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The Outcast Cardinal

Memoirs

by József Cardinal Mindszenty
Macmillan, 341 pp., $10.00

There is in these Memoirs no revelation of József Mindszenty as a person, nothing to be compared with the presentation of the person we find in John XXIII’s journals. By page thirteen he is fifty-two years old and Bishop of Veszprém. This is modesty, though not perhaps humility. He takes it for an obvious truth that our interest in him is an interest in him as an ecclesiastic, as the victim of one of the most cruel and absurd of the communist show trials, as the recluse of the United States Embassy in Budapest, as the man compelled to leave Hungary by the united pressure of President Nixon and Pope Paul, as the man set aside and humiliated by an ecclesiastical bureaucracy determined upon a settlement between Church and State in the Hungary of Kádár.

Mindszenty was an energetic, honest, devoted seminarian, priest, and bishop. He was prudent and traditionally minded, but he was imprisoned three times: first, under the brief communist regime in 1919, then by the Nazis and their Arrow Cross allies in the last days of the Second World War, finally (when he was a Cardinal and Archbishop of Esztergom and Hungarian Primate) in 1948 by Rákosi’s government. During his third imprisonment he was beaten continually, deprived of sleep, dressed up as a clown, possibly drugged; in the end, he was ready to plead guilty to a variety of absurd charges in the truth of which only the most gullible Soviet sympathizers in the West could have believed. Certainly his accusers didn’t; they were simply intent upon constructing what in post-Watergate days we have become accustomed to call a scenario.

With the revolution that brought Nagy to power in 1956, Mindszenty was one of the first captives to be released. He hoped for Western intervention to save the revolution but the West was preoccupied with the Suez adventure (a matter he never mentions) and this may have had some influence in strengthening those in the Soviet Politburo who were hot for intervention. His decision, entirely understandable, not to give the regime an opportunity to imprison him again or to murder him (as it did Maléter and Nagy), but to enter the United States Embassy as a refugee began the last and perhaps most bitter period of his life; for he found that in the end, both before and after he left Hungary in 1971, the ecclesiastical apparatus he had served so faithfully and with such sacrifice had no use for him and believed him to be an obstacle to better relations between the Church and the regime. “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile”—we are tempted to make this his epitaph.

The picture that comes out of the Memoirs is that of a man who saw life in Hungarian rather than in universal terms. One gets the impression that what happens outside the countries of the Danube basin is a kind of shadow play; the center of the drama is here. The world looks at Hungary and acts or fails to act. That the Western powers may have other preoccupations never seems to trouble Mindszenty’s mind. We have already seen that he fails to note the coincidence of the Suez war with the 1956 revolution. Equally, he never looks hard at the plain fact that situations of “confrontation” between the Soviet Union and the West always suggest the possibility of nuclear warfare. He may have thought, though he doesn’t say so, that such a risk ought to have been run. This would have placed him at a great distance from traditional Catholic moral theology, as his old friend Cardinal Ottaviani could have told him. It was Ottaviani who said quite bluntly that the possibility of there being a just war between the great powers had to be excluded under modern conditions.

Perhaps the most striking example of Mindszenty’s provincialism is his insistence that in virtue of his primacy he was the highest constitutional authority in Hungary. In his telegram to the first postwar provisional government, which had congratulated him on his appointment as Archbishop of Esztergom, he wrote: “The highest constitutional authority of the country stands ready to serve his native land.”

In modern times, Rome has never cared very much for primates who try to exercise independent political authority, and the tone of this statement may have surprised the Curia. That Esztergom was the seat of an institution that combined the functions of regent and supreme judiciary was a thoroughly medieval idea. It makes excellent sense in the context of medieval constitutional theory. But the central government of the modern Roman Church is the least medieval institution in Christendom. It hates the idea of checks and balances in the government of the Church. For the Vatican, the Council of Constance (1414-1415), with its assertion of the supremacy of a General Council over the Papacy, rather than the Protestant Reformation represents the heresy to be dreaded. There is a dreadful appropriateness about Mindszenty’s final rejection by Rome after he left Hungary. With great respect and without losing his temper he refused voluntarily to relinquish the primacy even when this was clearly the wish of the Pope. In this he was like those Hungarian bishops who left the first Vatican Council rather than have anything to do with what they thought to be the inopportune definition of Papal Infallibility.

Mindszenty’s provincialism was his strength. It would be an enormous mistake to suppose that a more supple ecclesiastic would have been more successful—would have got more for the Church—in negotiations with the regime of Rákosi and Gábor Péter. This was a tyranny so vile, so corrupt, that it used the scum of Hungarian society, the old Arrow Cross men, as policemen, thugs, and even judges. The president of the court that tried Mindszenty was an old Arrow Cross man who had joined the Communist party. A Mindszenty who was more supple, more yielding, would have delivered the ecclesiastical apparatus over to the Hungarian communists more swiftly—this happened later, under the terrified remnant of bishops, after Mindszenty and Archbishop Grösz had been arrested. As it is, Hungarian Catholicism has the recollection of a hero, a man who stubbornly, absurdly, through the shame of the staged trial, and as a continual reproach behind the windows of the United States Embassy, lived in opposition to the existing powers.

It would be good to have the memoirs of Beran of Prague, the great archbishop who, like Mindszenty, was imprisoned first by the Nazis, then by the communists. He is reported to have said that perhaps the distresses of Czech Catholicism came about in part as a consequence of the burning of Jan Hus and the persecution of his followers. This is a reflection of a kind that one couldn’t conceive as being made by Mindszenty. His religious style is simple, fervent, unreflective. The Church is always pictured as the bishops and the clergy governing, shepherding, praising, and rebuking an obedient laity. Catholicism in this mode is the most susceptible to the oppression of tyrants; this was obvious under Hitler, and it became obvious under the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Just before the communist coup d’ètat in Hungary Mindszenty “asked Prelate Zsigmond Mihálovics, the leader of Catholic Action, to prepare plans for intensifying the religious life of the whole nation.” A movement occupied with the national concerns of Catholicism that is headed by an ecclesiastic cannot be a match for a totalitarian government.

There is another revealing observation.

There is [a] …perspective the experienced shepherd of souls must keep constantly in mind. He must realize that the institutions of state and society surrounding his flock, and in which the faithful move, can influence their religious life for good or ill. A pastor who judges this situation in realistic terms will be very cautious in counting on the “maturity” and immunity of his flock. The true priest engaged in the cure of souls—even if he is held to be an outmoded type—considers himself responsible for the souls entrusted to him. His sense of responsibility weighs heavily upon him, and he will try to protect his flock from all perils and all obstacles.

This is not an ignoble standpoint. But it is theologically jejune, in that it assumes that the socio-ecclesiastical pattern of the old hierarchical societies is a part of the substance of Christianity, that immaturity and childishness are necessarily the state of the laity. The diagnosis is plainly self-fulfilling. It doesn’t reflect the experience of Christians under totalitarian rule. Where were the pastors and what was their witness when the Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter went to his martyrdom under the Nazi Antichrist? It isn’t surprising that in these Memoirs the second Vatican Council is scarcely mentioned and that the three passing references to John XXIII are neutral in tone. Mindszenty, as a person and an ecclesiastic, is as fine a representative of the old-style pastor as one could find, and in his fidelity and courage quite extinguishes the miserable timeservers who have been the shame of Catholicism under all totalitarian regimes. But his conception of his role belongs to a world now dead. It is a world whose charm and virtues we can now see quite clearly—this comes out in the nostalgia expressed so vividly by Solzhenitsyn when he writes about pre-industrial Russia, where the streets were uncluttered by automobiles and the gardens spread a delicious scent after the spring rain; but it is a dead world.

The Memoirs raise an important question about ecclesiastical politics. Throughout the communist world the indefatigable Monsignor Casaroli journeys as the Pope’s representative to mend relations so far as he can between Church and State. There are no startling successes to report. Where, as in Poland, the power of the Church over against the State is still considerable this must be attributed rather to the intransigence of local ecclesiastics and their congregations than to the skill of Vatican diplomacy. Mindszenty may well have been right in the skepticism he expressed concerning the policy of détente, a policy to which his own position was sacrificed. There is no reason to think that the accommodations sought by the Vatican will benefit Catholicism; similar accommodations sought with the Nazis ended in a fiasco.

But still, and this is richly ironical, the presuppositions of Monsignor Casaroli’s diplomacy and Mindszenty’s diagnosis are identical: that the welfare of the Church is best safeguarded by an agreement at the top between les grands chefs of the two institutions. This policy has a long history and its results are unimpressive, for the faithful are treated as children by both secular and ecclesiastical rulers. The good faith of a totalitarian state can scarcely be relied upon. To take one example, was it really a good idea to sacrifice the Center party in Germany, and with it the last chances of the parliamentary regime, to the Concordat with Hitler?

Mindszenty’s criticisms of accommodation are shrewd enough. But two things have to be said. First, the distinction between the Western and the communist powers, so clear to the ordinary political commentator on both sides, may not be so clear in Rome. The power of the United States sustained the long and fruitless war in Indochina and supports those regimes in South America under which Christians are killed and tortured every day. The social policies of Western and communist states in such matters as abortion are less distinguishable, if distinguishable at all, than they used to be. The sexual puritanism of the communist regimes may, when it is compared with the commercialized cult of the erotic in the Western countries, seem rather attractive to the Roman officials. One could go on making points of this kind. It just isn’t any longer the case that the shrewder minds in Rome necessarily see the future of Christian civilization in Western terms. The immediate prospects of Catholicism in the communist societies may not be bright; but regimes change, sober up, get slack, lose their harsher orthodoxies (so the argument may run); the Church can afford to wait and has perhaps no alternative to waiting.

Secondly, the Mindszenty thesis has to be stated in apocalyptic terms to be convincing. He writes:

When the struggle against the Church began…I realized at once that Christianity and communism were about to measure their strength in a decisive contest. We could not ask whether the Christian spirit would win. It seemed to me rather that our principal task was to hold out where we stood, to alarm Christendom, to call the attention of the whole human race to the danger of communism…. Within the Church we had to maintain the hope that better times in the future would restore to us all that was being taken from us.

Such a passage supports the anticommunist mystique that infects and corrupts intégriste Catholicism, above all in Europe and North America. It shows itself in a myriad ways and especially in attacks on the second Vatican Council and upon the integrity of the present Pope, who is portrayed as the innocent or conscious tool of the communist world conspiracy. Naturally there is a whiff of anti-Semitism about such views and sometimes the Freemasons come into the picture. (This shows that in the modern world life outstrips fiction; Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican is only a faint sketch of the absurdities to come.) Mindszenty was too honest and too shrewd to lend himself to the wilder versions of the anticommunist mystique, but he provided a rallying point in the West for some dubious ventures and his rough treatment by the Vatican fed that hatred of the present Pope that is so curious and so repulsive a feature of ultraconservative Catholic polemic. But there is nothing in his sober narrative, and not much in his commentary, to sustain such extravagances.

There are some memorable photographs in the Memoirs. Those that show Mindszenty in the company of such ecclesiastics as Cardinal Cooke of New York and Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington are worth looking at. There is Mindszenty’s handsome, intelligent face, sculptured by suffering. By some trick of the camera, perhaps, the American ecclesiastics look as though they are made out of plastic.

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