Thursday, February 21, 2019

Catholic Church Gradually Recovers Influence in Cuba

A tenured Harvard University professor, Jorge Dominguez provided academic leadership as director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. Knowledgeable about the complex relationship between Cuba’s Catholic Church and Communist government, Jorge Dominguez moderated a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum that focused on the topic in 2013. 

As reported last year in National Catholic Reporter Online, the Cuban Catholic Church is gradually recovering from decades of repression, which began with Fidel Castro’s taking power in 1959 and resulted in the expulsion or imprisonment of thousands of lay leaders and priests, as well as nationalization of Catholic schools. For many years, practicing Catholics could not take on leadership roles, and were excluded from the Communist Party.

With tens of thousands of Catholics fleeing, a pivotal moment of re-evaluation came in 1986. The National Encounter of the Catholic Church (ENEC) found that only 200 Catholic priests remained ministering in Cuba and less than two percent of the population attended Mass regularly. This led to a renewed commitment to the churches’ missionary role and in 1992 Cuba was classified as a secular, “but no longer atheist,” state. 

John Paul II made a groundbreaking visit to the country in 1998 that further reinvigorated the Catholic Church. Most recently, Pope Francis visited Cuba, which opened new doors, including priests in the United States being able to temporarily visit the country and minister. With approximately 350 priests practicing in Cuba today, about 60 percent of Cubans describe themselves as Catholic and 10 percent attend church regularly. A major lynchpin of change has been the Cuban-American community, with recent funding going to church-organized entrepreneurship training programs and the first new Catholic church built in the island country in 60 years.