January 5, 1998
Essayist Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service considers the Pope's upcoming visit to Cuba.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: Pope John Paul II is coming to Cuba. The Pope, who fought the Soviet empire, will be the guest of the world's last Marxist hero, an unlikely pair, yes, and why not? Americans, I think, especially non-Catholic Americans, tend to admire this Pope. He seems, above all, exceptional among world leaders, a man of fierce moral principle who speaks his mind. Americans too see him as the anti-Communist Pope, the Polish freedom fighter. But this same anti-Communist movement has also been a fierce critic of capitalism, particularly the cruelties in social Darwinism of a free market economy. The Polish Pope belongs more to the communal East. After demonstrations against his Papacy in Holland and Germany in the 1980's, one sensed a growing stain in Rome toward the individualistic and decadent West. I must confess--I am a Catholic by birth and by choice.
Though I'm an American Catholic, with all the contradictions that implies, as much as I have been raised by communal Catholic values, I have grown up in an American Protestant civic culture. Last summer the Pope was reported to be deeply moved by the large numbers of young Catholics who gathered in Paris to celebrate their religion. It was a surprising moment for European Catholicism, which has bee in decline for decades. The churches of Europe become little more than tourist attractions.
Financially, the Church worldwide is largely supported by the United States and by Germany, by dollars and by Deutsche marks. But the great strides for Catholicism are coming in the third world--in Africa, in Asia, and in the resurgent Eastern Europe--not in the West. Fidel Castro was raised a Catholic in a Cuba that blended Roman Orthodoxy and Afro-Caribbean santeria. He attended Catholic schools. Despite his murderous cruelty, there remains something almost Victorian about Castro's Havana today by comparison to the bawdy, pre-revolutionary years.
Were he alive, Graham Greene, the great Catholic novelist who flirted with left-wing ideals in Latin America, would enjoy the spectacle of an anti-Communist Pope being greeted by Fidel Castro. But for all of their differences, both men must understand one another culturally. Fidel Castro is recognizable to this Pope in ways that Bill Clinton, an American Protestant, an individualist, a capitalist, is not. Priests in Rome tell me that the Vatican loathes the spread of Western Hedonism. Rome expects the West to be saved by the East. Meanwhile, a surprising number of American priests and nuns I know voice an impatience with authoritarian Rome, with the Pope's lack of collegiality.
PRIEST: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, peace be with you.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The American Catholic Church shudders from a growing split between traditionalists, attentive to Rome, and more individualistic Catholics who tend to shrug off the Vatican's teachings on matters like birth control, or the status of women. I belong to the more individualistic side of American Catholicism. I am, for example, homosexual man, and a loyal son of the Church, precariously balanced between the first person, singular pronoun, the American "I," and the ancient Roman pronoun, the "we." So I will watch them--the Pope and the Communist--two men so different but each surely recognizable to the other. Gray-bearded Fidel is a figure of respect, even affection, through much of Latin America. He is admired less for his deflated Marxist ideology than for his ability all these years to have stood up to the gringo bully.
The Pope, frail now with age and trembling, remains a giant in the world. In Cuba, we Americans will see him as the winning opponent against the Godless Soviet empire. We would do well to remember that this Pope is a critic also of us--90 miles away. I'm Richard Rodriguez.