Castro confesses to Jesuit ethics while eschewing religious belief
It used be said that once a Catholic always a Catholic. But then there's Fidel Castro. He was baptised and raised a Catholic, his mother was a devout Catholic, he was educated by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits, but then went on to become probably the best-known and now the last prominent communist leader.
In the rural part of Cuba's Oriente province where Castro was born in August 1926 and raised until he was about 4 1/2, there was neither church nor priest, as was the case with most of rural Cuba, where about 70 per cent of the people then lived.
His mother, however, was "a fervent believer". In a 1985 interview with Father Frei Betto, a Dominican priest from Brazil, Castro said: "She prayed every day. She always lit candles to the Virgin and the saints . . . My aunts and grandmother were also very firm believers."
He remembered how when, after the revolution in 1959 which brought him to power, he went to see his ailing grandmother in Havana. "The room was full of saints and prayer cards. Throughout the struggle both my mother and grandmother made all kinds of vows on behalf of our lives and safety. The fact that we came out of the struggle alive must have greatly increased their faith. I was very respectful of their beliefs."
He was baptised when he was about six, and given the name Fidel after a wealthy businessman his father had befriended and who was originally to have been his godfather, but wasn't through circumstance.
He began school with the De la Salle (Christian) Brothers, a French order. "At that time I studied religion just as I studied the history of Cuba. We accepted all those things about the beginning of the world, as natural facts. They didn't make us reason this out, and I was more concerned about sports, the beach, nature, and studying the different school subjects, that kind of thing."
He was about 12 when he started to attend a Jesuit secondary school in Santiago de Cuba, before going on to an elite Jesuit high school in Havana. The schools were both exclusive. Castro's father, who was Spanish, had by then become a relatively wealthy businessman in Cuba.
The Jesuits were nearly all Spanish. Castro described them as "austere, strict, self-sacrificing and hardworking . . . untouched by the profit motive." They were "very rigorous, demanding people". He acquired from them "ethics and norms that weren't just religious".
As with that other great disappointment to the Jesuits, James Joyce, Castro recalled long sermons for meditation on hell, "its heat and suffering, anguish and desperation" from his Jesuit schooldays. In his opinion it was not a good way to foster religious feeling.
Politically all the Jesuits he encountered were right-wing, and supporters of Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
At university Castro became a Marxist-Leninist. "To be quite frank, the simplicity, clarity and direct manner in which our world and society are explained in the Communist Manifesto had a particularly great impact on me," he said.
After the revolution no churches in Cuba were ever closed down, he said, but he had requested that some of the priests be withdrawn, because of the militant attitude taken by some in opposing the revolution, especially the Spanish ones.
Their authorisation to stay in the country was revoked, but replacements were allowed. Religious-run schools and hospitals were nationalised, and believers in God were not allowed join the communist party.
"All of the privileged social classes that had a monopoly on the church were against the revolution, so when, in organising the party we excluded those who believed in God, we were excluding them as potential counter-revolutionaries, not Catholics . . . We weren't exactly demanding that the person had to be an atheist. we weren't inspired by anti-religious ideas. what we were demanding was complete adherence to Marxism-Leninism," he said. (Believers may now join the Cuban Communist Party).
Athough the name of Jesus Christ was one of the most familiar to him growing up, he had never really acquired religious faith, he said. "All my efforts, my attention and my life were devoted to the development of a political faith, which I reached through my own convictions."
But he never saw any contradiction "between the ideas I upheld and the idea of that symbol, that extraordinary figure that had been so familiar to me ever since I could remember". Rather, she said, "I concentrated on the revolutionary aspects of Christian doctrine and Christ's thinking."
Christ didn't choose the rich to preach his teaching, he recalled, "he chose 12 poor and ignorant workers, that is, he chose the proletariat of the times . . . They were poor people, very poor, without exception."
He said that Christ's miracle of the loaves and fishes to feed the people "is precisely what we want to do with the revolution and socialism", and his parable of the rich man who paid the same to workers who did a half-day's work as he did to workers who did a full day was "precisely, a communist formula . . . to give to each according to his needs".
When talking about Che Guevara, he said: "If Che had been a Catholic, if Che had belonged to the church, he would probably have been made a saint, for he had all the virtues."