April 2, 2007


The Pope and Islam: Is there anything that Benedict XVI would like to discuss? (Jane Kramer, 4/01/07, The New Yorker)

It is well known that Benedict wants to transform the Church of Rome, which is not to say that he wants to make it more responsive to the realities of modern life as it is lived by Catholic women in the West, or by Catholic homosexuals, or even by the millions of desperately poor Catholic families in the Third World who are still waiting for some merciful dispensation on the use of contraception.

It's been disappointing to watch the talented David Remnick turn this magazine into Salon with pretensions.

Cuba: How the Church is Cultivating the Seed of Liberty: An interview with Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, founder and director of the most influential liberal Catholic think tank on the island: "The Church is the only institution in Cuba where there is still a trace of that civil society which has otherwise been obliterated" (Sandro Magister, April 2, 2007, Chiesa)

Since Fidel Castro, at the end of July last year, formally gave up power, a great vigil has begun for Cuba and the Cuban Catholic Church. The final outcome is more uncertain than ever. But the goal toward which the Catholic Cubans are resolutely aiming is summed up in a single word: freedom.

One of the most authoritative witnesses of this path toward freedom that Cuba and the Cuban Church are taking is Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, 52, an agricultural engineer with three children, who in 1993 founded the Center for Civic and Religious Formation in the diocese of Pinar del Rio, and, in 1994, founded the magazine "Vitral."

When Castro won power in Cuba, in 1959, Valdés was just a child. He lived through the few months of honeymoon between the Church and the new regime, but above all he experienced the long phase of suppressed freedom, institutionalized violence, and persecution. Because he was a Catholic, his university denied him access to the humanities faculty, and so he specialized in agriculture. But his intellectual point of reference is Félix Varela, a priest, philosopher, and politician, the father of Cuban independence and the leading figure of a form of Catholic liberalism that is in many ways similar to that of other thinkers of his day, such as Antonio Rosmini and Alexis de Tocqueville. He works for the state-owned tobacco company, but in the mid-'90's the regime punished him for the civic formation work that he had begun in the diocese of Pinar del Rio. It forced him to harvest yaguas, a fibrous material that is gathered from palm trees and used for tobacco packaging. But Valdés didn't give up; on the contrary, he intensified his formation activities. The magazine "Vitral," which takes its name from the multicolored glass that decorates many Cuban homes, became the voice of a small but influential Catholic-liberal think tank, a fortress of democratic ideas and of the humanistic-Christian vision of man in communist Cuba. Thanks to John Paul II's trip to Cuba in 1998, even the Vatican took notice of him, appreciated his activity, and the following year appointed him as a member of the pontifical council for justice and peace.

What follows is one of the rare interviews that Dagoberto Valdés Hernández has granted to a foreign newspaper. And it is the first in which he directly faces the question of Cuba's transition to democracy, with particular attention to the role of the Cuban Catholic Church. [...]

"The Cuba of my dreams"

An interview with Dagoberto Valdés Hernández

Q: What is the atmosphere like in Cuba?

A: It is dominated by uncertainty and a sense of expectation. The uncertainty is due above all to the lack of information about everything that is going on, and to the fact that the future is not in the hands of the sovereign people, but in those of the highest spheres of political power. This uncertainty is combined with the consequences of an anthropological wound inflicted upon the majority of Cubans by the "ideology of dependence" and by totalitarian control, which blocks the development of freedom and responsibility.

Q: In your editorials, you insist upon the need to develop a "civic maturity" in order to usher the country out of the "socio-political adolescence" in which it lives. What do you believe is the best way to do this?

A: I see two avenues: education, and the small opportunities for participation. It is true that there is incredible civic and political illiteracy, the fruit of ideological extremism and of the systemic blockage of information other than that provided by the government. But this situation can be overcome only by breaking out of internal isolation, which is worse than the external embargo. There is a need for more information, more openness, more exchange. We need a systematic and deep process of ethical, civic, and political education. But I don't believe that's enough...

Q: What do you mean?

A: We must not stop at theory: we must create small opportunities for participation and debate, and we must have training in democracy, because a theory that has not been experienced for half a century is difficult to put into practice if we have not first tried to apply it in small matters. This is what the Catholic Church, the independent libraries, the Damas de Blanco, the non-aligned journalists, and the evangelical Churches are trying to do... This is what we have been trying to do for fourteen years with our Center for Civic and Religious Formation of the diocese of Pinar del Rio, and with the magazine "Vitral."

Q: Cuba's march toward freedom seems unstoppable, but resistance is not lacking...

A: There is, and there will be, resistance to change. This is human. The ones putting up the obstacles are not only those who now hold power, but also a good portion of the citizens themselves. But the current situation is much more weighty than the natural resistance to change. It seems that the balance is leaning toward a series of peaceful and gradual transformations that will lead us from being a political fossil of the past to becoming a normal country incorporated like the others within the international community. A country whose children will no longer need to flee from their own land if they want to advance themselves and live in freedom. And yet, I still don't know how these absolutely necessary and unstoppable changes will take place.

Q: What are the scenarios you foresee?

A: The first: a succession within the system itself, gradually opening to economic and social reforms and thus normalizing international political relations and leading to the implementation of internal political reforms. Another possible scenario is a combination of a brief succession and a slow, lengthy transition entrusted to a younger generation with more open minds. In the most pessimistic scenario, neither of these would happen and there would be a reinforcement of totalitarian control, the repression of dissidents, and international isolation. All of these latter alternatives would lead to a "North Koreanization" of Cuba, creating more suffering and poverty and increasing the mass exodus. With the risk of opening the door to violence.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 2, 2007 10:48 PM

I wonder if Ms. Kramer realizes that saying a Pope does not wish to make the Church more worldly is far from being a criticism.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at April 3, 2007 8:46 AM