Home > Dimas Castellanos > The Church and Mediation: The Experience of Bishop Morell

The Church and Mediation: The Experience of Bishop Morell


One of the roles of mediation in conflicts is a change in images and attitudes that the parties cannot reach on their own, especially when they are adversaries, or when one of them is opposed to any solution not entirely in their favor; thus, among the many requirements and characteristics a mediator must have, is being acceptable to all contenders.

In Cuba, as happened in other colonized countries of America, African natives were brought for use as slave labor. These human beings, without contact with their homeland and with no possibility of returning to it, were subjected to intolerable working days and the most cruel physical abuse. The first and most prolonged response to this deplorable situation was rebellion. They responded to the violence with violence, generating a heartbreaking story of pain and death that lasted several centuries and marked the formation of the Cuban nation.

One of these episodes of rebellion took place in Santiago del Prado, a village formed around the copper mines of the Santiago area, popularly known as the sanctuary of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, where history records the first mass rebellion of Cuban slaves. The background of this event dated from the year 1677, when the colonial authorities, to provide for the eviction of black workers who lived there, provoked an uprising in the surrounding mountains. On July 24, 1731, half a century after the first uprising, the strength of the slaves of the King of Spain — a condition that led to that core characteristics — refused to comply with the provisions of the Governor of Santiago de Cuba, Colonel Pedro Jimenez, and rose up in arms again to claim their rights.

Bishop Pedro Agustín Morell de Santa Cruz and Lora, the most brilliant, comprehensive, deep and interesting personality of the Catholic Church during the first centuries of Cuban history and the most important scholar of the eighteenth century Creole society,  was the leading researcher of the bases and institutional and ideological developments of the country, who would finish a great number of academic works in his time. He had to act as mediator between the governor, who wanted to overcome the rebels by force of arms, and slave rebels, who were willing to defend their claims to the very end, while Bishop Morell worked to achieve a bloodless solution acceptable to both parties.

His work as a mediator had major relevance because the obstacles were not only half a century of conflict between slaves and slave, but also the fact that the Church in Cuba, as in the rest of Hispanic America, was subordinate to the State; a dependency which had its origins in the failure of the repression against Christianity, starting from the crucifixion of Jesus and continued by the Roman emperors until the 4th century, until the authorities realized that the survival of the empire depended more on the influence of Christianity than on their impossibility of exterminating it. With the change in policy, put into practice by Constantine the Great, the church won its freedom, acquired the character of a legal religion and took on a global dimension, in exchange for being subject to the imperial throne.

In 1486 Pope Innocent VII through a papal bull granted Royal Patronage to the kings of Spain over the kingdom of Granada. With that background, when it turned its attention to the evangelization of the American aborigines, Pope Alexander VI, in response to the request of the Spanish kings, granted them in 1501 the privilege previously granted to Granada, by which he transferred to the Crown a set of rights and responsibilities which allowed the monarch to found churches, identify geographic dioceses, present mitres and ecclesiastic benefits, collect tithes and choose to send missionaries to the New World. Although in 1646 it was granted independence and immunity of the clergy, with respect to civil authorities, the Church continued to be dependent on the Crown; a dependency that was accentuated in the second half of the eighteenth century at precisely the time when the uprising of the slaves of Cobre occurred — with several royal provisions that made the higher ecclesiastical authorities of the island dependent on local authorities. As a result the bishops and other representatives of the Church which had enjoyed a relative independence, had to take an oath of loyalty to the State and recognize its rights.

It is notable how Bishop Morell, in such unfavorable conditions, assumed the role of mediator. He met with the parties separately, analyzed the causes of conflict and on understanding it sided with the slaves, whom he defended with real authority. In his report to the king on the uprising of the miners, dated August 26, 1731, Morell showed that the origin of the conflict came from the way they had been treated. All of the rules affecting holidays and care for their families had been violated; violations that extended to and harmed even free blacks. In his report, the Bishop wrote that slaves had a delusion that simply said that they were free and that the royal decree supporting this had been concealed by the rulers of Cuba. He added that: the lack of the understanding of the rebels was added the desire for freedom.

Through dialogue the rebels were convinced to go back to town until peace was achieved in exchange for lifting the measures that had provoked the uprising. Seventy years after mediation by Morell, this time led by Father Alejandro Ascanio, the workers — blacks and mulattos enslaved in Cobre — gained their freedom by Royal Decree, eight decades before the abolition of slavery in Cuba, which was read to the Patroness of Cuba, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, on May 19, 1801. An experience with lessons for what is now happening in Cuba relative to the demand for the release of the political prisoners.

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