When mounting hostility between Cuba’s conservative Roman Catholic Church and Fidel Castro’s revolution flared into open confrontation in 1961, the church was clearly the loser.
Catholic schools were confiscated, many priests were expelled from the country, and stifling restrictions were imposed on religious life. Church-state relations were so tense that the late Cardinal Manuel Arteaga, then the archbishop of Havana, took asylum in the Argentine ambassador’s residence.
Although the intensity of the clash soon subsided, bitterness and distrust lingered. And the church has remained shrunken and weak for a quarter of a century under Communist rule.
New Religious Framework
Now, however, Cuba’s most important non-Communist institution is stirring with hope for revival.
In a best-selling book, President Fidel Castro recently has proposed “relations of collaboration” between his government and Christians, and Catholic leaders are negotiating for a new framework of religious freedom.
Reconciliation is rapidly replacing alienation in the tone of church-state relations, which have not been as good since the early days of Castro’s revolutionary government, which came to power New Year’s Day 1959. The thaw is giving religion a new measure of respectability in Cuba, although some Communists are said to oppose any religious revival.
“There are people who see it as a danger,” said an editor of the Communist newspaper Granma. “Because now the church has very little influence, but its influence could grow--who knows how much? And this is a Marxist state that does not wish for that.”
Castro, however, seems bent on friendly accommodation with the church.
In “Fidel and Religion,” a book published late last year, Castro said “peaceful coexistence” with the Catholic and Protestant churches is not enough.
“There ought to be closer, better relations; there ought to be even relations of collaboration between the revolution and the churches,” he said.
Castro admitted that there is “subtle discrimination” against Christians in revolutionary Cuba, but he said it must be overcome. “I am against any kind of discrimination,” he declared.
The book, based on a long series of interviews with Castro by a leftist Brazilian churchman known as Friar Betto, is sold out in Havana bookstores. Officials say that 600,000 copies have been printed, a huge number in a nation of 10 million people.
“People waited for hours at the doors of bookstores to buy the book,” Msgr. Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, said in an interview.
Religion’s ‘New Space’
Ortega, 49, said the book has helped open the way to wider acceptance of religion’s legitimacy in Communist Cuba.
“It has brought the subject of religion out of a somewhat taboo, reserved area,” he said. “It has given it a new space in the life of the country.”
Ortega said he hopes that increased openness toward religion will eventually permit the church to freely promote its values throughout Cuban society.
Although few Cubans attend Mass regularly, many venerate Biblical figures such as the Virgin Mary and St. Lazarus. While Old Havana’s colonial cathedral was nearly empty during Mass last Sunday, the St. Lazarus Sanctuary in a Havana suburb was packed. Ortega said that as many as 200,000 Cubans flock to the sanctuary in December, during days dedicated to St. Lazarus on the religious calendar.
“What we call popular religiosity is widespread among us,” Ortega said. “It must be made to sprout and bloom.”
Dramatic Change Not Expected
But he said he does not expect dramatic changes soon in the Cuban church’s social role.
“There is a history of a quarter of a century in which there have been many difficulties,” he said. “One must be optimistic, but one should not think that there can be a change of 180 degrees from one day to the next.”
Catholic bishops, including Ortega, met for talks with with Castro and other authorities twice last year, in September and November. A third meeting is expected soon, Ortega said.
“It is a dialogue about principles,” he said.
Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, secretary to the Cuban Conference of Bishops, said they are also negotiating practical matters, such as the church’s access to communications media. Cuba’s mass media, all under Communist control, rarely print or broadcast religious information, and the church has little freedom to publish on its own.
“I think that is one of the problems that are going to be solved with the current dialogue between the church and the state,” Cespedes said.
New Language Hopes
Cespedes said he hopes that anti-religious language will be eliminated from the official media and from school textbooks. As an example, he mentioned a fifth-grade history text that he said denies Christ’s divinity.
“This is in the process of being changed,” Cespedes said.
Because more than 300 church schools were closed in the early 1960s, the state has monopolized education. Asked if the church has any hope of reopening its schools, Cespedes said: “It is a very delicate problem that requires prior steps.”
More immediately, he said, the church wants an end to discrimination against its members in employment at the managerial levels of the state-run economy and the revolutionary society.
“A Catholic doctor can have technical responsibility, but he cannot be the director of the hospital,” he said.
Father Theodore Becerril, a parish priest in Havana, said that religious faith is actively discouraged and disparaged throughout the Communist-dominated society. Youths learn that being Catholic is a handicap.
‘Principles Are Questioned’
“The more they want to participate in society, the more difficult it is for them to maintain their faith,” Becerril said. “Religious principles and practices are constantly questioned.”
As a result, many youths leave the church, and many want to leave the country, he said, adding, “The day that this society offers the Catholic believer opportunities without renouncing his faith, they won’t have so much desire to leave.”
One key to getting ahead in Cuba is belonging to the Union of Communist Youth or the Communist Party. Catholics are barred from both.
In the book, “Fidel and Religion,” Castro said the party’s ban on Catholics was imposed in the early 1960s because the church was being used against the revolution. Before the restriction could be lifted, it would have to be discussed among the party membership, he said.
But he emphasized that the party’s exclusion of Christians should not be used as a model in other Latin American countries.
Quest for Better Relations
Many analysts say that Castro’s conciliatory gestures toward the church are related to his efforts to improve relations with Latin American countries where Catholicism is a major force. Some say that he hopes better relations with the church will gain favor for his government among influential religious sectors in the United States.
Cespedes of the Bishops’ Conference said Castro also apparently believes that a Christian revival in Cuba can help strengthen ethical and moral values among the Cuban population. Though Castro says he is a nonbeliever, he was reared in a Catholic home and educated in a Jesuit high school.
In recent statements, he has made it clear that his political differences with the church have diminished as Catholic policy in Cuba and Latin America has become more socially progressive.
Eloisa Miranda, an official in the Central Committee of the Communist Party, said the church and the revolution clashed in the early 1960s because many priests actively opposed revolutionary change.
Departure of Priests
“It was a trap that imperialism set from outside,” Miranda said. “Imperialism wanted to divide the people.”
Cuba asked 120 of the country’s 600 priests to leave, she said. Almost all of them were not Cuban but from Spain and other countries.
Religious orders withdrew other priests. Miranda said that a total of 400 priests left the country early in an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Cubans.
The church never recovered. Today it has only 215 priests.
According to church estimates, about 90% of all Cuban babies were baptized as Catholics and about 15% of the population attended Mass regularly in 1959. Today, an estimated 40% of the babies are baptized, and 1% of the people go to Mass.
Church-state relations improved gradually in the early 1980s under a new generation of bishops like Archbishop Ortega. And slowly, the practice of Catholicism began to emerge from the shadows.
Rise in Baptisms
One indication of more open religiosity is the increase in baptisms in Havana from 7,000 in 1979 to 15,000 in 1985.
But the bitterness of the conflict in the 1960s has lingered. Miranda, the Communist Party official, said that to erase the bad image of the church, a new awareness “must be created in the party itself and among the people.”
She added: “The church itself must create an image that is not against the revolution.”
Miranda is an official in the party’s Office of Religious Affairs, which was elevated last year to department level in the Central Committee. She said the party leadership does not oppose growth in the church’s ministry.
“The only limitation here is that the faith not be used against the revolutionary transformations that exist,” she said.
At a nationwide Catholic leadership conference in February, church officials spoke favorably of the revolution’s accomplishments in social justice. A working document prepared for the conference expressed agreement with the revolution’s “fundamental goals of promoting education, public health, work for all.”
Reality Is Accepted
While Catholic officials openly accept the reality of the revolution, they insist that many limitations on the church still need to be removed. And that is where the church-state negotiations stand.
“I think they are simply striking a bargain,” said a foreign diplomat. He said that Castro is offering more religious freedom in return for a patina of respectability that the government will get through good relations with the church.
“It is a church that is very thirsty to survive, and it is making compromises on certain things,” the diplomat said. But he said that the bishops are driving a hard bargain.
“They are playing it very cleverly, and apparently with a good deal of support from the Vatican,” he said.