Cuban scholars and Catholic experts alike say that Cuban President Raul Castro's comments on Sunday that he may "go back to praying and go back to the church" based on Pope Francis's teachings are a shrewd political move, whether or not they are also true.
Castro made the comments publicly on Sunday after visiting the Roman Catholic Pontiff to thank him for helping to thaw relations between Cuba and the United States; US President Barack Obama thanked the Pope in 2014 for helping facilitate discussions between Cuba and the US that led Obama to open the country to travel and allow diplomatic relations.
"I read all the speeches of the Pope, his commentaries, and if the Pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I'm not joking," Castro told reporters at a press conference after the meeting. "I am from the Cuban Communist Party, that doesn't allow (religious) believers, but now we are allowing it, it's an important step."
The appearance of Castro at the Vatican comes just months before Pope Francis is slated to visit Cuba and the US in September and November. Castro said he would attend all of Francis's Masses in Cuba during the visit.
Catholic and Cuban scholars in the United States said today that while it is impossible to tell whether Castro felt religiously moved by his relationship with Francis, it is clear that the political relationship between the two can benefit both the Catholic Church and Castro's regime in Cuba, and reflects Francis's influence over international politics.
"I think what's happening is mutually constructive," said Rev. Robert Pelton, a professor of theology and Latin American/North American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame. "In regard to Raul himself, and whatever his feelings may be about the Catholic Church, I think the important thing is they begin to see each other as people who can respect each other."
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.
Jaime Suchliki, Director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said that the dynamics between Castro and Francis, and Francis and Obama, are allowing Cuba to benefit from a more open US policy without having to make any concessions of its own.
"Raul is interested in catering to the Pope. The Pope is visiting...in September and Raul is looking to use the Pope to influence US policy, to lift the embargo, and to get more concessions without Cuba having to offer anything or any concessions in return," Suchliki said.
In return, the Pope gets greater access to Cuba, where he wants the Church to be able to expand and compete with evangelical and Protestant groups that have grown in popularity there in recent decades, and to have Catholics get greater access to church, schools, and the media, Suchliki said.
"[Raul's statements] have nothing to do with a change of heart," he said. "He's been persecuted for 50 years by the church. This is not a guy who all of a sudden had an epiphany and saw the light and is going to go to church again. This is a ruthless politician guy, like the Iranians, like the North Koreans, ruthless guys who will do anything to obtain their objectives. And for him that is more tourists and for Cuba not to change, for Cuba [to] remain the way it is."
Others, including Shneck, Pelton, and Bretzke, disagree, and say that Francis' pastoral and personal approach may really be affecting change within Castro that could — incrementally — change the way he governs Cuba.
"I don't think he's doing it for explicitly transactional political gains," Pelton said. "I think he's being straightforward."
"Whether he becomes more Catholic we'll see, but whether he becomes more respectful and open I think we have already seen that he is," Bretzke said.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen