Cuba: a mini-compendium of Catholic social doctrine

Integrating Cuba more deeply into the family of nations has been a major priority of the last three popes. Each of these popes has visited Cuba, and Pope Francis’ personal appeal to President Obama and Raul Castro has led to breakthroughs in diplomatic and cultural relations, the release of political prisoners and removal of many travel restrictions between the two nations.

Additionally, the church now has more space to live its mission, and there is slow progress toward greater protection of human rights.

By Jason Adkins
By Jason Adkins

Yet the chief source of Cuba’s isolation — the U.S. trade embargo — remains in place.

In the church’s advocacy for an end to the trade embargo, her social doctrine comes alive in the compelling application of its principles to this concrete reality.

People over ideology

The need to transcend ideology and focus on the dignity of the human person and the common good is a cornerstone of modern papal social encyclicals. Cubans, however, have suffered greatly from ideological brinkmanship over the past 60 years.

In an effort to destabilize Cuba’s repressive Marxist regime, the United States imposed a trade embargo in 1960. But as the U.S. bishops have noted, the “principal effect” of this embargo “has been to strengthen Cuban government control and to weaken an already fragile civil society,” harming the poor and vulnerable far more than government elites.

Ideological grandstanding has allowed the policy to persist despite evidence that the embargo has actually worked against its purported aims while bringing additional hardships onto a suffering people.

Rather than sacrificing the well-being of people on the altar of ideology, the church proposes that both nations forge a new future for Cuba, rooted in the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Cuban people. This would include greater respect for religious liberty and a more open political and economic system that protects the nation’s right of self-determination.

International peripheries

Pope Francis has repeatedly called all of us to reach out to people on the peripheries to share the joy of the Gospel and to work for their well-being. This “theology of encounter” is a re-presentation of the church’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and can be analogized to the international community and its member nations.

Families gather for a meeting with Pope Francis at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago, Cuba, last Sept. 22. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Families gather for a meeting with Pope Francis at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago, Cuba, last Sept. 22. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cuba, in isolation from the international community and with deep internal difficulties, is certainly at the peripheries of the global community, and its people suffer as a result. Therefore, the church is justified in putting so much effort into fostering greater encounter and collaboration between the United States and Cuba.

Restoring Cuba’s status as a full-fledged member of the international community would benefit all parties, and not merely in a material sense that considers only the exchange of economic goods. Just as each member of society is endowed with unique gifts to contribute to the broader community, nations are each called to contribute their gifts to the community of nations. Ending the United States’ isolation of Cuba will allow each nation to work together more fully to pursue justice and peace, which is at the core of the principle of solidarity.

Engagement, encounter

Though the church remains concerned about conditions in Cuba and human rights violations, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops believes that “improving the lives of the Cuban people and encouraging democracy and human rights in Cuba will best be advanced through more, rather than less, contact between Cuban and American peoples. . . . Removing the barriers to free commerce with Cuba, and thus deepening the trade relationship, is also another step toward greater engagement.”

Engagement and encounter with those at the margins, rather than isolation and exclusion. These are long-standing principles of Catholic social doctrine that become clearer to us in Pope Francis’ exhortations and the church’s Cuban diplomacy.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Become a member of the Catholic Advocacy Network by visiting

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