Interpretations of Church and State in Cuba, 1959-1961

By Super, John C. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Interpretations of Church and State in Cuba, 1959-1961

Super, John C., The Catholic Historical Review

Unrestrained excitement greeted Fidel Castro when he entered Havana on January 8, 1959. More than any other leader of the revolutionary forces, he personified Cuba's potential to become a progressive and democratic republic. Castro's immense popularity helped to overcome for a brief period the divisions over political philosophies and programs that soon fractured Cuban life.

The Catholic Church stood at the center of the controversies that unfolded, for both what it did and did not do. Until recently, the Church was one of the least studied aspects of the Cuban revolution, almost as if it were a voiceless part of Cuban society, an institution and faith that had little impact on the course of events. Beginning in the 1980's more extensive and serious analyses of the revolution began to appear, and for the most part these studies lacked the emotional charges and countercharges so common in revolutionary historiographies. Instead of attempting systematically to survey all of the literature, this essay selects works that represent the main interpretations of church-state relations. Among the many works available, those of Juan Clark and John M. Kirk deserve notice at the outset.1 Though their works differ in tone, focus, and interpretations, they are both essential for understanding the Church in Cuba.

The following essay begins with a commentary on interpretations of the Church in Cuba in the 1950's, and then discusses church-state relations during the first years of the revolution, emphasizing the difficulty of understanding why events unfolded as they did. It concludes with an assessment of Castro's explanation of church-state relations, and the extent of the discrimination against the Church.


As students of Latin America long have recognized, generalizing about anything as institutionally, theologically, and historically complex as the Catholic Church is difficult. Recent scholarship on Cuba addresses this issue, and the best of the writing recognizes that the history of the Church is dynamic and full of contradictory tendencies. To view the Church as synchronic rather than diachronic is a mistake for most times and places in Latin America. The literature also recognizes that some historians overemphasize the importance of the Church, while others deemphasize it. The Church becomes the metaphor for all that is good and evil, all that is weak and powerful. The objective then is to come to a balanced appraisal, something difficult to do under the best of circumstances, and almost impossible in an ideologically charged atmosphere.2

Another difficulty is the relationship between formal religion and what is often described as popular or folk religion. Most studies of religion in Cuba refer to the institutional Catholic Church, not to the popular expression of religious beliefs. An exception is Damian J. Fernandez, who argues that widespread belief in different folk religions belies the notion that religion was unimportant. Indeed, the revolutionary government created a political religion by using the symbols of traditional folk religions to further its objectives.3

Despite the problems, generalizations about the Church and religion do help to clarify the nature of the discourse abovit church and state. On the eve of the revolution, the Cuban Catholic Church was small, ineffective, conservative, dominated by foreigners, confined to the major cities, and out of touch with the serious social and economic problems of the nation. This sentence, obviously a gross oversimplification, does summarize many interpretations that have become a part of the mainstream historiography on the Church. As an example, the Church "was merely another feeble institution with only superficial strength. . . . Of the Spanish American people, then, the Cuban was the least Catholic."4 This interpretation has even found its way into texts on world religions. In the very few lines devoted to Cuba in his fine survey of world religions, Michel Malherbe notes that "well before the instauration of Fidel Castro's regime, Cuba was the Latin American country where religious practice was the weakest. …

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