The Pope’s Challenge to Cuba—and the World

Benedict XVI’s homily in the Plaza de la Revolución on March 28 was a rousing call to peace, faith, and reason

Pope Benedict XVI carries his pastoral staff after celebrating Mass in Revolution Square in Havana. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Benedict XVI carries his pastoral staff after celebrating Mass in Revolution Square in Havana. (CNS/Paul Haring)“Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus. Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth. God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose. Certainly, it is not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith promotes. Each man and woman has to seek the truth and to choose it when he or she finds it, even at the risk of embracing sacrifices.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, March 28, 2012.


Cuba has been, in effect, a Marxist ideological dictatorship for half a century. It would be difficult to know how else accurately to describe it. Whether it can go on after Castro brothers’ deaths can be wondered about, but possibly. The Cuban government controls the population of the relatively small island. Many who might have caused an inner revolt have usually managed to escape to other countries. The remaining population is kept passive by government aid and coercion. Most of the methods of tyrannical control that are found described in Aristotle or Machiavelli have been successfully employed to keep power: keep people busy, control friendships and communication, and use force when necessary. Control of military, police, economy, education, health services, and culture have been in place. Chances of a John Paul II type peaceful revolt from within seem slim, though they also seemed remote in Poland also.

The Church in Cuba exists, with hierarchy and parishes, but the schools and other services fall under state control in one way or another. It is a difficult situation. Objectively, it is not free, but it is there. Do we go along the best we can or protest? Protesting usually means long prison terms, as many brave Cubans know. Though there are sanctions designed to mitigate the severity of Cuban control, no one wants to bother doing anything rash. And so the Cuban establishment feels fairly secure in its own world. Outside powers have varying relations to Cuba, usually on its terms, depending on the political situation of the country involved. The Cuban government likes to think—or at least insist—that its shabby economy and social conditions are rather a small Marxist paradise, long after most Marxists utopias have been shown to be what they are: human and transcendent failures.

Following the example of John Paul II, Benedict XVI also went to Cuba, a land of long Catholic tradition. It is the Jubilee Year of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. Even Castro did not suppress that devotion. When Benedict visited the Plaza de la Revolucion on Wednesday, March 28, the Mass was taken from the Lenten Mass of the day. He greeted the Archbishop of Havana, other bishops, priests, seminarians, religious, and lay faithful. He mentions also “civil authorities who join us.” Since no names were mentioned, we assume that no high official was allowed to appear; otherwise he would have likely been mentioned by name.

The pope appropriately cited the passage from John 8 (v 32) in the Mass, the famous passage stating, “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” This is Benedict’s basic message to the Cuban regime. They are not free insofar as they oppose the truth. Who else could tell them this fact? Benedict adds that Christ’s “teaching provokes resistance and disquiet among His hearers and He accuses them of looking for reasons to kill him.” The theme that those who uphold the truth will be killed is striking. It takes right back to Socrates and Christ. The Cuban Marxists, no doubt, will say that, since they have the truth, this saying applies only to their enemies. But Benedict notes that Christ exhorted even those who would kill Him to believe.

Benedict next explains what truth indicates. “The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom.” Many do not want to face this relationship between freedom and truth. They are like Pilate who wanted to wash his hands of the whole mess. They elevate Pilate’s cynical “What is truth?” to a philosophical principle. Truth cannot be known. Once we hold this version of skepticism or relativism, our hearts are “changed.” We doubt everything. All is permitted. Like the Roman governor, we do not take a stand. But the Cuban rulers take a stand on their “truth.” They allow no one the public freedom to doubt it.

Benedict then takes up the question of those who have a fanatical version of truth. “They close themselves up in ‘their truth,’ and try to impose it on others.” This is hitting pretty close to home. Benedict is blunt. They are like the ‘blind Scribes” who yell “Crucify Him” (Jn 19:6).

The pope then reiterates one of the principle themes of his whole pontificate and intellectual life: “Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus. Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth.” Of course, Benedict does not deny that even the best of our kind sometimes act irrationally. What he does mean is that what is irrational in principle cannot be Catholic, cannot be the faith that is directed to reason. This is the import of the “Regensburg Lecture.”

“God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose.” The purpose of reason as a power is that we actually use it to know what is, to know the truth of things. In much of modern society, all religion is defined to be “irrational” and potentially fanatical, no matter what it holds. This dubious theory happily justifies state control, as we are seeing every day in our own society and throughout the world. 

The fact is that some religions do have fanatical elements that do need control. This is why Benedict stresses the distinctiveness of Christianity precisely here. It rejects irrationality, be it that of Marxism, relativism, skepticism, liberalism, pragmatism, or that found in any religion including Christianity.


Looking at these principles to answer the objection that Christian itself is “fanatical,” Benedict writes: “Certainly, it (‘man’s inner vocation to truth’) is not irrational but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith proposes. Each man and woman has to seek the truth and to choose it when he or she finds it, even at the risk of embracing sacrifices.” Benedict is speaking clearly and profoundly here. It is a precise instruction on what we are about, to know the truth, and what to do about it, follow it, even at great cost.

Truth is not something we concoct for ourselves. We seek it; we discover it; we do not create it. “The truth which stands above humanity is an unavoidable condition for  attaining freedom, since in it we discover the foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contain clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person.” This is a very insightful sentence. Truth is the same for all men. It “stands above humanity” to judge them all, not just Cuba, but Cuba too. Without truth about what God, cosmos, man, society, family, and the world are, we cannot deal with one another in the freedom in which we all understand the basis of truth.

Benedict is here speaking to all cultures, religions, and nations. He is upholding the universality of reason in all men and giving a foundation for its validity. Yet, “Christianity, in highlighting those values which sustain ethics, does not impose, but rather proposes Christ’s invitation to know the truth which sets us free. The believer is called to offer that truth to his contemporaries, as did the Lord, even before the ominous shadow of rejection and the Cross.”

Again these are penetrating words. One wonders whom in Cuba, or elsewhere, is free enough of soul to ponder them. The Church proposes. What it proposes in the name of Christ can be rejected and has been rejected often from the beginning. Men are free to reject the truth. But they are not free to avoid the consequences of their rejection; nor are they free to exclude responses to their claims against truth.

Christ, Benedict tells us, is the “true measure of man,” something John Paul II taught in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. “I (Benedict) wish to proclaim openly that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.” The Church lives to make clear this truth, which it does not “make up” but receives from Christ to be handed down. This faith and truth are also “public.” Benedict sees in Cuba steps being made to enable the Church “to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly.” He asks the government to strengthen these apparently initial endeavors.  To do so is a service to the “Cuban society.”

Benedict then reaffirms something he reiterates often: “The right to freedom of religion, both in its private and in its public dimension, manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer.” Believers also contribute to the good of society by being reasonable and rational persons.

Benedict ends with a tribute to Father Felix Varela, who once was a vicar in the diocese of New York and the founder of a newspaper in St. Augustine, Florida. He lies now buried in the Aula Magna of the University of Havana “He has taken his place in Cuban history as the first one who taught his people how to think.” That is no mean feat indeed! Varela gives us a way to think about how to “transform society.” We need to form “virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation, for this transformation depends on the spiritual, in as much as ‘there is no authentic fatherland without virtue’” The pope is citing from Varela’s letter of 1836. He is telling Cuba, in other words, that there is a peaceful way.

Somehow, this phrase “No authentic fatherland without virtue,” itself sounds to me like a passage from Cicero. It is not in my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I also checked Google. I was amazed at how many times that passage from the pope’s Havana address was cited, many dozens and dozens of times. I suspect the reason for this attention to Varela’s striking passage is because it is directly pertinent to our “fatherland” and the struggle over virtue and religious freedom that we now face with the culture and the government.

 “Cuba and the world need change,” Benedict finally tells us, “but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and choose the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.” Perhaps we can consider these words the last legacy of Fidel Castro to the world, to be the occasion of reminding us all, though the Pope of Rome and Father Felix Varela, that virtue and fatherland go together, that “truth stands above humanity,” that we cannot be free unless we seek and know the truth, and that we may well have to suffer if we do, even in our fatherlands, wherever they may be.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).