Frei Betto, a Brazilian Dominican Friar, follows in the footsteps of the great Dominicans who, almost alone, stood up to the Iberian brutes who came to subjugate and enslave the populations of the New World, under the guise of civilizing and christianizing them.
During the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-85) Frei Betto spent four years in prison. His book From the Catacombs, Letters From Prison (he was incarcerated with a number of fellow Dominicans) shows the Dominican spirit of Bartolomeo de las Casas Montesino and company from the early 16th century to be alive and flourishing 500 years later.
Frei Betto wrote a later book, Fidel and Religion, a faithful transcription of 23 hours of interview with Fidel Castro, done in 1985, i.e. before the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent loss of aid. One is tempted to quote from almost every one of its 400 pages, so rich are Fidel's responses to Frei Betto's probing questions. I will limit myself, however, to summarizing one question and answer, taken from pages 290 to 296.
Fidel has been talking about the church of the conquistadors always being on the side of the oppressor, never condemning slavery, never condemning exterminations even on a grand scale, never condemning the stealing of the Indians' lands. And this over centuries. Fidel then adverts to Latin America's newly minted Theology of Liberation and calls it "a re-encounter of today's Christians with the Christians of yesterday, Christians of the first centuries after Christ."
He describes it as "Christians finding again their roots, re-discovering that part of their history that is most beautiful, most glorious." It (Liberation Theology) "is one of the most important and fundamental developments of our era. It cuts away the ground from the exploiters, the conquerors, the oppressors, the pillagers of our people, those who keep us ignorant, sickly, in destitution."
"Behold the bitter history of the Third World, and our America Latina is third world, in all these centuries the only thing conceded to us is that we do indeed 'have souls.' Well, if we 'have souls,' then we claim also human rights." Frei Betto comments: "Soul and body! One unity, the human person." Fidel: "If we have souls and also body then we have a right to life, to food, to health, to education, to a home, to employment, to dignity. Women and their daughters have the right to life without having to prostitute themselves just to survive. A family has the right to life without having to steal, to beg, to live in a slum.
"That which is best in Christianity is in direct and absolute contradiction to the interests of imperialism. I'm convinced that those who created the Sante Fe document (Reagan, Bush, etc.) though in theory they consider themselves Christian -- Holy Faith indeed! (Santa Fe = Holy Faith -- ed.) They don't really believe we, Negroes, Indians, Mestizos, all of the Third World's citizens, have souls.
"You (i.e. Frei Betto) have said, and said it beautifully, that the poor have invaded the church. (Frei Betto mentioned this earlier as the fruit of the many Base Communities.) The pain of the poor, the indescribable tragedy of the masses, has invaded the church. Their cries have reached the church, especially have they reached the ears and hearts of those closest to their flocks. And the echo of their cries has reached beyond their local pastors, reached as far as bishops, even cardinals and Pope John XXXIII. We know the profound teaching of John XXIII. He is remembered in our lands with great respect and sympathy by everybody, including Marxist-Leninists." Could any pastoral letter say it better!
So, then, is Fidel an atheist? He says yes, but the "god" he rejects is not the Father of Jesus, nor even of the Old Testament psalmists and prophets. Had the Spaniards, the Portuguese (and yes, the British, French and Dutch too!) brought the God of Jesus to these new lands, how readily would the natives have received the good news!
The marginalized, the rejected, the "non-citizens) and "non-persons" -- those became the specially loved and chosen of Jesus. The Christians of the first three centuries were, for the most part, precisely these marginalized ones. It is their witness that Fidel Castro describes as "Christianity at its best, at its most beautiful and attractive."
When Fidel finally came up for air (page 379!), Frei Betto says, "I felt as one carrying a weight beyond my capacity. My spirit was flooded with admiration for Fidel and I made a silent prayer of praise to our heavenly Father." Note: Santa Fe I and II were think tanks called by the Reagan and George Bush Sr. administration to combat liberation theology as "subversive," an idea they sold even to the Vatican.