- Papal Overtures in a Cuban Key. The Pope’s Visit and Civic Space for Cuban Religion
In January, 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. The visit was much anticipated by Cuba watchers, who saw it as a potential turning point in Cuban history. Many wanted to be flies on the wall during the visit, eavesdropping on all of the conversations that took place in the hopes of understanding what the future might bring for religion and politics in Cuba. In Papal Overtures in a Cuban Key. The Pope's Visit and Civic Space for Cuban Religion, Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo has edited a valuable collection of essays that suggests some of the answers.
In his introduction to the collection, Stevens-Arroyo places the Pope's visit in a deep historical context. He argues that the modern perceptions of a weak Church are based on the historical estrangement of the institutional Church with popular religion. The early openness of Catholicism in Cuba (and the Americas in general) gave way to a tough orthodoxy by the late eighteenth century. New theological preoccupations in Europe, combined with the identification of the Cuban Church with an oppressive colonial power, further distanced formal Catholicism from popular religions. Stevens-Arroyo recognizes that simple descriptions of the Church as an exploitive foreign intrusion are not very helpful, but at the same time demonstrates that the historical weaknesses of the Church hampered it during the crisis of the 1960's.
The tightly packed introduction sets the stage for analyses of the struggle for civic and social space in Cuba. Some precise definition of "civic" and "social" space, especially the way in which their meaning might have changed through time, would have given more theoretical precision to the essays, but their main points are clear. All in one way or another analyze the efforts of the Catholic Church to play a more visible part in the ongoing drama of Cuban life, especially as it touches the questions of liberty and social justice. Three interrelated themes are the heart of the essays. First, Catholicism's relationship with Protestantism and African-influenced religions; second, the relationship between Cubans and Cuban-Americans; third, the emergence of the Church as a social and cultural force. Of the many fine essays addressing these questions I would single out María Inés Flores' "The Struggle for Civic Space: A Case Study Perspective." The essay is the product of extensive field research in Cuba, and describes the groups, agencies, and institutions active in carving up Cuban civic space in the 1990's. If she and the other authors continue their research, we could soon have a very welcome collection of monographs on religion in recent Cuban history.
Stevens-Arroyo does more than summarize the essays in his concluding chapter on "Popular Religion and Civil Society: The Papal Visit to Cuba as a Blueprint for a Catholic Renewal." He envisions a more active role for the Church, now more closely identified with Cuban nationalism than in the past, as it adjusts and adapts to the realities of Cuban life. In an afterword, Miguel A. De La Torre gives [End Page 372] a theological perspective on the future of religion in "Toward an Ajiaco Christianity," using the traditional Cuban stew as a metaphor for a Christianity inspired by different cultures and ethnicities. An ajiaco Christianity would combine the complex realities of the past and present to lead Cuba into a new future.
All of the essays are made more useful by a chronology and list of Internet sources (a glossary would have also helped). The essays do not pretend to answer all of the questions arising from the Pope's visit, but they do provide rich insights, and at the same time suggest useful approaches for future research on religion and Cuban society.