Benedict XVI in Cuba

Catholicism is not a “religion of the book,” but rather a faith built around word and sacrament — or, if you prefer, text and demonstration. Symbolic acts that convey the truths the Church teaches are of the essence of Catholic practice; this is true of the Church’s public life as well as of its worship. The Church teaches an ethic of charity toward the poor and marginalized; the Church embodies that teaching in its hospitals, schools, and social-service agencies. The Church teaches that the just society is composed of a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture; the Church embodies that teaching in its support for the institutions of civil society that make free politics and free economics possible — even when that requires challenging the existing political order, as it did during the pontificate of John Paul II in countries as diverse as Poland, Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines.

Viewed through this prism of word-and-sacrament, or text-and-demonstration, Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26–28 pilgrimage to the island prison of Cuba was a rather Protestant exercise: brilliant in word but deficient in “sacramentality.” The pope’s time in Santiago and Havana was by no means wasted. But it could have been used better by demonstrating in action the truths Benedict XVI taught with conviction; such a demonstration would have strengthened the hand of the civil-society associations on which the transition to a free Cuba ultimately depends. The gap between “text” and “demonstration” during the pope’s Cuban voyage is also instructive through the light it sheds on the Catholic future in a Cuba-in-transition, and on a crucial issue in the conclave that will choose Pope Benedict’s successor.

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