The Heroic Christian Virtue of Cardinal Mindszenty

There is not much good news coming out of Rome today. The “Franciscan” Church is marked by immense moral and theological confusion (some of it deliberately sown by the present pontiff) and a tendency to “kneel before the world,” as Jacques Maritain strikingly put it in The Peasant of the Garonne.

But in February came news that ought to warm the hearts of all the faithful and people of good will: Blessed John Henry Newman (one of the outstanding Catholic intellects of all time) is to be canonized, and Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty (1892-1975), one of the anti-totalitarian titans of the twentieth century, has been named “Venerable.”

Others will undoubtedly speak of Newman. I want to concentrate on the almost forgotten greatness and heroism of the former prince-primate of Hungary. Mindszenty, once well known but largely forgotten in the West today, is being honored by the Church for his “heroic Christian virtue” in defending liberty, human dignity, and religious freedom against the totalitarian regimes that subjugated the freedom of east-central Europe during the worst years of the twentieth century.

The recent announcement sent me back to Mindszenty’s Memoirs, begun when he was a “guest” in the American Embassy in Budapest from 1956 to 1971 and later published in many languages, including English, in 1974, the year before his death.

It’s the work of a dedicated Christian and Hungarian patriot, who passionately loved Church and country. He despised totalitarian ideologies, Right and Left alike, which substituted hate for love, atheism and materialism for deference to God, and political servitude for basic human liberties. The prose of his Memoirs is clear and honest and characterized by obvious moral integrity from beginning to end.

Mindszenty was a victim of Bela Kun and his short-lived “Red Terror” in 1919. This was his first arrest by a totalitarian regime. In 1944, he was arrested again, this time by the Arrow Cross government, Hungarian Nazis who despised him and the other Hungarian bishops for condemning the persecution – and deportation – of Hungarian Jews.

Even before the Hungarian communists came into uncontested power in 1947, Mindszenty had fully earned his anti-totalitarian credentials.  As the new archbishop of Esztergom, the prince-primate of Hungary (to use a traditional title he insisted on), he had no illusions about Bolshevism, as he called it.

TIME, February 14, 1949: “To die is gain”

Unlike some episcopal colleagues, he did not believe that communists had mellowed or could ever make peace with Christian and democratic principles. Though of simple peasant stock, he was accused of being a reactionary, anti-Semite, and defender of privilege, by everyone from leftist apologists to Eleanor Roosevelt. These “progressives” found little to criticize on the Left, but habitually mistook Christian conservatives for quasi-fascists.

Pope Pius XII spoke for all men of good will when he denounced the Hungarian dictatorship for subjecting Mindszenty “to the worst humiliation,” sentencing him to prison “like a common criminal” after a show trial. Mindszenty had protested the confiscation of religious schools in Hungary and the communist regime’s systematic assault on civil and religious liberty.

In prison, Mindszenty lost nearly half his weight. But he found, like Dostoevsky, that one could remain a “good,” even a “great” man in prison, though assaulted by terrible spiritual temptations.

Mindszenty was freed from prison during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and became one of its heroes. Premier Imre Nagy declared all the charges against him null and void. The liberated Cardinal spoke magnanimously to the whole Hungarian people in a radio address on November 3, 1956.

He declared his commitment to a constitutional state, humane and peaceful dedication to the Hungarian nation, “private property rightly and justly limited by social interests,” religious freedom and the restoration of the Church’s press and schools (but not its old feudal lands).

His Leftist opponents, and the government of Janos Kadar, which came to power after the suppression of the noble Hungarian Revolution, distorted his moderate and uplifting words beyond all recognition. Some critics on the Left do so even today.

Taking refuge in the American embassy as Soviet troops rolled into Budapest, Mindszenty wrote many letters during the next fifteen years to American Presidents and Secretaries of State.

He denounced the Kadar regime for its repression of political and religious liberty, encouragement of genocidal levels of abortion, and enslavement to the Soviet empire (these letters have been collected in Do Not Forget This Small Honest Nation).

The title comes from Mindszenty’s first letter to President Eisenhower as the Hungarian Freedom Fighters were being gunned down in 1956 by Soviet troops. The letters reveal a conscientious and faithful Catholic and a proud and committed Hungarian patriot who would never compromise with communist ideology.

Forced to leave Hungary in 1971 as a result of pressure from President Nixon and Pope Paul VI, he continued to speak against communist repression as he ministered to Hungarian exile communities in the United States, Western Europe, Australia, and South Africa. In 1973, Paul VI vacated the position of Archbishop of Esztergom leaving Mindszenty in “complete and total exile,” as he put it despondently in the final pages of his Memoirs.

But he is now the hero of the entire Hungarian people (except that tiny rump of intellectuals that despises the 1000-year spiritual legacy from St. Stephan to the present). The world will long remember Mindszenty’s heroic virtue. But who now remembers Cardinal Casaroli, the manipulative Vatican Secretary of State who pursued a naïve and misplaced policy of accommodation (Ostpolitik) with the communist East? And who will remember Cardinal Lekai, Mindszenty’s successor as archbishop, who was essentially a collaborator with an ideological regime that suppressed the Church and basic human liberties?

Let us honor – and remember – Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty for his fidelity to truth, faith, and country during the age of ideology. The Church in its wisdom has deemed this great man worthy of veneration. Many of us – students of Mindszenty and totalitarianism alike – had come to that conclusion a very long time ago. May he soon be declared a saint.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He has written extensively on such great opponents of totalitarianism as Raymond Aron and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His latest book is The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity.