Pope Francis, Cuba, and the wrong side of history
September visit brings false hope to the island
José Azel *
Eight hundred years ago, the Magna Carta laid the foundations for individual freedoms, the rule of law, and for limits on the absolute power of the ruler.
King John of England ruled by the principle of “force and will,” and believed that since he governed by divine right, there were no limits on his authority. But the King, desperate for financial support, was forced by the barons to sign the document limiting his powers, in exchange for their help.
King John then appealed to Pope Innocent III, who promptly ruled for the King, declaring the Magna Carta to be “not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust.” The pope deemed the charter to be “null and void of all validity forever.” Thus from the symbolic beginning of the conflict between individual rights and unlimited authority, the Catholic Church sided with authority. It is a position that, with notable exceptions, continues to characterize the conduct of Church-state affairs.
Despite the pope’s “forever” annulment, the spirit of the Magna Carta lived on, and its principles are enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and in the hearts and minds of all freedom-loving people.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis warmly received General Raúl Castro in the Vatican, and in September he will travel to Cuba, becoming the third pontiff to visit the island following visits in 1998 by John Paul II, and in 2012 by Benedict XVI. What can we expect?
In political terms, Pope Francis is the head of an authoritarian state -an oligarchical theocracy- where only the aristocracy, the Princes of the College of Cardinals, participate in the selection of the ruler. This structure engenders an affinity for authoritarianism, as Pope Innocent III manifested in annulling the Magna Carta. Pope Francis has also left clues as to his political and economic thought regarding Cuba.
In 1998, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires Monsignor Jorge Mario Bergoglio authored a book titled Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. In my reading of the pope’s complex Spanish prose, he favors socialism over capitalism provided it incorporates theism. He offers Fidel Castro’s claim that “Karl Marx’s doctrine is very close to the Sermon on the Mount,” and views the Cuban polity as in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine.
Following Church tradition, he condemns US economic sanctions, but Pope Francis goes much further. He uses Cuba’s inaccurate and politically charged term “blockade” and echoes the Cuban government’s allegations. He then criticizes free markets, noting that “neoliberal capitalism is a model that subordinates human beings and conditions development to pure market forces … thus humanity attends a cruel spectacle that crystallizes the enrichment of the few at the expense of the impoverishment of the many.”
This language is reminiscent of the “liberation theology” movement that developed in Latin America in the 1960s and became very intertwined with Marxist ideology. Liberation theology, fathered by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, provided the intellectual foundations that, with Cuban support, served to orchestrate “wars of national liberation” throughout the continent.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI censured liberation theology, but in 2013, Pope Francis met with father Gutiérrez in “a strictly private visit.” Following the visit, in an apparent exoneration of liberation theology, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, published an essay stating that with the election of the first pope from Latin America, liberation theology can no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years.”
In his book, Pope Francis speaks of a “shared solidarity,” but, as with Pope Innocent III’s rejection of the Magna Carta, that solidarity appears to be with the nondemocratic, illegitimate authority in Cuba, and not with the people. This is tragic, because during the wars for independence, the Church also sided with the Spanish Crown, and not with the Cuban “mambises” fighting for freedom. When Cuba gained its independence from Spain, many Cubans saw the Church as an enemy of the new nation.
In his September visit, Pope Francis will have an opportunity to unequivocally side the Church with the people, especially with the black and mulatto majority on the island. If he does not, history will repeat itself.
When the totalitarian nightmare ends, the Church hierarchy will be indicted by the people as supporters of the oppressive Castro regime. And Cubans, as they did after independence, will once again view the Church as having been on the wrong side of history.
* Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba.
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