Pope Benedict’s visit to Latin America in 2012 will take him to two countries: one where the Catholic Church is under attack and the other where the church is growing in influence. If you think Cuba was where the church was being attacked and Mexico where it was growing, you are wrong. It’s the other way around.
Mexico is under siege from narcotic traffickers. The helplessness of the government to stall the wholesale takeover of civic life by drug lords has caught the church in the middle. On May 24, 1993, the crusading bishop of Guadalajara, Mexico was assassinated. While the “official” account explains the murder of the bishop as a “caught in the cross-fire” accident, the additional 14 gun shots at close range on the fallen clergyman indicate a purposeful execution. and continuing calls for justice have gone unanswered. Mexico, along with other Latin American countries has a growing list of modern-day martyrs of clergy who died denouncing violence and crime. This explains why the Mexican archbishop hosting the visit of Pope Benedict has called for a truce in the drug war. Even the cartel is listening. The pope is going to Mexico, I think, to bolster Catholics living under the threat of extreme social violence.
In contrast, there are no such violent attacks on clergy in Cuba. On that island, the church has been engaged with the socialist government in an expanding agenda of cooperation. In my book, “Papal Overtures in a Cuban Key,” about the last papal visit to Cuba by then Pope John Paul II, the opening of Cuba to the world and of the world to Cuba is described as reason for the visit.
In fact, all papal visits past and present are essentially pastoral visits first and foremost -- although circumstances may lend greater political importance to some forays. The general intention is to rally and support the practice of Catholicism by demonstrating the solidarity of the pope with particular local churches. Often the visit is timed to coincide with the anniversary of a religious event. In this one, Mexico honors the enthronement of the statue of Our Lady of Guanajuato, and in Cuba, the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
In retrospect, it is astonishing that the Cuban Catholic Church as gone from a declared enemy of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to its most trusted religious collaborator in 2012. Credit the papacy of Blessed John XXIII and the II Vatican Council for beginning the transformation. In fact, Pope John was concerned that the absolute ban on Catholic cooperation with socialists had damaged Catholicism’s ability to shape society after the fall of right-wing dictators. In Cuba, as in the rest of Latin America, Catholic action had provided opposition to social injustice, but then refused to participate in secular politics with Castro in fashioning a new Cuban government. By promoting “an opening to the left” for Catholic coalition with Italian socialists, John XXIII gave Latin American Catholicism a new role in Latin American politics.
When other Latin American Catholics like Ernesto Cardenal, wrote that Cuba was already “liberated,” Cuban Catholics were presented with a totally different mentality from the one they had professed in the 1950s and were forced to revisit policies. Although some Catholics and some Cuban government officials sporadically sought rapprochement, the traditionalists of both church and party opposed such collaboration. That pattern of mutual distrust changed with the so-called “special time of shortages” in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Catholic Charities could import needed medical and other supplies, which the government could not. Faced with rising discontent, the government sacrificed ideology and adopted cooperation with religious social services.
In fact, the government preferred dealing with the Catholic Church because its hierarchical structure made it a more reliable partner than the Pentecostal churches that usually required separate negotiation with each and every pastor. Catholic care to work with government was evident last week when the church ordered the evacuation of anti-government protestors from a Havana church. The church’s search for more influence after the papal visit would be poisoned by too close identification with politics before it. Whether in Cuba or Mexico, the pope’s visit is pastoral.