Catholic leaders respond to news of US-Cuban rapproachment

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Pope Francis during a March 27 private audience at the Vatican. (CNS/Stefano Spaziani, pool)

American Catholics are responding warmly to the news of thawing of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, calling it a victory of "engagement" over "isolation" that benefits "ordinary people" in both countries.

President Barack Obama announced the deal to normalize relations between the two countries Wednesday, a deal that included the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross as well as three Cuban citizens held in the U.S. It was negotiated over the course of 18 months of secret talks hosted by Canada and aided by Pope Francis.

In a statement released by the U.S. bishops' conference, Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, said he was "encouraged" by the announcement "of important actions that will foster dialogue, reconciliation, trade, cooperation and contact between our respective nations and citizens."

"Engagement," he said, "is the path to support change in Cuba and to empower the Cuban people in their quest for democracy, human rights and religious liberty."

Stephen Colecchi, director of the USCCB's Office of International Justice and Peace, echoed the sentiment. 

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"When you think about nations and historic change," he told NCR, "when you think about South Africa, when you think about the former Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was engagement that enabled that to take place. Not isolation."

"We think that our nation now is on the right side of history," added Colecchi, who said he had no knowledge of the deal before Wednesday. "This will be good for the United States and for Cuba. And I think that this will be good for people -- ordinary people who want a different future for themselves, who want economic opportunity, who want to be able to support their families."

Asked what this could mean for "ordinary people," Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told NCR: "It's probably too early to say, but I think it will mean something very positive."

"There should be greater exchange now between the United States and Cuba," he said. "Travel restrictions should be eased, the possibility of sending more remittances probably will be enhanced." 

The Cuban church has long opposed the United States' embargo, Wenski said, "because an embargo is a very blunt instrument that hurts innocent people probably more than the guilty it is designed to punish."

Historically, he said, "I think we have to see this in light of Pope John Paul II's call when he visited Cuba in 1998 that Cuba open itself to the world and that the world open itself to Cuba. And with these changes in policy that President Obama announced today, the door has opened significantly."

According to a statement released by the Vatican's Secretariat of State, it was Pope Francis who helped finally thaw relations between America and Cuba by writing letters to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, inviting them to "resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties."

The statement said "the Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties."

"The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 2-15, 2015 print issue under the headline: Obama credits pope's help for Cuba thaw .

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