Rorate Caeli

Has the Church surrendered to Fidel Castro?

As widely reported on secular media Pope Francis met yesterday (Sunday, September 20) with the retired ex-dictator of Cuba, Fidel Castro. It is reported on good authority that it was Francis, not Mr. Castro, who sought this meeting; it was not on the official calendar of the visit. Francis had expressed his "sentiments of particular respect and consideration" specifically for Fidel Castro during his first speech in Cuba on Saturday evening and their actual meeting was, in Fr. Federico Lombardi's words, "'familiar and informal," with the two speaking about "protecting the environment and the great problems of the contemporary world." Lombardi also notes that Francis and Castro's exchange was "more of a conversation" (in other words, more relaxed and cordial) compared to the 2012 meeting between Castro and Pope Benedict XVI, when the former had peppered the latter with questions. 

At the end of the half-hour-long meeting Francis gave Castro several CD's and books, including copies of his two encyclicals and (according to some sources) a book written by the latter's old teacher, the Spanish Jesuit Armando Llorente. In return, Castro gave Pope Francis a copy of "Fidel and Religion," published in 1985 and based on an interview with Castro by the Brazilian Catholic liberation theologian Frei Betto.  

Some Church journalists will surely try to spin this as a last-ditch attempt by Francis to convert Castro, or as part of a quid pro quo to enable Francis to meet Cuba dissidents for political and religious freedom in the face of continuing Communist tyranny, or as a small concession to the ego of the father of the Cuban dictatorship in order to give the Church greater leverage in its struggle for greater freedom on that island country. If this was about indirectly helping Cuba's dissidents, then it has already met immediate failure: numerous Church and secular media reports (such as this) now speak of two dissidents who were invited to informally meet Francis twice, on Saturday and Sunday night. Unfortunately the two never made it on either day because they were detained by the police forces of the Communist regime.

As Catholics we certainly hope and pray for the Castros' conversion, but we have no illusions about the difficulties that stand in its way. 

In the light of Francis's public words of esteem for Fidel in his first speech in Cuba, the most reasonable understanding that we can have of their meeting is that this was an expression of Francis' deep sympathy for Fidel Castro and much of what he stands for. There is absolutely nothing in Francis' speeches and homilies so far in Cuba to indicate that he wishes for the Church to more vigorously confront the iniquities of the current regime. Generic appeals for service and caring for others, or his declarations about "service that is not self-serving" or "service is never ideological", can and will always be read in different and contradictory ways, not all of which will be uncomfortable to the Castros and their regime. Some (such as John Allen) have tried to find in the Pope's words so far in Cuba a "gentle critique" of the regime; if they are, then they are so gentle that they scarcely feel like part of any critique. 

Comparisons will surely be made with Benedict XVI who also met privately with Fidel Castro during his trip to Cuba in 2012 (albeit without the Pope praising or even mentioning him in public at any time during his visit). There was one big difference with Benedict XVI, though: on the way to Mexico (which he visited right before Cuba), Benedict XVI spoke to journalists and gave a gentle -- yes, gentle -- but unmistakable and unequivocal denunciation of the Cuban Marxist system:

Your Holiness, let us look at Cuba. We all remember John Paul II's famous words: “May Cuba open itself up to the world and may the world open itself up to Cuba”. Fourteen years have passed but it seems that these words are still timely. As you know, while expecting your Visit, many opposing and pro human rights voices were raised. Your Holiness, are you considering taking up John Paul II's Message concerning both the internal situation of Cuba and the international situation?

BENEDICT XVI: As I said, I am totally in accord with the words of the Holy Father John Paul II, which are still very up-to-date. This visit of the Pope paved the way for collaboration and constructive dialogue; a road that is long and demands patience but stretches out ahead of us. Today it is obvious that the Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality: it is no longer possible to respond to or to build up a society in this way. New models must be found, patiently and constructively. 
In this process, which requires patience but also determination, we intend to help in a spirit of dialogue, to avoid traumas and to offer assistance on the journey towards the fraternal and just society that we want for the whole world, and we mean to cooperate to achieve this. It is obvious that the Church is always on the side of freedom: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. In this regard we contribute, as well as the simple faithful, to this forward journey.

Francis has not said anything of similar force or clarity so far, immediately before or during this visit. Naturally, as Catholics, we pray and hope that he will still surprise us. Nevertheless we now have every reason to fear that the Cuban dissident cited by the Guardian are correct:

Ángel Moya, a prominent pro-democracy activist, expressed disappointment that pope Francis had not been more outspoken on the subject of human rights, unlike his predecessor. 
“John Paul spoke out clearly, but the current pope is too soft with regards to human rights. Cubans have a harsh life, but he has not been categorical enough when talking about civil liberties,” he told the Guardian. 
Moya and his wife Berta Soler – the leader of the dissident group Ladies in White - were among several dozen people detained for several hours on Sunday by Cuban security officials to prevent them attending the papal mass in Revolution Square. 
Moya - who was imprisoned for eight years - said the group had no further actions planned during the pope’s visit, but they would continue their campaign. 
“We’ll defend our rights with or without the pope. He is no liberator. It is up to Cubans to struggle for our liberty.”