Chapter Five

The Cardinal At Home

In September, as the Church-State quarrel was reaching its climax, following the decision to place education under state control, I went to see' Cardinal Mindszenty. It took three trips to the Cathedral City of Esztergom, about 50 miles up the Danube from Budapest, to arrange the interview. (Esztergom was the first capital of Hungary and the birthplace of Hungary's first King – St. Stephen.) Cardinal Mindszenty's secretary telephoned first to the British Legation to check that I was a respectable journalist from a suitably right-wing newspaper. I passed all the tests and the visit was arranged.

The cardinal received me in his palace overlooking the Danube. I was not permitted to take my interpreter into the Cardinal's study, Dr. Zakar, who later appeared in Court with the Cardinal, acted as interpreter. Occasionally we spoke directly to each other in German.

Underneath the trappings of the purple skull cap and the red-rimmed cardinal's cloak, I had an impression of a morose, conceited man of limited intelligence. With drooping jowls, deep-set, brown eyes, a heavy jaw, and sadistic chiselled lips and sonorous voice, the Cardinal seemed to belong to the era of the Spanish Inquisition rather than to that of the People's Democracies.

At first the Cardinal did not want to discuss specific questions, but preferred to deal in generalities, the impossibility of any sort of co-operation with the government, the dreadful persecution of religion and the ungodliness of the regime. Slim young Dr. Zakar, pleasant, soft-spoken, constantly washing .his hands with invisible soap, eventually interpreted my question.

"What do you regard the indispensable conditions for collaborating with the State?"

The Cardinal pursed his lips, rolled his eyes and answered, "When the State recognises the rights of the Church in education and religious life. In addition to education there is the question of cultural life and of associations."

"Have you had any discussions with the government on these questions?"

"No.Before there are any negotiations the schools must be returned to the Church. We demand the right of the church to own schools as physical property, we demand the right to teach, we demand for the parents the right to give children the type of education they want."

"In most western countries, primary education has been in the hands of the state for a long time, Cardinal. In England, Australia, America more than 90 per cent. of children receive their primary and secondary education in State schools. Why don't you think this system would be suitable for Hungary?"

"Our church schools are centuries old, the state only started teaching here in the middle of the last century. We have special teaching orders with a tradition of giving instruction in accordance with the laws of God."

"As far as I have understood the government decrees, I believe the government wanted the monks and nuns from the teaching orders to remain at their posts, to continue teaching, and it was you, Cardinal, who forbade them to do that?"

"It is impossible for Catholics to take part in teaching which is under the control of a materialistic government. Better that the schools be closed and the children remain untaught."

"In your pastoral letter, read in the Hungarian churches last Sunday, Cardinal, you said that any negotiations with the state for the return of Catholic schools and colleges would mean an abandonment of Catholic and Christian principles. The Lutheran and Evangelical churches did negotiate and did have their secondary schools returned to them. Could you tell me what principles the Protestant churches abandoned in these discussions?" And I quoted the following paragraph from the Pastoral letter:

"For the return of our fifteen colleges they wished to stipulate conditions, the fulfillment of which would have meant the giving up of our principles. At the cost of principles, by means of abandoning principles, the Church would not touch even her own schools. The army of Catholic educators can be neither the factor nor the active participant ofan education not approved by the Church. Even if they (the Government) were to promise that the school will not be anti-religious but neutral, that if they continue to teach, our monks and nuns will not come into conflict with their conscience, we ask where is our guarantee for these promises."

"What were these conditions which the government used as a bargaining counter for the return ofyour fifteen colleges?" I asked.

The Cardinal hedged the question many times and finally, as I was insistent on this point which seemed to me to contain the crux ofthe whole quarrel between Church and state, he said, "I myself don't know what these conditions were. Those who are concerned with educational problems took part in the discussions, but in any case I know they were such that no Catholic and no Christian could accept."

"But it was in your name that the Pastoral Letter was read out, and in your name that many thousand monks and nuns lost their positions overnight. Surely only the Cardinal himself could decide whether conditions .were anti-Christian or not. And after all, the Christian Lutheran and Calvinist bishops did accept these conditions and did have their properties returned and must be considered as Christians.”

"I am quite content to leave such decisions in the hands ofthose who are competent in educational questions," said the Cardinal, adding, "I cannot busy myself with every facet ofChurch affairs."

Either the Cardinal was dodging the issue or he had thrown down his sharpest challenge to the government, the spark that touched off a full-scale battle between Church and State, without knowing what the real issues were.

The conditions I received only later from Protestant sources. The government decree established the principle ofstate education and sanctioned the seizure ofall church schools. The view taken was that for centuries the state had heavily subsidised the Church for educational purposes. The people had paid in taxes many times over for the schools built by the Churches with State money. But the government offered to return secondary schools, the Church colleges, Seminaries for training priests and pastors were not affected by the decree. There were three conditions attached to this return.

(1) The Church recognise Hungary as a Republic.

(2) The Church recognise the fact ofland reform.

(3) The Church recognise the fact ofnationalisation ofindustry.

Recognition ofthese three facts entailed naturally the obligation not to agitate against these reforms, none of which came into conflict with religious practice.

It was impossible for Mindszenty to accept the first condition as at that time he was actively conspiring for the return ofthe Hapsburg Monarchy to Hungary. His priests, certainly on Mindszenty's instructions were carrying out a constant whispering campaign against land reform and in the early days warned those peasants who accepted their masters' land) that they would be hung from the tree-tops when the British and Americans came.

The Cardinal was not at all comfortable discussing school and church questions. I asked him for specific examples of persecution of religion, and he cited five instances. In a former Catholic College, St. Margaret High School for Girls, the new headmistress, Madeleine Ligety, once "wrote a pornographic book for small boys and girls." Pressed for the name ofthe book, he said it was called "Sexual Pedagogy." On the first day ofthe opening of the newly-nationalised schools, all teachers were forced to read a statement which contained anti-religious remarks. Catholic workers were being forced to join Marxist organisations. Catholics in the United States sent many parcels offood and clothing for poor Catholics in Hungary, and the government insisted in supervising their distributions. The government was sabotaging religious festivals. On checking afterwards found all these charges were false.

The Cardinal then rose from his study table, strode across to the window, and flinging it open, invited me to join him. Down below flowed the broad brown Danube.

A great steel bridge, leading across from the Hungarian side ended in the middle of the river, the other half had been destroyed by retreating Germans.

With a sweeping gesture, indicating a cluster ofmustard-coloured houses on the far bank, now gleaming with the rays of the setting sun, he said: "Hungarian for a thousand years and now Czechoslovakian. The government which has deserted those poor people has committed a mortal sin and I hold this government collectively responsible for it."

He closed the window and spread out an old atlas on the table, and warmed up to a subject much closer to his heart than a discussion of church, school and state problems. The atlas showed Hungary of the pre-war days, the Hungary of the Hapsburgs, Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon. When he spoke of Bratislava he gave it its ancient Hungarian name of Pozson. "For two hundred years capital of Hungary and now part of Czechoslovakia," he said.

"That should be the role of you journalists to-day," he continued, tracing with his finger the old frontiers of Hungary, the bits that had been clipped off after the first World War, the changes since the last war.

"Hungary was a bastion against Slavdom, a bulwark against Communism. She should have remained that way, and what have you done? You have split her up among the Slavs and installed a Communist government. Voivodina to the Yugoslavs, Slovakia to the Czechs, Transsylvania to the Rumanians, an anti-Christian and godless government installed in Budapest. Instead of keeping us as a bastion against the Slavs, you have made of us a Slav spearhead of Communism. You have allowed the most cultured nation in Central Europe to be split up amongst barbarians. The Hungarians were only 9.2 per cent. illiterate, and you handed them over to Yugoslavia who are 42 per cent. illiterate, and Rumanians who are 44 per cent. illiterate. In Czechoslovakia, in that very village we looked at a few minutes ago, Hungarians are persecuted because they welcomed peaceful Hungarian troops in 1939 with flowers. Would not English people have welcomed liberating English troops with flowers and song? Was it not England herself that agreed at Munich to Hungary regaining her lost lands in Czechoslovakia? Did not Benes himself agree to right this century-old injustice?"

I had to interrupt the Cardinal for long enough to point out firstly that people in England blush when they hear the Munich Agreement mentioned these days; secondly, the Munich Agreement contained no word about the Hungarians joining in with the German wolves to bite chunks out of Czechoslovakia; thirdly, that Benes had accepted the Munich Agreement only under extreme duress, and fourthly, Hungarian troops had not gone in peacefully with their rifles slung over their shoulders as the Cardinal suggested, but had killed, robbed and raped and flung all Jews and leftists into concentration camp. But nothing could stop the Cardinal who, by this time, was showing himself as ill-informed on historical and political matters as he had admitted himself to be on matters which affected the church more directly.

"600,000 Hungarians have been expelled from Czechoslovakia by force," he continued, "and whether the Hungarian government gave its permission for this willingly or unwillingly, this expulsion is a sin and is held to be a sin by the Church. It is a sin against human rights. If the great powers and nations would carry out their statements about freedom and human rights, many of the wounds of Hungary, both internal and external, would be healed." And he repeated his plea to me as a journalist to press in my despatches for a revision of Hungary's frontiers that she should be restored as a bastion against Slavism and Communism.

"Journalists and newspapers don't change frontiers, you know," I said. "Frontiers are always changed as a result of military action. Hungary's frontiers were changed because of World War I, and again after World War II. Do you believe these frontiers can be changed again without a World War III?"

He looked at me fixedly with his brooding brown eyes and said slowly in German: "I believe there will be a new world war and one should have a clear idea already what sort of a new world one wants in Europe. In deciding that the journalists have a role to play."

The Cardinal permitted me to take a picture of him at his desk before I left him. I did not see him again, nor Dr. Zakar until they appeared before the People's Court in Budapest four months later, charged with espionage, conspiracy and black marketeering.

I drove back from Esztergom, profoundly depressed after my interview with the Cardinal, along the Danube to Budapest. The leaves were turning gold. In every village, stalls were piled high with melons, grapes, apples and pears. Sturdy children coming home from school were stuffing themselves with fruit picked from trees along the roadside. A group of brigadiers in one village was busy restoring the steeples of a church. Street markets in the villages and wayside farms were bubbling over with vitality. Peasants along the road or working in the fields smiled and waved as the car went past. Cowherds from a co-operative farm were driving a large herd of cows from their grazing grounds along the banks of the river back to the co-operative dairy for milking. The Cardinal was willing to destroy all that. He was not content with stopping the clock of history; he wanted to turn the hands back five hundred years, and if Hungary were to be plunged into a blood bath the like of which she had not known in her thousand years history, to restore Church dominance and the Church estates, he would not shrink from giving the signal. He and his followers were already paving the way for a new war. The Cardinal had deliberately cut himself off from the people and-from the new life that was being built. He pre-occupied himself with questions that had nothing to do with religion or the spiritual needs of the Hungarian people. He was unable to give me real facts about the persecution of religion in Hungary because there was no such persecution. Long overdue changes were taking place in Church-State relationships which Mindszenty could not accept.

The Roman Catholic Church had always played a dominant role in Hungary's affairs. The Hapsburgs were Apostolic Kings, recognising the Church as the supreme power. All Hungarian kings, from the time 1,000 years ago when Stephen was crowned by the Pope, were Apostolic kings. Throughout the centuries no important political decisions were ever taken without the prior approval of the church, often enough on the direct orders of the leading Catholic dignitary. Various Catholic orders maintained a state within the state. Abbots and Bishops were laws unto themselves, administered their estates as feudal landowners responsible to no one. As long as they paid tribute to Rome, they were inviolate. The system did not change under the Regency of Admiral Horthy, although the latter was a Protestant. Church and state were identical and it must have been a severe shock to Cardinal Mindszenty to find in 1945, that he was not always consulted when important political and social decisions were taken.

In 1945, 50 per cent. of all schools belonged to and were controlled by the Catholic Church. The Church was also the largest single land-holder in the country, owning six per cent. of all the arable land, just over one million acres. Most Hungarians, 60 per cent., are Catholic. Another 20 per cent. are Presbyterians, 16 per cent. Lutherans, but the Protestant churches were not large land-owners and their political influence was negligible. Church institutions despite their enormous wealth were not self-supporting but were heavily subsidised by the State.

To understand more closely how this system worked, I paid a visit to the Abbe Istvan Justh, who lived in a large mansion at Felsoors, overlooking Lake Balaton. I knew that Justh had been a large land-owner, and was responsible for various churches and. schools. I left him more mystified than ever as to the relations between church and state in the old days.

Abbe Justh received me cordially and seemed glad to be able to practice his excellent English on me and to offer me a cup of English tea. Justh was almost as angry about the regime as was the Cardinal, and with perhaps more direct personal reasons. The government had "robbed" him of 4,000 acres of land at Felsoors and at the neighbouring parish of Dinnyes. It appeared that the estates had been in the hands of the Batthyanyi family since the 15th century and Justh's mother was a Countess Batthyanyi. They were what is known as "endowed" properties, and could only be passed on to a member of the family who entered the church as priest or Abbe. Justh's accession to the properties was the more puzzling to me, when he explained that he had been an army officer in World War 1. Afterwards, as he was in the line of succession for the estates, he changed his officer's uniform for a priest's soutane and inherited the fabulously wealthy estates.

An abbey, it seems, was founded by a Countess Batthyanyi in the 12th century, and later King Matthias Corvinus gave the lands to a priestly descendant of the Countess, who had been his tutor. The lands were taken away during the Reformation, but were restored to the Batthyanyi family during the Counter-Reformation.

The estate, as Justh explained it, was a completely autonomous enterprise. He sublet Felsoors to a tenant, the Dinnyes holdings were divided between two tenants. They worked it as large landholders and paid the rent to the abbe. The abbe himself lived like any other large country landlord, and converted the abbey into a fine modern home with electric light and sewerage. Families were hired out to the three tenants and worked for their food and lodging and the equivalent of about five pounds a year. Justh and the members of the Batthyanyi family who owned the properties before him had no obligations other than those of maintaining two churches and two schools in the two parishes – and for this they received large subsidies from the state. He was not responsible to any other Church authority in Hungary, nor to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

"I or my forbears made a trip to Rome every five years, and paid the Peter's Pence, but apart from that I had no official dealings with the Church," he told me. "Bishoprics and abbeys were never required to contribute to the Hungarian Church. They and the various lay orders were quite autonomous undertakings."

The 1945 land reform however cut Abbe Justh down to a little over 100 acres. The 500 acres at Felsoors was mostly forest land, but 15 families were given ten acres each of arable land, another 35 given plots of land for building.

"Even my 100 acres they are taking gradually away from me," complained the Abbe as we strolled around the grounds of his mansion to admire his pet donkey, "there's a new law now that a landowner can only have as much land as he can conveniently work himself. The rest must be rented out to the former labourers for a nominal rent."

"What about your relations with people in the village, now that you're a middle class farmer abbe and no longer a powerful landowner? Do you have better contact now than before? Do more or less people come to Church than before?"

"The Communists would like to have closer co-operation with me," he answered. "They asked me the other day to attend the opening of a new school: they always ask me to attend any local festivities, but I am always able to find some reason or other for not attending. I don't want to lend the prestige of the Church to any of their functions. Church attendances are perhaps even better than before. Communists still come to Church and people who didn't used to come attend now because the Church has become a political rallying point for them."

When I asked about specific anti-religious activities Abbe Justh said there were none and that compulsory teaching of religion in school still gave the Church plenty of scope to influence the children. He was critical of the Cardinal and said the latter could have obtained much greater concessions from the state if he had played his cards correctly.

He then made a remark which I was to remember eighteen months later when Abbe Justh stood in a Hungarian Court and admitted having been a British agent since 1947, having worked with Mr. Edgar Sanders, sentenced by the same court to 13 years imprisonment for espionage and sabotage.

"The situation of the Church here, bad though it is," he said, "is still better than it is in Rumania. I had some visitors here recently," and, he added quickly, "but you must not say anything about that. They were passing through from Rumania and they painted a dreadful picture of the difficulties of Catholics there."

In the Budapest Court in March, 1950, Justh admitted to having been paid 3,000 forints (almost one hundred pounds) for sheltering some British agents from Rumania, while they passed illegally through Hungary to Austria, in the summer of 1948.

The Abbe Justh, a big man with a large Roman nose dominating his face, impressed me at the time as a much more intelligent and cultured man than Cardinal Mindszenty, a man who could have been a more dangerous opponent of the government than the vain and foolish cardinal. But Abbe Justh could not get used to living as a modest small land owner. Partly for money, partly, as he told the court, because he belonged to one of the noblest .families in Hungary, he became a paid British agent and is now serving a ten years' prison sentence in Hungarian gaols.

The Abbe was a fine connoisseur of wines and as I left him, he begged me to return the following month when the new wines would be ready.

With even abbes living in mediaeval splendour until 1945, it is small wonder that the organised church opposed every reform the government tried to introduce. At first, however, the Bishops laid low. They partly believed the propaganda of Horthy and his successors that if the Bolsheviks came, all priests and bishops would have their throats cut, the nuns raped, cathedrals turned into anti-God museums, and churches into roystering taverns. When the Soviet Army chased out the Germans and none of these things happened, immediately the Church leaders began to fawn on the Soviet leaders and the Leftist government. A statement was issued by all the Hungarian Catholic Bishops on May 24, 1945, which said, "We have observed that the Soviet military command has paid considerable attention to religious life. Our church buildings stand and divine services are performed without interference." That statement holds good in 1950 too. There has not been the slightest interference with the exercise of religious functions in Hungary.

As the time went by, however, the Hierarchy saw that nothing unpleasant was planned against the Church, that no throats were cut, there were no rapings and no desecrations of Church properties. On the contrary, Communist-led brigades helped repair scores of village churches and in several cases completely rebuilt them. The government church-leaders became more aggressive and opened the counter-attack shortly after Mindszenty was appointed Cardinal in September, 1945.

Elections were to be held in November, 1945, and on the last Sunday before polling day, Mindszenty let loose a pastoral letter, which partly in veiled terms, partly openly, attacked everything the coalition government had done. And in this government, Communists were in a decided minority. He attacked the institution of the republic, attacked land reform, attacked the policy of punishment of war criminals. He launched a bitter attack on the laws which liberalised divorce procedure. In the past it had been virtually impossible to obtain a divorce at all in Hungary.

"It is our greatest sorrow and our most cruel wound," wrote the Cardinal in his election-eve pastoral letter, "that the provisional Hungarian government has loosened considerably the indissolubility of marriage.... What can we expect of the democracy, of those parties which, without authorisation and competency, presume to interfere with so fundamental a pillar of healthy communal life?" The whole letter was a direct Church intervention in the election and aroused the hostility of all except the most bigoted Catholics or those who expected their estates to be restored by the Cardinal's western allies. From that day on, despite repeated friendly overtures from the various governments, Mindszenty carried on a ceaseless war against the State.

The Church was left with more privileges in Hungary than it enjoyed in most Western countries. After the land reform, bishoprics were still left with 300 acres, abbeys with 100 and rural parishes were allotted between 15 and 30 acres. For many of the smaller clergy this was more than they had owned in the past. The State, even after the predominantly Communist regime was elected in 1947, still offered to subsidise the Church, but with decreasing payments for twenty years, by which time the Church was supposed to make itself self-supporting, as it is in most countries. The Protestant churches gladly accepted this arrangement. Mindszenty himself was given a salary equal to that of the Prime Minister, archbishops fifty per. cent. more than that of a Cabinet Minister, Bishops the same as Cabinet Ministers, and lower grades of clergy correspondingly high salaries. There was no interference with the Church seminaries, religious instruction was compulsory in the schools. (It was only in late 1949 that this was abolished and religious instruction put on a voluntary basis.)

To suggest that there was any interference with religious processions or with those of the faithful who wished to attend Sunday services was nonsense. The feast of St. Stephens which coincided with the Youth Festival in Budapest in 1949 was attended with the same fervour. as in previous years. Indeed this was used as propaganda by the Church as "a courageous expression of faith by the believers." Churches in town and country are still well attended on normal Sundays and packed out for any special occasions. Certainly it is mostly the older men and womenfolk who attend, but this is due to natural causes and certainly not to any threat of persecution by the government. Processions and special festivities were always advertised well beforehand in the Catholic papers as if to challenge the government to try and stop them, but no obstruction was ever put in their way. The government has never interfered with the exercise of purely religious functions. On the other hand it has invited the Church to participate in various constructive functions in which the Church and its followers could take part, without any sacrifice of religious principles.

It was Cardinal Mindszenty however, who forbade in a Pastoral Letter any Catholic Youth organisation to take part in the great project to build a canal between Hungary's two major rivers, the Danube and the Tisza. The government had appealed for volunteer youth brigades to help with this project. In the first year after Hungary's currency reform the government spent more money repairing and rebuilding churches than it did on building clinics, but this was not met with reciprocal gestures on the part of the Church headed by Mindszenty. When the Catholic Boy Scouts groups started to co-operate with other youth organisations of which Cardinal Mindszenty disapproved, he dissolved the Boy Scouts. His policy was to isolate the Church and Catholics as a whole from any movement which spelt progress.

When members of the National Teachers' Union were given the opportunity to discuss the project for nationalising the schools, Cardinal Mindszenty threatened to excommunicate any Catholic teacher who even took part in the discussions, and any parents who dared advocate secularised education. He refused to allow the monks and nuns from the teaching orders to use the new text books prescribed by the Hungarian Minister of Education. Mindszenty was determined to preserve the Church as a State within the state, a law unto itself, responsible neither to the government nor to the electors; a state responsible only to Cardinal Mindszenty. Priests who opposed his wishes were excommunicated. The churches gradually became centres of political intrigue and propaganda rather than places of worship. Peasants and workers were taught that the new, the brighter life they were living was sinful. For the peasants it was a mortal sin that they had laid hands on the property of the former landowners. The workers were told obliquely that they sinned in working at the benches of factories whose owners had been expropriated. The parish priests told them privately that they would soon be punished when the British and Americans came.

In the background, the Cardinal was quietly intriguing. Foolish, vain and impudent, he became a willing tool of the Americans who would not have hesitated to brush him and his hero, Otto of Hapsburg, aside, as soon as they had played their roles of opening the frontiers of Hungary to American forces. The Cardinal's hopes and plans were laid bare in the trial which completely discredited Mindszenty in Hungary but aroused violent passions abroad.

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