In Cuba, Church’s Uneasy Balancing Act

Havana, Cuba - Just in the past few days, with a visit here by Pope Benedict XVI looming, the Rev. Roberto Betancourt has witnessed firsthand the difficult position Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church finds itself in as it wields its newfound influence but still struggles to fill its pews.

There are the worshipers who, much to the consternation of a church trying to build its ranks, freely file into Father Betancourt’s parish, the Church of Our Lady of Charity in central Havana, to lay flowers at a statue of the country’s patroness, but rarely stay for Father Betancourt’s Mass.

“She takes care of me, she gives me what I need,” said Rosario Rodríguez, 36, a caregiver who described herself as both Catholic and a practitioner of Santería, and said she was too busy to attend Mass.

And protesters have come now, too, several of whom last week occupied Father Betancourt’s church for two days, clamoring for political freedoms, until they were removed by the police. Their removal prompted criticism of the church as being too close to the government.

Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, on Wednesday wrote that dissident groups financed by the “anti-Cuban mafia in Miami” had planned the disruptions, including to the occupation of several churches, “to pressure the Vatican, especially the pontiff, so that he speaks out against our revolution.”

“This is a very risky moment,” Father Betancourt said of the church’s need to balance its roles as diplomat and guardian of the people’s rights, “because it is the moment on which the future of our mission with the Cuban people will depend.”

Benedict faces an odd paradox in what is the first visit by a pope since John Paul II’s in 1998. The church’s profile as an institution has risen sharply in recent years amid a burst of religious tolerance not seen since the 1959 revolution, with church leaders advocating for political and economic freedoms, negotiating the release of dozens of political prisoners in 2010 and counseling the government on plans for re-engineering the economy.

At the same time, the church has struggled to attract more worshipers and faces criticism that it has grown too cozy with Cuba’s tight circle of decision makers.

“The church quietly challenges the regime so they are not seen as a great threat by it,” said Christopher Sabitini, senior director of policy at the Council of the Americas.

In Mexico, the first leg of his two-country, five-day trip beginning Friday, the pope will encounter crowds in one of the most Catholic countries on the planet who will probably turn to him for soothing words on the violence rattling the country.

In Cuba, however, one of the least Catholic, not to mention least democratic, countries in Latin America, the visit is more fraught. He is said to have chosen Cuba, which he visited in 1998 as a top counselor to John Paul II, to honor his predecessor’s wishes for transformational change and to promote the faith. Cuba is also one of the few corners of the church not rocked by sexual abuse scandals.

The Polish-born John Paul was known to disdain Communism, and Benedict, from Germany, has also shown a distaste for ideologies that leave little space for faith; Cuba was officially atheist until the early 1990s.

Vatican officials, though, said Benedict would not come intending to harangue. At the same time, in an interview published Thursday, the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, dismissed suggestions that the Cuban government would exploit the pope’s visit. He expressed confidence that the pope’s arrival would “help the process of development toward democracy.”

Pressure is building in Cuba for the pope to address human rights. Days after Father Betancourt’s church was occupied, dozens of members of the Ladies in White, a dissident group that stages weekly marches, said the police detained them for several hours on Sunday and warned them against demonstrating during the pope’s visit. The group has demanded a meeting with the pope, but received no reply.

American officials, too, have high expectations for the pope. A senior State Department official anticipates that the pope, in his meeting with President Raúl Castro, will raise the case of Alan Gross, an American contractor imprisoned since December 2009.

Mr. Gross, who worked on a United States government-financed democracy-building project, was convicted of acting to destabilize the state after he was caught providing satellite telephone equipment and other devices to Jewish organizations.

Cuba’s Catholic Church has long engaged in a careful balancing act.

Led here by the Havana archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the church won praise for negotiating the release of dozens of political prisoners in 2010, but many dissident groups were upset that church leaders agreed with the government that those prisoners should be sent to exile in Spain.

In deference to the 84-year-old Benedict’s age and frailty, his visit is lightly scheduled and billed as pastoral in nature.

Officials predict hundreds of thousands will attend a papal Mass in Revolution Square.

Just over half of Cuba’s population of about 11 million identify themselves as Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, compared with 85 percent of Mexicans. Of Cuba’s Catholics, 5 percent or less go to church and many practice Santería, which blends the Yoruba religion, with roots in Africa, and Catholicism. For them, Our Lady of Charity, or Our Lady of Cobre, whom they syncretize as Ochún, is the Yoruba deity of love, fertility and money.

“The great pastoral challenge of the church right now is to take this huge demonstration of faith in the Virgin and evangelize the Cuban people anew,” Father Betancourt said. “That’s a tough task after half a century of de-Christianization.”

The church’s ascendancy has accelerated since President Raúl Castro took over. Mr. Castro, who has voiced concern about a loss of values in Cuba, has chided the Communist Party for harboring “obsolete notions” about religious freedom. He has regular contact with Cardinal Ortega and the two have a warm relationship of mutual respect, insiders say.

Such cordiality has drawn criticism from the opposition and exiles in Miami — and privately from American diplomats — who say the cardinal tiptoes around the government in order to protect his leverage.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Miami Archdiocese, who has made several visits to the island and will be there for Benedict’s visit, said the church was naturally preparing for the end of the Castro era. “Everybody is hoping there is going to be a soft landing in Cuba,” he said, meaning a peaceful change of leadership.

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Denver, said the visit would pay dividends for the government by drawing the world’s attention to its changes.

“It reinforces the image of a Cuba in transition, in which religious communities have expanded their freedom to worship,” said Mr. Lopez-Levy, a former secretary of the B’Nai B’rith Lodge in Cuba. “Freedom of religion acts as a multiplier of other rights.”

But church leaders and analysts here in Havana hope the visit will propel more Cubans toward more a structured, traditional practice of Catholicism and lift restrictions that linger. The church has voiced its desire to allow the opening of Catholic schools as well as church-run radio and television stations.

Even if it gained such spaces, Lenier González, co-editor of Espacio Laical, or Lay Space, a church magazine that frequently publishes bold articles on reforms, said it was an uphill struggle to convert young people who had grown up in households where nobody practiced openly and whose primary concerns were material.

“Our youth grew up during a period of severe economic crisis. They have an enormous yearning for consumer goods,” he said. “For these people to dedicate themselves to an ideal, whether it be the revolution, the nation or the church, is very difficult. They can relate to an iPod. But to an abstract concept? No.”