He would not be the last priest to leave. In the spring of 1961, the Cuban government thwarted the Bay of Pigs invasion conducted by Cuban Americans with assistance from the CIA. Four priests had taken part in the operation, which helped catalyze Fidel’s plan, already underway, to crack down on the church. He ordered the closure of Catholic schools and Cuba deported 130 priests to Spain that fall. Over the next few years, 3,500 nuns and priests decamped from the island. Regime thugs invaded churches and disrupted religious processions, and priests and lay activists were put in prisons.
“The church was devastated: Its principal source of income, its schools, were cut off, the number of priests had declined from eight hundred to two hundred in just three years, most of the faithful had left, and relations between church and government leaders bordered on hostility,” John Kirk wrote in Between God and the Party.
But the Holy See never broke diplomatic ties with Cuba, even though the Vatican considered godless communism its greatest threat. The Church’s nuncio, or papal ambassador, Monsignor Cesare Zacchi, courted Fidel with shared meals and scuba diving, unnerving some Cuban bishops and inflaming Miami’s growing exile community. “The people have obtained a radical change in their material well-being,” Zacchi declared at the time. “There has been a redistribution of wealth ... [and] social justice—something which was not prevalent before.”
“Zacchi was ahead of his times,” said University of Notre Dame theologian Father Robert Pelton, an authority on Cuba. “Nobody was ready for it, but he was right in his approach—don’t distance yourself from the regime, get into stuff but in accord with your conscience. The Catholic Church has to exist with systems that don’t agree with it.”
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As Cuba’s skeletal church crawled through the 1970s, the Latin American bishops’ conference championed a “preferential option for the poor.” A new movement known as Liberation Theology gave residents of slums and barrios a view of Christ allied with the poor—a mission to seek decent living standards and justice. Meanwhile, Fidel maintained in a 1985 interview with a leftist Brazilian priest, published in the book Fidel and Religion, that “the wealthy class has a monopoly on the Church.” Yet Fidel also acknowledged the Latin American Church’s leftward shift and stressed dimensions of the revolution that few Christians could disparage: Latin America’s highest rate of literacy; widespread education; a free health-care system; the integration of black people into workplaces and society; and more opportunities for the poor.
That same year brought a turning point for Catholicism on the island. The National Cuban Church Meeting, or ENEC in Spanish, promoted a strategy to place the Church back in the public square without challenging the legitimacy of Fidel’s movement. “Until ENEC,” explained Javier Figueroa, the historian, “the church was weak, confined to saying Mass; it could not go out and evangelize. If you went to church, your kids might not get into the college they wanted or you might not get a certain job. ENEC said, ‘Engage the culture, be active in society.’” After ENEC, “gaining space” became a term for incremental freedom as Church publications, speakers, and conferences pushed for greater justice, albeit in careful language. The Church was advocating for bolder coexistence with the revolution.