Pope's Mission to Cuba is Souls, Not Politics

Pope's Mission to Cuba is Souls, Not Politics

A turning point in the history of Cuba is likely to begin today when Pope John Paul II begins his visit to this country that once declared itself officially atheist. The preparations alone have sparked a religious revival. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, one of the last holdouts in the global collapse of communism, is struggling not to be left too far behind the curve.

Last month, for the first time in twenty years, Castro permitted the Cuban people to recognize Christmas. Children were not forced to be in school, and adults could take off work. This was a direct result of pleas from the Holy See, which has accomplished in only a few months of diplomacy what the U.S. government couldn't do with decades of economic pressure.

Faced with severe economic strains due to the loss of subsidies from the former Soviet Union, Castro is permitting markets to developed in fits and starts. He has encouraged foreign investment and allowed a widened degree of latitude in private ownership and free enterprise. The result has been to increase the availability of food, medicine, and materials for building and investment.

This represents a magnificent concession to economic reality. All of history shows there is only one means to the prosperity of nations, and that is through the institutions of free enterprise, private property, and trade. It's a welcome development that this is now being recognized even in a country where such institutions were contrary to official policy until only recently.

The advent of liberalization is in keeping with the pope's own insistence that societies must recognize religious, economic, and political freedoms to be morally legitimate and protective of essential human rights. This principle, which the pope believes should be the basis of Cuba's future, is the same one he has laid out for all peoples around the world.

When warned of the power of the papacy to shift the direction of history, France's Napoleon Bonaparte once famously asked, “But where are the pope's armies?” Of course he has none. But he possesses something more powerful than all the governments of the world combined: the moral and spiritual credibility to speak about right and wrong, truth and error.

At the same time, the Pope's mission is not political in nature. He is not there as a representative of any side of the Cold War geopolitical struggle. He has no ambitions to either overthrow or shore up the Castro regime. His visit has a pastoral purpose. He is there to give encouragement to the Roman Catholic Church, which has suffered immeasurably since the revolution of 1959.

No one can say for sure what its future will look like, but the Pope will surely push for a greater degree of religious freedom and widened social space for the religious community to evangelize on behalf of the faith. For now, this would be a great victory.

Even in the absence of dramatic political reforms, evangelizing brings about a sense of spiritual freedom that begins with the individual heart and mind. A personal faith is powerful source of strength and impetus to endure hardship. The people of Cuba, who have experienced wrenching poverty and the loss of essential liberties, are reaching out for a source of meaning in their lives that only faith can bring.

Yet the effect of the Pope's visit is likely to go beyond the purely spiritual realm. Cuba is one of only a handful of officially communist countries remaining in the world; it is a relic of a bygone age. Pope John Paul II is a well known opponent of communism who sparked a series of revolutions against totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. In the past, regimes that have mocked him have eventually fallen from power.

Can we expect the same in the case of Cuba? This is the question everybody is asking, but there is a sense in which it is the wrong question. The pope has no personal grudge to bear against Fidel Castro, any more than he had one against even the man who attempted his own assassination. In all the Pope's dealings, his goal is the conversion of souls.

No doubt there are many in the United States who will be satisfied only to see Castro fall from power and a new government installed. U.S. foreign policy has long been directed toward that end, and tough-minded elements of the Cuban exile community have long demanded nothing short of it.

With Pope John Paul II's visit, it is time to reorient our priorities. The question should not be, who rules, but how can life be made better for the people of Cuba. Whether Castro will be treated like Nicholae Ceaucescu of Romania or Erich Honiker of East Germany is up to the forces of history.

It is imprudent to seek predetermined political goals when something so important as freedom itself is at stake. The liberalization of Cuba might take only a few months or many years, and it may or may not involve a change of regime. But it is coming, and its means of revival will not be politics but the conversion of hearts.