Cuba (2): How the Church thrives in the gaps

In September 2003, Cuba’s bishops issued their last major statement on the position of the Church in modern Cuba. It contained penetrating commentary, deploring the lack of liberties, the clampdown on private businesses, the penetration of church groups by state agents, and a repeated call for clemency for the dissidents who had been arrested and summary-tried a few months earlier.

I was in Havana at the time. Some 30 foreign accredited reporters filed the story, but in the Cuban media the silence was absolute. (The letter circulated anyway.)

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Church activities are controlled in a series of ways. Emails and phone calls are screened; state agents sit in congregations, and berate priests if their homilies are too “political”; priests, bishops and religious know that the lay people who work and live with them are likely to be informers.

This snitching network – vast, costly, disgraceful - is not confined to the island.

At a conference on the Church and the internet  I attended some years ago in Monterrey, Mexico, I met eight representatives of Cuban dioceses who had been granted visas at the last minute to attend. On the last day they were befriended by a Mexican priest who sat in on their conversations. When they caught him photographing the websites they had been visiting  - Cubans are not allowed access to the internet - they grew suspicious. They made some calls; the priest was not a priest at all, but a Cuban state agent.
 
From a former rector of the seminary in Havana I heard an even more hair-raising story.

There was a knock on his door one night. It was one of the seminarians who had been there for five years and was close to ordination. “I need to speak to you, padre”, he said. “Outside”.

On the street he confessed he was an informer, placed there by the state. For five years he had led a double life: attending Mass, prayers and studies for the priesthood six days a week, and then, on his day off, going downtown to a house where he was given good food, rum and women.

Burned out, his conscience strangled after all those years by his growing realisation that the men he was spying on were transparently good (and those bribing him to spy the opposite), the "seminarian" had a nervous breakdown.

The Church -- virtually the country’s sole NGO, and by far the largest -- is controlled by the Communist Party’s Office for Religious Affairs, from which permission must be secured for virtually everything – to renovate a church, bring in a priest, travel outside Cuba, or even buy a car (all cars belong to the state).

The Office maintains an informal cap of just 310 diocesan priests – with about twice as many religious – to serve the island’s 11.2 million people.

Some criticize the Church for being insufficiently outspoken. But the bishops know that speaking out will be punished by more severe restrictions which will make the Church’s task even more difficult.

The Office deploys tactics of divide and rule. Evangelicals who avoid “politics” and issue regular pans of praise to Cuba’s rulers receive permission to build new churches; the Catholic Church, which refuses such Ceasarism, has been denied the right to build a single new church since 1959.

The same tactic is used with individual bishops; the outspoken ones – notably those at either end of the island, Santiago and Pinar del Rio – are refused travel visas, new priests, permission to renovate churches, even cars. The message is clear: if they speak out, the bishops must weigh the consequences carefully.

But it would be wrong to suggest that the Church in Cuba is singled out for persecution. Msgr José Félix Pérez, the thoughtful secretary-general of the Cuban bishops’ conference, puts it well. “The Church is deprived of the  basic liberties denied to all Cubans, just as the liberties which the Church seeks for itself are those it also seeks for all Cubans.”

Cardinal Ortega distinguishes between “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion”: in Cuba there is the first -- the right to assemble for prayer -- but not the second, which is the freedom to witness and express. But that freedom is denied to all Cubans, not just to the Church.  

In the 1960s it was different: 150 church schools closed, hundreds of priests and religious expelled, Catholic Action militants executed or made to work in labour camps. Cubans who went to church back then  suffered harrassment and discrimination. But today there is freedom of worship: people go to Mass, receive the Sacraments and ponder Scripture in burgeoning house churches  - freedoms which had long been in place by the time of the Pope’s visit in 1998, but which John Paul II’s visit bolstered.

Church figures suggest about 60 per cent of Cubans are baptised, and between two and nine per cent regularly attend Mass. The priest shortage has led to an impressively lay-involved Church: there are some 450 house churches in Havana archdiocese, frequented by about 5,000 Catholics.

And while there is no freedom of religion, the Church manages to negotiate its way through the gaps in state control. Catholic schools are illegal, and religion is banned from state schools. But the Church can teach humanities, theology, and philosophy on church grounds, offering alternatives to Marxism.

They can be closed down whenever the government decides. But like much that the Church does, the courses are allowed because they offer a service to Cuban society.

This is true of Caritas, the bishops’ welfare agency. It is not recognised by the state and is technically illegal: officially, of course, there is no need for charity in Cuba because the state provides.

Caritas is huge: some 12,000 volunteers work in 600 projects across the island, its $1.2m budget funded entirely from abroad. It runs invaluable programmes, taking care of the extremely poor who do not officially exist – the lepers, the Aids sufferers, and the elderly dependent on the deficient diet of Cuba’s ration book.

It is in these gaps -- opened by the chasm between the official, or "virtual" Cuba and the daily reality -- that the Church thrives in Cuba, despite official obstacles, and a shameful lack of freedom.

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