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The Roman Catholic Church

Several historical factors contributed to the relative weakness of the Roman Catholic Church in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The church had long been viewed as conservative and as serving the country's political elite. During the country's wars of independence (1868-78 and 1895-98) in the late nineteenth century, the church was aligned with Spain, the colonial power. The church's local hierarchy and most priests were Spanish; many chose to return to the Iberian peninsula following the colonial army's defeat in the Spanish-American War (1895-98). After independence, the church gradually regained some of its prestige and influence through its educational and charitable deeds, and by ministering to hundreds of thousands of Spanish immigrants who settled in Cuba during the first three decades of the century.

By the late 1950s, however, only about a third of all Roman Catholic priests and nuns were Cuban-born; the church was still relying heavily on Spanish-born priests and nuns, as well as other foreign missionaries. The church was present mostly in urban areas, where it enrolled more than 60,000 students in 212 schools and managed hospitals and orphanages. The schools, among the finest in the country, were run by various orders-such as the Jesuits, Christian Brothers, Dominicans, and Ursuline Sisters-and catered primarily to the educational needs of the country's middle and upper classes. The church also ran Villanueva University (Universidad de Villanueva). Although most Cubans were baptized, few, even in the cities, attended mass regularly. The church was notably absent from rural Cuba, where only a handful of priests were assigned and few peasants ever went to church.

Church-state relations deteriorated rapidly in the early 1960s because of the radicalization of Fidel Castro's government and its growing alignment with the Soviet Union, and also because of historical antagonisms between the Roman Catholic Church and communism. Even though many Roman Catholics remained sympathetic to the goals of the Revolution, increasing emigration by the upper and middle classes and the departure of many priests and nuns eroded the church's base of support. Following the failed United States-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and growing social tensions, the government nationalized all private schools, including church affiliated schools. The government's absolute control of the mass media and its decision to erase religious holidays from the national calendar also curtailed the power of the church. Shortly thereafter, in September 1961, the government deported 130 priests, bringing the total number left in the country to about 200, from about 800 three years earlier. Many of the more than 2,000 nuns in the country in 1960 departed as well. Cuba officially became an atheistic state in 1962.

The next decades saw a gradual easing of tensions between the government and the Roman Catholic Church. Several factors accounted for the rapprochement. Rome and the national hierarchy came to terms with the strength of the socialist government and accepted that pastoral functions had to be conducted within the new sociopolitical context. In 1969 Cuban bishops also denounced the United States economic embargo against Cuba. Underlying currents behind these developments were the flowering of liberation theology (see Glossary) in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and a growing awareness of doctrinal affinity in some social goals between Christianity and socialism. By the mid-1980s, government/church cooperation was evident in some respects, such as the upkeep of churches and church training of selected social services government personnel.

In practice, however, and until the 1980s, those openly professing a religious faith had to continue to contend with social and political penalties. Whereas Article 54 of the 1976 constitution provides for freedom of religion, those professing their faith publicly were effectively discriminated against. Believers were barred from membership in Cuba's elite organizations, such as the UJC and the PCC, and thus prevented from gaining access to university education and high-level government positions. Other restrictions, such as the inability to hold meetings in public places or to evangelize through the mass media, continued as barriers to the church's activities through the 1980s. Although official attitudes had become less restrictive by 2000, the government continues to tightly regulate public displays of faith.

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Page last modified: 04-04-2013 18:08:28 ZULU