Fewer than 100 miles off the coast of the United States last month, Pope Benedict XVI made an impassioned plea for government respect for religious freedom.  

His appeal was all the more dramatic as it was delivered in Havana’s Revolution Plaza, under the famous image of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, and before a crowd of 600,000 Cubans, including President Raul Castro. 

Cuba’s record on human rights is dismal. A U.S. bipartisan report last year found that “serious religious freedom violations continue” there, including: “detention, sporadic arrests, and harassment of clergy and religious leaders affiliated with unregistered religious groups, as well as the control and monitoring of religious belief and practices including through surveillance, infiltration, and legal restrictions prohibiting religious communities from operating without government permission.” 

The report, by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, also faulted the Obama Administration for “inadequate” attention to religious rights in Cuba. “Although the U.S. government says that it promotes freedom of religion or belief within its overall democracy and human rights programs, no such activities have been undertaken,” the report said. 

That said, the Catholic Church in Cuba, which accounts for about 60 percent of the population, has seen some small improvements. One sign has been the archbishop of Havana’s successful negotiation of the prison releases of scores of political dissidents in recent years. 

While adopting a positive tone, Pope Benedict spoke frankly and clearly about the central importance of respect for religious freedom in a healthy, successful society. His words are worth quoting at length: 

“The right to freedom of religion, both in its private and in its public dimension, manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer. It also legitimizes the fact that believers have a contribution to make to the building up of society. Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favorable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations. 

“When the Church upholds this human right, she is not claiming any special privileges for herself. She wishes only to be faithful to the command of her divine founder, conscious that, where Christ is present, we become more human and our humanity becomes authentic. This is why the Church seeks to give witness by her preaching and teaching, both in catechesis and in the schools and universities. It is greatly to be hoped that the moment will soon arrive when, here too, the Church can bring to the fields of knowledge the benefits of the mission which the Lord entrusted to her and which she can never neglect.” 

While it would be grossly unfair to compare recent threats to religious freedom in the United States with Cuba’s brutal record, the pope’s words nevertheless should find some resonance with American listeners, who have been watching the debate over the government’s abortifacient/contraception/sterilization coverage mandate for Catholic institutions. 

If the United States is to serve — to Cuba and other repressive regimes of the world — as an example and influence of liberal democracy, pluralism and accommodation of minority views, it would do well, too, to allow the Catholic Church in America to bear witness to the truths it espouses and carry out its mission in a way that is coherent with them.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.