Catholic Church in Cuba Strives to Reestablish the Faith

By Einhorn, David | National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006 | Go to article overview

Catholic Church in Cuba Strives to Reestablish the Faith


Einhorn, David, National Catholic Reporter


Second of two parts

The Catholic church, suppressed for decades, is undergoing a slow revival in Cuba in recent vears. While it still exists under restrictions and its numbers have dropped, it is able, as one bishop said, "to humbly put forward ... that faith is an indispensable ingredient for good."

Even in the worst of times, Maritza Sanchez never stopped attending church. Jose Luis Torres, raised in a secular family and in schools that deemed religion counterrevolutionary, didn't even start attending until times had changed. Today both are helping the Catholic church work its way back into Cuba's public consciousness, Sanchez as director of the aid group Caritas and Torres as coordinator of youth programs in Havana.

Once one of Cuba's seminal institutions--even President Fidel Castro attended Jesuit high schools--the Catholic church suffered three decades of repression and reprisal following the socialist revolution in 1959. Most churches stayed open, but anyone who openly declared religious faith was prohibited from certain studies or careers. More than 400 Catholic schools were closed and confiscated.

After having long maintained that churches were fronts for subversive political activity, the government reversed course in 1992, amending the constitution to characterize the state as secular instead of atheist. Religious liberties further expanded following a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Cuba today, however, is still no bastion of religious liberty. The government delays immigration and residence permits for priests, denies the church access to the Internet, and still prohibits religious schools. The U.S. State Department charged in 2005 that worshipers across the religious spectrum are still subject to state surveillance, although Catholic church officials maintain that direct repression and reprisals have all but disappeared.

The church remains cautious in dealing with the authorities out of concern that policies to allow more religious freedom could just as easily be reversed. The focus instead is on religious belief as a personal responsibility that transcends the institutional status of the church.

"We cannot alter the life process of a country in order to aggressively impose faith," said Bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez Ruiz, auxiliary bishop of Havana. "The church's strategy is not so much to regain ground lost over time, but to humbly put forth what we are convinced of: that faith is an indispensable ingredient for good."

The number of people identifying themselves as Catholics has declined over many years to less than half the Cuban population. At the Our Lady of Carmen Parish in central Havana, for example, Fr. Teodoro Becerril estimates weekly attendance at 2,000 worshipers--which seems considerable until he notes that the number was 7,000 in 1958, the year the 70-year-old priest took up his post.

Aside from problems with the government, reasons for the decline include the growth of Protestant denominations and the numerous exoduses from the island. One high-ranking church official noted that the fear that persists in the public mind about declaring faith is as much an obstacle today as the actual consequences of doing so.

"We are emerging from a period when the transmission of faith from generation to generation was cut," said Becerril. "The situation has improved, but people are still cautious. They want to see where this train is going to stop before they commit themselves."

After a boom following the constitutional change and papal visit, church attendance has leveled off. Of the indicators used to measure church participation in Cuba's largest archdiocese of Havana, only the number of baptisms exceeds numbers in a comparable U.S. diocese. And though Havana's 34,000 baptisms in 2004 represented a sizable number, Becerril noted the special circumstances.

"Most people who bring their children for baptism are not practicing Catholics. …

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