Home > Archives > 05 - 2003 > For a dialogue going beyond the commonplaces
from issue no. 05 - 2003

DEBATE. A letter from the Cuban Bishops.

For a dialogue going beyond the commonplaces

The Episcopal Conference sums up the situation of Catholics in the Isla. Beginning with the contents of the interview given to 30Days by the Cuban Ambassador to the Holy See

by Cuba's Episcopal Conference

A Cuban priest in front of Havana Cathedral

A Cuban priest in front of Havana Cathedral

Mister Editor,
The permanent Committee of the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of Cuba devoted particular attention to the interview with the Cuban Ambassador to the Holy See, under the title The Isla is not made for isolation, published in the magazine directed by you, number 3, March 2003. In the interview there are certain opinions which we feel the need to comment on, and thus we request that the following considerations may soon be published.
Knowing the magisterium of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II and the concerns which he has as universal pastor, we understand that the opening of Cuba to the world and of the world to Cuba, for which the Pontiff expressed his prayers during his visit to our country, goes beyond the sphere of formal relations, be they diplomatic, legal, tourist, commercial or professional services, and considers the free flow and exchange of ideas, statements and points of view on the most widespread cultural, philosophical, scientific, social, economic and political themes to be an essential element. This not only at the level of governmental structures but also including all the sectors of society, in such a way as to reach a reciprocal spiritual enrichment, as well as a wide and flexible vision, with the prospect of favoring the integral and harmonious growth of all the people, without any other limits than those imposed by the respect for truth. Among us, an opening of this kind does not yet exist.
The Ambassador, a member of the Communist Party, has a concept of religious liberty in keeping with his Marxist ideology which does not correspond with that which the Catholic Church means and teaches.
The Ambassador affirmed that in Cuba “an absolute religious freedom exists”. Freedom of worship is what is being referred to, which has slowly been better understood by the authorities. Undoubtedly, the demands which religious freedom involves are much wider because they include the public presence and the manifestation of the faith, engaging different spheres of life and openly affecting the criterions of action which guide the ethical behavior of believers and which clearly reflect on their social conduct. These aspects encounter numerous limitations in our country; one example is the impossibility, on the part of parents, to choose the type of education they want for their own children.
We appreciate the postulate, to which the Ambassador alludes, of the necessary independence between the Church and the secular State. This theoretical principle, however, does not correspond to the political procedures of the Office for Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, which controls the life and actions of the Church, from the entry into the country of priests and religious, male and female, necessary for evangelization, to the imposition of restrictions on the acquisition of the means useful for the evangelizing mission, such as the purchase of a computer, of construction material for the repair of churches, equipment for printing, means of transport, etc. Our Episcopal Conference holds the exceptional record of being the only one on the continent, and perhaps in the world, which does not have access to internet, and this is only one of the frequent limitations which the Office for Religious Affairs imposes on us. All of this is, for the Church, a continuous experience of extra work, of restrictions, of useless difficulties and malaise, as well as an attempt to exercise control over its ordinary life.
In Cuba all the means of mass communication are state controlled. The non catholic Christian denominations occasionally broadcast a radio program through a transmitter of limited range. Some Catholic Bishops have been able to broadcast through a local radio transmitter in their own diocese, at Christmas time or on the Feast of the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba. Only on one occasion, in preparation for the visit of the Holy Father, was Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana and actual President of the Episcopal Conference, able to address the whole country, for thirty minutes, on national television. These interventions were possible only through detailed and formal requests, always subject to a response which may be one of approval or not. In fact, in the last decades, the Church in Cuba has not had normal access to any means of communication.
Cuba today has the smallest number of priests per inhabitants of all the American continent. From the historical point of view one must say that at the beginning of the revolution (1959) there were more than 700 priests in Cuba; of those, 131 were expelled in 1961 in one day alone, others abandoned the country because of the manifest hostility towards the Church or because the scholastic institutes were expropriated. About 200 priests remained in Cuba, for a population of 6 million inhabitants, and this number has remained almost unchanged, while the population has on the other hand increased. Actually, for a population of more than 11 million inhabitants, the authorization for the entry of priests, has not allowed the number to go beyond 300 individuals. We can say something similar in respect to others in orders. The female religious communities diminished, going from 158 to 43, the male ones from 87 to 17. In 1959 nearly 2,000 religious were working in Cuba, they remained at 200 for many years, reaching about 600 at present, a figure much lower than that of the year of the triumph of the revolution, for a population which has nearly doubled. The difficulties relative to the entry into Cuba of priests and religious does not depend on opportunities of internal priorities within the Church, but on the fact that every request is subjected to the strict and slow process of approval on the part of the Office for Religious Affairs, which does not always conclude in a way favorable to the Church. The institutions of State assistance to the Church in Cuba were almost seventy in the year of the triumph of the revolution, today they are only eleven.
Totally ignored by the official organs of communication, the Catholic Church in Cuba, through enormous effort and the help of sister churches, has succeeded in publishing, very modestly, some of its own editions. Since 1997 the Cuban government has insistently requested the Episcopal Conference to register these publications in the registry of the Ministry of Culture. They have not yet been registered because the regulation of the national registry of periodic publications, which states the necessity of “guaranteeing a centralized and effective control over all publications”, is so detailed in its norms that it goes so far as to decide whether the thematic profile can be changed or not, the frequency of publication, the number of pages or the print issue of a publication. The Cuban Church has not “dug its heels in” by not wishing to register its own publications. We have communicated to the competent authorities our concern over these excessive controls. Our intention to discuss this has been fruitless.
Given the hostile and discriminatory politics towards religion, and towards the Catholic Church in particular, which were manifestly exacerbated during the whole of the ‘seventies, there was an increase in the number of people who directed their religious disquietude towards syncretist practices, not held in public, without the need to frequent places of worship which continue to be under surveillance. To this is added the official promotion from the cultural, folkloric and tourist angles of these syncretist, Afro-Cuban manifestations, to the point of presenting them as “the religion of Cuba”, to the diffusion of which the Ambassador alludes. But also in this case we do not agree with the opinion that these, along with spiritualism, are the predominant “religion” of the Cuban people. Along with more cultivated and constant practicing Catholics, there is a vast number of people who live by a popular Catholic devotion without admixtures of either African religiosity or of spiritualism. There are as well people of syncretist religiosity, to whom we have already made reference, who ask to be baptized according to the Catholic rite, who know and recite the prayers of the Church, request masses for their dead and many of whom consider themselves Catholic.
In an interview released to several press agencies, last February, Cardinal Jaime Ortega explicitly stated that the Church does not approve the Varela project nor any other political project, but that the Church is for freedom of conscience and that the Sakarov prize was given to Signor Payà for having exercised freedom of conscience. Because of this the Cardinal wrote a letter of congratulations to Signor Oswaldo Payà when he learned he had been nominated for the prize by the European Parliament.
In these considerations we have not referred to other commomplaces through which the Ambassador expressed the official thinking of the Cuban government and which do not refer directly to the Catholic Church.
Mister Editor, we thank you for the courteous attention which your magazine affords to these considerations, which we consider necessary for a better understanding of the life of the Church in Cuba. ì

Yours very truly,
the Permanent Committee
of the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of Cuba.
Havana, 16 April 2003

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