Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is making a historic trip to Cuba at the end of March, the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. This high-profile trip has many people buzzing as to its significance, and what it means as Cuba’s communist government looks towards a post-Castro era. What is clear, is that the Pope will not be meeting with any leaders or practitioners of Santeria / Lukumi during his three-day stint in Cuba, despite a hurtful snub from the last Pope’s visit.
“The 84-year-old pope’s schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul’s five-day visit was, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter. A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict’s schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santería representatives. Lombardi said Santería does not have an “institutional leadership,” which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions. “It is not a church” in the traditional sense, Lombardi said.”
During Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Santeria practitioners were blatantly left out. The Catholic Church’s head met with representatives from Jewish, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches, institutions that oversee tiny minorities on the island, while an estimated 80% of Cubans participate in some form of Santeria or other syncretic African religious practice. Can you imagine a religious tour of a land that ignores 80% of the actual religious practice and still be seen as valid? At least one Cuban Santero, Lazaro Cuesta, is bitter over the treatment his faith received from Catholic leaders in the past.
“…we live in the basement, where nobody sees us …we have already seen one pope visit … and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us.”
One should not be surprised, for as much as Pope Benedict likes to talk about dialog with indigenous and traditional non-Christian faiths, he seems hesitant to actually engage in it. Even when perfect opportunities lay before him.
On Saturday, he traveled to Ouidah on Benin’s Atlantic coast, more or less the Vatican of voodoo. Historically, Benin has been the cradle of voodoo in West Africa, and it remains a huge presence. A famed python temple is right across the street from Ouidah’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a reminder of how Catholicism and voodoo live cheek by jowl.
One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism.
Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe. That produced some resentment in a country that’s proud of its unique religious heritage — Jan. 10, for instance, is marked as “voodoo day.”
If Benedict won’t deign to visit practitioners of Vodun in its very birthplace, even after much speculation that he might, what hope does Santeria have in Cuba? One can only imagine that this trend of avoidance goes beyond mere discomfort, or fear of unscripted moments of truth-telling, or even traditionalist furor, into outright animus against any and all non-monotheistic “pagan” faiths. Benedict, when he was Cardinal, lashed out at Catholic interfaith efforts when he thought they might be getting too chummy with African animists, he also called Buddhism narcissistic in nature, and predicted it would replace Marxism as the Church’s main enemy.
This behavior continued once Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizers. At the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism.” During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession.
Only the most blinkered Catholic partisan could look at these instances and not see a unifying theme. A message that true “interfaith” and “dialog” only exists in the Catholic Church between faiths it is forced to respect through social or political power. Or in very rare instances, when it is shamed into changing its behavior. Twelve years ago Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for the sins of the Catholic Church. He apologized to Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and to native peoples. But apologies have to be backed by action to mean something. So long as Benedict continues his trend of ignoring or insulting “non-institutional” indigenous, traditional, and Pagan religions, we all, to paraphrase Lazaro Cuesta, will continue to live in the Catholic basement.