Many voices in the contemporary Church call for Christians to “accompany” and “dialogue” with those opposed to the Gospel message and ethos. All too often, this becomes accommodation with the spirit of the times. This entails making common cause with a progressivist politics that confuses social justice with statism and socialist collectivism; a flirtation with inhuman ideologies from Marxism to gender theory that makes a mockery of the Imago Dei; and the confusion of the great gift that is moral conscience with what C.S. Lewis called “the poison of subjectivism.” Instead of steadfast fidelity to the cardinal virtues of courage, temperance, prudence, and justice and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, we see a disturbing desire on the part of many Christians, including many in positions of great authority in the Church, to reduce the faith to a humanitarian moral message and to what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism.”
This highly ideological substitute for authentic faith and right reason is difficult for many to discern because it goes far beyond heresy in the specific sense of the term. In truth, this new religion of humanity entails a disposition of soul that profoundly “falsifies the Good” (the phrase is Vladimir Soloviev’s) and that has more than a whiff of the false and deadly promises of the anti-Christ about it. It is indeed the idol of our age and perhaps more dangerous than any heresy of old.
To resist this falsification of the Good, we are obliged to turn to true exemplars of “heroic Christian virtue.” One candidate for further study and reflection is the Venerable József Cardinal Mindszenty (1892-1975), a stalwart witness for the faith and an indefatigable defender of liberty and human dignity in the age of totalitarianism. With the Hungarian historian Margit Balogh and her recent book “Victim of History”: Cardinal Mindszenty (CUA Press, 2022), coming in at a very readable 724 pages, Cardinal Mindszenty has found his biographer. She is at once thorough, judicious, and sympathetic, while offering criticism where she deems it necessary and appropriate. Balogh is even-handed without being insensitive to Mindszenty’s evident courage and greatness of spirit. That is probably the best we could reasonably expect from a biographer who is a professional historian.
She does not approach Mindszenty’s life as a hagiographer might. But nor does she wish to belittle the considerable virtues displayed by a man who combined thoughtful and heartfelt piety with a deep-seated love of country. Her Mindszenty almost comes from another world, a world where fidelity to the Gospel and the moral law found expression in a patriotism equally at odds with sentimental utopianism and globalism and racialist hatred for other peoples and nations. In a time of immense confusion, that mode of approaching faith and politics deserves our renewed attention. As Balogh says near the end of her book, Mindszenty brought love of the faith and love of country together in a truly admirable way, healing the divide between Catholics and more ardent Hungarian nationalists that had been characteristic of nineteenth century and early twentieth century Hungarian life and politics. That is no mean accomplishment.
Balogh’s Mindszenty is a “plebian conservative,” a talented and hardworking cleric, parish priest, newspaper editor, social thinker, and bishop who never forgot his humble roots. He adored his peasant mother and was attentive to the concerns of the poor and the humble. At the same time, he adamantly opposed the anti-Christian demagoguery of the Left who first presided over the dismemberment of Hungary through the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 (more than half of Hungarians found themselves living outside of the national borders) and their aggressive hostility to the Christian character of Hungary. He paid greatly for that opposition.
Mindszenty was first arrested in early 1919 by Mihály Károlyi’s liberal/radical republican government, and was rearrested later that year by Béla Kun and his short-lived if terroristic Communist revolutionary government. Mindszenty forthrightly defended a Christian vision of Hungary that remained loyal to the Catholic patrimony, inseparably religious and political, passed on by the great King St. Stephen at the beginning of the second millennium. Mindszenty was a committed Legitimist, loyal in principle to the Habsburgs since he, above all, conceived of Hungary as a free but Christian kingdom. He was thus somewhat wary of Hungary’s Calvinist Regent Admiral Horthy (an admiral in a country now without a functioning navy!) but was never rebellious or disloyal to the interwar regime.
Balogh does a very fine job of showing how József Pehm (he would not change his name to Mindszenty until 1942) grew alarmed by the growth of homegrown National Socialism in Hungary in the second half of the 1930s. Of German descent himself (he spoke excellent German), he despised racialism in all its forms. He studied the writings of Nazi ideologues such as Alfred Rosenberg and came to see that Nazi racialism showed unrelieved contempt for the natural law, common humanity, and the essential teachings of the Christian religion. This plebeian conservative of distinctively peasant origins had not the slightest illusions about National Socialism and its Hungarian variant, the Arrow Cross. With the Nazi threat in mind, he worked to found a new Christian party that could coalesce anti-totalitarian sentiment among all patriotic Hungarians.
During the war, when many ethnic Germans in Hungary were Germanizing their names in sympathy with the Third Reich, Mindszenty adopted a Hungarian name taken from the name of his native village. As Bishop of Veszprém from 1944 onward, and as Archbishop of Esztergom and Hungarian Primate beginning in 1946, he fiercely resisted Nazi and Communist tyranny. In a speech delivered on June 6, 1944, he made clear that baptized Jews were as Christian as other members of the Church and that the natural law demanded that no man be denied his life or liberty on spurious racialist and ideological grounds. As Balogh puts it, in a time of ferocious anti-Jewish hysteria, Mindszenty proclaimed that the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to almost certain death was a violation of the natural law and the Ten Commandments. In addition, he saw the appeal to a racial God as the gross idolatry it was, a calumny against God and man. By the fall of 1944, he was arrested yet again, this time by the fanatical Arrow Cross regime of Ferenc Szálasi.
In the postwar years, Mindszenty courageously defended political and religious liberty and the broad range of human rights as Mátyas Rákosi and Hungary’s Stalinists imposed Communist despotism on the Hungarian people, this time with rather more lasting success than in 1919. By 1948, all the opposition parties were essentially crushed. Red tyranny replaced the Brown variety. iIndszenty used the Marian Year of 1947-1948 to renew the spiritual fiber of the Hungarian people and to resist the darkening shadows of an emerging totalitarianism. He could count on the full support of Pope Pius XII who saw Communist totalitarianism precisely for what it was. (Contrary to legend, he also fully understood the satanic character of National Socialist ideology.)
But on December 26, 1948, St. Stephen’s Day, the ÁVO or Hungarian secret police arrested Mindszenty. After weeks of subsequent torture and abuse, physical and psychological, a show trial followed in which a weakened and disoriented Mindszenty, looking like a shadow of his former self, confessed to bizarrely trumped up charges. Balogh persuasively argues that Mindszenty was not in fact drugged in those initial weeks of captivity. The Hungarian Bishops had abandoned him. Torture, humiliation, sleep deprivation, incessant indoctrination, and a stooge of a defense lawyer, all conspired to ‘depersonalize’ him by profoundly undermining the will of a strong and principled man. The trial shocked decent opinion worldwide. The Free World (excepting Communist parties and fellow-travelling intellectuals who were then legion) rallied to Mindszenty’s defense. Demonstrations, some massive, were held in Rome, Paris, and Dublin, and Pope Pius XII spoke forcefully on Mindszenty’s behalf. (This could be compared with Pope Francis’s shameful refusal to defend Cardinal Zen against another variant of Communist totalitarianism). In America, quite a few schools were named after Mindszenty. He was for a time a hero in the Free World.
Sentenced to life in prison, Mindszenty was freed during the Hungarian Revolution of October/November 1956. He spoke briefly to the nation and the world by radio on November 3, 1956, shortly before the Red Army reentered Budapest to crush Hungary’s noble anti-totalitarian revolution. As Balogh puts it, his speech was dignified and his message was clearly one of “consolidation, balance and patience.” But later the Kádár regime would falsely claim that Mindszenty had called for the restoration of the Church’s old agricultural lands. In fact, the Cardinal had only quite reasonably called for the restoration of her schools, newspapers, hospitals, and charitable organizations. There was nothing reactionary or illiberal about that request. For the unrepentant Communists at home and abroad, however, Mindszenty was still Enemy #1.
As Soviet tanks rolled in, Mindszenty, at the advice of Premier Imre Nagy, took refuge in the American legation in Budapest. He would remain there for fifteen years, a living reproach to Hungary’s Communist dictatorship and an obstacle to the Vatican’s often misplaced desire for détente with the Communist regimes in East-Central Europe. It was there that Mindszenty wrote his Memoirs (published in 1974), a precious witness to one Christian and patriot’s defense of truth and liberty against the totalitarian scourge. But bowing to pressure from the Washington and the Vatican alike, he left the American embassy on September 28, 1971. Mindszenty knew that would be the only way his Memoirs, so dear to him, would see the light of day.
At first, the Hungarian Primate was welcomed with fraternal affection by Pope Paul VI and they concelebrated a mass in Rome before the world’s bishops. But as Mindszenty ministered to Hungarians in Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, Venezuela, and South Africa, defending the same humane Christian and anti-totalitarian message he had lived by and preached for five decades, pressures grew for his removal from the See of Esztergom. The Vatican had unreasonable hopes for its version of Ostpolitik, as Mindszenty and Cardinal Wysynski of Poland both pointed out at the time. The Hungarian government increased its pressure, and Cardinal Casoroli, the Vatican Secretary of State, was happy to accommodate them. On December 26, 1973 (the 25th anniversary of Mindszenty’s arrest by the ÁVO!) Pope Paul VI declared the See of Esztergom vacant. Mindszenty’s eventual successor as Archbishop of Esztergom, Lászlo Lékai, was far from courageous and even something of a collaborator. He is hardly a hero to the Hungarian people today.
To be sure, Mindszenty was uncompromising in a way that was difficult for others to follow. But, in the end, what was there to compromise with? Sometimes an implacable refusal to collaborate with evil is required if one is going to remain faithful to the requirements of right reason and the moral law. That is a lesson for each and every season.
What is Balogh’s final verdict about Mindszenty? She certainly has no time of day for those “progressive” Catholics, such as the editors of the Dutch Catholic newspaper De Tijd, who in their issue of November 15, 1974, coldly called Mindszenty “a limited and somewhat vain man who was opposed to coercive social change in the late 1940s.” One suspects that the editors of that progressive newspaper were not adamantly opposed to “coercive social change,” otherwise known as totalitarianism. Balogh acknowledges that Mindszenty was stubborn and inflexible, for better and worse. To explain this, she states that his core convictions were formed before 1948, which is true, but somewhat besides the point. She argues that he failed to appreciate that there were some legitimate arguments for détente, rooted more in a desire for peace that a determined attachment to truth, liberty, justice, and human dignity. That is a point worth debating. But to her credit, the Hungarian historian never forgets that Mindszenty was a “man who exhibited a rare personal authority and a superior moral force.” And she adds that “his life is rightly exalted as a symbol of resistance to dictatorship and as an example of loyalty and faithfulness; he was a man who remained true to his God, his Church, his nation, and his people.”
We are all in Margit Balogh’s debt for recovering Mindszenty’s story with such balanced judgment yet real appreciation. Kudos to Catholic University of America Press for making this invaluable book available to the Anglophone world. And for those who wish to turn to Mindszenty’s own unmediated voice, his Memoirs will be released in a new edition by Ignatius Press in late winter 2022 or early spring of 2023, with a foreword by Joseph Pearce and a longer introduction by myself. This heroic Hungarian Christian and patriot needs to be rediscovered by new generations.
“Victim of History”: Cardinal Mindszenty, a biography
By Margit Balogh
Catholic University of America Press, 2022
Paperback, 724 pages
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