The German pope came to Cuba to consort with the mighty and to reconcile the powerless to their lot. He offered his imprimatur to tyranny and received the homage of tyranny in return. With effigies of Camilo Cienfuegos and "Che" Guevara in place of John and Paul, and at the feet of the statue of a pure man who once observed that "Christianity died at the hands of Catholicism," Benedict XVI did not speak about human rights or human wrongs; but rendered to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, which was everything except what the Church claimed for its portion at the banquet of tyrants. If dissidents had anything to offer the pope other than their heroic virtue, he would have tolerated their presence or lamented their absence. But there was nothing that they could do for him except to help him recover his humanity and the pope had not yet named a patron saint for that lost cause.
Coddling a superannuated tyrant as a beloved prodigal son (though this "prodigal" has not and will never return "home") while refusing to acknowledge Cuba's living saints and martyrs, Benedict gave Nero his blessing to keep the gates open to the Coliseum. The pope did make one small request of Raúl Castro in exchange -- that Good Friday be reinstated as a public holiday in Cuba (as if every day were not Good Friday in Cuba!). The legalization, in 1998, of the observance of Christmas, more than 30 years after it was officially abolished, was the one tangible achievement of John Paul II's visit to the island. For Cubans, the meaning of Good Friday is closer to their experience than the meaning of Christmas: they know all about suffering but have scant knowledge of the promise of salvation and renewal held forth by Christ's birth, but not by Christ's Vicar.
Catholicism as a religion is dead in Cuba. Whatever popular elements may still survive are to be found outside the Church and are specifically condemned by it. Benedict XVI's visit has not infused the Church with new life (this miracle would be beyond the power of even holier men); but it has shown the paucity of its spiritual life and its inability to appeal to the masses. With only 5 percent of the population as active communicants (and that is the Church's own hopeful estimate) there are fewer professing Catholics at this time than at any other since the arrival of Columbus. Not even when the pyre was its chief means of recruitment were the numbers of the baptized fewer. It is as if the entire nation had given Hatuey's reply to the cross wielded by hypocrites in the service of ruffians. Still, the Catholic Church has not survived two thousand years by adhering to the belief that the meek shall inherit the earth, but by attaching itself to the powerful, in all ages, so long as they upheld the Church's temporal interests and did not extend their authority at its expense. Otherwise, no ally was deemed too despicable and no compromise too onerous that guaranteed Peter's mite.
The conduct of the Catholic Church in Cuba -- and elsewhere, of course, though it is Cuba that immediately concerns us -- has always been venal and self-serving; but in Cuba's case, it has also been distinguished by a maniacal aversion to liberty and democracy which placed it always at the side of Cuba's oppressors. During our 19th century wars of independence, the Catholic Church actively sided with Spain, from the parish priest who broke the seal of the confessional to denounce patriots to the authorities, to the pope himself, then Pius IX, who gave his apostolic blessing to the Spanish troops sent to Cuba to "pacify" the island. This "Second Colonization" resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 Cubans (a third of the population), not rebels, but their wives, children and other non-combatants, who died of disease and starvation in the world's first concentration camps.
After the defeat of the Spaniards, the Catholic Church, the largest landholder and landlord in Cuba, allied itself with the forces of intervention, lobbying secretly for the annexation of the island to the U.S., because it believed that its interests would be safer in American hands, its disdain for Protestants being somewhat less than its contempt for Cubans. Despite its fears -- grounded in a consciousness of the wrongs it had committed against the Cuban people -- the Catholic Church was never the object of persecution in an independent Cuba, as it was in Mexico in the 1920s and Spain in the 1930s. On the contrary, it flourished and expanded, as Cuba became the preferred refuge for persecuted clergy from Spain's Civil War, as well as for more than one million Spaniards. If ever a people embodied the spirit of Christian charity, it was surely these orphaned sons who saved the children of their parents' killers.
It was not until 1959, when the Jesuit-educated Fidel Castro, whose life had been saved by the Church in the aftermath of the Moncada attack, seized power in Cuba that the Catholic Church's own power, position and patrimony were diminished to the point of irrelevance by the confiscation of ecclesiastical lands, schools, hospitals, newspapers and radio stations. The Church itself might have been suppressed altogether if not for the abject submission of its hierarchy, which in recent times, under the leadership of Jaime Cardinal Ortega, has embraced as its means of resurgence a symbiotic relationship with the State. Since the inception of Castroism, the Catholic Church has devoted itself to the task of recovering five centuries of spoils, and this it may very well do. What it can never recover, however, is its moral authority, because among Cubans it never merited any.