Clash Of Faiths

This week Pope John Paul II brings his message of freedom to Fidel Castro's Cuba as two of the world's giants collide

  • Share
  • Read Later

(6 of 11)

While he called Christ "a great revolutionary" whose teachings coincide with the aims of socialism, Castro insisted that "no one could instill religious faith in me through the mechanical, dogmatic methods that were employed. I never really held a religious belief." Later on, he said, "I had other values: a political belief which I forged on my own, as a result of my experience, analysis and sentiments." Nevertheless, the rebel wore a small cross on his guerrilla garb in the early days of the revolution. In the book, he astonished Cubans with the extent of his religious knowledge and the flattering comparisons he drew between Christianity and Marxism. "Karl Marx," he said, "would have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount." Christians, he added, had been excluded from Cuba's government not for ideological reasons but for historical mistakes in supporting the prerevolution status quo. Suddenly the subject of religion was no longer taboo.

Castro hinted to Frei Betto that he was interested in meeting John Paul II, but not until the conditions were "guaranteed" for it to be a "fruitful meeting." He did, however, modulate the government's relations with the church from confrontation and hostility to the exploration of mutual interest. Neither Fidel nor the Pope suspected then how close to ruin the Soviet edifice was, and Cuba's leader was more concerned with how to manage the influence of liberation theology: while he supported its radical preachings in the rest of Latin America, he saw those same ideas as a threat to his power at home, a church-led attempt to steal the banner of social justice away. Cuban Catholic leaders, representatives of a church that had catered mainly to the upper classes, not the masses, never embraced those doctrines. Cuba had already had a revolution, they said. What it needed now was reconciliation.

The church asked for more "space" in Cuban society, the chance to play a larger role within the traditional Catholic concerns of education, charity, public worship. The dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall crushed all that, eliminating any interest Castro had in rapprochement with the church. He needed every ounce of his strength and ingenuity to protect the revolution. The Catholic Church lost much in that period too. The young fled the island in record numbers, seeking salvation in the American Dream. Priests had no resources to provide the charitable aid people desperately needed; Cubans were too busy scrounging for necessities to attend religious services. But as they gradually sought spiritual sustenance amid the hardships imposed on them, and as Castro loosened his grip to let religious charities deliver what the government could not, all Cuba's churches grew stronger.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11