By Agostino Bono | Catholic News Service
HAVANA (CNS)—In the middle of an evening church-run English class in downtown Havana, the lights went off. Two days later, a priest in a rural parish outside the capital said that the church building had no water all day, so he could not offer some to weary visitors.
“We’re on the razor’s edge,” said Dominican Father Jesus Espeja, director of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center where the darkened English class was held.
Father Espeja was referring to more than the wobbly economy in Cuba, where blackouts and water shortages are almost daily occurrences.
The remark also applied to the church’s precarious relationship with the 44-year-old communist regime of President Fidel Castro, which brooks little competition for the allegiance of the country’s 11.2 million inhabitants.
The church is tolerated by the state, but kept on the margins of society and hindered from growing. It can get state permission to repair churches but not to build new ones. It is allowed to import books but cannot print its own. It can teach religion in its churches but cannot operate Catholic schools.
Five years after Pope John Paul II’s historic visit, Catholic leaders report occasional easing of church restrictions, but no serious improvements. The 1998 trip had raised hopes of a major turning point for the better in church-state relations.
Now, church officials say the best they can hope for is that the government turns a blind eye to some of the church’s activities that skirt the law but also provide services that the money-strapped government cannot.
Typical is the situation of Caritas, the bishops’ social action agency that has a yearly budget of more than $1 million from foreign church sources. Caritas’ nationwide affiliates operate soup kitchens, provide emergency aid during natural disasters and have programs for victims of Down syndrome and HIV/AIDS.
Yet Caritas is technically illegal: The government can shut it down whenever it wants.
One official noted that Caritas programs concentrate on services to people considered no threat to the state, such as the elderly and infirm. Unlike similar church agencies in other countries, Caritas does not engage in public advocacy.
The bishops have to keep dissident groups at arm’s length while not joining government-led campaigns against dissident movements. The bishops have not supported the Varela Project, a referendum effort to introduce economic and political reforms; but Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana praised the founder of the movement, Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, for following his conscience and for receiving a human rights award in 2002 from the European Parliament.
The hierarchy’s distance helps insulate the church against periodic state crackdowns on dissident and human rights groups.
In the second half of March, the government arrested dozens of dissidents and human rights activists. It also restricted the movements and activities of U.S. diplomats in Cuba for their contacts with dissident groups. Although there are no formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, by mutual agreement, each maintains a diplomatic mission in the other country.
Given its limitations, church officials say they have to be creative in finding ways to reach the people and influence society while not being too conspicuous.
“Our programs maintain discretion. People need to be prudent, not stand out,” said Bishop Emilio Aranguren Echeverria of Cienfuegos, general secretary of the Cuban bishops’ conference.
Despite this discretion, Bishop Aranguren and other church leaders say that the church is having an important impact on public opinion.
“If a bishop writes a pastoral letter, more than 60 percent of the population uses the teaching as a point of reference,” said Bishop Aranguren.
The bishop said that 60 percent of the population is Catholic, with about 2 percent of the total population going to church regularly.
Church-state relations are “formally good” since the pope’s visit, he said.
The bishops have gotten permission for some foreign priests and religious to enter the country and to hold some outdoor religious processions because of the pope’s trip, said the bishop.
“But there seems to be an unofficial government cap of no more than 310 priests and 600 religious in the country,” he added.
To get around the prohibition against new churches, said Bishop Aranguren, the bishops are promoting missionary centers in places where there are no churches.
This involves setting up a small room in a home for meetings and prayer services. It includes forming lay leaders and developing small church communities in these missionary centers to keep the faith alive because of the shortage of priests.
Bishops report that in some rural areas there is one priest per 75,000 Catholics.
“We have to become a missionary church in our own country,” said Bishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Bayamo-Manzanillo. “We have to go where the people are.”
Another example of church creativity is the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center, which since 1998 has evolved into an informal Catholic university. Its courses range from computer sciences to philosophy and theology. It holds public lectures by church figures on Catholic belief and the role of religion in society. Panel discussions draw together believers and communist officials to share views on common topics.
Similar to Caritas, the center’s educational programs are illegal. The center gives students certificates showing they passed courses, but it cannot issue diplomas.
Right now, there are no problems with the government, said Father Espeja. The center is “considered a service to the future of Cuba.”
Some state ministries send workers to the center for training, especially for computer classes, he said.
Several small-circulation diocesan magazines are another part of the church’s approach of trying to fill Cuban needs while not being too conspicuous. The magazines, mostly quarterlies, are circulated in churches and passed around from parishioner to parishioner to increase readership.
The articles discuss church life and bring a Christian focus to cultural, historical and social themes.
“Our publications are not legal,” said Bishop Aranguren. “We print information that touches on nonreligious themes and offers social analysis.”