Last temptation of Castro

Fidel Castro will be received back into the communion of the Roman Catholic Church during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the island in March, the Italian press is reporting. If true, this is a remarkable story -- and one that has yet to catch the attention of editors this side of the Atlantic. On 1 Feb 2012, La Republicca -- [Italy's second largest circulation daily newspaper, La Republicca follows a center-left political line and is strongly anti-clerical; not anti-Catholic per se but a critic of the institutional church] -- reported that as death approaches, the octogenarian communist has turned to God for solace.

ABC's Global Note news blog is the only U.S. general interest publication I have found that has reported this story.  It referenced the La Republicca story and said that Castro's

daughter Alina is quoted as saying “During this last period, Fidel has come closer to religion: he has rediscovered Jesus at the end of his life. It doesn’t surprise me because dad was raised by Jesuits.” The article quotes an unidentified high prelate in the Vatican who is working on the Pope’s Cuba trip: “Fidel is at the end of his strength. Nearly at the end of his life. His exhortations in the party paper Granma, are increasingly less frequent. We know that in this last period he has come closer to religion and God.”

Some Italian websites have even speculated as to when Fidel will make his confession and credo -- setting the date as 27 March 2012 at 17:30 when the two ottantacinquenni, Pope Benedict XVI and Castro, will meet at the Palacio de la Revolución when the pope makes his official visit to the head of state, Raul Castro.

During Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba, Castro attended mass, but did not receive the Eucharist or give voice to Christian beliefs. If his daughter's story is true and Castro returns to the church it will be very interesting to see how it plays out across the media.

One issue that might be raised is Castro's excommunication. One of the recurring errors of religion reporting GetReligion has addressed is the misconceptions about excommunication. The overwhelming majority of those who are excommunicated have not been formally and individually censured by the church, but have followed a course of action that led to their self-excommunication. Castro's excommunication is the same, but over time the lack of clarity in the 1963 press reports have hardened into conventional wisdom.

The Miami Herald has a well written and thorough report on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba that states as fact that John XXIII excommunicated Castro, while the La Republicca article quotes an unnamed Vatican official as saying:

True in 1963 [Castro]was excommunicated by the Pope, but then that measure was a measure almost automatic for those who professed Communism.

However, Friday's Vatican Insider column in La Stampa reports there is no evidence that Castro was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII.

There is also much talk about the excommunication bestowed on him by John XXIII, who is now a Blessed pope. What has sparked these rumours, is the excommunication decree for communists, published by Pius XII in 1949 and renewed in 1959 by Pope Roncalli.

Indeed, the news regarding the excommunication decreed by the “good Pope” against Fidel and dated 3 January 1962, can be found practically all over the web. What happened that day? The first man to mention excommunication was Dino Staffa who was working as Secretary of the Congregation for Seminaries at the time, a renowned scholar of canonical law. Paul VI allegedly promoted him to the Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and then made him a cardinal in 1967. Newspapers presented him as a “high-ranking prelate” of the Secretariat of State, even though he did not in fact hold any position in said office. What is more, Mgr. Staffa’s reasons were not related to communism, but to violence against bishops. The prelate, an expert in canonical law, essentially said that Castro should consider himself excommunicated by virtue of the Code of Canonical Law, which automatically prescribes this very serious punishment to those who are violent against bishops or who collaborate to carry out such acts. The excommunication therefore boiled down to the opinion of a scholar of canonical law, not to an excommunication decreed at that moment.

In other words, Castro's was an excommunication latae sententiae, “by the very commission of the offense." No action was taken by the church to excommunicate Castro. He did it himself.

The La Republicca article closes its report on Castro's return to the church by stating:

In Havana there waiting for the arrival of Benedict XVI. The Church in Cuba is loved and respected. So is the government for its broad social interventions.

The church can thus serve as a "mediator" between the people and the government in the post-Castro era, La Republicca argues. I think it is a bit of a stretch to say the government is loved and respected for its "social interventions", but La Republicca is a left-wing European paper and its default position is that Cuba's experiment with socialism is a moral good.

Which ever way it goes, the Castro/repentance story will be fascinating to watch. What does it mean for a dictator to seek  repentance? What does forgiveness mean? Is moral redemption possible in this day and age? How will those who have been harmed by the regime respond? What about the prisoners of conscience who remain in Cuban jails --- a Cuban political prisoner, Wilmar Villar, died on 21 January 2012 after a 50 day hunger strike -- what does an old man's repentance have to say about that?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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