Catholicism and independence

By: Julio Pernús

Truth often illuminates the furieslest places in life, so we don’t make much progress if we try to bury it; surely, in the end it will resurrect and continue to mark the fates of our history. The year 1868 could have been one more within the Cuban colonial reality, but a Bayamese aristocrat, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and López del Castillo, decided to insuffer his heart with love and sning an entire people to fight for their freedom. Huge gesture of courage that would include him forever within the annals of Cuban independence and would, he would do so, he would later become – after letting us know that Oscar was not his only son – the “Father of the whole fatherland”.
The materialization of the link between Catholicism and the rise of the Demajagua must be understood in a procedural way. Our journey began in 1492, when the Catholic Church arrived, together with the colonizers, on the most beautiful earth seen by human eyes. The first friars who came to Cuba had the mission of achieving a fruitful evangelization of the natives, considered at the time, soulless people. The disappearance of Aboriginal people and the destruction of their original culture in the early stage of development refer to a very complex reality where the use of force in pursuit of the imposition of a faith is noted.
The colonizers mercilessly exploited the tribes that subsisted on our island, so it was contradictory to suggest to them an approach to the Christian religion, amid a mass extermination by the insatiable search for riches. The Aboriginal people had in Friar Bartholomew of Las Casas, a encomendero converted by the preaching of the Dominican friars, a fervent and tireless defender, a relevant historical figure who knew how to articulate a theoretical and practical defense, and whose voice was heard even at the highest levels of Spanish society, in favor of those beings considered as another instrument of work. At this stage it is undeniable that there was a forced instrumentalization of evangelization as a coercive method of supporting power, and that figures such as Friar Montesinos or Las Casas himself were not a majority within the religious missionaries.
After the annihilation of Cuba’s indigenous settlers, thousands of black-skinned men and women begin to arrive forcefully from Africa. For nearly four centuries slavery on the island was what Joseph of Light and Knight would call in the nineteenth century: “our poison, our social leprosy, our original sin”.1 Clerics established in the “Major of the Antilles” assumed slavery as a natural phenomenon of those times, although we cannot de-armor the importance of Catholic thinkers such as the Cuban priest José Agustín Caballero , who at the start of the nineteenth century, signed under the pseudonyms “Friend of the Incarcerated” and “The Friend of Slaves”.2 He gave an example of social action beyond ecclesial doctrines, advocated a gradual abolition of slavery and the attainment of a Creole government.
Among the pupils who were sown the seeds of equality, justice and independence are José Antonio Saco, Félix Varela and José de la Luz y Caballero. Despite notable exceptions that advocated eradicating the scourge of slavery, the very final document of the Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting (ENEC) developed in 1986 notes, in its study of ecclesial history, that “an explicit condemnation of black trade and slavery was lacking by the Apostolic See and most moralists.”3
A different space within the entire Cuban nation of the eighteenth and nineteenth century is the seminary San Carlos and San Ambrosio. There, “for the first time, the will to look at Cuba’s problems with Cuban eyes takes on conscious and clear expression. This critical gaze will have as its measure and pattern the change of reality from ecclesial work.”4
The figure of the Cuban priest Félix Varela at this stage of our colonial gestation must always be remembered for his coherent defense of the homeland. Men like him and like José de la Luz y Caballero were able to discover and prosecute those evils that shaved the face of the precious Spanish colonial jewel. From their coherence of faith and patriotism they denounced the calamities to which blacks were subjected and advocated for a gradual abolition (we cannot ignore the continued fear of living in Cuba a replica of the Haitian Revolution). They also advocated for the independence of the metropolis.

Much of the ecclesial attempts to have a more Creole clergy were reversed after the death of Bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada y Fernández de Landa: “His death was accompanied by the progressive impersonation of the Creole clergy by Spanish clerics, which conditioned in the mid-19th century a profound shift in the Church’s ideological orientation in Cuba in favor of colonial status.”5
One of the consecrated men who more clearly predicted the uncontainable hatching of an independence gestation was Bishop Jacinto María Martínez, who wrote in his journal:

“We, the representatives of the clergy, told the Spanish government frankly what would result from the brutal abuses of power that were committed against the Creole on the island. May God, we explain, that a people who have seen how only those who have the most strength can command, do not learn this lesson and put it into practice one day.”6

In the midst of a complex process of Spanishization of the clergy, the historic events of October 10, 1868 occur in Demajagua. The independence gestation blew up the relative balance of colonial society and polarized all political forces. At this stage the work of several priests and religious was used to legitimize a misunderstood nationalism that used religion based on colonial interests. The far right closed the way to every current of contrasting thought with its hard line in the face of insurrection. This atmosphere of strong social tensions could not fail to affect relations between the Church and the Royal Board of Trustees.7 In the colony this represented a constant meddling of governors in the affairs of the Church.
It must be recognized that there was an ideological platform with several points in common between the Catholic Church and the Spanish government, which also resulted in tangible fields of collaboration. Not seeing it like that would be an ephemeral attempt to distort the truth. But an important part of Cuban historiography also points out – a criterion I share – that: “… at least between 1868 and 1874 there can be no talk of unconditional unity between the Catholic Church and colonial rule (…)”. 8
We can therefore confirm that during the Ten Years’ War there was no monolithic cohesion between the two powers in the face of the process of forming Cuban nationality, as will happen later and will mark the entire War of ’95. There was, in this context, a remarkable division of clergy for political reasons. Priests of Spanish origin were unconditional to colonial power; consecrated persons of Cuban origin, for the most part, were supporters of independence. This can be legitimized through stories of life, in which the moral challenges involved, for any Cuban priest, of assuming pro-spanistic behavior are recounted.
The Creole clergy also joined the rawest struggle for independence, even those who came to opt for the option of weapons. This is not to say that all priests born in Cuba went to the manigua, or that they could make their interests explicit as a pro-independent political group; we cannot ignore that there were Cuban priests subjugated to Spain, but they were not a majority. Many of the clerics committed to the liberating gestation were opened up to a judicial process and access to the pulpit was closed for these reasons, which significantly limited the scale of their work as a political force from the Church. All under the protection of the Board of Trustees Regio that functioned as a Spanish vest within the Creole Church, to ensure that the impact of the Mambi clergy was reduced to the minimum expression.

At some point, the official teaching books of the history of Cuba will refer to the courage of several priests who gave everything for the independence gestation. Francisco Esquembre y Guzmán, parish priest of the church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Yaguaramas, present-day diocese of Cienfuegos, was shot by the Spaniards, just for blessing the Cuban flag and not giving up his patriotism. Another priest persecuted by insurgent was Jerome Izaguirre, who officiated in the parish of Barrancas, belonging to the present province of Granma. In Bayamo, in front of the Major Church, parents Diego José Batista and Juan Luis Soleilac dared to bless the flag and sang a Te Deum in honor of the insurgents. Eusebio Bejarano y Ruiz, parish priest of the church of San Juan de los Remedios belonging to the present diocese of Santa Clara, was forced into exile abroad, due to the persecution of the colonial authorities for his contribution to the cause of freedom. The priest Julio Villasana Mas served as a subordinate of Generals Donato Mármol and Vicente García, who for his work came to consider him chaplain of the Liberator Army.9
Although the aforementioned men mark a different route within the role of the Creole clergy in the independence scenario, there were many other consecrated men who were used as unconditional allies of Spanish power. “This generated in emerging Creole thinking and social practice an anti-clericalism that marked Cuban society, although it did not manifest itself at extreme levels as in other regions.”10

“The Catholic clergy who joined the struggles enjoyed full religious freedom. Testimonies and documentary evidence abound about the celebration in the insurrect field of marriages and baptisms. On October 14, 1869, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the proclamation of independence, a mass officiated by Emilio Izaguirre was held, in the event the flag was walked and Céspedes gave a speech.”11

Céspedes was a man with a high common sense and despite being a Freer, he always tried, within his government, a cordiality relationship with the representatives of the Catholic Church. He believed that a Catholic-educated people like Cuba could not violently break with the past. Consistent with these ideas, he tried to influence the popular imagination, to surround the authority of greater credibility. He granted the Church the same prerogatives he had until then had, and relied on it to strengthen Creole’s respect and commitment to a just cause.12
Although there will always be multiple views on this issue, it is understandable to recognize that independence leaders gave the ecclesial structure a significant role in the beginning and development of the 1868 independence justice, especially for the desire to add the potential of this great institution to the insurrectional cause. Revolutionary leadership came mostly from Freemasonry, which, while not at odds with a certain Catholic religiosity more or less present in all of them, defines the absence of confessional commitments to the Church. The conduct of Céspedes and his followers in the face of the Christian religion was also influenced by political considerations, but in that warmongering environment, what was not?
At least several historical notes show that, during the Ten Years’ War, “Masonry and Catholicism lived together in a collaboration of wide freedom of conscience, without going into speculation about the presence of African cults.”13 Cuban mambises did not implement the degolline of clerics that other revolutions could not avoid. The Republic in Arms did not project an anti-religious policy or encourage repression of any kind against the Church. The only case of murder of a priest was starring the Canary brigadier Juan Monzón and was exempted.

The Catholic clergy who joined the struggles were well received, because among many other reasons, they risked their lives as much as the most heroic Mambí. Cuban priests who went to the manigua did so in their religious status and their fundamental activity was aimed at fulfilling the functions of their priestly ministry.
There were many who came to bear relevant degrees such as the priest Braulio Cástulo de los Dolores Odio Pécora, cura of the parish of Manatee, incorporated into the revolution since 1868, who lived in the manigua for the ten years of the war. He achieved the rank of colonel in the mambisas ranks not because he distinguished himself with weapons in his hand, but because of his noble behavior in assisting the wounded in combat. Father Odio cultivated relationships with the highest revolutionary leadership, particularly with Céspedes.
There is no doubt that we often interpret the past as something that can only be examined in black and white, but the reality is much richer and more varied. History doesn’t have to be tedious and boring. The social sciences are challenged to continue to delve into the mazes of the past. As we celebrate the 150th birthday of Yara’s Cry, we Cuban Catholics have a duty to delve into and deepen the facts that unscrewing Catholicism with the independence gestation of our nation. This is impossible. Finally, let us remember the brief review made by the newspaper Diario Cubano in homage to the unjustly shot Father Esquembre.

“… He was one of those souls for whom life has poetry and charm in all ages; who know how to suffer a great pain one day, but who never feel the spring of illusions that fate has filled them; who are passionate about all the big, lofty ideas; who believe in the virtue of men and the holiness of principles, and who before sacrificing one of these, prefers to lose everything, starting with their existence…”.14 Ω

1 Quoted in Raúl Suárez (coordinator): Faith for Cuba, Havana, Editorial Caminos, 2016, p. 203.
2 See Jorge Ramírez Calzadilla: Catholic Church in Cuba,; December 3, 2017.
3 Final Document and Pastoral Instruction of Bishops. Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting (ENEC), Santo Domingo, Editorial Amigo del Hogar, 1988, p. 14.
4 Monsignor Ramón Suárez Polcari: History of the Catholic Church in Cuba, Miami, Universal Editions, 2000, t. I, p. 203.
5 Eduardo Torres-Cuevas: Bishop Espada, Illustration, Reform and Anti-Slavery, Havana, p. 25, Editorial of Social Sciences, 1990.
6 Quoted in Archbishop Ramón Suárez Polcari: History of the Catholic Church in Cuba, ed. cit., p. 236.
7 An instrument regulating relations between the Church and the State, in fact, placed the ecclesial institution dependent on the political interests of the metropolis.
8 Note by the author from a lecture given by Dr. Edelberto Leiva Lajara at the Loyola Center, to present José Luis Sáez’s book on the history of the Jesuits in Cuba.
9 Data taken from René González Barrios: “Sacred Independence”, in; 30 May 2018.
10 J. Ramirez: “Impacts of independence wars in the Cuban religious field”, in Temas magazine, Havana, No. 12 and 13, 1998.
11 Rigoberto Segreo Ricardo: Church and nation in Cuba (1868-1898), Santiago de Cuba, Editorial Oriente, 2012, p. 198.
12 Idea developed by the author from the reading of the text of Eladio Aguilera Rojas: Francisco V. Aguilera and the revolution of 1868, Havana, Library and Printing of Modern Poetry, 1909, t. I, pp. 42-43.
13 John J. Pastrana: Ignacio Agramonte. Documents, Havana, Editorial of Social Sciences, 1974, pp. 150.
14 Cuban Journal, New York, May 5, 1870, p. 2.

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