THE BLOG

Raul and the Church: A Faustian Pact?

06/04/2015 02:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

Last month, Pope Francis met with Raul Castro, who toyed about returning to the fold. In September, the Pope visits Cuba, where new churches are going up. His right-hand man, Cardinal Parolin has led Rome's successful efforts to bring Cuba and the U.S. closer. Cold War hawks have objected, but most celebrate the island's new ties to the Vatican.

Not me. The reason is simple. Reproductive rights are human rights. And Rome has long been their most zealous enemy.

It took expelling the Church for Cuba to become the only Latin America country (1965) to offer legal -- that means "safe" -- abortions. It would take more than 40 years for Uruguay (2012) to follow suit, although Mexico City had done so five years earlier. Elsewhere in the region, women and girls lack meaningful control over their bodies. Several countries ban the procedure outright. Others allow it only to save a woman's life.

This too is for a simple reason: the region follows the Vatican's Catholic plan for society. Nineteenth century revolutions threw off colonialism's political shackles but not its religious ones.

Take Colombia. In 2006, its Constitutional Court held that abortion was legal when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, endangered the mother, or when the fetus was unlikely to survive. Church officials threatened to excommunicate the judges and the medical team that performed the procedure.

Women in the region (really everywhere) still end unwanted pregnancies. According to the World Health Organization, each year in Latin America 4,000,000 unsafe abortions take place, whose complications hospitalize 1,000,000 women and take the lives of a thousand. For them, the wages of sin (abortion is a self-excommunicating act, like killing a priest) really are death.

Women aren't the only ones in the Vatican's sights. In the West, it also leads the charge against sexual minorities. With military rigor, the Church uses its homilies, collection plates, and lobbyists to block legal reforms like anti-discrimination initiatives, policies to stop anti-gay bullying, or laws to let gay and lesbian people adopt children. The island's sexual minorities have begun to glimpse equality, but a resurrected Church would threaten this.

Modern societies like ours are built on and for individual rights to liberty and autonomy. The Church, though, is avowedly pre-modern and anti-modern. For it, only the Divine is supreme authority, the individual must yield to the sacred, and the time horizon is eternity. So it knows how to wait. Its doctrine (Magisterium) implements these values.

Take some mental floss and imagine a world built not on modern values but on Catholic doctrine, especially if the state went along with it. In effect, you would have a theocracy. When individual rights clash with the sacred -- and by definition they must in any modern society -- the Church moves to quash those rights. This doesn't make the Church a "bad" institution. It has to be true to its nature, just as modern society does.

Thankfully, the Church's attempts to shape civil society rarely succeed all the way. The constraints on its power -- especially over those who are not Catholic -- don't arise from the Church's self-restraint because it has decided to be reasonable. No. The Church submits to civil authorities as a last resort. Remember how it evaded responsibility for its sexual racketeering of minors.

To his credit, this Pope does care about the poor. So maybe he will admit that letting women decide when they want to become mothers can help them out of poverty. However, do see Francis for who he really is -- a model Catholic. More Orwellian than his politically incorrect -- though blunt -- predecessor Benedict, Francis is a public relations maven, entrenching the doctrine but seeming to do otherwise.

Take his double-speak on homophobia. Critics swooned when the Pope made noises last year about tolerating gay people. Look at the facts though. In Latin America, he has energetically spoken out against marriage equality, using his personal prestige to support the legal and moral inferiority of gays and lesbians. Last week, Cardinal Parolin (his most senior agent and the one who brokered the U.S.-Cuba detente) called Ireland's popular vote for gay marriage a "defeat for humanity."

Really? All of humanity? Let that sink in. This is no kinder, gentler Vatican. It has been losing ground to modernity, but defeated does not mean repentant. Don't read this as Catholic-bashing either. I didn't pick this fight, but -- as a Cuban-American and a gay man -- I object to the Church's defamatory campaign against my kind and its mendacity generally when dealing with civil authorities.

Cuban men and women have not had to negotiate their sexuality with Rome's putatively celibate clerics for over 50 years. This won't change overnight, but what does it mean when the Church gets a new territory? The island's Catholic revival poses perils -- and not just for Cuban women; for heterosexuals, sexual minorities, and for civil society generally.