When It Comes to Human Rights, Francis Is No John Paul II

Pope Francis gestures on Tuesday while addressing the crowd from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba. Francis wound up his Cuba trip, during which he said nothing about free speech or human rights, before heading to the United States. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post editorial delivered a scathing review of Pope Francis's visit to Cuba:

The pope is spending four days in a country whose Communist dictatorship has remained unrelenting in its repression of free speech, political dissent and other human rights despite a warming of relations with the Vatican and the United States. Yet by the end of his third day, the pope had said or done absolutely nothing that might discomfit his official hosts….

Dozens of other dissidents were detained when they attempted to attend an open air Mass. They needn't have bothered: The pope said nothing in his homily about their cause, or even political freedom more generally. Those hunting for a message had to settle for a cryptic declaration that "service is never ideological."

To see how right this assessment is, contrast Francis's homily in Havana with that of Pope John Paul II 17 years earlier. (I was in the crowd in Havana on January 25, 1998, when the Holy Father delivered his moving message of solidarity with the oppressed people of Cuba.)

In his homily, John Paul mentioned "freedom" 17 times and "justice" 13 times.

In his homily, Francis did not mention "freedom" or "justice" once.

Here is what John Paul said back then:

While times and situations may change, there are always people who need the voice of the church so that their difficulties, their suffering, and their distress may be known. Those who find themselves in these situations can be certain that they will not be betrayed, for the church is with them and the pope, in his heart and with his words of encouragement, embraces all who suffer injustice.

[Burst of applause] I am not against applause because when you applaud the pope can take a little rest!...

"The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed [Lk 4:18]."

...A freedom which is not based on truth conditions man in such a way that he sometimes becomes the object and not the subject of his social, cultural, economic and political surroundings; this leaves him almost no initiative for his personal development. At other times that freedom takes on an individualistic cast and, with no regard for the freedom of others, imprisons man in his own egoism. The attainment of freedom in responsibility is a duty which no one can shirk. For Christians, the freedom of the children of God is not only a gift and a task, but its attainment also involves an invaluable witness and a genuine contribution to the journey towards the liberation of the whole human race. This liberation cannot be reduced to its social and political aspects, but rather reaches its fullness in the exercise of freedom of conscience, the basis and foundation of all other human rights.

[To the crowds who were shouting] The Pope is free and wants us all to be free.

Yes, he lives with that freedom for which Christ has set you free....

The church's social doctrine is meant to be a reflection and a contribution which can shed light on and reconcile the relationship between the inalienable rights of each individual and the needs of society, so that people can attain their profound aspirations and integral fulfillment in accordance with their condition as sons and daughters of God and citizens in society.

John Paul was even more explicit a day earlier, during his homily in Santiago de Cuba, where he mentioned "freedom" 14 times, declaring:

The church calls everyone to make faith a reality in their lives, as the best path to the integral development of the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and for attaining true freedom, which includes the recognition of human rights and social justice.

In this regard, lay Catholics—holding to their specific role as lay persons so that they may be "salt and leaven" in the midst of the society of which they are part—have the duty and the right to participate in public debate on the basis of equality and in an attitude of dialogue and reconciliation.

Likewise, the good of a nation must be promoted and achieved by its citizens themselves through peaceful and gradual means. In this way each person, enjoying freedom of expression, being free to undertake initiatives and make proposals within civil society, and enjoying appropriate freedom of association, will be able to cooperate effectively in the pursuit of the common good.

The church, immersed in civil society, does not seek any type of political power in order to carry out her mission; she wishes only to be the fruitful seed of everyone's good by her presence in the structures of society. Her first concern is the human person and the community in which the individual lives; she is well aware that actual people with all their needs and aspirations constitute her primary path. All that she claims for herself she places at the service of people and society.

For this reason Christ charged her to bring his message to all peoples, and for this she needs sufficient freedom and adequate means. Defending her own freedom, the church defends the freedom of each individual, of families, of different social units, which are living realities with a right to their own sphere of autonomy and sovereignty.

Pope Francis said nothing even resembling this during his Cuban visit. He is not expected to be so reticent during his visit to Washington.

But then, as the Post correctly notes, "it takes more fortitude to challenge a dictatorship than a democracy."

Marc Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.