Raúl Castro traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis. Their conversation, behind closed doors, apparently was very satisfactory for the Cuban dictator. He declared that, if the pope stayed the same, “I’ll go back to praying and go back to the Church.” After all, he added, “I was always in Jesuit schools.”
Despite that opportunistic promise of a return to the faith, this was really a meeting between two heads of state, not between religious brethren. Raúl is the president of a communist nation, and the pope, aside from his status as head of the Roman Catholic Church, is the monarch of a miniscule state legitimized after the Lateran Accords signed in 1929 between Mussolini and a representative of Pius XI.
Pope Francis, as a chief of state, is a kind of king endowed with absolute powers, elected by a small number of cardinals, while Raúl is a president, also endowed with absolute power, supposedly selected by the Council of State (in reality by his brother Fidel), a miniscule group of deputies (many of them military officers) in the National Assembly of the People’s Power, whose members are chosen in single-party elections.
Strictly speaking, the authority enjoyed by these two figures has nothing to do with the plural and open processes of liberal democracy. That may explain the Vatican’s traditional frigidity in the face of an absence of freedoms. That is why Rome could sign concordats with Franco’s Spain in 1953 and with the blood-stained government of Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic in 1954. To neither country did Pope Pius XII demand a change in conduct in order to sign agreements. The objectives of the church were of another nature.
What are those objectives? Specifically, the Catholic Church engages in three basic functions: to spread the Gospel, to educate, and to participate actively and publicly in the moral debate within society.
To this, it adds a clear emphasis on the exercise of charity, an activity that functions as the institution’s grand earthly mission and as a cohesive element that keeps it united.
The three tasks are intimately linked, but developing any of them requires, at the very least, the neutrality of the state, which forces the institution into a certain painful obsequiousness, an attitude of complacency with power that emerged centuries ago in the church’s formative period.
Ever since, the church has been part of the state or has placed itself next to the state, sometimes in vile tasks, such as the Inquisition, but has almost never confronted the state, even if the latter is manifestly criminal.
That’s not its nature. Its kingdom, it says, is not of this world.
It is true that Pope Francis has every good intention of helping Cubans solve many of their material problems, but, judging from the jubilation with which Castro has greeted his mediation and support, the Havana regime deems the Holy See’s behavior as an advantageous factor in its political project to consolidate a neo-communist dictatorship with a single party and a mixed economy, an even more conservative variant of the Chinese experiment.
It is likely that the church hierarchy in Rome (or Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Cuba) is not excessively worried by the strengthening of a neo-communist model along the Chinese ideological lines, but I fear that this could negatively affect those who aspire to a democratic change on the island, similar to the one that took place in Eastern Europe.
Those Cubans want a transition to a liberal democracy, not to a single-party capitalist dictatorship like the ones in China and Vietnam. Evidently, the pope is satisfied with that outcome. And that’s lamentable.