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.

Map of US Religious Affiliation by County

This is one of my favorite maps of religion. It was produced by Glemary research, and it shows the predominant religious affiliation in counties nationwide. It demonstrates the many historical patterns that shaped American religion. For example, you can see the westward path of the Methodist circuit riders (in green) plus the immigration of Northern Europeans to the Northern Midwest.

Race, Culture and Character: Seeing Jesus

Recently painter Thomas Kinkade, “painter of light” passed away at the early age of 54. While many viewers have decided views of what they think about this art, whether it suits them or not, one thing is certain: his work was decidedly informed by his faith. Kinkade had a particular theology about his art work and tried to convey his understanding of his faith through his art.

Kinkade’s passing coincided with my preparation for a class session on understanding religion and race. One of the themes I begin with is to ask students what Jesus and Mary look like. To this day, many students might remember seeing a Thomas Kinkade painting at a doctor’s office or in the hall of some academic or religious building.  

[Read more...]

The Changing Understanding of Evangelical Conversion

There’s a great article in Christianity Today about the changing nature of conversion. Because it’s so important in Evangelical circles now, it’s easy to assume, and assume falsely, that it’s always taken the same form. This enlightening article spells out how our understanding of it has, and is, changing.

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The New Conversion: Why We ‘Become Christians’ Differently Today
Evangelicals are undergoing a sea change understanding when it comes to this pivotal moment in the believer’s life.
Gordon T. Smith

It is not be an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a “sea change”—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.
Revivalism is a religious movement heir to both the 17th-century Puritans and the renewal movements of the 18th century, but one that largely emerged in the 19th century. It was broadly institutionalized in the 20th century in the conservative denominations in North America as well as in parachurch and mission agencies that then in turn spread the movement within North America and globally. For evangelicals up until at least a generation ago, the language of conversion was the language of revivalism; it shaped and in many ways determined their approach to worship, evangelism, and spiritual formation.

Evangelicalism is certainly not monolithic; the points at which evangelicals differ among themselves is significant—both Baptists and Pentecostals see themselves as coming under this umbrella, along with Mennonites, and then also Calvinists and Wesleyans. But for all their diversity, the way in which they spoke of conversion and redemption was remarkably similar. Evangelicals took for granted that the language and categories of revivalism were the language and categories of the New Testament. Conversion was viewed to be a punctiliar experience: persons could specify with confidence and assurance the time and place of their conversion, by reference, as often as not, to the moment when they prayed what was typically called “the sinner’s prayer.”

The focus of conversion was the afterlife: one sought salvation so that one could “go to heaven” after death, and the assumption was that “salvation” would lead to disengagement from the world. Once converted, the central focus of one’s life would be church or religious activities, particularly those that helped others come to this understanding of salvation that assured them of “eternal life” after death. Life in the world was thought to hold minimal significance. What counted was the afterlife. And if one had “received Christ,” one could be confident of one’s eternity with God. Conversion was isolated from the experience of the church. Indeed, it was generally assumed that a person would come to faith outside of the church and then be encouraged, after conversion, to join a church community.

To read the rest

Thank you Jerry Park!

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.


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