The president negotiated the deal between the United States and Cuba over the course of 18 months. Pope Francis apparently initiated the negotiations himself. The Vatican released the following statement:
[T]he Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.Raul Castro thanked Pope Francis personally for the deal.
Pope Francis’ casual embrace of a communist regime contrasts sharply with the approach of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979 famously helped launch the solidarity movement that led to the collapse of communism in the nation.
When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, he blasted the Castro regime by routinely using the language of freedom, and implicitly criticizing the Castros:
The Church in Cuba has always proclaimed Jesus Christ, even if at times she has had a scarcity of priests and has had to do so in difficult circumstances. I wish to express my admiration for so many of the Cuban faithful for their fidelity to Christ, to the Church and to the Pope, as also for the respect they have shown for the more genuine religious traditions learned from their elders, and for the courage and persevering spirit of commitment demonstrated in the midst of their sufferings and ardent hopes.Pope Francis, then an assistant archbishop, apparently wrote a book about the visit, which he joined. The tract, titled Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro, slammed “the spirit that has driven capitalism – using capital to oppress and subject people.”
Pope Benedict visited Cuba in 2012 and slammed the American embargo against Cuba, but also stated in Havana’s Revolution Square:
The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom… [some] wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves in ‘their truth,’ and try to impose it on others.At the time, human rights activists criticized Benedict for not meeting with dissidents.
Francis has gone further than both of his predecessors. He didn’t merely criticize the embargo – he attempted to broker an end to it with explicitly political maneuvering. According to his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, Francis “saw the paralysis that resulted from the embargo, which had a deeply damaging impact on Cuban politics, psyche and economics.”
And unlike both John Paul II and Benedict, Francis’ critique of communism has been tepid at best. In October, Francis complained that “land, housing and work are increasingly unavailable to the majority of the world’s population,” and warned, “If I talk about this, some will think that the Pope is a communist.” Instead, Francis explained, “love for the poor is at the center of the Gospel…it’s the social doctrine of the church.”
In June, Francis actually suggested that communism had cribbed from Catholicism: “I can only say that the communists have stolen our flat. The flag of the poor is Christian… Communists say that all this is communism. Sure, twenty centuries later. So when they speak, one can say to them: ‘but then you are Christian.’”
In December 2013, Francis said at the United Nations that economic progress could be achieved through “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensible cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” He has tweeted, “Inequality is the root of social evil” – a notion that would certainly come as a shock to many religious people who believe that mistreatment of others is the root of social evil.
In October 2013, Francis went so far as to tell a prominent Italian interviewer, “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good…Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.” This seeming moral relativism is unsettling coming from the most powerful voice for traditional Biblical religion on the planet.
Pope Francis’ perspective on the Cuban embargo is nothing new to the Vatican. His active involvement in negotiations, however, is. And given his rhetorical differences with his predecessors on the evils of communism, that activism should cause nervousness among more traditional Catholics in the mold of John Paul II and Benedict.