Pope Francis and Two Faces of Anti-Catholicism

COMMENTARY: Despite the economic differences between Cuba and the U.S., there is a growing similarity: At the heart of America, there is not only a historic distrust of the Catholic faith, but a new and growing threat of atheism.

(photo: Getty Images)

Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the United States puts the papacy in the middle of two historically anti-Catholic cultures. The communist regime in Cuba followed the atheist ideology of global communism, and Catholics were persecuted. Despite the size and significance of the Catholic Church in America, it should also be remembered that, for most of her history, America has also been hostile to the Catholic faith.

The result of a half century of communism has left Cuba destitute economically, but it has also left the country destitute spiritually. Reporting for Zenit, Oliver Maksan quotes Father Juan Miguel Arregui Echeverria, the chairman of the Conference of Cuban Religious:

“For 50 years, Cuba was a spiritual wasteland. People know little about religion. I hope the Pope will help, with his spirituality, to strengthen the religious awareness within the people.”

While secular commentators will focus on the politics of Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba, Bishop Pepe Felix, assistant of the Cuban bishops’ conference, nailed the true significance of Pope Francis’ visit:

“Pope Francis is coming as the supreme pastor of the universal Church in order to strengthen us in the faith. That is his most important task. We are hoping that the vitality that was unleashed by the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998 will be reignited.”

Pope Francis landed in Havana on Saturday night. Hundreds of thousands of spiritually hungry Cubans thronged his Sunday Mass in the Plaza de la Revolución, the same place that St. John Paul II held his historic Mass in 1998. Later that day, he met President Raul Castro and his brother, Fidel Castro, the father of the Cuban revolution.

On Monday, he will go to Holguín, the site where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492; there, Francis plans to celebrate Mass and bless the city. That same evening, he heads to Santiago de Cuba, not far from Guantanamo Bay, where he will meet the bishops.

On Tuesday, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady Virgin of Charity in El Cobre and meet with families. From there, it is wheels up to Washington. He may or may not have a press conference en route.

What does Pope Francis bring to Cuba — a country that is still recovering from the effects of half a century of anti-Catholic feeling? Bishop Felix says,

“The Pope is coming to us as a missionary of mercy. And so he is bringing something very precious with him. Cuba needs mercy, both the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy.” 

The physical contrasts between Cuba and her super-wealthy, super-powerful neighbor to the north could hardly be greater. Communism clashes with capitalism. Poverty clashes with wealth. Weakness clashes with power. But beneath these contradictions there is a greater similarity, because at the heart of America there is not only a historic distrust of the Catholic faith, but a new and growing threat of atheism.

This new atheism in America is not linked with a communist ideology, but with the materialistic ideology of consumerist relativism — what Pope Benedict XVI termed “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Pope Francis will be feted in the United States with parades, an audience at the White House, millions in attendance at Mass and addresses to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. Beneath all the hoopla and happiness, the Pope promises to bring a message that challenges the spiritual poverty of the United States that is just as great, if not greater, than the spiritual poverty of Cuba. 

To both countries, the answer to anti-Catholic atheism and materialism is the same. The Pope brings a message of mercy. This mercy is not a sentimental laxity. It is not a warm embrace of an indulgent father who could care less about his children.

Instead, for those who listen closely, the Holy Father’s message of mercy will be tough love. He is very likely to challenge the continued human-rights abuses in Cuba and the greed, immorality and violence in the United States.

Both Cuba and America should brace themselves for a mission of mercy — even if it is a severe mercy.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

Follow Father Longenecker’s blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.

Nicolas Poussin, “Sts. Peter and John Healing the Lame Man,” 1655 — “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” ... He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the Temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.” [Acts 3:6, 8].

No Reason for Being Sad

“For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in his happiness.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 21)

Nicolas Poussin, “Sts. Peter and John Healing the Lame Man,” 1655 — “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” ... He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the Temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.” [Acts 3:6, 8].

No Reason for Being Sad

“For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in his happiness.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 21)