Next week, Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba in an effort to repair relations between the country and the Church. Perhaps he should pay a visit to the United States as well.
As the Papal visit draws near, there is cautiously brimming hope that the Church will be able to make further strides in Cuba. There have even been whispers of the impending conversion (or reversion) of Fidel Castro, who was excommunicated in 1962.
Since the late-eighties and early-nineties, small strides have been made in favor of the Church in Cuba, like reinstituting Christmas a national holiday (a sort of “gift” when Pope John Paul came in 1998), and making Cuba merely a secular state rather than an atheist state. As far as embracing the Church goes, these actions are almost laughably miniscule, but they are steps nonetheless.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Such is the state of a country that has actively rejected and persecuted the Church for fifty years.
There is, to be sure, a real and vicious persecution of the Church in Cuba, but it wasn’t always so egregious, or at least it didn’t seem that way at the beginning of Castro’s regime. American Catholics would do well to take note.
A 1960 article by London Observer correspondent George Sherman (here printed in the August 6, 1960, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) details Fidel Castro’s strategy for the Church just a year after he became Prime Minister:
“The Castro government has moved carefully so as not to gain the Church sympathy it does not have. The aim is to isolate rather than destroy. While upholding the right to worship, the Government has clamped down on all the Church’s outlets in secular society.”
To isolate rather than destroy. To allow worship…and nothing else. Sound familiar? It should.
President Obama began using the term “freedom to worship” in his speech at Fort Hood in 2009, less than a year into his presidency. And he and his administration have notably continued to use this language—as opposed to “freedom of religion”—a significant difference in terms.
Furthermore, unless the new HHS mandate changes, many Catholic hospitals (and possibly colleges) will either have to compromise the very beliefs that make them Catholic hospitals (or colleges) or shut down. Or serve only Catholics, thus accomplishing a major step toward Catholic “isolation.”
In his piece from fifty years ago, Sherman noted, significantly: “Priests are the first to admit that large sections of the population have little religious training.” In other words, Castro pounced when the Church was already weak. Many so-called Catholics likely didn’t notice any changes. They likely agreed with Castro over the Church on certain policies. And the faithful? Well the faithful, recognizing their reduced numbers and the potential dangers the Castro regime brought, were concerned . . . yet happy they were “allowed” to worship.
And, just like that, the Catholic Church in Cuba was reduced to a bunch of harmless, pious old church ladies. Catholics could still worship, sure. But the hospitals, orphanages, schools, etc. that were run by the Church were taken over by the state. Soon after, Christians were barred from participating in government.
The Church in America is weak. Secularism has been chipping away at it for decades. In recent years, many Catholic orphanages have closed after being cut off from public funds because they would not promote abortion, contraception, and the like. And we already know the precarious state of Catholic hospitals and colleges.
Sherman begins his piece with a warning that the Church and the Castro regime were quickly moving toward a clash, but that “Both sides are extremely reluctant to turn to all-out warfare.” He goes on to write, “For the government it is a question of tactics. . . . The position of the Church is much weaker. It is fighting for its life.”
Sherman’s observation was dire, terrifying, and prescient . . . and it still applies today. Perhaps the Church is stronger now in the United States than it was then in Cuba, but not exponentially so. The Church here is indeed struggling. The bishops, led by Cardinal Dolan, have spoken out, but then again, as Sherman tells us, two of the leading archbishops in Cuba “demonstrated publicly against Soviet influence.”
For the Obama administration, just like in Castro’s fledgling Cuba, it is merely a matter of tactics. How to isolate the Church without inciting a riot. It’s a line that Obama and his administration are toeing, and they’ve come close to crossing it with the HHS mandate. And yet they seem to have caught their balance, rallying the support of the media, the “public,” and even a depressingly high number within the Church.
Modern liberalism relies on a secular society, and a Church that is active in the world throws a wrench into the liberal plan. Castro recognized this and moved to “isolate” Catholics and Catholicism, allowing them to worship, but nothing more. Christians were barred from participating in politics. Christmas was even cancelled.
Now, in a series of moves eerily similar, if not in actual implementation then in spirit, to those of the Castro regime, Catholics in America are facing the same isolation that Cuban Catholics experienced fifty years ago. It started slowly and somewhat innocuously. A token acknowledgment of the “freedom to worship,” or some such meaningless phrase, and then it came quickly and relentlessly. A weak Church subsumed and subjugated by a powerful government. And the people were powerless against it.
When Sherman wrote his piece, one of the few remaining religious groups was an organization called Catholic Action, consisting of college students at the University of Havana. Between 1959 and 1960, their numbers were halved, their six members in the student government were forced out, and when they tried to distribute pamphlets, their pamphlets were burned and Catholic pamphleteers beaten.
Of course, the America of 2012 wouldn’t stand for any beatings based on religion (probably), but the suppression of religion—pushing it to the fringes of society—has already started.
It won’t move as quickly as it did in Cuba—the American political process doesn’t allow for such swift action—but it can still happen fast (remember, the HHS mandate, promulgated by executive fiat will go into effect in August). And there could be some more resistance considering that the Church is a bit stronger here than it was in Cuba in 1960, but not much.
And where Castro attacked the Catholic Church, Obama and other liberals aren’t targeting the Church per se…just its tenants, members, and institutions, while including other Christians in the mix.
But make no mistake. This is happening. It’s the blueprint. Certain aspects of the design have changed over the years, but it is largely the same: Isolate, and then marginalize. And it works. Today, though 60 percent of Cubans are Catholic, only about 5 percent go to Mass.
We Catholics need to fight back, and we need to fight back now. If we don’t, we risk suffering a fate similar to Cuban Catholics.
When the Pope visits the United States fifty years from now, we need to ensure that he is welcomed to a country boasting a vibrant faith and that he is not just timidly allowed to enter with the vague hope of reviving a diseased and battered church.
A recent piece in USA Today discussing the bishops’ latest rejection of the HHS mandate noted what the bishops did not say: they did not accuse the Obama administration of “waging a war on religion” or acknowledge that Republicans have abandoned the cause. And, significantly, “There is no talk of civil disobedience or canceling health insurance . . . if they do not get their way.”
At the end of his piece in 1960, Sherman quoted a prominent (and downtrodden) member of Catholic Action: “Nothing can be done without force, and we do not have that force.”
We have the benefit of history. We cannot make the same mistake. We cannot sit back, hoping for the best, putting our faith in politicians. We must strike back—all of us—with the full force of God and His Church.
Before it’s too late.