Today, we mark the fortieth anniversary of the death of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, a courageous Hungarian prelate who fought against communist tyranny despite great suffering, yet at the end was betrayed by Rome. As today’s Church faces threats around the world from secularists, Islamic fundamentalists and others, it is worth recalling his story to see the dangers of being excessively polite with evil ideologies.
The Hungarians are an ancient, patriotic people united under one state and Christianized during the reign of King St. Stephen I (997-1038). In the subsequent millennium, Hungary had at times been a regional power (before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, Hungary was three times its present size), and at others was subjugated and invaded by Mongols, Turks, Habsburgs, Nazis, and Soviets.
While Catholics are Hungary’s largest religious groups, its sizeable Calvinist minority led the fight for Hungarian independence. Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1848 anti-Habsburg Hungarian uprising, was a Calvinist; in the Hungarian mindset, Catholicism had long been linked with the Habsburgs. This changed in the twentieth century with Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty.
Born in 1892, Mindszenty was no stranger to political oppression. During Bela Kun’s Bolshevik dictatorship in 1918-1919, Mindszenty was imprisoned for his opposition to communism. During World War II, he was imprisoned again after protesting against the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party’s mistreatment of Jews and refusing to station its troops in his bishop’s palace in Veszprem.
In 1945, Pope Pius XII appointed Bishop Mindszenty archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and primate of Hungary, making him a cardinal the following year. While the Stalinist government of Matyas Rakosi (known as the “little Stalin” for being the Soviet dictator’s most brutal and loyal East European ally) imposed communism on Hungary, Mindszenty was Rakosi’s most vocal opponent. He protested against the forced resettlement of Hungary’s ethnic German minority, clamping down on freedom of speech, closing of religious orders and the nationalization and forced secularization of schools. Meanwhile, he worked to revive religious life among Hungarian Catholics, who quickly became attracted to the cardinal’s intelligence and charisma. Mindszenty organized pilgrimages to religious shrines, drawing tens of thousands of Hungarians. He made 1947-1948 a Marian Year when Hungarian Catholics were encouraged to renew their devotion to Mary.
Rakosi, shrewd as he was cruel, realized that he had a formidable opponent. On December 26th 1948 (incidentally the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr) Mindszenty was arrested and for weeks suffered beatings by a rubber truncheon and given drugs in his food to make him confess to ridiculous charges. Shortly thereafter, Mindszenty was sentenced to life imprisonment and accused of being an American spy and fascist (a charge all the more Kafkaesque given his bold opposition to the Arrow Cross). The West was shaken: in Washington, Republican and Democratic senators gave speeches defending Mindszenty, while in Sydney one hundred thousand irate Australians marched expressing their solidarity with the cardinal.
After eight brutal years in prison, the primate released the de-Stalinization campaign of the reformist Prime Minister Imre Nagy, installed after the Hungarian people boldly stood up in a national uprising in 1956. Cardinal Mindszenty once again became Hungary’s national conscience, and the prelate praised the insurgents and called for Hungarian independence from Moscow on the radio.
After Soviet troops crushed the Hungarian breeze of freedom, President Eisenhower offered Mindszenty refuge in the American embassy in Budapest. Nagy advised the cardinal to take up this generous offer, and Mindszenty lived there for fifteen years. Afterwards, he relocated to Vienna. After 1971, Mindszenty traveled to Western Europe, both Americas, Australia and South Africa, informing Western audiences of the struggle of the Hungarian nation. Mindszenty died in 1975 and was buried at the Austrian shrine of Mariazell. It was the cardinal’s wish for his remains to not be relocated to Hungary until it was free of Soviet troops: it wasn’t until 1991 that Cardinal Mindszenty’s body was repatriated to Esztergom.
Although the Vatican opened Mindszenty’s beatification cause in 1996, there have been no signs of progress. Mindszenty’s complex relationship with the Vatican itself is a cautionary tale of what happens when Church leaders, despite good intentions, choose diplomacy over courage.
Pope Pius XII was a firm supporter of Mindszenty. He never hesitated to call communist crimes by name and always supported brave East Bloc cardinals like Mindszenty, Poland’s Stefan Wyszyński and Croatia’s Aloysius Stepinac. Pius excommunicated everyone involved in arresting and trying Mindszenty, and as the Hungarians fought for their freedom in October 1956, the pope issued the encyclical Luctuosissimi eventus, which praised the Hungarians’ bravery. When Pius XII died in 1958, Mindszenty felt orphaned.
After the pontificate of Pius XII and until the 1978 election of John Paul II, the first pope from a land suffocated by communism, the Vatican carried out a curious policy known as Ostpolitik based on the supposition that by engaging in cordial relations with communist leaders it could negotiate better conditions for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. The fruits of this policy were few, and the costs were many. Contrary to popular belief, Pope John XXIII never excommunicated Fidel Castro. He did, however, refuse to sign a document condemning communism drafted by a team of bishops at the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Paul VI continued this strategy. When Mindszenty traveled across the West after 1971, Paul begged him to not say anything critical of the Hungarian communist regime to improve relations between the Vatican and Budapest. In 1974, Paul VI deprived Mindszenty of the primacy of Hungary, replacing him with an apostolic administrator, in an attempt at placating the communist regime. Mindszenty said that this was the greatest cross he had to bear.
Bishops in Hungary after Mindszenty were very much Ostpolitik appointments. Like the bishops of the Orthodox Church in communist Russia and Romania, they were largely subservient to the state. As a result, the Hungarian Church dramatically lost its credibility and in the 1980s many Hungarian had a jaundiced attitude towards the Church. If not for the betrayal of Mindszenty, the Church there perhaps could have played the same role in hastening the collapse of communism in Hungary as it did in Poland.
Only now is Hungary recovering from the post-Mindszenty malaise: its president is a devout Catholic and prime minister is a pious Calvinist, and they have introduced legislation honoring the life of the unborn, marriage, large families and Hungary’s Christian heritage. Meanwhile, Cardinal Peter Erdo, the current primate of Hungary, is one of the Church’s rising stars and critic of secularism and social injustice and a pioneer of ecumenism (he initiated a Catholic-Lutheran-Calvinist commission intended to produce a common translation of the Bible) and the new evangelization with projects such as the “city missions” (in which volunteers knock on the doors of non-practicing Catholics inviting them to Mass).
Undoubtedly, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were holy men. One has been canonized, and the other beatified. And rightly so: they did much good for the Church. Unquestionably, their Ostpolitik and approach to Mindszenty resulted from a desire to create consensus and improve the lot of Hungarian Catholics. However, the end result proves that diplomacy has its limits. Instead, courageous support of oppressed Catholics is best for the long-term health of beleaguered local Churches.
Filip Mazurczak has an MA in international relations from The George Washington University. He has published in a variety of magazines, including The European Conservative, Visegrad Insight, and Tygodnik Powszechny.