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Card. Jozsef Mindzenty:
Persecuted by Communism, Betrayed by Paul VI

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
It has been almost 70 years since Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the highest Catholic official in Hungary, was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Communist People’s Court. Recently it came to my attention that many Catholics today, especially the youth, do not recognize even the name of this intransigent defender of the Faith, who became an anti-communist hero throughout the world after his scandalous show-trial staged by Hungarian Communism in 1949.

card mindszenty

Card. Mindzenty, 1892-1975, a hero of the Church and warrior against Communism

As I was translating a commentary by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira on the barbarism of Communism, I realized that this is a story that should be better known.

Card. Mindszenty was born in 1892 into a peasant family in a small Magyar village when Hungary was part of the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. He was ordained in 1915 at age 23 and consecrated Bishop of Vesprem in 1944. One year later he was appointed Archbishop of Esztergom, the Primatial See of Hungary; in 1946 Pope Pius XII made him a Cardinal.

By 1948 the Communist Party had taken full control of Hungary and Mindszenty vigorously and publicly protested the communist confiscation of land, churches and parochial schools. Staunchly anti-republican and anti-communist throughout his life, Mindszenty was a difficult man for not only communists, but also Church progressivists, to support.


The card inscribed with Devictus vincit

The communists, who considered the Primate "the center of the counter-revolutionary forces in Hungary," arrested him for "subversive activity" on December 28, 1948. In his last Open Letter, he had declared "Communism is an atheistic ideology. Hence by its very nature it is opposed to the spirit of the Church."

He left the Archbishop's palace in his poorest robe and a picture of Our Lord crowned with thorns inscribed with the words "Devictus vincit" (Defeated, He was victorious): A motto that would stand him in good stead in the years ahead.

Torture in prison

For the five weeks before the trial, Card. Mindszenty suffered beatings and sleep deprivation; finally, mind-altering drugs were added to his food to make him confess to false charges of treason against the State. Prior to being arrested he had already warned some of his priests that he would never sign a confession willingly, and should one be produced it would be the result of human frailty, and thus null and void.

tiral mindzenty

Mindzenty at the Peoples'Court in 1949

That mock trial became the lightning rod that wakened Western sentiments vividly to the cruel tactics of Communism. Mindszenty, under torture and drugs, signed a document admitting he had orchestrated the theft of Hungary's Crown jewels with the aim of crowning Otto von Habsburg emperor of Easter Europe, schemed to remove the Communist Government and planned a Third World War. All patent nonsense. In this kangaroo court, Mindszenty was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Pope Pius XII and many statesmen were quick to raise their voices in sharp, loud condemnation of Communist Regime. The Pope excommunicated all those involved in the trial and publicly condemned it in the Apostolic letter Acerrimo Moerore. In the US, Card. Francis Spellman spearheaded a chorus of denunciation unleashed from pulpits, in petitions and rallies demanding the Prelate's immediate release. Even President Truman publicly condemned the proceedings. The Hungarian Catholic Prelate was transformed almost overnight into an anti-communist hero of the early Cold War.

But there was no release from prison. For eight years the Cardinal languished in a succession of moldy and freezing cells, subject to the blows and blasphemies of red guards. On the outside, the Catholic Bishops of Hungary became totally subjugated to the Communist Regime.

Mindzenty released

Card Mindzenty, released during the 1956 uprising against Communism

Finally, with the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Mindszenty was freed by a provisory government. His liberty was short lived. Within a month, Soviet troops entered Hungary to stifle that brief breeze of freedom. Mindszenty took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Budapest and remained there for the next 14 years.

But at least he was in his own country where his virtual imprisonment made him a symbol of Catholic intransigence against the Communist Regime and a constant thorn in the side of Communism. He was given the option to leave without harassment, but Mindszenty, well aware of the symbolic value of his presence, refused to abandon Hungary.

In 1971, the year of his release, he was to face his most bitter trial, the betrayal of Paul VI who sacrificed the Prelate for his Ospolitik with Communism.

The Vatican betrayal

During the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI, the Vatican adopted a tolerant approach toward the Eastern Communist Regimes known as Ostpolitik – in German, Eastern policy – which denied Catholic principles of Faith and social doctrine to reach a very limited liberty to worship and gather. Abandoning the fight against Communism, these Popes made compromising peace accords with those regimes.

Paul VI Midzenty

Paul VI stripped Mindszenty of his title and See to placate the communists

The Cardinal’s continued strong resistance to Communism created a dilemma for this religious Ostpolitik managed by Paul VI's Secretary Archbishop Agostino Casaroli (he was named Cardinal in 1964). To facilitate a peaceful accord with the Hungarian regime, Casaroli called for the Primate to leave Hungary and renounce his ecclesiastical posts.

So, Paul VI commanded Mindszenty to leave the American embassy in Hungary. On September 29, 1971, the Cardinal reluctantly left the embassy sanctuary and traveled into exile. In Rome he was received by the Pope with great honor and given the assurance that he would always remain Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary. At the same time, Paul VI declared Mindszenty a "victim of history" (instead of Communism) and, paradoxically, annulled the excommunications imposed on his persecutors.

After two months he settled in Vienna, where, with his customary intransigence and force, he set out to conduct pastoral tours for Hungarian Catholics in exile and to fight Communism. When one of his speeches was censored by the nuncio's office in Lisbon, he was informed that the Holy See had given the Hungarian government a pledge that the Hungarian Prelate would say nothing against Communism publicly. Mindszenty replied that he would have refused to leave had he known of any such agreement.

As he prepared to publish his Memoirs in 1973, the Cardinal suffered the final betrayal. Fearful that the truth would upset the new spirit of coexistence with the Marxists, Paul VI asked Mindszenty to resign his office. He refused. (1)


His Memoirs were published in 1973,
two years before his death

On February 5, 1974, Paul VI deprived Mindszenty of the Primacy of Hungary and declared his See vacant, replacing him with an apostolic administrator in an attempt to placate the Communist Regime. Mindszenty said that this was the greatest cross he had to bear in his life.

Many news agencies glossed the papal order to imply that Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty had voluntarily retired. This was not true. It was a decision taken by the Holy See alone, a betrayal of that staunch adversary of Communism who had suffered imprisonment, torture and an unjust sentence under the red regime.

The Cardinal did not resist the Pope's shameful order but he also never relinquished his intransigent opposition to Communism. In 1974 he spent two months in the US where he published his Memoirs, which are well worth reading. While The Diary of Anne Franck is found on almost every Catholic high school reading list, this important book is missing...

Mindszenty spent the rest of his life caring for the spiritual welfare of his scattered Hungarian flock around the world. He continued, however, until his death at age 83 on May 6, 1975, to make it clear that he had not abdicated, but had been deposed.

Ego debuissem mori in Hungaria” (“I should have died in Hungary”), the Cardinal once lamented, looking at the reality he found in the Vatican after leaving his country. A lament that sadly rings true, for the Ostpolitik of the post-Conciliar Church caused the valiant hero-Prelate of Hungary greater suffering than the physical tortures of the communists.
  1. After long and conscientious consideration the Cardinal justified his attitude on this question as follows:

    "1. Hungary and the Catholic Church of Hungary are not free.

    "2. The leadership of the Hungarian dioceses is in the hands of a church administration built and controlled by the communist regime.

    "3. Not a single Archbishop or apostolic administrator is in a position to alter the composition or the functioning of the above-mentioned church administration.

    "4. The regime decides who is to occupy ecclesiastical positions and for how long. Furthermore, the regime also decides what persons the bishops will be allowed to consecrate as priests.

    "5. The freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by the Constitution is in practice suppressed. "Optional" religious instruction has been banned from the schools in the cities and the larger towns. At present the struggle for optional religious instruction in the schools is continuing in the smaller communities. Young people contrary to the will of their parents, are being educated exclusively in an atheistic spirit. Believers are discriminated against in many areas of daily life. Religious teachers have recently been confronted with the alternative of choosing between their professions and their religions.

    "6. The appointment of bishops or apostolic administrators without the elimination of the above mentioned abuses does not solve the problems of the Hungarian Church. The installation of "peace priests" in important ecclesiastical posts has shaken the confidence of loyal priests and lay Catholics in the highest administration of the Church. In these grave circumstances Cardinal Mindszenty cannot abdicate." (Excerpt from Moscow and the Vatican by Father Ulysses Floridi, S.J., 1986, see here)


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Posted November 22, 2017

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