Archbishop Jean Louis Tauran, the Vatican's equivalent of a foreign secretary, did not directly criticize Fidel Castro's government but the statements by a leading papal envoy about democracy were unusual in a communist country that was once an officially atheist state.
"Democracy is pluralistic in its essence," Tauran said in opening the three-day conference on "Church-State Relations in Modern Society."
Some 150 representatives of dioceses throughout Cuba were gathered in Havana to discuss the "anthropological, economic and social implications" of Pope John Paul II's recent apostolic exhortation to the churches of the Americas. That included the pope's declarations on economic justice.
After nearly 30 years of tense church-state relations since Castro's 1959 revolution, ties have improved significantly in recent years, especially since John Paul's visit to Cuba in January.
Cuba officially became a lay state earlier this decade. That means regular religious worship is no longer restricted and religious believers are now allowed to belong to the Communist Party.
Nevertheless, the church continues to push for greater access to mass media, less government pressure on political dissidents and a tougher policy on abortion, which is common in Cuba.
Cuba's mass media is government-controlled, but has periodically allowed the Roman Catholic church some space, including a rare Christmas message on national radio last year by Cardinal Jaime Ortega Cuba's top Catholic churchman.
Tauran said the church and state should not distrust each other, "or worse, be afraid."
A meeting between the archbishop and Castro was considered likely this week. The president and other Cuban leaders have regularly met in the past with visiting Vatican officials.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press