Autocrats: Despite their ideological and theological differences, the pope and the dictator operate similarly.

January 18, 1998|By COLMAN MCCARTHY

Among the God-starved in Cuba, Pope John Paul II is likely to bask this week in days of large crowds and appreciative worshipers. Cuba's somewhat underground church, denied full expression of free faith for nearly 40 years, will become an above-ground church this week when public Masses and papal sermons push aside state-enforced secularism.

Despite ideological and theological differences, John Paul and Cuban President Fidel Castro are hardly blood enemies. In late 1996, the Marxist dictator visited the pope in the Vatican to invite him to Cuba and its flock of 500,000 practicing Roman Catholics out of a population of 11 million. Castro, son of a Catholic mother and educated in Catholic schools, has not persecuted priests and nuns in the brutal way other Latin American despots have. Castro's violence against church people pales in comparison with the systematic barbarities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, to name a few of the death-dealing regimes supplied weapons and military aid by Washington. Other Latin American dictators -- not Castro -- have sent soldiers to Fort Benning's School of the Americas, called "the School of Assassins" by its critics. Its graduates include Manuel Noriega of Panama and Roberto D'Aubisson of El Salvador. Some Salvadoran graduates were linked to the murders of six Jesuit priests.

Considering the warmth shown to Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler during his recent journey to Cuba when he delivered medical supplies, the prospects for a conciliatory papal visit are strong.

An irony is present. At the same time an atheist dictator welcomes the pope as a spiritual giant, many in the global Catholic community of 965 million are in open conflict with John Paul's dictatorial methods of enforcing his policies. On the issues of dealing with dissent, Castro and John Paul share the same philosophy: Suppress it. Both leaders say the same: my way or no way. Cuba's defiers of state authority are jailed and put out of sight. Defiers of Vatican authority are put out of work.

Among the latest victims of papal power is the Rev. William Rewak, a 64-year-old Jesuit priest who served the past eight years as president of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., and 12 years before that as president of the University of Santa Clara in California. At both Jesuit schools, Rewak was well regarded as ++ an administrator and a humane educator. A spiritual man, he was also a published poet.

In September, the Jesuits appointed him president of their School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. Neither they nor Rewak foreseeing any problems from Rome. The school grants pontifical degrees, meaning that the Vatican - and the pope - has hiring and firing power. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Vatican officials uncovered some 20-year-old writings of Rewak on married clergy and women's ordination that differed mildly from the pope's thinking. Rewak was bounced. The paper reports also that the priest "joins at least four other prominent Jesuits turned down by the Vatican in recent years for high-ranking positions at U.S. theology schools."

Removing Jesuits from their work has been a mark of John Paul's papacy. In 1980, after only two years in office, he decided that the Rev. Robert Drinan, a former dean of the Boston College law school and a 10-year member of Congress from Massachusetts' 4th District, should get out of politics. Drinan was firmly encamped in the liberal Robert F. Kennedy-Philip Hart wing of the Democratic Party, championing human rights, programs for the poor and opposing capital punishment, corporate might and Pentagon militarism. His thinking on issues of social justice was also in line with that of Pope Paul VI, who never objected to Drinan's service in Congress. Nor did the U.S. Catholic Conference object or the archbishop of Boston. But for John Paul, the separation of church and state meant keeping his clergy separate from secular politics, especially if, as in Drinan's case, their voting record on abortion funding bills wasn't exclusively pro-life.

Drinan, who vainly asked the pope to reconsider, obeyed and left Congress. If in Drinan's ouster the pope thought he was sticking it to the American left, the voters had other ideas. They replaced the Jesuit with Barney Frank, as liberal as anyone in the House these past 18 years.

In 1980, John Paul had other priests he wanted to send packing. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was one. Loathed by the Salvadoran right wing for denouncing its death squad

terrorism from the pulpit, Romero had pleaded with President Jimmy Carter in early 1980 not to send weapons or military aid to El Salvador. Carter ignored the request. El Salvador soon became blood-drenched, starting with the assassination of Romero, who was gunned down March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass.

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