Two faces of pope’s Cuba visit

I just returned home from a 10-day Mexico mission trip with my church.

I am unbelievably behind on e-mail and other messages, much less the headlines of the past week and a half. I have perused just a few GetReligion posts, including Mollie’s roundup this morning on Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Mexico and Cuba.

As I try to catch up, I wanted to highlight an excellent story that I read in today’s Wall Street Journal. Ahead of the pope’s visit, the story highlighted the differing approaches of two Roman Catholic clergymen in Cuba:

SANTIAGO, Cuba—As young men, Jaime Ortega and José Conrado Rodríguez were teacher and student at a Cuban Catholic seminary. Decades later, the teacher, now a cardinal, and the student, a country priest, are dueling over the soul of the island—and the part the church should play in saving it.

Their debate is over the church’s role in pushing for reform as the 53-year hold on power of Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl starts to wane. Cardinal Ortega, the senior Catholic clergyman in Cuba, offers a cautious critique of the government, while Father Rodríguez, from his parish pulpit in Santiago, preaches more open opposition.

This meaty, 2,300-word story (on the front page of the Journal that landed in my driveway this morning) appealed to me for a variety of reasons:

— It put real human faces on distinctly different approaches to Cuba’s Communist regime. Readers are left to decide for themselves which approach is better.

The cardinal, 75 years old, meets regularly with Raúl Castro, and has obtained concessions such as the release of political prisoners and a new tolerance for government officials attending Mass openly.

He was even permitted to help start a new business school—a first in Communist Cuba—to train entrepreneurs amid legal changes allowing Cubans to start small businesses. He has rarely criticized the Communist regime in public, a posture that has made him a target of criticism.

Father Rodríguez, 60, has a different approach. He believes the church has a moral duty to speak out against Communism—a calling, he says, that led it to oppose Communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. In a small church on the other side of the island from the cardinal’s Havana cathedral, Father Rodríguez lambastes the Cuban government as backward, self-serving and tyrannical.

— In the midst of significant reporting on politics, government and the church hierarchy, the article did not fail to explore a key theological issue. (It got religion, in other words.)

The debate over the proper relationship between the church and secular authority traces back to the Gospels, which describe Jesus saying: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” At a gathering last year, the cardinal quoted the passage, reminding listeners that the early Christian martyrs, facing an adverse Roman government, “proclaimed their faith” rather than “attacked the structure of power.”

Father Rodríguez sees that passage differently. “It means everyone—including the state—must answer to divine law,” he recently told a gathering of Cuban exiles in Miami. “The church must liberate the people.”

— In such a serious story, the writer allowed occasional touches of relevant humor.

Archbishop Wenski says the two clerics aren’t as far apart as they seem. “They say God laughs when we’re referred to as an organized religion, and maybe we’re seeing that here,” he says. “These two men might be putting emphasis on different notes but they’re singing the same song.”

— Finally, the reporter attempted to answer basic questions, even when sources’ answers varied widely.

There are no reliable figures on the number of Catholics in Cuba. The Vatican says about 60% of Cuba’s residents are Catholic. Some clergymen involved with the island estimate that about a half-million of Cuba’s 11 million people attend church on a typical Sunday.

What am I missing? Is this report better or worse than other coverage you’ve seen of the Cuba trip? Please weigh in with your journalism-focused comments.

Image of Old Havana via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Joe

    It is a very well-done article. My only nitpick is with the handling of the question of Father Rodríguez being transferred from one article to another. The article mentions that Cardinal Ortega’s spokesman denied that he was involved in the decision and accurately states that “rotating priests is standard church practice,” but it doesn’t clearly spell out the fact that diocesan priests are assigned by their own bishops and that Cardinal Ortega, who serves as Archbishop of Havana, is not in charge of Father Rodríguez’s diocese (i.e., the Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba). Aside from that, though, I’d agree that the reporter covers a complex story very well.

  • Joe

    Mea culpa: I meant to write, “Father Rodríguez being transferred from one parish to another,” not “Father Rodríguez being transferred from one article to another”!

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks, Joe. I thought maybe that was a Catholic word I didn’t understand. :-)

  • Julia

    Very good article, but I was bothered by the alternating references to Mr. and Cardinal for Ortega; and Mr. and Father for Rodriguez.

    What is that all about?


    While Mr. Ortega’s overtures to Raúl Castro have paid dividends, they could offer the regime legitimacy and enable the Communist Party to resist more sweeping reform. Father Rodríguez’s hard-line approach

    In interviews at the time, Mr. Rodríguez railed against the church,

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Excellent question, Julia.

    The “Mr.” references later in the piece threw me for a loop, as well. I don’t know what the thinking is there.

    On an unrelated note, the WSJ uses an abbreviation for Misters plural, so you’ll get references to Messrs. Romney and Santorum, for example, which is a bit awkward for my reading tastes.

  • Julia

    On the topic of Cuba: SEE “The Lost City”, Andy Garcia’s love letter to Havana where he was born and spent his childhood. Also starring Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman.
    I don’t recall any religious aspect to the movie, but you get a taste of the nostalgia the exiles in Miami must feel.

  • Martha

    “Is this report better or worse than other coverage you’ve seen of the Cuba trip?”

    I saw this article on the online version of the dear old Grauniad via a link at the TitusOneNine blog, and although it’s not reportage as such but rather a comment article, it’s a peach, it’s a pippin, and I’ll just throw a few quotes at you to show the full deliciousness of the writing, which reminds me of nothing so much as the Dave Spart pieces in “Private Eye”, but first let me lay out the gentleman’s credentials for writing such a piece (with a little bit of Wikipedia background, which may or may not be relevant):

    Richard GottRichard Gott is a writer and historian. He worked for many years at the Guardian as a leader-writer, foreign correspondent and as the features editor. He is the author of Cuba: A New History, published by Yale University Press.”

    So he should know all about it, shouldn’t he? Anyway, on to the opinionating!

    “Today the uncharismatic German pope, struggling to restore the stained reputation of a global institution suffering from internal malpractices and external apathy, is perceived to have lesser ambitions.”

    Goodness me, should I take it from this that things are less than rosy with Catholicism globally in general and in Cuba in particular?

    “The Roman Catholic church, an almost exclusively urban phenomenon run by Spanish priests over most of its existence, comes a poor third [to Afro-Cuban religions and American Protestant denominations], although the pope will certainly be welcomed by large crowds, always happy to witness a great state-spectacle. He will visit the ugly shrine at El Cobre, outside Santiago de Cuba, of the Virgin of Charity, a saintly national heroine variously endorsed over time by Indians, blacks and whites, and celebrated by both Catholics and Afro-Cuban enthusiasts.”

    Speaking as a non-Spanish, non-urban Roman Catholic, I think the Blessed Virgin (venerated there as the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre) is something a little more than a “saintly national heroine”, which seems to me to be more fitting to describe a local saint or even popular figure in the church and/or community work. I’m also a bit confused that if Catholicism is an urban Spanish pheomenon that comes in a distant third to other faiths and denominations, why Our Lady has such popularity amongst, well, non-urbanites and non-Spanish and practitioners of other faiths?

    “The Roman Catholic Church, many of whose Franco-era Spanish priests were expelled in the early 1960s, has had more difficulty in re-establishing itself in the hearts and minds of the people.”

    Grrrr – those dastardly Spanish Francoist fascist priests! No wonder the church is so unpopular!

    “By happenstance, the two most popular figures in Latin America will be present in Havana during the pope’s visit: Fidel Castro, now old and retired but still sprightly, and Hugo Chávez, the youthful but ailing president of Venezuela, in town for a radiotherapy session to treat his cancer.

    Will Pope Benedict participate in a photo opportunity, in the hope that some of their charisma will rub off on him and on his church?”

    I’m sorry, I can’t give any coherent comment on this concluding paragraph, because I’m ROFL at the moment.

    Oh, old 60s radicals, please never change. Never.

  • Martha

    Oh, and that bit about the ugly shrine at El Cobre? I was expecting some horror of 70s church architecture (which, let’s face it, is pretty ugly no matter where you go) but seemingly the shrine in its current state was built in 1927 and although vaguely-Rococco is not to everyone’s taste, I wouldn’t call it “ugly” as such:

    Exterior shot of Shrine basilica.

    Interior photograph.

    Of course, regarding aesthetics, YMMV.

  • Mollie

    Julia asks:

    Very good article, but I was bothered by the alternating references to Mr. and Cardinal for Ortega; and Mr. and Father for Rodriguez.

    What is that all about?

    Having written for the Journal over the years, this is actually the issue I hear about the most.

    WSJ style is to use the honorific on the first reference and Mr. after that.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    The weird thing in this article, Mollie, is that there are several references (not just first references) to the honorific with other references to the Mr. mixed in. No rhyme or reason that I could figure out …

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    OK, here’s the answer.

    From the “Corrections and Amplifications” on Page 2 of today’s WSJ:

    Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Father Jose Conrado Rodriguez were incorrectly referred to with the title Mr. in some references in a page-one article Monday on the church’s role in pushing reform in Cuba.

    The references have been fixed in the online article.