Newsreal: The odd couple

The pope's upcoming visit to Cuba and meeting with Fidel Castro is being depicted as a sort of ideological shootout: believer vs. atheist, Catholic vs. Communist, Old World vs. New. But the reality is much more complex.

Published January 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Pope John Paul II is coming to Cuba. The pope who helped liberate the Soviet empire is the guest of the world's last Marxist hero. An unlikely pair, yes. And why not?

Americans, especially non-Catholic Americans, tend to admire this pope. A former Time magazine "Man of the Year," he seems exceptional among world leaders -- a man of fierce moral principle who speaks his mind. Americans, too, see him as the anti-communist pope, the Polish freedom fighter who provided critical support for the Solidarity trade union movement that overthrew the communist regime there.

But this same anti-communist pope has also been a fierce critic of capitalism -- particularly the cruelties and social Darwinism of the free-market economy.

The Polish pope belongs more to the communal East. After demonstrations against his papacy in Holland and Germany in the 1980s, one sensed his growing disdain toward the individualist and decadent West. Financially, the church worldwide is largely supported by the United States and by Germany, by dollars and deutsch marks. But the great strides for Catholicism are being taken in the Third World, in Africa and Asia and in a resurgent Eastern Europe. Not in the West.

Fidel Castro was raised a Catholic in a Cuba that blended Roman orthodoxy and Afro-Caribbean Santeria; he attended Catholic schools. Despite his murderous cruelty, there remains something almost Victorian about Castro's Havana today, by comparison to the bawdy pre-revolutionary years.

If he were alive, Graham Greene, the great Catholic novelist, who flirted with left-wing causes in Latin America, would doubtless enjoy the spectacle of Castro and the anti-communist pope embracing. For all of their differences, these two men understand each other culturally. Castro is recognizable to the pope in ways that, say, President Clinton -- a Protestant, individualist and capitalist -- is not.

Last summer, John Paul was reported to be deeply moved by the large numbers of young Catholics who gathered in Paris to celebrate their religion. It was a surprising moment for European Catholicism, which has been in decline for decades -- with the churches of Europe becoming little more than tourist attractions. And despite the seeming upsurge in religious feeling in capitals like Paris, priests in Rome tell me that the Vatican loathes the spread of Western hedonism. Rome expects the West to be saved by the East.

Meanwhile, a number of American priests and nuns I know voice an impatience with authoritarian Rome, the pope's lack of collegiality. The American Catholic Church shudders from a growing split between traditionalists, attentive to Rome, and more individualist Catholics, who tend to shrug off the Vatican's teachings on matters like birth control and the status of women.

So it will be interesting to watch them. The pope and the communist. Two men so different, but each surely recognizable to the other.

An authoritarian, like John Paul, gray-bearded Fidel is a figure of respect, even affection, through much of Latin America. He is admired less for his deflated Marxist ideology than for his ability, all these years, to have stood up to the gringo bully.

The pope, frail now with age and trembling, remains a giant in the world. In Cuba, we Americans will see him as the winning opponent of the godless Soviet empire. But we would do well to remember, as he stands just 90 miles away, that this pope is a critic also of us.

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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Catholicism Cuba Religion Russia Soviet Union