Catholic Church in Cuba did not stay on the margins of the revolution – First study utilising archives of the Catholic Church from the Cuban Revolution published at the University of Helsinki

A doctoral dissertation to be published at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Helsinki offers new internationally significant information on the relationship between the Catholic Church, Cuban Catholics and the Cuban Revolution. The study is based on a substantial amount of material from the archives of the Catholic Church in Cuba, which has not been previously examined in scientific research.

Petra Kuivala’s doctoral dissertation in the field of church history brings to the fore previously overlooked histories, narratives and interpretations of the interaction between religion and revolution in Cuba. The findings challenge prior notions of the Catholic Church as an institution that remained silent on the margins of the revolution, without authority and independent agency.

“To a large extent, this insufficient research-based understanding is the result of limited access to archival material. Archives from the period of the Cuban Revolution are not generally open for research purposes; great quantities of historical data make their first appearance in my dissertation,” the doctoral candidate says.

According to Kuivala, the role of religion in the Cuban Revolution has been studied only little and from restricted perspectives in both international research on Cuba and research on global Catholicism. Religion has also largely been overlooked in the narrative and the historiography of the revolution.

“Prior research has mainly explored the Catholic Church in Cuba as an institution without taking into account the internal complexity of the Church or the multidimensional and complex lived histories of Cuban Catholics in the revolution,” Kuivala sums up.

Religion not separate from the Cuban Revolution

Kuivala’s doctoral dissertation discusses religion in the Cuban Revolution on the basis of pioneering work carried out in Cuban archives dating back to the revolution and fieldwork carried out in Cuba in 2014–2017. Thanks to the fieldwork, Kuivala had the opportunity to explore archives that were previously closed to researchers. She was the first international scholar to examine Catholic archival sources from the period of the revolution.

According to Kuivala, the presence of religion in the revolution and the communist society presents an interesting paradox. The connections between religion and revolution have been particularly visible in the everyday life of Cubans.

“The archival material and the interviews I conducted shed light on Cuban Catholic experiences of life in the revolution. Many Cubans have lived their lives at the intersection of religion and revolution, alongside the official structures of the church institution and revolution. Cubans, both Catholics and communists, have encountered each other in schools, at work, in residential neighbourhoods and on the streets. Histories of lived religion are in fact histories of the revolution, while religion is also present in the revolution.”


Petra Kuivala, MTh, will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled "Never a Church of Silence: The Catholic Church in Revolutionary Cuba, 1959–1986” on 9 November 2019 at 10.00 at the Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki. The public defence will take place at Porthania, lecture hall PII, Yliopistonkatu 3.

Professor Jorge Duany from Florida International University will serve as the opponent and Professor Tuomas Heikkilä as the custos.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.

Pioneering use of recently opened archives

Doctoral candidate Petra Kuivala believes that the opening of the archives of the Catholic Church in Cuba enables a new kind of framing of research questions and a new research approach, as well as the production of new research-based knowledge on the relationship between religion and the Cuban Revolution in the field of historical research. At the same time, combining written and oral histories makes it possible to weave together histories of the institution of the Church and the lived experience of Cuban Catholics within the context of the revolution.

Alongside a historical dimension, Kuivala’s research is organically connected to the current state of the Cuban Revolution, the role of religion in contemporary Cuba and the actions of Pope Francis.

“The recent past is tangibly present in the current experiences and interpretations of Cubans. The revolution remains the dominant framework, as the first generations of the revolution are still alive,” Kuivala explains.

“However, Cuba is undergoing constant change as part of the global world, and as the Castro era is drawing to a close, the self-understanding associated with the revolution is also changing. While carrying out fieldwork in Cuba, I witnessed President Barack Obama’s visit to the country and a concert by The Rolling Stones, the first globally notable musical event to be held in Cuba. I also attended Pope Francis’s state visit to Cuba in 2015 in the role of an observer at the invitation of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba.

“It will be interesting to see how the ideological framework of the revolution and Cuba’s international relations evolve, and what kind of role the Catholic Church and religion will assume in this evolution.”