Two faces of pope's Cuba visit

I just returned home from a 10-day Mexico mission trip with my church. I am unbelievably behind on e-mail and other messages, much less the headlines of the past week and a half. I have perused just a few GetReligion posts, including Mollie's roundup this morning on Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Mexico and Cuba.

As I try to catch up, I wanted to highlight an excellent story that I read in today's Wall Street Journal. Ahead of the pope's visit, the story highlighted the differing approaches of two Roman Catholic clergymen in Cuba:

SANTIAGO, Cuba—As young men, Jaime Ortega and José Conrado Rodríguez were teacher and student at a Cuban Catholic seminary. Decades later, the teacher, now a cardinal, and the student, a country priest, are dueling over the soul of the island—and the part the church should play in saving it.

Their debate is over the church's role in pushing for reform as the 53-year hold on power of Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl starts to wane. Cardinal Ortega, the senior Catholic clergyman in Cuba, offers a cautious critique of the government, while Father Rodríguez, from his parish pulpit in Santiago, preaches more open opposition.

This meaty, 2,300-word story (on the front page of the Journal that landed in my driveway this morning) appealed to me for a variety of reasons:

— It put real human faces on distinctly different approaches to Cuba's Communist regime. Readers are left to decide for themselves which approach is better.

The cardinal, 75 years old, meets regularly with Raúl Castro, and has obtained concessions such as the release of political prisoners and a new tolerance for government officials attending Mass openly.

He was even permitted to help start a new business school—a first in Communist Cuba—to train entrepreneurs amid legal changes allowing Cubans to start small businesses. He has rarely criticized the Communist regime in public, a posture that has made him a target of criticism.

Father Rodríguez, 60, has a different approach. He believes the church has a moral duty to speak out against Communism—a calling, he says, that led it to oppose Communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. In a small church on the other side of the island from the cardinal's Havana cathedral, Father Rodríguez lambastes the Cuban government as backward, self-serving and tyrannical.

— In the midst of significant reporting on politics, government and the church hierarchy, the article did not fail to explore a key theological issue. (It got religion, in other words.)

The debate over the proper relationship between the church and secular authority traces back to the Gospels, which describe Jesus saying: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." At a gathering last year, the cardinal quoted the passage, reminding listeners that the early Christian martyrs, facing an adverse Roman government, "proclaimed their faith" rather than "attacked the structure of power."

Father Rodríguez sees that passage differently. "It means everyone—including the state—must answer to divine law," he recently told a gathering of Cuban exiles in Miami. "The church must liberate the people."

— In such a serious story, the writer allowed occasional touches of relevant humor.

Archbishop Wenski says the two clerics aren't as far apart as they seem. "They say God laughs when we're referred to as an organized religion, and maybe we're seeing that here," he says. "These two men might be putting emphasis on different notes but they're singing the same song."

— Finally, the reporter attempted to answer basic questions, even when sources' answers varied widely.

There are no reliable figures on the number of Catholics in Cuba. The Vatican says about 60% of Cuba's residents are Catholic. Some clergymen involved with the island estimate that about a half-million of Cuba's 11 million people attend church on a typical Sunday.

What am I missing? Is this report better or worse than other coverage you've seen of the Cuba trip? Please weigh in with your journalism-focused comments.

Image of Old Havana via Shutterstock

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