Communism and Christianity through the Eyes of a Cuban Catholic

Part 4 in a series. Click here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

After watching Pope Benedict XVI’s March 2012 visit to Cuba, I have written a series of posts on Catholicism in Cuba, past and present. In this post, I explore what it means when the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in their 2006 Pastoral Plan that one major challenge they face is reversing the anthropological damage done by Communism.

One person I got to know very well in Cuba, Rodrigo, explained this concept to me through his personal experience as a pro-democracy political activist and a practicing Catholic and missionary. For Rodrigo, his political and religious conscience have long been intertwined. His parents were both Catholics and involved in politics. In fact, his mother fought in the guerilla forces against Fulgencio Bastista, but she defected from the movement when it became communist.

For Rodrigo, the Christian faith helps break the fear that the communist government tries to instill in people. As he spoke to me about his daily life, his work, his political activism, Rodrigo described the Cuban system as a “masked vigilance” and “intimidation.” Rodrigo told me of the many experiences he has had being stopped on the street and searched for counter-revolutionary material and the recent threats the government has made to evict him from his mother-in-law’s house because he has failed to register with the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.

“They are telling me that I am illegal in my house because I won’t register with the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. But why do I have to register with them? What they want is to make you afraid, they want you to know that they are watching you, they want you to know that they are controlling you. They have taken away about eight backpacks from me because I always walk around with a backpack and they think I am distributing counter-revolutionary material. They have called me down to the police station for questioning so many times, they have even told me they are ready to give me an eight-year prison sentence if they find me doing something they call illegal.”

Given the amount of pressure the government puts on people like Rodrigo and other political activists I spoke with, it is no wonder that so few people actively engage politics. “It’s very difficult to get over the fear, in part because nobody trusts anyone else. There are even spies in the church. But the best defense I have found is to show them [the government officials] you aren’t afraid of them.”

“Show” is the right word. As I talked to Rodrigo, I had no doubt that he does feel a tremendous amount of fear. Although his actions require much courage, he admits he feels great fear of going to jail. Other persons I have spoken to who are involved in politics in Cuba echoed Rodrigo’s words: they never stop feeling afraid, but once their conscience has been formed, they feel compelled to keep struggling against the system.

Another frustration of people like Rodrigo is that few other Cubans join political movements.

“For most people, it isn’t hard to awaken their conscience. They know this system is trash. Everything here is a farse, a lie. Everything here is hidden behind something else [enmasquerado]. People know that, but they don’t know how to respond.”

Rodrigo also spoke of awakening people’s conscience through religious instruction. Rodrigo’s parents brought him to church to be baptized as a child and they continued to attend church, although in secret, and his mother prayed at home. As his parents were both Catholics and political activists, he formed both his religious and political conscience early on in life. Although he has noted that greater evangelization efforts of the church and some openings to religious liberty have brought more people into the church, providing a deep and enduring Christian formation is not easy because catechists have to undo so much of what society has taught people.

“Education is Cuba is a political preparation,” Rodrigo explained. “The system here has robbed parents of their responsibility to educate their children. The education system tries to undermine Christian beliefs. This was more open earlier and now it is more hidden. But most people who come to church have been deformed by society. They don’t have a sense of the value of the human being, of individual liberty.”

Although it may be hard for an outside observer to understand, one of the common critiques of communism by those who have lived is that the people are taught that only the system, or in the case of Cuba the revolution, matters. Individual rights and freedoms are not protected, only the collective. Rodrigo admitted that most people who begin to go to church, even those that get baptized and receive other sacraments such as penance and communion, do not continue attending church. But for those who do continue past the basic instruction in the Bible and the sacraments, a church institute offers classes on human and civic formation.

“Although some people start attending church and still participate in communist organizations like the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, to be a real believer in Cuba is hard. According to the government, the believer in Cuba is not a trustworthy person. In part this is because the believer knows that freedom is; the freedom of God doesn’t fit with the type of freedom they say we have in Cuba. When we talk to people in the civic formation classes, we ask people if they feel free. They often respond no because they can’t travel outside the country, they can’t express their opinions, they can’t choose how to participate in society.”

When Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the importance of marriage and family in every homily he gave in Cuba, I immediately thought of Rodrigo’s words. Rodrigo and many other Cubans asked me: How can one live the trust, intimacy and love required of marriage if society promotes selfishness, materialism, and untruthfulness? How can one be faithful to one’s spouse when the way to get ahead is society is through lying, spying and snitching? Rodrigo is happily married and struggling to raise his three children, barred from working for the government because he speaks his mind. But in raising his family, teaching the Catholic faith, and giving people civic and political formation, he is undoing the anthropological damage caused by Communism in Cuba.

My conversations with Rodrigo and Laura since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit have given me great hope for Cuba’s future. Keep in mind that when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, many people expected Cuba to quickly open up, just like most of the rest of the Communist world. But, more than 20 years later, Cubans only have taken baby steps towards greater freedoms. For the first time since I visited Cuba initially in 1994, I can sense that big changes are coming. As the Cuban people’s consciences are better formed, as the Cuban people have greater access to outside information and ideas, the tide of change can’t be stopped. Slowly but surely, truth and freedom will win out over intimidation and fear in the hearts of Cubans.

A New Age for the Catholic Church in Cuba? From Survival to Planting Seeds

Part 3 in a series. Click here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

In recent two posts, I wrote about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba in March 2012. Now that a few weeks have passed, I reflected on the question: does this visit represent a new opening for the Catholic Church in Cuba?

Before answering that question, I will briefly summarize the history of the Catholic Church since the Cuban Revolution. The first 20 years after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 can be described as time of survival for the Catholic Church. With many of its clergy and religious expelled from Cuba,, the remainder harassed or sent to forced labor camps for “rehabilitation” into the new, communist society.

According to Margaret Crahan’s essay on Cuba in the book entitled Religious Freedom and the New Evangelization in Latin America (Paul Sigmund, editor), in 1960, Crahan states that there were approximately 723 priests in Cuba, by 1965 there were only 220. The number of female religious declined even more precipitously from 2225 in 1960 to 193 in 1965. Beyond the loss of its clergy and women religious, Catholic schools were all closed, the church’s buildings and property were nationalized.

That the Cuban Constitution officially made Cuba an athiest state and prohibited anyone who attended church from belonging to the Communist Party. Being barred from the party mean not being able to study or work. Given those penalties plus the decimation of church leaders and lands, religious practice in Cuba plumetted and those who did not abandon the faith went underground.

In the early 1980s, the Catholic Church in Cuban began to seek a re-birth. Following a five-year period of reflection at the parish and diocesan level, the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the church in Cuba came together in 1986 for the National Cuban Ecclesial Encounter, know by its acronym in Spanish, ENAC.

The final document of ENAC proclaimed:

“With an eye inspired by the faith, we have contemplated our past, reflected on our present, and eagerly projected ourselves into the future, leading us to discover the kind of church we want to be:

A Missionary Church: That hears the voice of her Master… who sends His church out to preach to all…confident that ‘the Spirit blows where he wills.’ We achieve this mission with a renewed and audacious way of being present among men and of undertaking pastoral work.

A Prayerful Church: Open to respond to the free and liberating action of the Spirit, whose prayer touches the profound knowledge of her poverty, of her need of God…. that has God as the only absolute one and who encounters through profound contact with the Word of the Lord the force and unity and the fire of his love.

An Incarnate Church: That shares with her people their struggles and the achievements, their anguishes and the joys. A poor church, stripped of power, longing to serve, who puts her trust in the renewing action of the spirit.”

Pursuing these objectives remained elusive due to the regime’s policies. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the Cuban government began to open a bit to the world. Perhaps to improve their international standing by responding to critiques of the lack of religious freedom in Cuba, in 1991, the Cuban government eliminated the prohibition on believers becoming members of the Communist Party, and in 1992, the constitution changed to make Cuba a secular, but no longer atheist, state (Crahan 1999).

Another symbol of Cuba’s opening to the world was the 1998 visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II (pictured here with the patron virgin of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity). As many friends in Cuba told me, after decades of government-controlled media and little access to the outside world, people flocked to see Pope John Paul II just because they wanted to hear something different. Pope John Paul II’s visit undoubtedly brought many seekers into the Catholic Church. Of the young, faithful Catholics I know in Cuba, only one was raised Catholic. The others had grandparents who were Catholic, but their parents never practiced because of the penalties. Curious to learn about religious ritual, faith, and as one person told me, what it really means to be free.

Despite the renewed interest in religion sparked by John Paul II’s visit, many of the seekers who came to the Catholic Church didn’t stay. Why? One Catholic in Cuba described how the “anthropological damage” done to Cubans through 50 years of communism, or what the 2006 Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops pastoral plan describes as a “context marked by a reductive anthropological model,” makes it hard for people to live the coherence, truth and openness of the Christian faith?

Why? In my next post, I return to Rodrigo, who I wrote about previously, to explain how communism has damaged human beings and human relations in Cuba. Answering that question helps understand the challenges facing the Catholic Church in Cuba as in seeks to expand its evangelization and social missions following Pope Benedict XVI’s March 2012 visit.

Between Exclusivism and Relativism

By Nicolette D. Manglos

While reading Peggy Levitt’s 2009 book on religion and immigration, God Needs No Passport, I was struck by her summary of the four prevailing attitudes towards religion. She describes the academic, well-meaning anti-religionist; the indifferent non-religious average Joe; the Christian exclusivist who fears local mosques and Hindu temples; and the religious relativist, with strong beliefs of his/her own who nonetheless values all traditions as equally valid. It is clear how she feels about each. The first two need a dose of reality—religion isn’t going away anytime soon—and the third needs to be hit over the head for their close-mindedness. The fourth, needless to say, is her ideal religious person, as it is for many thoughtful intellectuals. Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace celebrates this trend in American life towards relativist religiosity. The message is that we should all be as religious as we want to be, as long as we accept others’ religious preferences and inclinations as equally valid.
As nice as it sounds, it’s also an illogical and problematic attitude. It perpetuates the barrier between relativist intellectuals and the average religious person (speaking globally). Granted, I appreciate Levitt’s appreciation of how important religion is to the vast majority of the world. That should be the bare minimum for good social science, but it hasn’t always been, so I think we may be getting somewhere. On the other hand, the doctrine of religious relativism is illogical and self-contradictory. Ultimately, it is condescending to the deeply committed. There are three main reasons for this.

First, all major religious traditions are metanarratives. They make an account of human existence that subsumes all other meta-narratives within it. Each one makes a fundamental claim to being true. Jesus Christ may have been the only one quoted as saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” but all traditions take as their starting point that they are THE way. Some may argue that this is not always the case. Usual examples of “non-exclusive” religions are Shinto in Japan, yogic philosophy, or certain strains of Buddhism. Without going into too much depth, I would counter that although those traditions largely recognize the validity of other spiritual beliefs and practices, they also assert their own imperative. Siddhartha’s Four Noble Truths are ultimately a metanarrative. Within that narrative, if you fail to acknowledge those truths and follow Siddhartha to non-attachment, you will be lost in a world of painful suffering. Therefore, serious devout religious people everywhere are going to have a problem with relativism, because they actually believe—as their tradition tells them to believe—that their beliefs are truth. They believe others will be better off believing them. If they didn’t, why would they waste their time?

Secondly, religious exclusivists and fundamentalism, as described by Levitt and many other social critics, are also unacceptable alternatives for believing people. In today’s public discourse, such attitudes are assumed to be based in fear that one’s tradition will disappear or will be persecuted and marginalized. Yet religious traditions, as metanarratives, prepare believing people for this possibility and explicitly tell them not to fear it. This, again, is a logical extension of promoting a certain metanarrative as real truth. If truth is in fact truth, it cannot disappear, no matter how much those who believe in it are persecuted, and no matter how difficult it gets to believe. In fact, persecution may be a good sign. David Koresh seemed to think so, as Nancy Ammerman so clearly described. Christian Smith has similarly noted the “embattled and thriving” identity of American evangelicals.

Finally, what we call religious exclusivism is disproportionately concentrated in the Global South. The Global South is also disproportionately post-colonial and peripheral in global politics, as well as dark-skinned, non-Western, and less-educated. We used to think them primitive because they wore minimal clothing and danced to strange gods. Now we think them primitive because they outlaw homosexuality and premarital sex, and attribute political events to the work of Satan. Their habits and beliefs have changed dramatically since two hundred years ago, and overwhelmingly they have embraced Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Islam. Yet implicit racism and intellectual imperialism from our side persists. Levitt may have talked to some Brazilians and Pakistanis that bewailed the increasing power of fundamentalists in their societies. Her example of religious exclusivism may be a Catholic resident of Lowell, Massachusetts.  Yet the fact remains that statistically-speaking, religious “exclusivism” is a non-white phenomenon. We can get away with demonizing it because the majority of the global elite are white. It’s a simple case of Gramscian cultural hegemony.

Most of the believing people I have known personally, and have interviewed in my research, fall somewhere between the exclusivism and relativism Levitt describes. The Ghanaian Charismatics I interviewed in Chicago are a good example. They do not fear that Christianity will be persecuted into oblivion. They decry violence as a conversion method and live peacefully in America. They frequent shops owned by Hindus without much of a second thought. They eat Chinese food. If they are ridiculed for their non-relativist beliefs, they take it in stride Further, they understand the role of cultural variation in religious belief. They can interpret biblical texts in the context of first-century Israel, and their biblical literalism is not a simplistic reading of ancient texts. On the other hand, they fully believe that they are better off as Christians, that African society as a whole is better off since the introduction of Christianity, and that everyone else also needs to believe in Christianity in order to be saved from suffering in this life and the next. Evangelism, for them, has very little to do with cultural change or domination. It has everything to do with collective responsibility and the choice to believe and commit to what one perceives as truth.

As Weber argued, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I would add the Axial Faiths more generally, are radically universalist. Yet rather than asserting that everyone’s different ideas are equally true, this type of universalism asserts that everyone is a candidate to believe the truth because this truth is true for everyone, regardless of language, history, culture, or skin color. From this perspective, to respect another is to enable them to believe the truth. We as academics, relativists, and white Americans may not agree. Yet we must recognize that this is not the same close-minded and fearful exclusivism that Levitt describes.

So to summarize: 1) religious relativism is an oxymoron; 2) exclusivism, as it is commonly described, is also an unacceptable position for most believing people; and 3) religious relativism is a disturbingly imperialist attitude in global context. For all three reasons, it is a shame it is such a prevailing attitude among those who study religion and shape academic discourse. There is a third attitude, the one taken by millions of believing people, that is neither exclusivist nor relativist. It is a reasoned, confident belief in a given metanarrative. It is fully compatible with the idea that multiple metanarratives must coexist peacefully and that all human persons are due respect, as well as the idea that one day everyone will recognize that their metanarrative is most true. Without understanding this perspective, we cannot understand what motivates religious people.

Testimony from Cuba: The Pope’s Visit was an Oasis

Part 2 in a series. Click here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

As I explained in a previous post, I have traveled to Cuba multiple times to visit family members. During my visits, I became close friends with a group of young Cubans who are very active in a parish in Santiago de Cuba. Anxious for news from my friends in Cuba about the Pope Benedict’s visit, I emailed this group of friends in Santiago to tell them I would be thinking of them during his visit and to ask them to send me news of their experiences.

One of them, who I will call Laura, wrote me a beautiful testimony of her experience of Pope Benedict’s visit. Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, communication between Cuba and the outside world, especially the “imperalist” northern neighbor, has been limited. Laura now has occasional access to  email, and given that the connection is dial-up (if you are even old enough to remember those days) she typed her message in Word and sent it as an attachment. Her words are so beautiful that I want to share them with you word for word.

First, let me tell you a little bit about Laura. She works as an accountant in a government job and in her free time, she teaches the Catholic faith at a local parish and visits the sick in her neighborhood. Being a practicing Catholic with a government job is challenging for her, given all the pressure to conform to ideology, not to mention that most people steal from their jobs to sell things on the black market. Laura sees her vocation not only in teaching her faith, but in living her faith by being  a good example at work, such as by not stealing.

However, when another friend of mine in Santiago de Cuba landed in jail for stealing from his job (he stole a few bags of soy), I knew she would help. I sent her one email gently suggesting she go visit his house to see how he was doing. I could tell by her reply she didn’t get the gist of my email, so I sent another more urgent message saying “Alejandro is in jail. Would you please go visit his family and see if you can help?”

Most people in Cuba avoid prisoners and their families; but I knew Laura is courageous and would try to help them. The next day I got an email from her saying, “I found out some things and I need to talk to you,” and she gave me a specific time to wait for her call. Calling from Cuba to the US (and vice-versa) is expensive and difficult, but she called me right on time and told me in less than 60 seconds that if we could send a certain amount of money, something could be done for Alejandro. After two months languishing in jail for trying to sell Cuban soy on the black market (the Cuban government sells its people soy because it’s cheaper than beef), Alejandro was released from prison. I was too afraid to ask Laura by email what she did to help him; but I knew I could count on her to risk her own safety and find a way to help Alejandro get released.

Laura is in her 30s, stunningly beautiful, and not yet married (although she would like to be). To reward her hard work, she once won tickets from her employer to go to a night club with live music. Such clubs are frequented by tourists to Cuba, but the entrance fees are out of the  reach of most Cubans, even those like Laura with good jobs. When leaving the club, Laura’s beauty caught the attention of the police, who accused her of having gone to that club to work as a prostitute for foreigners. She sobbed and pleaded with them, but under Cuba’s “ley de la peligrosidad” (law of dangerousness), you can be accused of loitering, working as a prostitute, or other offenses with no evidence. If you are stopped three times for the same offense (or in Laura’s case, unfounded accusation) you can go to jail. Unable to persuade the police that night she had just been with friends at the club, Laura went back to the police station the next day with her father so that he could give testimony that she is not a prostitute. Known by her friends as “The Black Virgin” because of her beauty and purity, I can only imagine how humiliated both she and her father felt that she was accused of being a prostitute.

Probably to counter the rampant prostitution and promiscuity in Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the importance of marriage in nearly every talk he gave in Cuba. In his March 28, 2012, homily in Havana for instance, he said that seeking the truth about the human condition “we discover a foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person.” At a panel on Catholic social teaching a couple of years ago, Duke Divinity School’s renowned Professor of Theological Ethics, Stanley Hauweras, said that the most radical element of Catholic social teaching was the idea that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society and that the state cannot violate the rights of not only individuals but also the rights of families. Knowing that communism tried to break the bonds of the family in order to make individuals more dependent on the state than on blood relations, I was not surprised to hear Pope Benedict repeat many times the importance of marriage and family to a thriving society, for it is in the family that we find and nurture the love that should permeate all our actions, both to our relatives and our neighbors. The family in many modern societies is fragile, and the state of families in Cuba is nothing less than a crisis. It’s hard to imagine sweeping change in Cuba without strengthening families.

In her email to me this week, Laura said  how elated she was that since Cuba decided to recognize Good Friday as a holiday, she can live her life as God asks. Then, in an attached Microsoft Word document, she wrote (in Spanish):

“Dear Sister,

I have so many marvelous things to tell you!!! I have had so many transforming and beautiful moments during this Lent that I have to share them with you. Every year, I live Lent in a different way and with different intensity. Well, you could say that this year God knocked me off my feet. That’s not to say I heard divine voices, but God spoke to me in the deepest part of my heart, telling me that even though I am his beloved daughter, that does not give me any privilege or advantage over anyone else, whether that person is a believer or not. Rather, I should be the humblest of all people; I should not fall into the temptations to hate, to have hard feelings, to be selfish; temptations that surround us and can trap us in this world full of competition and rivalries (we live in a world that thinks that the law of retaliation — “an eye for eye, and a tooth for tooth” — will resolve problems). That is why we need to love, it is love that unites us with God and with our neighbor, it is love that allows us to forgive others and forgive ourselves.

Pope Benedict’s visit was an oasis, for this Lenten period and for my whole life, like a spring of crystal clear water in which I can drink and see my true essence reflected.

I had the privilege of receiving the Pope when he arrived to the Archbishop’s residence in Santiago. I was very close when he arrived in the Popemobile, and my heart leaped for joy and my whole being smiled (those around me said my eyes were shining too). I only know my heart was pounding and I wanted to have wings to fly to the Pope’s side and ask for his blessing (like the sick person in the Gospel who is cured just by touching Jesus’ mantle).

On a side note, the Pope looked a bit tired.

Later I went to the Plaza of the Virgin of Charity and I was inside the rope that blocked off the entrance. His holiness arrived a little bit late (about 30 minutes after his scheduled time; maybe he needed to rest from his trip to Mexico). The entrance of the statue of the Virgin into the plaza was just as we had hoped-spectacular.  Her image moved all the multitudes of people gathered, and everyone who had taken cover in the shade ran out and the plaza filled up even more.

There were people there from all parts of Cuba and the world. Next to me were some Germans who were very proud showing their flag, but I didn’t recognize the shield on it. Everyone was very disciplined despite the sun, the threatening rain, and thankfully the lightning never came too close. Everything was beautiful and peaceful, although someone yelled some things out of place, but  everything turned out all right.

Finally, I want to tell you that you were in my prayers in a special way during that wonderful Mass.

From your friend Laura who loves you. I wish you a blessed Holy Week.”

People in Cuba like Laura and Rodrigo, who I wrote of in my my previous post, are examples of heroic virtue to me. They are examples that the Pope’s words of forgiveness and service to all people–whether believers or not–have taken root in the hearts of young Cubans. And their testimony and example continue to inspire me to imitate their virtues of generosity and humility. Gracias, Laura. Te quiero tambien.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X