THE leader of Cuba's Catholic Church, Archbishop Jaime Ortega of Havana, was in London this week, visiting amongst others the Cuban ambassador, Dr Oscar Fernandez-Melt, just hours before the latter was expelled following a shooting incident.
Archbishop Ortega was briefing supporters about his recent rapprochment with Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro. The prelate had also been to Rome for his five yearly ad limina encounter with Pope John Paul. The latter spoke warmly of recent developments on the Caribbean island which have seen the Church and State engage in dialogue and critical cooperation. Such a stance represented "a positive sign for Christian life", John Paul affirmed, and he encouraged Archbishop Ortega to continue the process.
Since the communist takeover of Cuba in the late 1950s, relations with the Catholic Church have moved through distinct phases. At first it was a question of out-and-out opposition, with the Catholic Church ejected from its role in education, and Christians barred from all party offices. In the 1970s co-existence was achieved, but this decade has seen such neutral tolerance replaced by active contacts, and practical co-operation.
Speaking recently to a delegation of British Catholics, Felipe Carneado, the director of
Cuba's Church leader was in London this week to discuss progress in church-state understanding. Peter Stanford reports.
the office of religious affairs within the ruling politburo reflected on the years of conflict, and put past church-state clashes down to force of circumstance, and the manipulation of the Church by outside forces hostile to Castro's communist experiement. Catholicism had been used as a weapon against the regime, and the regime had responded in kind, he suggested.
Now Senor Carneado was anxious to look to the future. At present Christians are still excluded from the very high offices of state-ministries, the diplomatic service and the like. However, he did not rule out the possibility of change.
The rapprochment between Church and State is based to an extent on mutual need, the senior official conceded. Cuba is suffering several social problems — rising levels of abortions, the disintegration of the family, record numbers of divorces. The state feels that the nation lacks an example to look up to — and that the Catholic Church can provide such a moral example.
For its part, as Archbishop Ortega pointed out during his London sojourn, the Church is not prepared to merely act as an example. It must be free to evangelise in order to provide that example. And there, is a nutshell, is the basis of the new church-state understanding.
A practical area where the new closeness has found expression is in the area of social services. At the party conference last year, Fidel Castro paid particular attention to the role of nuns in caring for the sick and the old, and urged Cubans to follow their example. The nation needed thousands more nuns, he said.
Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity are about to go to the island the take up their work with the old — increasingly important given the effects of better standards of nutrition and health care since the Revolution for the working classes in extending life expectancy from 58 in the late fifties to 74 now.
Cuba's seminaries are full, with half of the island's 230 priests ordained since the early 1970s, and hence people who have grown up within the communist system, and know how to work with it.
The transformation in Cuba is perhaps best expressed by Archbishop Ortega himself. As a young seminarian after the Revolution, he spent 18 months in a forced labour camp. He suffered under communism, yet now is prepared to accept the good faith of Castro, and work for a way of living together, and benefitting each other and Cuban society.