It will be an interesting time ahead with – possibly – republicans courteously meeting Britain’s Queen and the Pope visiting Cuba. The more interesting of these is the Pope in Cuba.
Something is going on between church and state there now but there has been a fair understanding between them from the start. The Cuban authorities could never be called Godless and it took a while after the revolution for it to be officially communist. Visitors to Havana, the Cuban capital, at Christmas might be puzzled – if they read the wrong papers – by the life size Christmas crib in one of the main squares and a Catholic church run by a Polish priest (remember the Polish opposition to communism ?) being renovated at government expense. The Cuban government took control of education and welfare but insisted there was more freedom of religion in Cuba than under European style government. And they were right.
So when the USA and Cuban governments started to behave in a diplomatic way towards each other, the Catholic Church was a convenient go-between. State prisoners were released, but since that was a Cuban bargaining counter observers should wonder what Cuba was getting in return and hope it was a removal of the American blockade. Welcome home for those whose families had left Cuba at the revolution was another bargaining counter but more difficult because their negotiated return could well mean a change in the way Cuba’s economy and social life were organised. Re-organisation is happening and we can hope that neither church nor state nor anyone else will ask too big a price for co-operating with each other.
So the Pope’s visit will be interesting. Perhaps he will reflect on the difference between his visit to Cuba and what it would be like if he visited Ireland. In Ireland political tensions are being created between politicians and church leaders, in Cuba being healed. In Cuba religious education is being built from the ground up, in Ireland the church is trying to save educational structures which a government wants to bring down to ground level. In Cuba Christians will be trying to expand from minorities in the towns, in Ireland there are plans to bring back those who have left rather than persuade new members in.
Slimming down the number of dioceses in Ireland will parallel the political slimming down of the number of constiuencies or local councils; proposed changes have to do partly with a greater and stronger centralisation. Some people would prefer the church went in the opposite direction, with more small units and more authority given to them. Much the same tension in politics – should Britain and Ireland have stronger centralised government or more power distributed to more people. At the moment centralisation of money, trade, education, religion seems to be winning.
If USA policy is to have Cuba in the Washington sphere of influence rather than as an angry neighbour it would be a pity if the Catholic church would ever be used to get that done. We remember with irritation how Christian people were mobilised not just against abuses and cruelties in communist systems but against the systems themselves, forgetting that other systems had just as many and often had Christian support for them.
The Pope could do well. But he needs to shed a lot of his fear, open the door to what John the Twenty-third wanted and never got, a cool clear fresh wind blowing through all the corridors of power. That is what a church should be good at.
(Don’t forget,Wednesday 1, St Mary’s, Lecture on Bishop O Devanny!)