Fidel and the Brazilian Dominican

December 11, 2016

Frei Betto photo by Alexandre Campbell, World Economic Forum and used under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

This post was written for the Catholic Social Teaching Corner by Fr. Francis Belanger, OP, the promoter of social justice for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph.

Recently at the United Nations a brief but effusive tribute was paid to Fidel Castro, commended for being an “inspirational figure.” There to observe a meeting on an entirely different topic, the somewhat jarring experience made me ponder the contrasting interpretations of the Cuban leader’s legacy, typically so reviled here in the U.S. One fruitful avenue of thought comes from the work of Frei Betto, the Brazilian Dominican who surprisingly befriended Castro and is credited with helping to open the way to St. John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba.

Frei Betto’s full name is Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo and he entered the Dominican Order in 1964. He is a writer, theologian, journalist and adviser to politicians, most notably the Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As a young Dominican he was a political prisoner for nearly five years under a Brazilian military dictatorship. In 1985 he was granted an interview with President Castro in Havana. The result was Frei Betto’s book, Fidel and Religion, an international best seller.

The premise of much of Betto’s conversation with Castro is that there is room for dialogue between Marxism and Christianity. As Castro says, citing the need for personal virtue in the body politic, “I tell you there’s great coincidence between Christianity’s objectives and the ones we communists seek.” For Frei Betto’s part, he is unabashedly Christian but also sympathetic to many of the Cuban revolution’s ideals. He embraces the term “liberation theologian” and is decidedly anti-capitalist. One may recoil but it is worth noting, as to the former, that the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Müller, avers that there can be a good liberation theology. And as to the latter, the Church has always upheld a cautionary anti-capitalist strain – as instanced, for example, by Dorothy Day, the English Distributists, and even Pope Benedict, who wrote that “democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine…”

Two themes that emerge in the conversation between the Dominican and the revolutionary are development and solidarity. During the era when Communism was on the rise it was a concern of the Church that this atheist movement was co-opting some of the ideals that Christians should be upholding. Whatever history’s judgment on Fidel Castro, his conversation with Frei Betto focused on the need for economic and educational progress throughout the world. The moral imperative remains today. As Pope Francis never tires of reminding us, Christians are called to be concerned for the integral human development of people everywhere. One area where this is relevant is immigration. It is unfortunate that the focus is so exclusively on border security and so rarely, if ever, on fixing the economic disparities that cause this desperate mass migration.

At the end of the encomium for Castro at the U.N. all were invited to rise for a minute of silence. I am glad to pray for his soul but I didn’t stand. At the very least it seemed like rooting for the other team. At worst, it was paying tribute to a dictator. But Frei Betto and Fidel had a profound conversation in 1985 and it helped open doors in Cuba. The commandante welcomed three popes to the island against all expectations; and his brother Raul now claims he is thinking of going back to the Sacraments. May that openness to grace continue to bear fruit in Cuba and in our own land.

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