leaders make political judgments, they are always fallible. It doesn’t matter whether the final decision is made by Cuban bishops, or the Vatican Secretariat of State, or the Roman Pontiff himself. The Lord gave his disciples extraordinary authority in the spiritual realm, but not in the political world. Every political judgment is contingent; every decision is debatable.

Maybe the Vatican should compromise a bit, to ensure that the Pope has a chance to deliver his message. Then again, maybe not. I cannot claim to have a final answer regarding the questions about the Pope’s trip to Cuba. I doubt that I will feel any more certain about the next controversial papal voyage. But of one thing I do feel confident:

When the Pope travels abroad, he should not worry about the political ramifications of his public remarks. He should not let diplomatic concerns color his homilies. He should speak the truth about the Gospel—which is the truth about man—and let the politicians sort out the consequences for themselves.

When John Paul II visited his native Poland, in the archetypal case of papal influence in modern politics, he did not preach an overtly political message. He preached about man’s need for God, man’s vocation to freedom, man’s inherent dignity. In short he preached the message of the Gospel. The implications of that message were clear enough to imperil the Communist regime, and his hosts knew that much. But the late Pope could honestly say that he had not come to Poland to speak about politics. He came to bear witness to the truth. After all it is the truth—not deft political maneuvering—that sets men free.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 28, 2012 9:17 PM ET USA

    Agreed. The Holy Father should "speak the truth about the Gospel." He should do this at all times since by bearing "witness to the truth" he bears witness to the Eternal Word whom he represents as Vicar of Christ. When Our Lord found himself abandoned by all but his Apostles after insisting his flesh was "real food indeed" he did not mitigate, attenuate, abrogate or in any other way attempt to make the message more palatable. Simon's confession was firm, and he was rewarded with the papacy.