From: VICE News Date: May 11, 2015 Author: Colleen Curry
Enrique Pumar, a native of Cuba and chair of the sociology department at Catholic University of America, told VICE News he thought Castro's move was politically motivated.
"It's difficult to measure the religiosity of Fidel and Raul, there is so little known about their private lives," he said. "I say political but maybe in private they were practicing some form of Catholicism all along, we just don't know."
Castro's main concern, Pumar said, is the Cuban economy, which has underperformed for a decade and is causing unrest among citizens who have applied in droves to migrate to the US. Castro is trying to implement some economic reforms, include allowing some free enterprise and alleviating some restrictions on private business - real estate, for example - but wants to do more, Pumar said.
Pope Francis can help him do that. Though the Vatican as a state has little financial or military power, the Pope's role as a moral authority figure for millions of Catholics around the world gives him potent brokering power.
"So the Pope is playing a fascinating role: In some sense he has very little power, but his moral authority and presence gives him a lot of leverage in these relationships," said Catholic University of America sociology professor Pumar.
Francis holds sway over American leaders too, whether or not they are Catholic, Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University, told VICE News. Though President Obama is not Catholic, he has been open to discussions with Francis, and other political leaders have toned down their own "culture war" politics in favor of Francis's focus on the poor, Schneck said.
"The Cuba deal is a good illustration of the influence he has with the Obama administration. I don't think it's denominational influence, I just think this Pope is talking about approaching the world with a certain set of values that resonated with quite a few people," Schneck said. "In general, I think many of us have noticed the nastiness or salience of the culture war in America has diminished, and I think it's diminished in part because of the sort of messages coming from him asking Catholics to look at the world through glasses that aren't all about the culture war. I think it's impacting the politics."
The influence of Francis on American politics will be on display this fall, when he travels to Washington, DC to meet with Obama and speak to a joint session of Congress before traveling to Philadelphia. It is likely that the Pope and Obama will discuss Cuba on that trip, Schneck said, and that Francis will urge Obama to continue to open the door to better relations with Cuba.