The Pope and Castro

Pope John Paul II is coming to Cuba. The Pope who fought the Soviet empire is 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 Pope has also been a fierce critic of capitalism -- particularly the cruelties and social Darwinism of the free market economy.The Polish pope belongs more to the communal East. After demonstrations against his papacy in Holland and Germany in the 1980s, one sensed a growing disdain in Rome toward the individualist and decadent West.I should confess: I am a Catholic, from birth and by choice -- though I am an American Catholic, with all the contradictions that implies. As much as I have been shaped by the communal values of Catholicism, I have grown up in a 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 been 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 Deutschmarks. But the great strides for Catholicism are coming in the Third World, in Africa and Asia, and in a 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.If he were alive, Graham Greene, the great Catholic novelist, who flirted with left-wing causes in Latin America, would doubtless enjoy the spectacle of Fidel Castro and the anti-communist Pope embracing. For all of their differences, these two men must understand each other culturally. Castro is recognizable to the Pope in ways that, say, Bill Clinton -- a Protestant, individualist and 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, the Pope's lack of collegiality.The American Catholic Church shudders from a growing split between traditionalists, attentive to Rome, and more individualist Catholics, who tend to shrug off the Vatican's teachings on matters like birth control and the status of women.I belong to the more individualist side of American Catholicism. I am, for example, a homosexual Catholic and a son of the Church; I try to balance the first-person pronoun -- the American "I" -- with the Roman "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 of the godless Soviet empire.We would do well to remember that this Pope is a critic also of us, ninety miles away.Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking), is an essayist for PBS' "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer."


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