A non-event may become the most noteworthy event of the March 23-29th Pope Benedict XVI visit to Cuba and Mexico. The Pope has apparently refused to meet with a particular group of faithful, dissident Cuban Catholics, a refusal noted in sources as diverse as the conservative Wall Street Journal and the National Review as well as the liberal Huffington Post.
Cuba is the most repressive regime in the Western Hemisphere and we have received thousands upon thousands of Cuban citizens who have abandoned everything to find freedom. Armando Valladares’ chilling account Against All Hope describes decades of torture for thousands in Cuban prison prior to his eventual release, due in part to worldwide pressure from Amnesty International.
Repression, intimidation and torture continue in Cuba to this day and a group of Cuban Catholic women, The Ladies in White, march through the streets of many Cuban cities after Sunday mass, carrying gladiolas and giving silent testimony to the incarceration of their husbands, sons and brothers. These women have met stiff resistance from the police. They have been beaten, bullied and threatened. Even when the government reluctantly released some of their husbands the women continue their weekly marches until Cubans are able to practice freedom of conscience.
It is this group that has begged to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, even for a single minute. Some of them refused to leave a Havana Catholic Church last week until, by one account they were forcibly removed by police. They were pleading with the Pope to add them to his schedule, who indicated his schedule is too crowded.
Such a meeting could legitimize and encourage the struggle for freedom of conscience and send a strong message to communists. Cuban émigré Carlos Eire, Yale Professor of History and Religious Studies, has lobbied the Pope for such a meeting in an Online National Review article, likening the Ladies in White to the blind beggar in the gospels who, commanded to be silent by the crowds, cried out all the louder.
President Reagan, regarding the former Berlin Wall, forcefully demanded of the Russians, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The effectiveness of that remark is debatable, but not the sentiment or the passion. What would happen if Pope Benedict XVI was equally blunt and met with the Ladies in White?
Of course it’s easy to attain moral clarity and strength of purpose while sitting behind a word processor. There are always considerations that make the simplest issues complex. How far does one push a regime before becoming counterproductive? How much does a leader reveal about behind the scenes diplomacy? When does one lose all credibility for being seen as too friendly with “the other side”?
Surely every nation has Catholics with legitimate causes who demand to make their case before the Pope when he’s in town. And yet every leader has only so many hours to lend to even the noblest of causes. For instance, should Pope Benedict XVI, a vocal opponent of the death penalty, meet with death row families the next time he visits the U.S.? To do so would encourage some Americans while leaving the Pope open to charges of being a meddler with others. Should the Pope, an opponent of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, meet with national legislators trying to overturn this policy or leave that issue to the state?
Complexities and conundrums face leaders in all walks of life: business, state, church. But that comes with the territory. Leaders are leaders when they display courage even to their own harm and so I add my voice to those urging Pope Benedict XVI to do and say something dramatic and symbolic to address the continuing torture and repression endured by the citizens of Cuba.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.