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When pope meets Castro, much at stake for both

When Pope John Paul II and Cuban President Fidel Castro met in Rome Nov. 19, it seemed the spirit of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had crossed the Atlantic. If press reports and Vatican accounts of their 35-minute private conversation are accurate, the two men, both characteristically stubborn, both icons on opposite sides of a profound historical, ideological and political divide, discovered enough common ground to advance plans for a papal visit to Cuba next year.

A decade ago, when communism still held sway over Eastern Europe, John Paul II might have shaken a condemning finger at Castro, as he did to Jesuit Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, a minister in the revolutionary Sandinista government, during the pope's 1983 visit to Nicaragua. Castro, for his part, might have avoided diplomatic reception at the Vatican altogether, cozy as he then was with the Soviet empire, and assured of material and political patronage in Moscow.

But this is 1996, and new lessons have apparently been learned. Castro has taken steps to relax controls on the church in Cuba, eliminating policies that prevented Catholics from holding full membership in the Communist Party. In Rome, the 70-year-old leader of the four-decade Cuban revolution appeared open to meeting the pope's requirements that he be allowed to travel and speak without restraint when he visits Cuba in 1997.

"Of course I would not impose conditions. We will treat him with respect," Castro said. Castro said he was "moved" by John Paul II, and claimed it was a "miracle" that "an extraordinary man has met with a modest (social) fighter, with a modest politician."

John Paul, meanwhile, has risked the wrath of Washington by condemning economic sanctions against Cuba and foreign companies that invest there. The pope was described as "downright Castroesque" by one news agency, referring to his repeated statements criticizing economic embargoes and the pitfalls of unfettered global market capitalism.

Castro, expeller of priests, "moved" by the pope? And John Paul II, an ally of Washington in communism's demise, likened to Castro? Strange times indeed. It's not that the pope is reneging on his stance against communism, or that Castro is on the edge of conversion. What seem like contradictions become as "open and clear" as the talks that took place in the pope's library Nov. 19 when they are set against the backdrop of the current impoverishment in Latin America.

Reaching beyond the dichotomies that have bedeviled their own ranks for years, the bishops of Latin America have exhibited similar peculiar behavior in recent years. While they remain stubbornly on opposite ends of the ecclesial, theological and political continuum, many bishops of the region have begun to sing in chorus -- even loudly at times -- in their critique of economic policies they claim represent "signs of death" for the majority of their flock.

A key example is the message read by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino at a news conference following the May 1995 ordinary assembly of the Latin American Council of Bishops in Mexico City. "We wish to say aloud that we cannot remain indifferent before so many signs of death, which appear wherever one turns -- extreme poverty, growing unemployment, unstoppable violence and myriad forms of corruption -- which sink millions of families into anguish and pain. We denounce ... the absolutization of market forces and of the power of money as one of the principal causes of so much inequity," the 70 bishops declared in an official statement.

The bishops condemned economic policies that "forget that economics should be at the service of humankind, and not the other way around." Clarifying this statement, Cuba's Ortega said the offending policies included both communism and the neoliberal model of the untethered free market economy. And, Archbishop Roberto Lucker Leon of Coro, Venezuela, added at the time: "The bugaboo for many years was communism, but which is worse, communism or these neoliberal bandits without conscience who have the dollar as their god?"

Both the pope and Castro have lived eventful lives in turbulent times that seem to be bringing both of them to new realizations about history and the human condition. The world can only benefit if their reciprocal overtures and points of convergence result in breaking down a few more old barriers on the road to greater respect for human dignity in our economic, political and ecclesial systems.

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996