Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Within the Church, Everything; Against the Church, Nothing

Within the Church, Everything; Against the Church, Nothing
June 20, 2012
Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

HAVANA TIMES — In 1961, Fidel Castro pronounced the now famous words,
"Within the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing."

In the title, I substituted the word "Church" for "Revolution," which
has cost us dearly over the past half century. In the name of
"revolution," dissent was brutally eradicated and the worst Stalinist
processes organized.

Once in power, "revolutionary" forces also trampled upon critical
thinking, and in an increasing manner, just as the very concept of
"revolution" was being narrowed. Ultimately, many "non-conformists"
ended up in forced labor camps.

Finally, based on that argument, a dichotomized interpretation was
orchestrated consisting of good and bad, advocates and detractors, which
ended annihilating the political creativity of the society.

Questionable dichotomies return

That ghost now returns in the middle of a controversy between critics
and defenders of Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the role that the Catholic
Church is playing in the Cuban political process.

It has been an unfortunate discussion due to outrageous verbal attacks
that have been launched against Ortega in yet another example of poor
democratic education and deficiencies of basic courtesies that still
prevail among important sectors of our national community, both on the
island and abroad.

All of this is reprehensible, just as it's reprehensible to think that
the Catholic Church — as a public institution with its own social base —
has no right to be a part of the process of the needed redefinition of
the Cuban social system, and that it cannot do this based on its own
interests and perspective.

But the barrage of insults and profanities should not block the basic
argument within a discussion about a matter as delicate as this, which
ultimately relates to the pluralistic quality of the reconstruction
process and/or national reconciliation.

This discussion is also defining a complex scenario in which the
Catholic Church is assuming a leading role in the public arena, though
not because it has earned this in a process of political competition and
open dialogue, but through its appointment by an uncontestable political
power that is not subject to electoral scrutiny.

In other words, while the Church's designation may have been politically
effective, the action suffers from severe legitimacy deficits.

The Catholic Church — and conservative ideological bloc that is
generated around it — must assume, without resentment, the paradoxical
situation in which it finds itself placed. It must understand that its
right to be a counterpart in the so-called reconciliation process has
transformed it, as if by magic, into being the only certified
counterpart of the state and the Cuban political elite.

This apparently privileged position has costs that must also be assumed.
Again, I don't think that insults and condemnations are advisable or
necessary. But I do in fact believe that critical assessments are both,
even when the criticisms penetrate to the core of the matter and injure
more than an overly sentimental heart.

It's simply because this is politics, as Weber once said, a dance with
the devil in constant competition with the goddess of love. In such a
heated struggle one always has to expect stepped-on toes, elbows in the
side and the occasional bad word.

But I fear that supporters of Cardinal Ortega — and supporters of this
orderly transition, in which I find increasingly more order than
transition — are treating the matter just as it should not be treated.
They don't argue, instead they deliver strikes with their giant swords.

They don't explain what they want; instead they place faith before
reason and begin to bring the secular political arms of the Church
closer to the very word of God. And finally they offer us a new
dichotomous disjunction.

Once again it becomes a dichotomy between good and bad, virtue and sin –
a Manichean shot in the temple of political creativity. Once again we
are faced with a narcissistic ideological construct of sacred
aspirations that are therefore unappealable and uncontestable.

Note that I'm not talking about the rigors of the situational collision
in which we observe the permanence of Jaime Ortega in the archbishopric
and the continuation of the openness game, but instead something more
structural, something that seems, unfortunately, to be more and more of
the same.

A questionable methodology

I have before me an editorial from Espacio Laical (EL), the magazine of
the Catholic Archdiocese of Havana. The first thing that jumps out at me
from reading it is the wholesale denigration of those who express
opposing views.

Espacio Laical speaks of "others" as people "without clear and universal
aims," "full of hatred, prejudice and in some cases without the
slightest bit of political intelligence," fed by "simplistic and
unilateral readings" – among other flattering remarks.

But what is even more serious, it doesn't use simple earthbound
denigration, but theological tacks.

Through all of this, those opponents — hateful, prejudiced and
unintelligent — do not confront an institution on the earth, but a
sacred mission that the editors of EL call "the only path that will lead
the country out of crisis" employing "a methodology of virtue and piety"
based on the gospel.

This is a dichotomous dilemma with only two conflicting options: on one
side there's a path that lifts us to the heavens, and another one that
plunges us into the depths of hell.

I should note that the writers of EL have in their favor the good pens
and poise of seminarians. When it comes to other articles written by
partisans less intellectually advantaged, what occurs in the context of
that skirmish is somewhat embarrassing.

I have read articles by novices — and novices are always insecure and
uncontrollable — who valiantly charge against intellectual programs and
figures with the worst arguments in the world.

This is to say, they are placing themselves on the same level with those
who have attacked Cardinal Ortega, and like them they end up shoveling
mud on the very Church that they awkwardly wish defend.

I think there are many reasons to criticize this political move by the
Catholic Church, without it meaning that one is being ultraconservative,
extremist or Plattist.

I admit that the mediation by the Church produced some positive results.
I applaud it having contributed to the release of dozens of political
prisoners. It's true that the release for the most part turned into
induced exile, but that was not the fault of the cardinal – it was yet
another whim of the government. Nonetheless, the cardinal is guilty of
not even blinking.

I think that it is positive that the Ladies in White have won some brief
opportune space and that thanks to the Church itself they have generated
some meager and well-defined platforms for discussing the national

But at the same time (although I admit that negotiating with the Cuban
government is like trying to catch a rattlesnake while wearing a
blindfold and using only your bare hands), I do not think that what has
been achieved — or what can be achieved with the current methodology of
virtue and piety — constitute significant steps in the democratization
of the country.
What was obtained was very little and was at the expense of major
concessions made by the Church. It can be said that — more than a
commitment to democracy — what has been obtained is a pact for
governance that provides the Cuban political elite wider margins of
maneuver to manage the process of pro-market opening on its behalf.

And the Church — unless all of this ends in a political cataclysm — will
at best be able to gain a greater presence in Cuban public life, a few
pastoral advantages and the formation around it of a conservative
ideological bloc outside of places of worship.

But that isn't much. This is because the Church didn't understand that
the Cuban government needs it more than the Church needs the state. This
is why the church hastened to accept a compromise that would have
required a certain art of waiting, as could happen if emigrants are
overly quick to agree to the first wink from Havana.

A questionable ally

There's another reason why I've been critical of this unilateral
arrangement of accommodations. Everywhere, including in Cuba, the
Catholic Church has a positive record in terms of providing social
assistance and charity.

Within it there are groups all around the globe that have cast their lot
with the poor and the vulnerable, and they have done this in an
admirable manner.

But at the same time, the ecclesiastical hierarchy is a direct part of a
deep moral crisis (i.e. economic fraud, pedophilia…) to which it has not
been able to give a convincing response.

It is a church that adopts frankly medieval approaches to such sensitive
issues as marriage, the right of women to control their bodies and
homosexual relationships.

It is an institution that is internally organized on principles that are
authoritarian, sexist and "go against nature" (examples of which include
the subordinate roles of women and celibacy).

And if all this is true, what is the basis of the idea that
"universality" on the part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and that we
critics are fed by simplistic and unilateral readings?

The Catholic Church wants to engage in politics, but modern politics
isn't a matter of catechisms. Let's leave the saints out of this and
speak clearly: the Catholic Church, as a political actor, has the right
to trial and error, but it is also exposed to criticism.

Cardinal Ortega has exercised that right, and I think that he is wrong
on sensitive issues such as when he called the police to clear
protestors out of a church, and when he allowed his spokesperson to
write a news note in the Granma newspaper that seemed too strong to

Likewise, when he railed against those occupying the building with the
same arguments — in more or less detail — as those used by Cuban
security services.

He is entitled to make mistakes and no one has the right to ask for his
crucifixion or to offend him. But inevitably this will expose him to

If the various members of the bloc for an "orderly transition" want to
absolve the Cardinal of his errors and all, they are fully entitled. But
they have no right to consider "hateful, prejudiced and unintelligent"
those who aspire to better absolutions.

I think the Cardinal would have grown a lot had he recognized his error,
and he would have given all Cuban political leaders — in the present and
the future — a gratifying sign of humility.

Likewise, his allies on the island and those who have emigrated would
have done a favor if they themselves had taken a less dogmatic and more
reflective position…I would say more constructive, less Manichean, less
dichotomized – in short, less backward.

In the end, let's not forget, we are in the 21st century and we require
a political society at this same level.
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published by Cubaencuentro.

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