Raul Castro traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis. Their conversation, behind closed doors, apparently satisfied the Cuban dictator. He declared that, if the Pope stayed the same, "I'll go back to praying and go back to the Church." After all, he added, "I was always in Jesuit schools."
Despite Castro's opportunistic promise of a return to the faith, this was really a meeting between two heads of state, not one between religious brethren. Raul is the president of one of the world's few remaining communist nations, and the Pope, aside from his status as head of Catholicism, is the monarch of a miniscule state legitimized after the Lateran Accords signed in 1929 between Benito Mussolini and a representative of Pius XI.
From a political point of view, these states are two eccentric phenomena with some formal resemblance.
The Pope, as the chief of state, is a kind of king endowed with absolute powers, elected by a small number of cardinals - celibate males, generally elderly. Raul is a president, also endowed with absolute power, supposedly selected by the Council of State (in reality by his brother Fidel), a miniscule group of deputies (many of them military officers) in the National Assembly of the People's Power, whose members are chosen in single-party elections.
Strictly speaking, the authority enjoyed by the two heads of state has nothing to do with the pluralistic and open processes of liberal democracy. That may explain the Vatican's traditional frigidity in the face of an absence of freedoms. That is why concordats with Franco's Spain in 1953 and with Trujillo's bloodstained Dominican Republic in 1954 were acceptable. To neither country did Pope Pius XII demand a change in conduct in order to sign agreements. The objectives of the Church were of another nature.
What are those objectives? The Catholic Church follows three basic imperatives: to spread the Gospel, to educate, and to participate actively and publicly in the moral debate within society. To this, it adds a clear emphasis on the exercise of charity, an activity that functions as the institution's grand earthly mission and as a cohesive element that keeps it united.
The three tasks are intimately linked, but developing any of them requires, at the very least, the neutrality of the state, which forces the institution into a painful obsequiousness - an attitude of complacency toward power that emerged in the Fourth Century after the Edict of Thessalonica dictated by the Emperor Theodosius, the initiator of Caesaropapism. That act transformed the Church. Previously the target of occasional persecution, it became a frequent persecutor.
The Church has since been part of the state or has placed itself next to the state - sometimes in the performance of vile tasks such as those that defined the Inquisition - but it has almost never confronted the state, even when the latter is manifestly criminal. That is not in the Church's nature. Its kingdom, it says, is not of this world.
It is true that Pope Francis has every good intention of helping the Cubans solve many of their material problems. But judging from the jubilation with which Castro has greeted the Pope's mediation and support, the Havana regime sees the Holy See's behavior as a big boost to its political project to consolidate a neo-communist dictatorship with a single party and a mixed economy - an even more conservative variant of the Chinese experiment.
It is likely that the Church's hierarchy in Rome (or Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Cuba) is not excessively worried by the strengthening of a neo-communist model along Chinese ideological lines. (Just as in the past no one in the Vatican lost any sleep over its good relations with Somoza, Trujillo, the Argentine generals, and a shameful etcetera.). But I fear that this could very negatively affect those who aspire to democratic change on the island, similar to what took place in Eastern Europe.
Those Cubans want a transition to a liberal democracy, not to a single-party capitalist dictatorship like the ones in China and Vietnam. Evidently, the Pope is satisfied with that outcome. And that's lamentable.