Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba is,
from his point of view, a pastoral pilgrimage aimed at strengthening
the Catholic Church for whatever future lies ahead of it. The Cuban
government, for its part, invited the pope as part of its effort
to reintegrate Cuba into the life of the Western hemisphere. Immediate
interests, ecclesiastical and political, will be in play throughout
the week. But if we widen the analytic lens, the papal pilgrimage
looks rather more dramatic. For this will be perhaps the final act
in the great ideological drama of the 20th century, the conflict
between atheistic humanism and Christian humanism. Christianity entered
the ancient world proclaiming the liberation of humanity from the
clutches of fate through the power of a creating, redeeming God.
Atheistic humanism, a genuine novelty when it emerged in the 19th
century, insisted that the opposite was true: God was a yoke, not
a liberator, and humanity would be redeemed by its own heroic efforts
to perfect the world. This vision of human self-redemption so permeated
European intellectual elites that, 100 years ago, it was widely agreed
that the 20th century would see religion withering away. A maturing
humanity would put aside its childish need for the fantasy called "God" and
Communism was one expression of atheistic
humanism. As it worked itself out historically, communism became
many things: a form of revolutionary politics, an economic model,
a method of social control. Socially, economically, indeed humanistically,
communism was a catastrophic failure. But why is that so hard for
some to admit?
Perhaps it has something to do with the
fact that communism retained the formal aspects of a religion. It
had a doctrine of salvation and a theory of the "last things:" redemption
through the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would mark the
end of history. It had rituals, such as May Day and party congresses.
It had an ethic: The revolution justified the means to its accomplishment.
It even had an apostolic succession by which leaders legitimized
their power; in Cuba's case, the orthodox line ran from Marx to Lenin
to Castro. Despite its manifold failures, communism remained powerfully
attractive, especially to intellectuals, because it addressed the
enduring human need for redemption in a quasi-religious way.
Communism's collapse has forced the question
of whether atheistic humanism isn't a contradiction in terms. Its
intentions may have been noble, but a humanism that rejects God and
scorns a transcendent horizon for human aspiration seems condemned
to turn on itself. A world without windows or doors becomes suffocating,
disorienting and dehumanizing. That was the world of Lenin's Lubyanka
Prison and Stalin's Gulag Archipelago. That is the world from which
Cubans have fled for almost four decades.
G.K. Chesterton used to say that when
a man ceased to believe in God, he didn't believe in nothing, he
believed in anything. Communism illustrates the point nicely. Communism
began by affirming the human possibility in history; it ended up
building history's most lethal slaughterhouses and justified them
in the name of human redemption. That was a lie, but it wasn't a
bald lie. It was a lie based on a delusion. When a man stops believing
in God, he really will believe anything.
John Paul II comes to Cuba as the embodiment
of an alternative humanism, Christian humanism. Dismissed as an absurdity
100 years ago, Christian humanism is one of the most powerful culture-shaping
forces in a world on the edge of a new millennium. As articulated
by John Paul II, it was instrumental in the collapse of European
communism, in Latin America's transition to democracy and in the
Philippines' "People Power" revolution. In each, Christian humanism
defeated the often overwhelming material power of its opponent. Why?
Because a vision of human dignity rooted in man's creation by God
and redemption by Christ proved stronger than an ultramundane conception
of the human person, human community and human destiny.
Atheistic humanism claimed that Christianity's
God was alienating and disempowered human beings. The Christian humanism
that John Paul II will preach in Cuba has disproved that claim empirically.
Christian humanism is liberating; biblical faith makes a genuine
freedom possible. That will be one of the great truths of the 21st
century. Meanwhile, the 20th draws to a close with the list of signatories
growing longer on atheistic humanism's instrument of surrender.