National Catholic Register


FLASHBACK: 2006 story ‘Castro and the Church’

Could he return to the faith?


Register Correspondent

February 24-March 1, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/19/08 at 12:47 PM


VATICAN CITY — Is Fidel Castro considering conversion?

As the health of the 80-year-old Communist dictator hangs in the balance after he underwent a serious operation July 31, two dissenting priests whom he considers very close friends have hinted at this possibility.

In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera Aug. 15, dissenting Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff recalled numerous occasions when the Cuban president spoke affectionately of the Catholic faith.

Both Boff and Frei Betto, a Brazilian Dominican friar and socialist activist, have been regular guests of Castro.

On many occasions, Boff said in the interview, Castro would quiz the two men about theology long into the night.

Boff, a former Franciscan priest, recalled, “One day, Fidel told us: Betto and Leonardo, on the day of my death, I want you both to be here at my side.”

On another occasion, Boff recounted how Castro gave them a poster from Cuba’s revolution, with the inscription, “If I ever recover the faith of my infancy, it will be the merit of you two.”

Boff also said he remembered Castro telling him that religion is vital if any revolution is to be “true, popular and triumphant.”

During another meeting, Cuba’s president asked, “Leonardo, is it true that you’ve always remained beside the poor? Good, then Christianity will be firm and strong.”


Fidel Castro was baptized when he was eight years old but turned from the faith and led the revolution that brought him to power in 1959. He was excommunicated three years later in accordance with a 1949 declaration issued by Pope Pius XII that forbade Catholics from supporting communist governments.

Frei Betto, whose real name is Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo, said last month that “certainly, in the last few years, [Castro’s] openness to religion has increased, but if it’s a personal conversion, frankly, I don’t know.”

Such speculation has existed before. Father Robert Sirico, president of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said that Castro used to request to see an older, exiled priest in Miami for reasons that remain unclear.

Father Sirico doesn’t discount the possibility of conversion, but he does voice skepticism.

“It may be that the witness of Castro’s mother and grandmother, who prayed the Rosary and had various statues of the Blessed Mother and saints in their home when he was growing up, is finally taking effect,” Father Sirico said.

But, he added, “If the spiritual direction he is getting is from the likes of a Leonardo Boff, who himself is not in communion with the Church, or Frei Betto, who is certainly in the dissenting camp, I would be fearful that it would not be a solid conversion.”

Both Boff and Frei Betto are adherents of the theology of liberation, a Marxist-derived theology that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith formally denounced in 1984.

In its “Instruction on Certain Aspects of Theology of Liberation,” the congregation stated that such theologies are flawed because of “a disastrous confusion between the poor of the Scripture and the proletariat of Marx. In this way they pervert the Christian meaning of the poor, and they transform the fight for the rights of the poor into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle.”

Said Father Sirico, “Castro, after all, has a great deal to repent of, and if the priests working with him to bring him back to the Church are in any way sycophantic or themselves not in full communion with the Church, any professed conversion would be problematic.”

But an authentic conversion would be “monumental” with far-reaching consequences, said Father Sirico.

“It would mean that he would disassociate himself from Marxist materialism, repent of the bloodshed he caused, and all the dishonesty and deceit he fomented for so long, and that he would make whatever reparation was possible for the remainder of his life,” he said.


The Church has suffered greatly for decades under Castro’s rule. Since 1992, some restrictions have been lifted but many remain, including a ban on Catholic schools, close monitoring and severe restriction of the Church’s pastoral and social work, and immigration and visa hindrances for priests and religious.

In 2005, the U.S. State Department said worshipers of all faiths were still subject to state surveillance.

However, the Vatican has maintained unbroken diplomatic relations for 70 years with Cuba. And during a visit to Cuba earlier this year, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that religious persecution in Cuba was now “water under the bridge” and that Castro “knows the social doctrine of the Church.”

The country’s bishops have also tried to maintain good relations, and called on the faithful to pray for Castro’s recovery after his health deteriorated this summer.

Some Catholics in Cuba have criticized such actions, contending that the Church is being too accommodating of Castro while ignoring the plight of his political opponents, many of whom remain in jail.

Father Sirico is more sympathetic to the Cuban bishops’ approach.

“I think it is perfectly appropriate for the Cuban people, and indeed Christians anywhere, to be praying for Castro — to pray for his true and authentic conversion, as I have described,” he said. “Nothing could be better as it would represent a defeat for everything Castro has stood for.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.