Can it be stated that the Cuban people are Catholic?

In homage to Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Temas reprints this essay from his writings, published in its issue #4, October-December 1995.

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

In homage to Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Temas reprints this essay from his writings, published in its issue #4, October-December 1995.

Several days ago we commemorated the death of Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. As a homage and also because of the relevance and his reflections, we reprint this essay in the Temas blog Catalejo, originally published in Temas issue #4, October-December 1995.

A Catholic priest and Cuban intellectual, for a time Céspedes exercised the function of Director of the Archdiocesan Studies Center of Havana.

The title of this reflection, which implies a dilemma, is not an echo of an armchair philosophy. During the past two centuries we have heard clearheaded Cubans express two contradictory sentences: “Cuban are a Catholic people,” “Cubans are not a Catholic people.” Or: “It is superficially Catholic,” “Only a small minority is really Catholic.” Before tracing some relevant criteria, I will try to present what our old and insightful academic professors used to call “status quaestionis” [sic]

How does the Catholic Church define itself?

The teaching of the Catholic Church, at least during the past recent decades, avoids a self-definition that is reducible to rational categories or to sociological perspectives. 

Without denying the validity of an appropriate language for these definitions, which is the language of the philosophic and scientific fields, the current perception that the Church has of itself considers this language, if not erroneous (in its philosophical and scientific aspect), then insufficient to grasp the ontological center of the Church, its very being, its inner and defining nature. The Catholic Church is unable to understand the exclusively rational perception of reality (or “phenomenon”), to explain itself and explain the life of the Church in all its integrity, in its totality.

The Church’s consciousness relates its origin and its life with the reality of God, Who—in principle—is either a mystery, or is not. If He is, He eludes the possibilities of human reason because of His abundance of light and of being, not because of darkness and deficiencies. If human reason considers that it has understood His total reality, what it has captured is an idol made to his image, not the Personal Transcendence, the Absolute. So—always according to the Church’s consciousness, that is, from the perspective of faith’s view—everything that is touched by God shares in a portion of mystery, of a vagueness of major or minor rational definition, according to the nature of that reality. The Church, as no other reality, although it is socially composed by human beings that are perfectly identifiable in all their coordinates, considers itself to be the Mystical Body (which is equivalent to mysterious) of Christ the Head, given life by the intangible action of the Holy Spirit, the People of God in the New Covenant, flock and shelter, field and vine of the Lord, building and temple of God, holy city and heavenly Jerusalem, our mother and wife of the Lamb, a seamless robe, yet ripped by our sins, a reign that is not of this world and at the same time embodied in it, part of the human tissue; pilgrim and rock…. Images rather than definitions, taken from the Bible and present in the texts of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962 to 1965), especially in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the “Lumen gentium [sic],” approved in the session of November 19, 1964 and published two days later. This constitution is the core, the functional pivot of all the council texts, an obligatory reference criteria for everything that the Church thinks and has said about itself in the last thirty years: a visible and hierarchic society and, simultaneously, a spiritual community that emanates from its double constitutional element, divine and human.

In the most highly attended event in all its five centuries of history, the National Ecclesial Conference (ENEC – Encuentro Nacional Eclesial), which was celebrated from February 17 to 23 of 1986, our country’s echo of the Council, of the meeting of Latin American bishops held in Medellín (1968) and of the one held later in Puebla (1979), the Catholic Church in Cuba is faithful to Catholic ecclesiology.[1]

Who is Catholic?

This is not the appropriate place to describe in a detailed way the real existence of the various degrees of belonging to the Catholic Church (or of identification with it) and even less to develop the theological arguments that justify the variations of the intensities of faith and of the existence of Catholicism in persons and in groups.

Let it be enough for me to affirm that it has been like this since the beginning of the Church, that is, since twenty centuries ago, and that therefore it is not a phenomenon that Cuba could pride itself on as being an exclusive “sign.”

The Church has the support of men and women who integrally accept the elements of the Catholic faith and make efforts for their daily lives to flow through channels that are in harmony with it. They keep a regular sacramental practice and, without ignoring their human limitations and sins, entrust themselves to the grace and merciful love of God; they correct their existential path when they realize that it is diverging from the true Catholic life, and they nurture their life (intellectual, voluntary, psychic and emotional) with the prayer and the internalization of the Word of God and of the Catholic Tradition (with a capital letter—not with “traditions” in lower case letters, the superstitions and variables). In most of the countries of Catholic genealogy and in almost all their respective historical moments, this group is usually a minority within the ecclesial body.

Also, in all times and places, the Church recognizes as Catholics—less committed to the Church, but Catholics just the same—those men and women who either do not really know the elements of the faith or who, knowing them, reject this or that component that they do not consider to be substantial, because even in the purest Catholic tradition, we do recognize a nuancing in the “truths of faith” and in the ethics that can be deduced from them.

More frequently, and always still within the range of the Catholic faith and ethic, there are people who identify themselves happily as Catholics; they know and accept the substance of the faith and its ethical harmonies, but they do not feel tied down to a regular sacramental practice.

For example, they only attend mass occasionally, they go to confession and receive communion less frequently, they are not familiar with the Bible and the list of good books for Catholics; they do not clearly recognize the ecclesiastical teachings and can even become somewhat anti-clerical. At the root of this attitude there is almost always a certain breach in the feeling of belonging to the Catholic Church and, probably, also in the very profession of faith and in personal ethics, but these are not always conscious breaks. These people usually live their Catholic faith in a not very integral way but with a surprisingly peaceful conscience.

More complex is the situation of people and groups who identify themselves as Catholics and accept to a major or minor degree the elements of the faith but, having also incorporated into their lives values that are clearly Catholic, juxtapose and even integrate other religious and ethical elements of diverse origin—without this process being ruled by a rational logic but rather by emotional psychic and para-rational forces (or even irrational). Whether or not we use the term syncretism to describe this phenomenon, we find it at all times and all places in human history, and from the very beginnings of Christianity. Pagan cultural elements coexisted in the same person or the same group with those that came from the most orthodox evangelical Christianity. Do we not identify this phenomenon with some forms of gnosis and even with trends that come from Origen of Alexandria?

Much the same happened in the Middle Ages, during the period of the evangelization of the Germanic tribes and slaves, who threw out the earlier Roman order.

And an analogous situation happened—and is still happening—with the missionary movements after the sixteenth century in America and Africa and later in Asia. And that is without taking into account that even in European countries with long-standing Christianity superstitions and pagan customs continue in the popular social classes (especially among the country people), who attend the Catholic churches, live a regular sacramental life, and who would be profoundly offended if they would not be considered Catholic. In our modernity and post-modernity, in the most sophisticated cultural levels these things go together with a certain neo-paganism that subtly infiltrates “beliefs” and ethics (an increase in astrology and magic, a rejection of the social and sexual doctrine of the Church, new age mentality, etc.).

And finally, I have no doubt that people who are explicitly and consciously non-Catholics, but have lived and were educated among peoples of the Catholic tradition—or among those where the Church has had or still has a certain cultural significance—innately incorporate elements of the faith and values of the Catholic ethics to their lives, and often in a decisive way. This is a fact, even though, I repeat, they may distance themselves from the Catholic Church as institution and even from a faith in a personal God and any aperture towards the Transcendental.

So there are various spheres of belonging to and identification with the Catholic faith in practically all peoples in which the Church has a presence in a significant way. It seems to me that this phenomenology (very simplified for brevity’s sake) is indispensable in an effort to respond to the question that constitutes the title of this essay. It is necessary to not confuse one state of Catholicism with another, one level of Catholic experience with another and, at the same time, to always verify the idiosyncrasies of the populace in question and the type of embodiment of faith that exists among these peoples, as determined by the different historical circumstances. It must also not be forgotten that in almost all countries, even in those with an early Catholic presence, there are groups of people hardly or not at all affected by the Catholic reality. And that, in addition, for some reason, conversions happen, that is, a move from one level to another in the Catholic experience, as well as moves towards the rejection of this experience, which can reach levels of contempt and even of strong aggression.

In other words, a static religious map is good for understanding a particular moment, but not sufficient to acquire an integral understanding of the historical undertakings of a country, as affected—positively and negatively—by energy, the ontological component of life. It is exactly this energy which defines the comprehensive idiosyncrasy—culture?—of almost all realities. I consider that sociologists, politicians and pastoralists don’t usually take sufficient account of the foreseeable dynamics of the changes in the religious situation, nor the edges of the unforeseeable. To these and other deficiencies should be added the measured tendency to confuse the plane of desire with the plane of reality when dealing with analyses that claim to be objective.

Some observations on the assessment of Catholicism in the Cuban nation. Both complete and partial histories (as pertaining to an era) of the Church in Cuba have been written—although not many. As often happens, the historian is not an antiseptic subject. And although he will narrate objective facts, the assessment and importance given to these facts will vary through philosophic, political and religious fluxes. In its first part, the Final Document of the ENEC [2], mentions lights and shadows in the most ancient and in the most recent history of the Church in Cuba. But this document is still an official document of the Church, and although it does not avoid self-criticism, in the eyes of non-Catholic historians that I know, the balance leans strongly towards the lights, and therefore, to them, the whole document—although valuable—would be influenced by the burden of giving an inflated importance to the Catholic Church as an institution in Cuban reality.

In my view, some historians (and sociologists and cultural experts) put too much emphasis on the other side of the moon—that of the shadows. This leads them to play down the specific importance of Catholicism (institutional and cultural) in Cuba, both in the past and in current times.

Trojans and Greeks can both find arguments and facts to support their judgment. To agree on how to balance the weights assessed is a very difficult task which depends on so many factors that I venture to describe the effort as hopeless. It is not hopeless, however, to exchange ideas, to enrich perspectives that could go from being contradictory to complementary, enlightening each other. Once that has been achieved, it would be possible to bring both theoretical convictions and pragmatic strategies closer together, always through attentive and respectful dialogue, which supposes an impossible unanimity and the freedom to sustain differences and live in agreement with them. Could a reasonable global well-being for our people be achieved by another path that is not the one with a rational, ethical and aesthetic basis?

The divergences are even more polemical when we try to establish a history of recent times, and pass judgment on people, institutions and situations, having been a contemporaneous spectator or even actor. I remember that my old and wise professors of Church History in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome used to repeat—both the “picaresque” Neapolitan Giovanni Papa and the kind-hearted German Ludwig Hertling—that history cannot be made until at least thirty years after the events that one wishes to narrate. “And if possible, we need to wait longer… Don’t let the history be written by its surviving protagonists; these do need to narrate, to leave their oral and written testimonies…. But this—as my professors stated—is a chronicle, an archive, or journalism—it is not history. Those who come after, with a cooler head, will have access to these sources, stripped of their trembling involvement, and they can then and in that way, write history.” Both of them were true to their rule: as they applied to the life of the Church, they never went beyond 1929 (the Pacts of Lateran, Pius XI and Mussolini), and in class they refused to refer to the rest of the papacy of Pius XI and to Pius XII during the time of the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, the time of the Civil War in Spain and the Second World War and the first postwar years.

“It is too soon,” they said. “We are living these times and we are not immune to the emotions we feel.”

I have feelings that are somewhat similar to those of my old professors when there is a question of writing history, of thinking through the period after 1959 (and the one immediately prior, its gestation), in which Cuba came to be governed by a revolutionary project which progressively and very rapidly was termed socialist and Marxist-Leninist.

It is difficult to speak of the circumstances, their consequences and decisive simultaneous happenings (national and foreign) with justice; it is even more difficult to express judgments on the people who have been protagonists in the different phases of the relevant plans that mark these thirty-six years; and it is practically impossible to objectively and scientifically write the history of the Catholic Church during this period.

I could relate anecdotes, many first-hand because I participated in some way in many key situations. But this—I repeat with fathers Hertling and Papa—would not be history; it would be a story, testimony; in other words, a different literary genre. I feel myself to be competent to elaborate hypotheses of interpretation and evaluation, not conclusive opinions with pretenses to irrefutability. I am surprised at how easily some authors—Cuban and foreign—accept these presentations with an air of undisputable certainty. [3] Let us be a little more humble; let us learn to listen and to read those who have lived (in all situations) all the chapters of this perilous history; some with palpitations of love, others, perhaps, with wicked opportunism or other pathology. But when we sit ourselves down to think and to write, let’s do it with a tender love for Cuba and for the Church. “Through love we see, with love we see; it is love which sees,” as one of the most luminous notes of José Martí declares. Love, when it is real, includes fidelity to truth. Our island eyes, in our creole head and in the ethical and aesthetically evangelical heart require the double dimension of this faithful love in order to hazard opinions, which are still arguable (and I believe they will be for many years, because the passion on all sides has been great and overwhelming) about the reality of Cuban Catholicism in this revolutionary phase of our national history.

Facts that permit the holding of opinions, although they may be arguable, regarding the specific importance of Catholicism in Cuba

  1. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the character of the island colony—a place of transit, a strategic stronghold, a place of provisioning, and not of a generalized and consistent settlement—affected all dimensions of existence (political, economic, cultural, residential, and, of course, religious). For several reasons, the indigenous population decreased rapidly, until it reached numbers that were barely significant in the ultimate definition of Cuban identity. The population of African origin, partly free but mainly enslaved (until well into the 19th century), determines the quality of the constitutional and identifying racial mixture of our populace down to the core. Due to the conditions on the Island, pastoral interest was limited, and I think it could not be any other way.
  1. The most positive social work that was done in our Island from the beginning of the colonization until the end of the 18th century—as associated with the Indian, the black person and, in general, the entire population—was in the hands of the Catholic Church. Since the end of the 18th century and during the 19th, some work was done by the civil authorities.

But the humanitarian dimension of the pastoral activities of the Church were not eliminated; it continued to be critical and, through all the areas of the Island, were much more notable than the early and poorly executed actions by the civil authorities, which were already—fortunately—influenced by the Aufklärung or the Enlightenment. However, it was not all positive, not even as relating to high-ranking ecclesiastical figures and religious congregations.

The lights and the shadows always intersect, even in the best images that the mirror and the lens convey to us.

There is historical evidence—to mention just one example—that bishops, priests and religious congregations were involved in the forced labor system on farms and even in slave traffic, and that their attitude was not always civilizing, humanitarian and, even less, evangelic. But it does seem that these cases were exceptional in the Church; the general response to these basic problems of the human condition was positive.

  1. A little-known reality—and probably impossible to verify in all its components—is the intrusion of the crypto-Jews in the Catholic Church, in Cuba and in the other Spanish-American colonies (as a consequence of the official prohibitions, which were more strictly applied in the Peninsular practice).

I have the impression that the crypto-Jews—whose identity was traumatized—determined Catholic life in our countries. (Some were able to reach high civil and ecclesiastical positions). It would not have been possible to ask these people to work with fervor towards making the ecclesial Catholic values effective, since their fake conversion and their flight to America—where it was easier to hide their true identity and convictions—was a result of the Catholic intolerance of the Spanish Counter-Reformation.

  1. The increase in the quality of life in Cuba beginning in the last third of the 18th century was also felt in religious life. Institutionalization was improved—which does not always mean an increase in the evangelical core. The foundation of the Royal and Pontifical University [Real y Pontificia Universidad], supported by the Order of Santo Domingo, the transformation of the small Seminary-College of San Ambrosio into the Royal Pontifical Seminary-College of San Carlos and San Ambrosio [Real y Pontificio Colegio Seminario de San Carlos y San Ambrosio], the improvement in teaching in the Seminary of San Basilio the Greater [San Basilio Magno] and the foundation of educational institutions in the shadow of churches and convents in all relatively important cities, was the beginning of a culture that was strongly characterized by the Catholic seal of that era in Cuba, tinted by the Enlightenment and the liberalism that are at the roots of this foundational culture. The greatest heir of the Illustration in Cuba, the Economic Society of the Friends of the Country [Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País], was encouraged in its earliest and its later path by Catholic figures and the Catholic manner.

Remember that even the Bishop of the capital city was a very active member of this institution (don Juan José Díaz de Espada y Fernández de Landa), as was our non-canonized “saint” father Félix Varela, as well.

The culture that radiated from the golden age of the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio, sponsored by the Bishop and by father Varela, was an eclectic culture, fortified by the Enlightenment. Under the protection of this Varelian shadow—which goes beyond his sojourn in Cuba and even beyond his life itself—a thread [filum] grows that reaches José Martí, by way of José de la Luz y Caballero and Rafael María de Mendive. From José Martí, and having passed through his filter—a fact which doesn’t need emphasizing—it arrives at our times and consolidates our national identity.

  1. This increase to which I referred in the previous paragraph was fed, in its economic roots—not exclusively but principally—by the slavery of black Africans and by the quasi-slavery (servitude) of Chinese people and Yucatan native Americans. Slavery is a phenomenon that was present from the very beginnings of the Spanish colonization, but it grew disproportionately after the agricultural boom at the end of the 18th century and even well into the 19th. The institution of slavery as such is in contradiction with the Christian ethic (the intellectual basis of which developed in Cuba at the same time as slavery) and with the beginnings of the Enlightenment (which in Cuba was also contemporary with the development of slavery).


  1. With the black Africans, all the riches of the African personality, of the African spirit also arrived to our shores, as well as the secular religious African tradition, which was never satisfactorily evangelized, not in Africa nor in the American countries which contain a significant population with these origins, which is the case in our country. Two-thirds of our population—or even a bit more at this stage of our national history—is constituted by black or mixed-race people.

Mixed race is one of the defining elements of our national identity (and certainly a comprehensive element), and in religious terms it is equivalent to saying that Christian-African syncretism is one of the defining terms of popular Cuban religiosity.

  1. Since the phenomenon was clearly perceived at the end of the 18th and the beginnings of the 19th century, civil and religious politics, as they relate to syncretism, constituted an approach of relative tolerance. This was characteristic of our idiosyncrasy, minted in its beginnings by contradictory currents, but in which blew strong liberalist winds of enlightenment, of ‘modernity,’ both in Catholic environments and in anticlerical environments, typical of the 19th century Hispanic world. [4]
  1. This tolerance—as almost all existential realities—has its positive and its negative sides. The negative consists in a certain state of relative confusion (subsisting and perhaps increased today) in popular Cuban religiosity; the positive is that in general the numerous syncretic groups maintain a close relationship with the Catholic Church (sacramental ties, respect for ecclesiastical figures and acceptance of a sizeable dose of Catholic teaching, etc.), and this has allowed the Catholic Church to always maintain a popular foundation, even in the most marginal and even delinquent sectors of Cuban society. This is an ambiguous foundation due to the “syncretic confusion,” but a real foundation just the same, which has almost always facilitated an evangelizing, or at least a “sympathetic” presence in these environments. In other countries in which the phenomenon of syncretism is present in the same or greater dimensions, an devotee of these cults can live his entire religious existence without ever setting foot in a Catholic church and without ever having had any contact at all with a priest. In Cuba this is not possible: from his baptism (beginnings) to his funeral (death) a syncretic person needs the pastoral services of the Catholic Church. [5]
  1. The importance of Catholicism in Cuba has been favored by the fact—not frequent in Latin America—that its most defining and indisputable historical reference figures have been Catholic, or if not active members of the institution of the Catholic Church, they have been Christians of a Catholic mould. In any case, only before exceptional historical situations, before extreme situations have they taken anti-institutional positions related to Catholicism. [6] José Martí, a practicing Catholic as a child and youth, distanced himself from the customary (sacramental) religious practice in Spain (during his years as university student), and later in Mexico. He disagreed with the ecclesiastical institution, primarily for political reasons, but his thinking, until the end of his days, was fundamentally Christian, of a Catholic core, and he never fell into the temptation of a visceral anti-clericalism, as was frequent in the Hispanic tradition of that era. He was an extremely intelligent and ethical man, and that helped him avoid this “sin” which was fashionable at that time. We should not forget that many of these men did not move away from the Church and the sacramental practice through their own initiative, but rather because the Church still considered democratic ideas to be “close to heresy” and, in the case of Cuba, the bishops forbade sacramental practice and the possibility for priesthood to those who sympathized with independence for our country. Fortunately, not all Catholics took this prohibition seriously, a prohibition that without a doubt went ultra vires to pastoral authority, and pretense again made its appearance. And thanks to that practice we could rely on a handful of Cuban priests at the time of independence, and on Catholic lay practitioners at the beginnings of the Revolution.
  1. We have been able to count on thinkers of excellent personal and intellectual qualities, like Enrique José Varona and Medardo Vitier—quite separated from and at times even hostile to the Catholic components of our traditions and national identity. But not all who have founded Cuban thinking and art have navigated this stream. Some have been very definitely Catholic as such (for example, Ramiro Guerra, Manuel Dorta Duque, Eugenio Florit, Emilio Ballagas, Mariano Brull, José Lezama Lima, Cintio Vitier, Fina García Marruz, etc.). Others, marginal Catholics, and many, who were just close, were sympathetic or respectful, and—using Roberto Fernández Retamar’s verse—“touch the edges” of the world of faith and of the Church, although they do not enter into their atmosphere. In Cuba, the intellectual climate, the world of artists and intellectuals, has not been an environment that is hostile to the Church. It has been more of a dialogue, attentive to Catholic thought (in its philosophy, literature, the plastic arts, cinema, music, etc.).

The Catholic tone of the Orígenes group and its magazine, painters like Amelia Peláez, Portocarrero and Milián, musicians like Ernesto Lecuona, the sacerdotal presence of father Angel Gaztelu and other factors have contributed to this positive climate, which also prevailed in the revolutionary period of Marxist motivation—which, in Spanish America, is quite exceptional.

Although, to be honest, we should confess that after the bishopric of Monsignor Espada, of the teachings of father Varela and the dozens of golden years of the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, the Church—institutionally and officially—has hardly occupied itself with cultural pastoral care. The lay people and the priests that have done so have proceeded almost always at a personal level, swimming against the current and at the expense of misunderstandings and serious existential problems. Fortunately, there are always some people—though few—willing to pay this price.

  1. The Catholic Church in Cuba has not had much political power. When it does appear, it is a fleeting spark, not a sustained circumstance. During colonial times, Cuba was judicially subject to the government of Spain through the Law of Royal Patronage. This obligation weighed heavily during the first years of the Republic, which were also very determined by a North American guardianship that was almost always pro-protestant, liberal-masonic and anti-Catholic from its roots. Although many political figures identified themselves as Catholic (at least “in their way”) and they were, in reality they were limited by the post-independence political environment. Deep down, their Catholicism—as far as these realities can be humanly judged—was a marginal Catholicism. [7]

One of the issues that has had a more weighty impact in the lack of political power for the Church (and for that I thank God) consists in the fact that Catholics have not constituted a homogeneous political (and cultural) body neither in colonial times nor in the times of the Republic, before and after the Revolution,.

Throughout our not too brief history we find Catholics and non-Catholics in almost all political “blocs”, in almost all cultural projects and movements, coming from popular (urban and rural) classes, from economically ample resources—and this, whether it relates to lay Catholics, base-level clergy or bishops. In the colonial past there were Catholics who were pro-independence, reformists or autonomists, annexationists (as related to the United States), as well as those who favored the continuance of the colonial status.

After the beginnings of the Republic, there were Catholics in the Liberal Party as well as in the Conservative Party. During the dictatorship of General Machado, they can be found—Catholics and non-Catholics—among those who supported the General and those who were against him. [8] In the semi-chaotic range of political positions that existed between 1933 and 1940, an identical situation can be seen, as was the case during the constitutional movement of 1940 and the subsequent and slow recovery process of the rule of law after 1940, the rupture of 1952, the gestation of the Revolution and the first years of the Revolutionary Government. The monolithic Catholicism after the 1960’s has to do with the anti-religious elements of official Marxism, not with the socialist project as such, before which there never was unanimity among Cuban Catholics (although militant atheism has in fact been so involved in the socialist project, that a superficial view could confuse us and lead us to believe that, also in relation with the socialist project, all Catholics have always maintained the same position). The Catholic Church in Cuba has been relatively monolithic in questions of faith; there have never been lasting rips because of religious reasons. But, I insist, it has never had this characteristic in the sociopolitical, cultural and economic setting.

  1. The bishops—the Catholic hierarchy in Cuba—have not historically distinguished themselves by their qualities to direct—“shepherd”—the political dimension of Church life, set in the frame of its essential evangelizing mission. The exceptions only confirm this affirmation, which seems obvious to me, although I know that many Catholics—clergy and lay—do not agree with it. On the other hand, Cuban Catholics—those of colonial times and those of republican times—have not taken the guidance of the bishops very seriously when a whiff of politics can be sensed from it.

Moreover, the average Catholic Cuban does not make a drama of any political disagreement with the hierarchy. It seems to me that only some sophisticated intellectuals and those politicians who are very committed have taken steps back in matters of faith and practice, purely for reasons of political dissension in relation to their pastors. [9]

  1. The Spanish liberalism of the 19th century (which Cuba lived, being part of Spain) and the secular North-American tradition (with its distinctive and very radical style of conceiving the separation between Church and State), have had a lasting influence on the sociopolitical life of the country, in the hustle of the political ideologies that have come about among us. In addition, these determine the pastoral action of the Church, before and after the Revolution, positively and negatively.

On the one hand, this generalized opinion has guaranteed the Church’s independence as related to state powers, as well as the political pluralism of Catholics (to which I have already referred); on the other, it has made the bringing of the Gospel to all dimensions of life (education, social communication media, economic and political structures, etc.) more difficult.

In relation to this point and to the previous one, which are strongly linked, I emphasize that it is to this tolerant pluralism and to this secularism—blended together—that in large part we owe the positive outcome of the political and cultural differences never having dragged our Church to break with ecclesiastical unity—conceived as a unity of faith and pastoral action, not of opinions or casual activities. These—the generalized breaks of ecclesiastical communion—have not occurred, not even because of differences in this area with the pastors who are official ecclesiastical authorities. There could be a larger portion of personal sympathy, but that is another type of problem, not an ecclesiastical rupture. The aspect of this reality that some might consider “dark” or negative is the already mentioned slim possibility of the Catholic Church having a weighty influence in one single sociopolitical direction. I personally do not see this reality as negative; I consider it to be a stimulus for the Church to concentrate on what is properly their terrain, on what defines it as Church, not as “party” or “movement” (social or cultural). Taking the side of the human person—and that does form a part of the ecclesiastical core—includes taking the side of liberty, of forming minds capable of responsibly and integrally assuming the free will that God gives to mankind; the divine spark that makes the human being the only one to be iconic of the Creator.

  1. Other facts could be added, but I think it is best to close this section with information that summarizes the religious attitude of Cubans before the Revolution. These data come from a carefully collected survey by the Agrupación Católica Universitaria in 1954. The very small number of “santeros” should be seen as responses made by people without any links to the Catholic Church; the syncretic santeros spontaneously self-identified as “Catholics.” The Academia de Ciencias has subsequently carried out studies on this topic. I do not mistrust either the capacity of these researchers or the scientific objectivity of their intentions; but I do mistrust the sincerity of the responses, due to the pressures against the faith and the Church that the revolutionary authorities have maintained during decades. Today, reality is moving in other directions, but a certain degree of wariness subsists.

In order to evaluate these data more precisely it would be appropriate—once the analogies and differences have been established—to compare them with other countries, referring to the same era. For example, in the case of Spain, in 1950, at the pinnacle of religious practice during the government of Generalísimo Francisco Franco, attendance at Sunday mass in Madrid amounted to 25% of the population; in Barcelona, 15%, and in Zamora, 20%.

These data, which were not well-publicized at the time, have been divulged recently by Monsignor Ramón Torrella Cascante, Archbishop of Tarragona, in an interview published in Catalunya Cristiana. The difference between the alleged Catholic-Spain of that time and the alleged not-so-Catholic Cuba is not very great.

An attempt to respond to the title’s dilemma

  1. The majority of the Cuban peoples are religious in the widest send of the word; that is, the Cuban populace includes persons who are open in some way to Transcendence, to the affirmation of an other-worldly reality on which our human (temporary) reality depends at least to a certain extent.
  1. The two hearts of this religiosity are Christianity (in its great majority Catholic) and the set of African religions, belonging to the ethnic groups from which came the black peoples—slaves or free—that established themselves in our country. Little by little, they became integrated into the country, so that today they can consider it to be their own, that is, the country of their forefathers, since several generations have passed after the intercontinental transit, and mixes with the local or the Spanish population occurred.
  1. The religious map of our country cannot be sketched with clearly defined lines; we have Catholics who are very well identified as such, who take on the Catholic faith and make efforts towards ethically guiding themselves in coherence with them. These constitute a minority whose number I would not dare to specify. And much the same can be said of the even smaller number of Christian people linked to ecclesiastical communities and churches originating in the Reformation. Practicing Jews do not even number one thousand in the whole country.
  1. There is a large group of people—even more difficult to define—who live by a “popular Catholic piety,” without mixing in other religions, but lacking a proper knowledge of the components of the faith and of its ethical connections. The greater part of these do not consider themselves to be connected by some Catholic precepts that they do not know, know only partially or undervalue (for example, the Catholic sexual and family ethics, the social doctrine of the Church, the attendance to Sunday mass and the sacramental practice, etc.). They generally profess devotion to some denominations dedicated to the Virgin Mary and some saints more than to God himself. Many refer to themselves as being “Catholic in my own way.”
  1. I have the impression that those who profess a pagan religion of African origin in its pure state constitute a small minority. So the phenomenon of syncretism, which in its beginnings can be identified as a disguise or simulation (syncretism by method) in the majority of those who can be considered syncretic believers, is today a real alchemy of Christian-Catholic, pagan-African and spiritualist (syncretism in the substance and in the forms of religious expressions) components. Moreover, let us not forget that the syncretic groups lack a singular definition of the components of their faith; they lack a single theological-ethical system and a stable support structure. It seems to me that all these groups—at least this is my pastoral experience with them—respect and appreciate to a high degree the Catholic Church and its priests, whose services are indispensable to them and which they consider to be touched by the sacred.
  1. The greater part of the young people who now come to our churches (we cannot specify any numbers) are recent Catholics, who have earlier received an anti-religious education and have lived their adolescence and younger years with an absolute ignorance of Catholic ethics in all life’s dimensions. Their existence has gone through channels which, in the best of cases, could be considered as a form of “natural ethics.” Moreover, due to the conditions that have existed in Cuba during the last few years—and even before—as it happens in all societies ruled by a political system that is more or less centralist, they have the habit of transgression enflamed into the core of their very being.

The religious education and the pastoral accompaniment for these young people is very deficient due to: the very limited number of pastoral agents (priests, monks and nuns, solidly educated and committed lay people); the impossibility of access by the Church to the social mass media; the doors that are closed—for now—to any evangelizing influence in formal education at every level; the differences and lack of understanding between generations (a phenomenon which is not exclusive to Cuba)—among others. Overall, they have not yet passed the test of a prolonged existential loyalty.

  1. Can it be stated that the Cuban people are Catholic? Can it be stated that they are not? It seems to be that we are a people who believe. And as related to belief, the pastoral challenge for the Catholic Church in Cuba is not as much atheism (which is a minority phenomenon), as the ease with which Cubans believe in anything, in too many things, including mutually inconsistent things, joined with a certain volatility, instability and inconsistency which have always been part of us.

Father Félix Varela already denounced these defects in the Cuban youth of the beginning of the 19th century. So we have a people that are believers in their majority, but—according to my personal arguable opinion—are Catholic in the minority. And I now use the word “minority” with a broad meaning: not only as an accounting of those who go to church, but also as a level of the permeation of Catholicism in all the ins and outs of existence, in the quality of personal and community life of our nation, in its identifying bouquet (which is not clearly Catholic). Only a part of the existence of the average Cuban has a Catholic hue, although I have no doubt that to many of the airs that compose our idiosyncrasy, we can ascribe an allusion to the Catholic tenor (Hispanic, South-American, Mediterranean).

  1. Although at a first reading it could seem to be a contradiction with the previous paragraph, I have the impression that the Catholic Church in Cuba today enjoys a significant level of regard and attention in all layers of the social texture, probably higher than in any other moment of at least the last 150 years of our history.

I appreciate that this does not necessarily mean an acceptance of the components of the faith, of the ethical orientations, or—even less—of the sociopolitical opinions of the hierarchy (these including the cultural, aesthetic, etc.), but which, in some situations, are translated into attitudes that go beyond a superficial appreciation and formal respect. It can include an acceptance of the components of the faith and the ethics even among people who are not integrally Catholic. In this sense, I believe that the Catholic Church today has a social weight that is impossible to quantify in numbers or by conclusive affirmations, and that goes beyond the indices of religious practice: the numbers of baptisms, first communions, “Church” weddings, Catholic funerals, attendance at Sunday and holidays mass, or others. These are numbers that have certainly risen notably during the last few years, but I don’t feel able to consider them as manifestations of a stable increase. The foreseeable socio-economic and political changes suggest an adjustment of the population and a possible reduction or, at least, an instability in the practice of religion. Which, it seems to me, will not result in a reduction of the scattered religiosity of Cubans, nor of the previously mentioned attention and appreciation towards the Catholic Church as a visible, solid, dignified, independent, well-identified and present institution in our five centuries of history—and which has always stayed on, in spite of the comings and goings and the hurricanes.

  1. Two final observations: a) I think that this appreciation and valuation would increase if the Catholic Church would—clearly and consciously—accept our growing race-mixing and its repercussions in the religious sphere (not an easy task, which requires a very fine judgment); b) the separation of the Church as institution and, especially, of its hierarchy from political life according to criteria, paths and dynamism proper to the politics of the party would also contribute to the growth of the appreciation (at least in the Cuban nation; I am not referring to other countries with other histories, different ethnographic compositions, different identities and idiosyncrasies). This is not the same or homologous to the separation of temporal (cultural, socio-economic and political) realities, but to a closer contact with them through the paths belonging to the Church, in the sphere of its particular identity and with the style that should distinguish it: oral and live messages of the Gospel (which should be proposed, not imposed), a clear explanation of the ethic that is coherent with it, an appropriate celebration of the mysteries of the faith, utilization of the oral, written and gestural language that is appropriate to the evangelical values (respect, inclusive love, serenity, confidence, etc.). All of this joined to the promotion of a culture of tolerance and of the pluralism that goes with human nature.

I have the impression that when the Church as institution, and the hierarchy as its charismatic and pastoral leadership, assumes party-related positions, or distances itself from the sphere of the temporal realities and “marginal” realities, the action of the Spirit, which claims the evangelical and evangelizing incarnation, becomes difficult. The Church then loses not only human “prestige” but also revitalizing spiritual power.

It is evident that the decision and the sound judgment in this continuous process of supportive incarnation depends primordially on the Church itself. But it also seems clear to me that in a society like ours, ecclesiastical good-will stumbles over difficulties determined by a centralist and vertical conception of the State. Overcoming this through a more participative, decentralized and democratic conception would result in a better development of ecclesiastical life and in a spiritual growth of our people, in the management of its own identity, its culture and idiosyncrasy.

Havana, October 6, 1995.



[1] See the final document of the Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting (Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano – ENEC), (Rome: Tipografía Don Bosco, 1986), especially No. 106 to 149 and the entire Second Part, No. 203 to 398; “Pastoral education of the bishops of Cuba. Diffusion of the final Document of the Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano (May 1986), in La voz de la Iglesia en Cuba (100 documentos episcopales) (The voice of the Church in Cuba: 100 Episcopal Documents), Mexico, D.F.: Obra Nacional de la Buena Prensa, 1995: 262-300.

[2] Documento final del Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano, Op. Cit., “Marco histórico” (No. 18 to 202).

[3] I have read essays and books in which reference is made to persons I have known quite closely and to situations in which I have had some measure of prominence of the second or third order, and I couldn’t help but smile if they hadn’t been dealing with Cuba and with the Church to which they were referring. More than caricatures (which if they are good reveal by hyperbole the person that is caricaturized), these are questions of masks that make the approach to reality impossible and distance themselves from its perception because of the deformations that are introduced. And I confirm, with grief for Cuba and the Church, that many of these essays and books are later quoted as incontrovertible classics, and that the authors, Cubans and foreigners, acquire the recently created category of “Cubanologists”, with the aura of prestige that the founders of a new science tend to receive.

[4] This relative tolerance could be illustrated by many anecdotes (which I have done in texts on this specific topic), but none of them is more delicious and better seasoned than those around the life of Andrés Petit, a Catholic, a Third Order Franciscan who lived with the brothers of his Order in a Franciscan monastery, in whose chapel, it seems, the wake for his corpse was held. He was a beggar monk of the Franciscan Order and also the founder of the Kimbisa Sect of the Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje (Holy Christ of the Good Journey). Moreover, he was also responsible for allowing white men to be admitted into the Abakuá Sect of fraternities. There is some uncertainty regarding the date of his death, which probably occurred in 1889.

[5] At least up to now this has been the predominant attitude; I don’t wish to predict whether it will continue to be so. Moreover, needing the pastoral and liturgical service of the Church is not the same as accepting the dogmatic and ethical corpus of the Catholic Church. Pretense, even if it is not natural in the Cuban person, has always had a place—by force of circumstance—in different aspects of our daily lives.

[6] Among the Catholics, I think of the priests José Agustín Caballero and Félix Varela, of the generation of the golden decades of the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio, of the Bishop of Espada, of José de la Luz y Caballero, and of the greater number of the Founding Fathers of 1868, with Carlos Manuel de Céspedes at their forefront. I cannot elaborate on this topic now, but I do allude to the ambiguity regarding the Catholic Church and an institution so far-reaching among us from the 19th century as was Freemasonry. For historical reasons, there is in Cuban Freemasonry not a substantial or sustained breathless hostility against the Catholic Church as an institution as that which can be seen in other latitudes, and even some examples of sympathy, of proximity and of double membership (in Freemasonry and the Church) can be cited.

[7] Perhaps the greatest exception was Dr Manuel Dorta Duque, eminent jurist, a man of solid parliamentary thinking and a coherent Catholic—little known by the younger generations, but well identified by mine and the previous one. He exercised an indisputable influence between the years 1930 and 1950 in the diffusion of the best parts of the social teaching of the Catholic Church, as well as through his effectiveness, both through his parliamentary work, and through his thoughts as jurist with the labor and syndicate sectors. There were other politicians well identified as Catholic, but I will limit myself to the model of Dr Dorta Duque. If his project of the Law of Agrarian Reform—from prior to the Revolution and never discussed in Parliament—would have gone beyond the status of project and become Law, it would have avoided many headaches and would have satisfactorily resolved one of the capital economic, cultural, political, ethical and aesthetical Cuban issues: the agrarian problem.

[8] The Archbishop of Havana was “Machadista”. His Vicar General, and later his successor as Archbishop and First Cardinal in Cuba, Monsignor Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt, was not; he was considered to be in opposition; “discretionary,” given the place he occupied next to Archbishop Ruiz.

[9] Let us look at an illuminating example: the majority of Cuban Catholics of the last part of the 19th century did not abandon the Church because of the fact that Pope Leo XIII had expressed his desire for a Spanish victory in Cuba and sent his benediction to the troops, because many Spanish bishops preached for enlistment into the Spanish army to come and fight in Cuba as if it were a “Holy War” and because of the fact that the Cuban bishops (who were also Spanish) ended up ordering the banning of the sacraments to those Catholics who had pro-independence ideas (to which the majority of the priests and lay people did not pay the least attention). On the other hand, I do ask myself whether these thoughts and disciplinary measures contributed to atheists, anti-clericalists, believers, pro-independence and pro-Spanish people etc. converting to Catholicism.

Translated by Catharina Vallejo

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