Fidel Castro’s War on Religion

COMMENTARY: Among the worst of Castro’s crimes and legacies, consider what he did to religious faith in this once-great Catholic nation.

The statue of the Virgin El Cobre, patroness of Cuba, at the Basilica-Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Santiago de Cuba on Sept. 22, 2015, during Pope Francis' four-day apostolic journey to Cuba.
The statue of the Virgin El Cobre, patroness of Cuba, at the Basilica-Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Santiago de Cuba on Sept. 22, 2015, during Pope Francis' four-day apostolic journey to Cuba. (photo: Eduardo Berdejo/CNA)

Fidel Castro, from 1959 to 2006 the world’s longest-running Marxist dictator, is dead at the age of 90. He was no friend of the Cuban people, or of Cuban Catholics. He was a brutal leader who was responsible for the deaths of thousands, and who silenced the prayers and voices of many more.

Sadly, one would never know this from President Barack Obama’s statement on the death of Castro.

“We know that this moment fills Cubans — in Cuba and in the United States — with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families and of the Cuban nation,” said Obama. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

It is not clear if Obama meant this as a negative or positive. Reading the statement in full, it could easily be interpreted as positive. The official statement makes no mention of a single negative regarding Castro.

Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban emigrants, best described the president’s statement as “pathetic.” If you think that’s harsh, then you know nothing about Cuba under Fidel Castro. And among the worst of Castro’s crimes and legacies was what he did to religious faith in this once-great Catholic nation.

Being a devoted communist, Fidel Castro was possessed with a hatred of religion. In Cuba, like everywhere else, communists launched their standard war on faith. From country to country, no ideology has so consistently and viciously attacked Christianity like communism — starting with the Bolsheviks in 1917 and resounding throughout the century ahead. As Mikhail Gorbachev put it, communists launched a systematic “war on religion.”

Cuba was no exception. From the moment that Castro took hold in January 1959, churches were in trouble. The regime quickly launched a propaganda campaign against the faithful, describing Catholics as “social scum.” By the late 1960s, Christmas was banned on the island. Churches were shut down. Priests and their parishioners were silenced, arrested or placed under tight surveillance, with every word of every service or homily monitored by government church-watchers infiltrating the pews. Any criticism, especially of the Marxist regime, was very dangerous. One could not be a member of the Communist Party in Cuba (the only party legally permitted, including for any government jobs) without professing a belief in atheism.

To appreciate the gravity of the assault by Castro, we need to first appreciate the historical roots of the faith in this country that was once more than 90% Roman Catholic. People were proud of it, and they practiced the faith naturally and vigorously. In fact, the island was once a pilgrimage center.

The richness of the faith in pre-Castro Cuba could be shown in a number of ways, but here is one uniquely instructive example:

In October 1948, Thomas Merton published his brilliant memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. The book is a fascinating account of a young man who sojourned from joining the Communist Party at Columbia University in the early 1930s to joining a Trappist monastery in the late 1940s.

Upon reading Merton’s memoirs today, one is struck by his remarks on Cuba, which are a complete surprise to modern eyes. As Merton contemplated entering religious life, he yearned for a pilgrimage to Cuba — yes, Cuba. It was a place rich in churches, Marian shrines, nuns, priests, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre and more. For Merton, it would be a longed-for spiritual retreat before he hunkered down for the contemplative life. Here are some excerpts:

“[God] certainly beset me with graces all the way around Cuba,” wrote Merton. “Here, at every turn, I found my way into great, cool, dark churches, some of them with splendid altars shining with carven retables or rich with mahogany and silver: And wonderful red gardens of flame flowered before the saints or the Blessed Sacrament.”

Merton glowed in his vivid description of the pervasive Catholic faith he observed everywhere he turned: “Here in niches were those lovely, dressed-up images, those little carved Virgins full of miracle and pathos and clad in silks and black velvet, throned above the high altars. Here, in side chapels, were those pietas fraught with fierce, Spanish drama, with thorns and nails, whose very sight pierced the mind and heart, and all around the church were many altars to white and black saints: And everywhere were Cubans in prayer.”

Imagine that. Picture it. Visualize it. Merton was moved, as were so many pilgrims who went there in pre-Castro times.

Merton said he felt like a “prince” in Cuba, like a “spiritual millionaire.” He recalled waking every morning around 7am, strolling down any warm sunny street, and immediately finding his way into any of a dozen churches as old as the 17th century.

“Almost as soon as I went in the door, I could receive Communion, if I wished, for the priest came out with a ciborium loaded with Hosts before Mass and during it and after it — and every 15 or 20 minutes a new Mass was starting at a different altar,” said Merton. “These were the churches of the religious orders — Carmelites, Franciscans, the American Augustinians at El Santo Cristo, or the Fathers of Mercy — everywhere I turned, there was someone ready to feed me with the infinite strength of the Christ who loved me.”

Merton continued: “And there were a thousand things to do, a thousand ways of easily making a thanksgiving: Everything lent itself to Communion. I could hear another Mass, I could say the Rosary, do the Stations of the Cross, or if I just knelt where I was, everywhere I turned my eyes, I saw saints in wood or plaster or those who seemed to be saints in flesh and blood — and even those who were probably not saints were new enough and picturesque enough to stimulate my mind with many meanings and heart with prayers.”

What I have quoted here sounds like a lot of material, but it’s a mere snippet of what Merton wrote in expressing his uncontainable excitement over Catholic Cuba — that is, pre-Castro Cuba. It was an inspiring presentation not only remarkable to read today, but unthinkable to write today. He went on for several more pages, describing what he referred to as “heaven … right here in front of me.”

This was the glorious, religious Cuba that has been hidden for a half century, courtesy of the crackdown by the Castro dictatorship, annihilated by Fidel and his war on religion.

To be sure, the good news is that the nastiest of the persecution seems to have at long last eased up, though religious freedom is still far from free. Crucial steps that have improved the atmosphere have been the recent papal visits, beginning with the historic January 1998 visit by Pope St. John Paul II, followed by crucial visits from Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. The reasons why Fidel and Raul Castro permitted these visits, particularly the first, have been the source of much speculation, but the visits have nonetheless helped to make things somewhat better.

For some 55 years (1959-2014), not one new brick for one new church was laid or welcomed in Castro’s Cuba.

As Americans and people worldwide focus their eyes on Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death, let us pray that we never lose sight of just how badly Fidel treated the faithful on this once deeply faithful island. Our president and others might ignore what Fidel Castro did, but we must not.

Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Grove City College.

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