The Pope and Fidel: A Meeting of Two Old Dogmatics

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Osservatore Romano / AFP / Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI and Cuban leader Fidel Castro shake hands during a meeting on March 28, 2012 in Havana.

Sure, Fidel Castro kept the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba buried under his cigar ash for decades, shutting down its schools, exiling priests and declaring the Communist island an atheist state until the 1990s. But it’s likely Castro also admires the Vatican in a sad way: like him, the Pope is an autocrat who doesn’t tolerate dissent, although the papacy a long time ago quit throwing dissidents behind bars — a habit Havana still can’t shake. So it’s not so surprising that the ailing, 85-year-old Fidel, who handed Cuba’s presidency to his younger brother Raúl six years ago, asked the 84-year-old Pope Benedict XVI for a private audience as the last order of business on His Holiness’ three-day visit to Cuba, which ended March 28.

Castro foes hope a revived Cuban church – which under the more reform-minded Raúl has become an important institutional player, as I write in TIME Magazine this week – will help hasten democratization. It could, although that’s more likely after the Castros die – and by not meeting with even Catholic dissidents during his Cuba visit, Benedict signaled that the church isn’t going to topple the tropical Berlin Wall any time soon. But another big question is whether the church and its rigid doctrine can be sufficiently relevant to Cuba’s 11 million people to be that sort of change engine. Before arriving in Cuba, Benedict took a justified shot at the stark political and economic failings of Cuban communism: “Marxism,” he said, “no longer corresponds to reality.” To which one can imagine Fidel replying in his private meeting with the Pope this afternoon: “Who are you to carp about outdated dogma?”

(PHOTOS: Church and state in Cuba.)

Right now, the Cuban church that Benedict came to rally is enjoying a status it hasn’t experienced since the Cuban revolution began in 1959. As Raúl tries to save Cuba’s economy by encouraging the island’s negligible private sector, he’s relying on the church to help train entrepreneurs and mediate issues like political prisoner releases. Still, even before the revolution, the church was never as beloved and obeyed in Cuba as it was, say, in Poland. Cubans may embrace the message of “liberty” that Benedict trumpeted at his open air Mass on Havana’s Revolution Plaza – even though it probably won’t be enough to dampen criticism that the church, as it tries to rebuild itself in Cuba, isn’t confronting human rights and democracy issues strongly enough. But the past five decades haven’t exactly conditioned Cubans to live like Opus Dei fanatics.

Even if political freedom is scant in Cuba, for example, the island enjoys fairly robust sexual freedom – Cuba is one of the few Latin American countries where abortion is legal – and it’s hard to see Cubans adhering to Rome’s teachings on issues like birth control even as they reconnect with the church. Ditto regarding divorce – more than two-thirds of the island’s marriages split – and even homosexuality. Under Fidel, Havana used to be one of the western hemisphere’s most homophobic governments; but under Raúl and the influence of his daughter Mariela Castro, the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, Cuba today is considering legalizing gay marriage.

Nor is the Vatican’s misogyny, especially its ban on female priests, likely to be a widespread hit in Cuba, where women hold more than a third of the National Assembly’s seats. The bottom line is that if the Catholic church can’t get Cubans to toe its hoary moral line – especially when their attitudes seem less in synch with those in Latin America and more with those of Europe and the U.S., where polls show Catholics disagree with most church doctrine – it could make it harder to galvanize them to defy Havana’s archaic political line.

(PHOTOS: The Pope arrives in Cuba.)

That said, of course, the church has more than just repressed sexual mores to offer: in recent interviews with TIME, many Cubans indicate that one of the church’s important draws is what they call its more “ethical framework” compared to the Cuban government’s notorious corruption. While Cuba’s bureaucracy lays burdensome taxes on new private businesses, for example, the church charity Caritas is working to funnel micro-credit and capital to those start-ups. In essence, as it becomes more engaged with Cubans, the church is showing them not just a spiritual but a civic alternative to their stifling communist state’s way of doing things, and that could help them overlook the church’s stifling sexual and gender dogma. (And fortunately, the Cuban church at least doesn’t appear to have the sexual abuse scandals hanging over it.)

(READ: What underlies the papal visit to Mexico.)

But the other outdated dogma involving Cuba is that of the hardline Cuban-American leadership. It clutches its own failed doctrines — like the U.S.’s 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, which has done nothing to dislodge the Castro regime but plenty to alienate Cubans on the island as well as the rest of the western hemisphere — as inflexibly as the Castros hold on to the dictatorship of the proletariat and Benedict holds on to a celibate priesthood.

Still, the Pope’s meeting with Fidel is sure to draw the ire of Castro foes — especially since he did not grant similar audiences to prominent Catholic dissidents like the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), whom Raúl has been rounding up and arresting in recent weeks in order to make it clear to Cubans that the Pope’s visit is no start of a Havana Spring. In fact, one of Raúl’s vice presidents, Marino Murillo, made a point of emphasizing this week that “in Cuba there will not be political reform.”

Meanwhile, the Vatican insists it will never reform its medieval rules, and Cuban-American honchos swear they won’t allow reform of their cold-war policies. In all three mindsets, to use the Pope’s words, very little corresponds to reality.