Benedict XVI in Cuba
A retrospective, with lessons for the next conclave.
Catholicism is not a “religion of the book,” but rather a faith built around word and sacrament — or, if you prefer, text and demonstration. Symbolic acts that convey the truths the Church teaches are of the essence of Catholic practice; this is true of the Church’s public life as well as of its worship. The Church teaches an ethic of charity toward the poor and marginalized; the Church embodies that teaching in its hospitals, schools, and social-service agencies. The Church teaches that the just society is composed of a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture; the Church embodies that teaching in its support for the institutions of civil society that make free politics and free economics possible — even when that requires challenging the existing political order, as it did during the pontificate of John Paul II in countries as diverse as Poland, Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines.
Viewed through this prism of word-and-sacrament, or text-and-demonstration, Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26–28 pilgrimage to the island prison of Cuba was a rather Protestant exercise: brilliant in word but deficient in “sacramentality.” The pope’s time in Santiago and Havana was by no means wasted. But it could have been used better by demonstrating in action the truths Benedict XVI taught with conviction; such a demonstration would have strengthened the hand of the civil-society associations on which the transition to a free Cuba ultimately depends. The gap between “text” and “demonstration” during the pope’s Cuban voyage is also instructive through the light it sheds on the Catholic future in a Cuba-in-transition, and on a crucial issue in the conclave that will choose Pope Benedict’s successor.
Benedict XVI’s addresses in Cuba were vintage Joseph Ratzinger: richly informed by Biblical and theological wisdom, and lucidly expressed. Despite his pre-papal reputation as a fierce defender of orthodoxy, Ratzinger’s papacy has consistently shown the world the real man his friends and colleagues knew and admired: a man who doesn’t raise his voice as a matter of habit (or tactic), but who makes his arguments calmly, drawing on an unmatched fund of knowledge in a variety of fields. Benedict XVI, on occasion, has had to use somewhat more elliptical constructions than is his wont. But his meaning is never much in doubt.
Thus, in a airborne press conference en route to Latin America, the pope who, a quarter-century ago, once referred to the “impossible compromise between Christianity and Marxism,” now spoke of Cuban Marxism as something that “no longer corresponds to reality” — a slightly less edgy formulation, one might think, except that it was a polite papal way of saying that Castroite Communism is crazy, mad, completely-out-of-touch-with-the-real-world: which is another way of saying that it’s hellish. There is little chance that what the pope meant was missed by Raúl Castro and the rest of Cuba’s jailer-class.
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