Carlos Eire: What Pope Benedict Got Wrong in Cuba

Roundup: Historians' Take

Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

When Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Cuba two weeks ago, he was acting within a long tradition. Popes, after all, are not only spiritual leaders, they are representatives of the oldest continuous absolute monarchy in the world, which traces back to the Apostle Peter two millennia ago: The Holy See has been engaging in diplomacy far longer than any modern state has been in existence. On account of that history, and because of its spiritual authority, the Vatican has a rare sort of international clout, one that doesn’t depend on armies or a gross national product.

Pope Benedict XVI cannot be accused of shirking his responsibility to engage with world affairs. But it is equally clear that he has not been inclined to use his diplomatic power to promote political freedom. On his recent trip, Benedict could have advocated human rights, or protection for Cuban dissidents, many of whom are Catholic themselves. But on all these issues, he largely kept silent. Indeed, when it comes to papal visits and speeches, this pope has focused his diplomacy on ensuring the Catholic Church’s growth, even when it requires keeping silent about flagrant abuses of human rights.

It didn’t have to be this way, as the example of Pope John Paul II attests. Benedict’s immediate predecessor set a very high bar as an international diplomat, undertaking 104 foreign trips, more than all previous popes combined. Indeed, upon ascending in 1979, John Paul II essentially redefined the papacy: Previously, popes had mostly dealt with the world in relative seclusion, from within the papal palace in the Vatican....

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