In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton described his visit to Cuba during Easter week 1939. Recalling that he had come to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Cobre, he noted, with wry self-deprecation, that “it was one of those medieval pilgrimages that was nine-tenths vacation and one-tenth pilgrimage.” But “God tolerated all this and accepted the pilgrimage,” Merton continued, adding that “He certainly beset me with graces all the way around Cuba: graces of the kind that even a person without deep spirituality can appreciate.” Merton’s days on the island did in fact prove transformational; the visit receives substantial attention in his book, and he wrote one of his best poems on his visit to the patroness of Cuba at El Cobre. 

It is interesting that in his curiosity about Latin American faith Merton chose not to visit Mexico, Colombia, or Chile, three countries traditionally seen as more profoundly “Catholic” than Cuba. Where Catholicism in Mexico or Colombia is intense and populist, intertwined with issues of national identity as in Ireland and Poland, and in Chile it is sober and intellectual, with a strong component of social justice (rather like Germany), Catholicism as manifested in Cuba presents a different character. Neither tragic nor dramatic, but endowed with sensuality and humor, it is also charged with an ironic distance and a healthy anticlericalism. Perhaps, to complete the European comparison, it has more in common with the faith in Italy and France. Such questions interest American Catholics especially now, as President Obama has opened a new chapter of rapprochement with the island nation, a rapprochement facilitated by the intervention of the Vatican and Pope Francis. What is the history of Catholicism in Cuba? And what did—and does—Catholic identity represent in the larger Cuban culture? 

Catholicism came to Cuba with the Spanish colonization, and reflected the religious zeal shaped by crusades against the Moors and the expulsion of the Jews in Spain in the 1490s. The church’s agenda on the island ranged from converting the natives (mostly Taínos) to combating immorality and resisting English buccaneers. As a church of the Spanish empire, it was a defender of the Iberian monarchy and its divine right to “civilize” its subjects. The Franciscan and Dominican orders arrived first, followed by Jesuits and Augustinians. By the time of the Cuban wars of independence, the spiritual autonomy of these religious orders would be compromised by their loyalty to Madrid (excepting the Franciscans). During the early colonial period, some in the religious orders fought for the rights of indigenous inhabitants, but more often the natives were drafted into unpaid labor and subject to forced conversions. The sad truth is that the Spanish “civilizing” project resulted in the near extinction of the island’s native population. A notable exception was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, who looms as a prototype for the radical priest in Latin America. In 1552 Las Casas published the most famous of his many texts, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, filled with grisly accounts of Spanish cruelty; it remains a seminal anti-colonialist treatise. In one of the more perplexing ironies of history, Las Casas, while bravely objecting to the enslavement of the indigenous people, advocated importing slaves from Africa.

The turn of the seventeenth century saw the beginnings of popular devotion to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre), following her apparition to three humble fishermen—a Spaniard, a mestizo, and a black slave—beset by a violent storm in the Bay of Nipe. Saving them, she identified herself as the mother of the island’s inhabitants and requested that a chapel be built in her name. The virgin became the patroness of the poor and dispossessed, adopted as an emblem by the rebel army fighting the Spanish at the end of the nineteenth century; after centuries of popular veneration, she was finally declared the patron of Cuba in 1916 by Pope Benedict XV. The themes expressed in a religious story of a dark-skinned virgin rescuing a Spaniard, a mestizo, and a slave are echoed in Santeria, a syncretic fusion between Catholicism and the beliefs brought by enslaved Africans, which emerged during the colonial period and to this day remains robust within Cuban culture. 

In 1728 the church founded the island’s first university, the Pontifical University of San Jeronimo, later secularized (in 1842) and renamed the University of Havana. During the Enlightenment, Havana Bishop Juan José Díaz y Espada  (1756–1832) was a progressive leader who encouraged liberal ideas such as governmental autonomy from Madrid and the abolition of slavery. His protégé, the priest, teacher, and philosopher Félix Varela (b. 1788), is regarded as the foundational figure of Cuban philosophy. In 1822 Varela was sent to represent Cuba at the Spanish Cortes, where he argued for the abolition of slavery and independence for Latin American nations. Sentenced to death by the Spanish crown for sedition, he escaped to live the rest of his life in the United States, working as a journalist and promoting the Cuban cause of independence through his newspaper El Habanero, which was regularly smuggled into the island. Though harassed by the Spanish crown and church, he remained a priest until his death in Florida in 1853. 

Varela was atypical of institutional Catholicism on the island during the colonial period, when most clergy were conservative to the point of being reactionary, and the church dogmatically supported the Spanish monarchy. During the wars of independence (1868–78, 1895–98) many priests allegedly broke the seal of the confessional in order to inform on the rebels. After the U.S. invasion in 1898 and the ratification of the constitution of 1901, the Catholic Church was no longer under state patronage, and had to adapt to the new political reality of functioning within a secular republic. During the next few decades, the church openly served the interests of the ruling class, timidly failing to oppose the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado (1929–33). Subsequently, during the democratic years of 1940–1952, certain sectors of the Auténtico political party—something like a Cuban version of New Deal liberalism—embraced a populist Catholicism, particularly during the administration of President Carlos Prio Socarrás (1948–52). Significant lay organizations came into being, ranging from Acción Católica (influenced by the ideas of Jacques Maritain), to the Jesuit-influenced (and more conservative) Agrupados Católicos, and the working-class Juventud Obrera Católica (connected to both the Dominican and Franciscan orders and inspired by the French Labor Priests movement). All would be active in the opposition to the Fulgencio Batista military coup of March 10, 1952.

On the cultural and intellectual front, the Orígenes group of poets and artists coalesced in 1945 and published a highly influential magazine. Centered on the hermetic poet José Lezama Lima (1910–1976), they identified as Catholic, and although the group included at least two Communists, it embraced an elitist aesthetic that favored the poetry of Mallarmé instead of Péguy, and was contemptuous of the nation’s social and political struggles. The art critic and diplomat Guy Pérez Cisneros (1915–1953) was an exception; influenced by Jacques Maritain, he played a significant role in the authorship of the Charter of Human Rights at the United Nations in 1946, and was engaged in conversations for the creation of a Christian Democrat Party at the time of his death. Other exceptions included the poets Israel Rodríguez (1925–2008) and Jorge Valls (1933–2015), who were active in the struggle against Batista, embraced the revolution during its first two years, and eventually found themselves in exile or prison.

BY THE LATE 1950s, for the first time in its history, high representatives of the institutional church were openly confronting the Batista regime and demanding a return to an elected and constitutional democracy. Fidel Castro—a product of the elite conservative Jesuit prep school Belén—had been spared death after his failed July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada military garrison through the personal intercession of bishop of Santiago de Cuba, Pérez Serantes. The first few months of 1959, following Batista’s abdication and the triumph of the Castro insurgency, were filled with excitement and the sense of possibility for the Cuban people. The excitement included the institutional church and the laity, who joined the general clamor for an ethically managed government, agrarian reform and land redistribution, literacy campaigns, and other social-justice improvements. This enthusiastic support quickly soured, however, when new education legislation eliminated Catholic schools, Catholic charitable organizations were outlawed, and—in 1961—church properties were confiscated. Ironically, the same church that had taken the side of the Cuban people against the Batista dictatorship now found itself penalized and repressed by its revolutionary allies.

During the early years of the Castro era, non-Cuban priests were expelled from the island, including a number of anti-Franco Basque Franciscans who had served the poorest of the poor since their arrival in 1939. By 1962, 70 percent of priests and 90 percent of nuns had left Cuba either by choice or compulsion. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel Castro officially declared the revolution a Marxist-Leninist one; soon Auxiliary Bishop of Havana Boza Masvidal, a staunch critic of the Batista regime, was jailed and deported after condemning the sovietization of the government (he would die in exile in Venezuela in 2003). In 1964 the Franciscan friar Miguel A. Loredo was arrested, accused of counterrevolutionary activities, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. A poet, painter, and activist, Fr. Loredo had criticized the revolution from the pulpit, not just for its obstruction of religious liberty, but for betraying the democratic and Christian principles that brought it to power. Loredo would spend ten years in prison under brutal conditions, becoming a legendary figure of resistance; released in 1976, he was forced to leave Cuba in 1984 and never returned to his homeland. 

During the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, the church was consistently suppressed by the Cuban government and its atheistic anticlericalism; a series of papal nuncios to the island alternated between silence and cooperation. By now, Catholic intellectuals like Cintio Vitier (1921–2001) and other members of the Orígenes group had shifted from their apolitical positions of the 1950s to liberation theology “conversions” that embraced the revolution as “the gospel on earth.” By the 1980s, moreover, the church and the government had moved toward establishing a pragmatic modus vivendi. The church’s first responsibility, after all, is the salvation of souls, and that requires, as it did in Poland under Communism, that the institution continue to function. But such pragmatism, whether behind the Iron Curtain or ninety miles from Florida, has its cost. John Paul II visited in 1998, and though the pontiff spoke critically at times during his visit, it was mostly hollowly symbolic talk. Sadly, this way of operating has continued through the visits of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Although a few courageous bishops, such as the late Pedro Meurice (1932–2011) of Santiago de Cuba, spoke out on issues beyond the welfare of the church, most have been obedient sheep. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the recently retired archbishop of Havana, has been widely criticized—both within Cuba and abroad—for his passive and collaborationist attitude toward the government, evidenced in his friendship with hard-line figures like historian Eusebio Leal and film institute head Alfredo Guevara. In order to minister to the people, Cardinal Ortega made accommodations with the regime. One positive aspect of this strategy is that the Castro government has acknowledged the Catholic Church as an institution with its own legitimate, if limited and nonjuridical, autonomy. (The Orthodox and the Jewish communities are also undergoing modest revivals.) As a result, in the recent past the church has been a mediator in the release of political prisoners. It has called attention to the plight of Cuba’s youth, who are often compelled to emigrate in search of economic opportunity. The church has also been outspoken about the moral disarray affecting much of Cuban society. In the aftermath of the pope’s visit and President Obama’s reestablishing diplomatic relations with Havana, negotiations are now underway to formalize the church’s legal status in a way that will give it a real measure of independence from the state.


WILL TOMORROW'S Cuban church follow the Polish model where accommodation went hand in hand with shrewd negotiation and a measure of real independence? Only time and changes in the hierarchical leadership will tell. A recent book, La voz cubana, published by Instituto Pedro Arrupe in Miami and based on extensive polling of Cuban Catholics, revealed broad distrust of the church hierarchy, frustration with a corrupt government, hunger for spiritual renewal, and desire for an open and civil society. These concerns were brought to bear during the challenging twelve-year existence of the magazine, Vitral. A product of the Archdiocese of Pinar del Río, its platform of ideas ran counter to the official pronouncements of the regime, offering sharp critiques of a closed society lacking moral compass and calling for a peaceful transition toward an inclusive democracy. As the exiled Catholic poet Andrés Reynaldo stated, Vitral was a thorn in the side to both the Cuban Communist Party and the Catholic hierarchy. The magazine’s survival for twelve years was a testament to the leadership of the then-bishop of Pinar del Río. Its lay editor, Dagoberto Valdés, stepped down in 2007, and the archdiocese—citing lack of resources—ceased publishing shortly thereafter. In 2008 Valdés began the digital magazine Convivencia, which remains one of a handful of reliable sources of information for what is really going on in Cuba. 

Amid an atmosphere of impending change on the island, the first visit of Pope Francis last September raised great expectations, even as it antagonized a great many Cuban Americans who regard the Castros as anathema. Alas, these hopes evaporated quickly. Recently the blogger and independent journalist Yoani Sánchez, speaking at the Cervantes Institute in New York City, remarked that she could not understand how this pope could have ignored the vital issues of today’s Cuba during his visit. How could he honor Fidel Castro with an official visit, while ignoring the dissidents? Why couldn’t the pope who was so outspoken during his visit to the United States also speak out while in Cuba?

And so the ambiguous reality remains, of a Catholic church in Cuba continually stuck between the potential of hope and the dreary necessity of accommodation. Yet if history is any guide, Catholic culture will continue to exist, if not thrive, on the island of Cuba, in spite of la Santa Madre Iglesia and the disappointment it has all too routinely offered to the faithful.

Alejandro Anreus is Professor of Art History and Latin American Studies at William Paterson University.

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Published in the August 12, 2016 issue: View Contents
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