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Why Pope Francis Inspires Raúl Castro to Go to Church

Warming relations between Havana and the Vatican demonstrate a broader trend of reconciliation between the once-hostile ideologies, which has accelerated under social welfare-minded Francis.

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In 1962, in the depth of the Cold War, the Vatican excommunicated communist-revolutionary-turned-Cuban-president Fidel Castro after he banned religious celebrations and the building of new churches in Cuba, which would later declare itself an officially atheist state. But half a century later — two decades after the Cold War’s end — Fidel’s brother Raúl, Cuba’s current president, says he’s so impressed by Pope Francis that he’s considering going back to church.

After a very friendly visit with Francis at the Vatican, Castro told reporters on Sunday, “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.”

Castro visited Francis on his way back from Moscow, where he was reportedly the only Western Hemisphere leader to attend celebrations marking the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazism. The Moscow stop was a reminder that Cold War ties — and divisions — run deep. But they’re not immutable: Francis will reciprocate Castro’s gesture later this year and become the third pope of the last three to have held the office who have visited Cuba since the Cold War ended.

“When the pope goes to Cuba in September,” Castro said, “I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction.” He added that he had “always studied at Jesuit schools” — an allusion to the time before the revolution that brought his brother to power in 1959.

Warming relations between Havana and the Vatican demonstrate a broader trend of reconciliation between the once-hostile ideologies, which has accelerated under social welfare-minded Francis.

The basic principles behind Communism and Catholicism have been fundamentally at odds ever since Karl Marx famously wrote that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” Antipathy arguably reached its height with the Vatican’s 1949 “Decree against Communism,” which excommunicated all Catholics involved with communist groups. It continued with Pope John XXIII’s endorsement of democracy over other forms of government in 1963, and Pope Paul VI’s condemnation of “atheistic communism” as chief among “such ideologies as deny God and oppress the Church.” Later, many credited Pope John Paul II with helping speed the fall of communism in his native Poland, where Catholic churches served as centers of political opposition.

More recently, and particularly with Francis’s emphasis on egalitarianism and fighting poverty, the two ideologies’ goals, at least as preached by Francis and the Castros, have started to sound more similar. After the Cold War ended, Cuba  lifted restrictions on Catholic practice, allowed Catholics to join the Communist Party, and removed its constitution’s declaration of atheism. Catholics – nominally about 60 percent of Cuba’s population — no longer have to practice in secret, although many who’ve been baptized don’t practice regularly.

Fidel Castro visited the Vatican in 1996, paving the way for Pope John Paul to become the first pope to visit Cuba in 1998. Pope Benedict met Fidel and Raúl, both of whom were baptized and have showed some religious tendencies in the past, in Havana in 2012. Last year, the BBC reported that building was underway on the first new church since a freeze on construction after the Cuban Revolution.

Now, as a 2013 Atlantic article titled “The Vatican’s Journey from Anti-Communism to Anti-Capitalism” points out, Francis has declared “a new enemy for the Catholic Church: modern capitalism.” According to Francis, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” But “this opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

With the Cold War long over and communism soundly defeated as an ideology in all but a handful of countries – Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and (nominally) China — Francis argues that for the welfare of mankind, states need to exercise more, not less, control over financial markets.

Some who don’t see many similarities between the two -isms have raised alarms that Francis is abandoning one for the other. Rush Limbaugh, for example, has accused Francis of practicing “pure Marxism” in place of Catholicism. Francis has graciously responded that “Marxist ideology is wrong, but I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people.”

Still, Communism and Catholicism now have more to talk about than they have for the past several decades. As the Atlantic’s Emma Green pointed out, Argentina-born Francis’s message seems to be crafted less for North America and Europe — the epicenters both of recent church scandals and of what Francis sees as individualistic capitalism’s corrupting influence — and more for Latin America and Africa, where economic development has left many behind.

On Sunday, Castro and Francis spoke in their native Spanish, building on a dialog that Castro has credited with helping thaw relations with the United States under President Barack Obama and move toward a lifting of sanctions that – along with communist rule itself — have helped impoverish the country.

During Castro’s visit with the Pope, the Associated Press reported, “Francis gave Castro a medal depicting St. Martin of Tours, known for caring for the destitute. ‘With his mantle he covers the poor,’ Francis told Castro, saying more efforts on behalf of the poor are needed.”

That’s definitely one thing both leaders can agree on.

GREGORIO BORGIA/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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