Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, Venerable Crime Fighter

COMMENTARY: Many more will know of this heroic and holy man who opposed some of history’s worst ideological gangsters.

Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, primate of Hungary, 1946
Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, primate of Hungary, 1946 (photo: AP photo)

“Cardinal Mindszenty was the crime fighter.”

I’ll always remember those words shared with me by William Clark, a devout Catholic and the most important aide in President Ronald Reagan’s campaign to take down the Soviet Union and win the Cold War.

Clark himself opposed those same criminals and pointed to other heroes of the faith in that effort, such as the likes of Fulton Sheen and Pope John Paul II.

What Clark told me about Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty really intrigued me. I was Protestant at the time and had been a mere child when Cardinal Mindszenty died in 1975 at the age of 83. I was unaware of the depths of what Cardinal Mindszenty had endured.

Many Catholics today know little of that dramatic story. Now, however, with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Pope Francis having announced that Cardinal Mindszenty was declared “Venerable” Feb. 13, a major step toward beatification, Catholics everywhere should learn of the man’s heroic struggle.

“A quiet, rugged fighter,” Clark told me one summer day — three decades after he had hosted an aging Cardinal Mindszenty in California on behalf of Gov. Reagan. “The foremost clergyman in the fight against communism.”

The so-called primate of Hungary had been persecuted first by occupying Nazis during World War II before suffering worse and longer torment by the occupying Bolsheviks who followed in 1945. In 1949, the communists were sick and tired of this uncompromising defender of the Church. They beat him, tortured him, drugged him, tried to force a “confession” from him, subjected him to a classic show trial, and slammed him with a life sentence. It was an outrageous injustice. Pope Pius XII excommunicated all involved in the farce.

Then came the events of October-November 1956, when Soviet Red Army troops invaded Hungary to crush the nation’s uprising of freedom fighters trying to liberate their country from the jackboot of atheistic communism. This smothering totalitarianism had robbed them of everything from private property to freedom of religion.

Soviet communism was a criminal enterprise, just as communism remains so in the 21st century in North Korea and Cuba.

The October-November 1956 uprising in Hungary sprung Cardinal Mindszenty momentarily free. After Soviet tanks succeeded in killing thousands of Hungarians, Moscow clamped down tighter.

Cardinal Mindszenty could have seized the opportunity to flee for safer environs outside the Iron Curtain, as did huge numbers of Hungarians amid the chaos, but he refused. He would stay there with his people. He was granted political asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.

Cardinal Mindszenty’s plight did not go unnoticed outside Hungary.

Bishop Fulton Sheen in 1957 devoted an entire Life Is Worth Living TV broadcast to the man he called “The Dry Martyr of Hungary.” “In the 20th century, there is a new kind of martyrdom,” said Bishop Sheen. In the past, Christians had been martyred by murder; they were soaked and marred with wet blood.

“The old martyrs were wet martyrs,” said Bishop Sheen. The martyring of Cardinal Mindszenty, by contrast, was not. He was being slowly annihilated without being bloodied. The communists excelled, said Bishop Sheen, at producing “dry martyrs, who suffer brainwashing and mental torture for their faith.”

The U.S. Embassy in Budapest became Cardinal Mindszenty’s home for 15 years. He was protected there, but it was hardly freedom. He was confined to the grounds. The communists licked their chops for the moment the pesky priest might step outside the gates, so they could do what they did best to people: arrest him.

Unfortunately for Cardinal Mindszenty, the Vatican of Pope Paul VI by the late 1960s was not the Vatican of Pope Pius XII, and this new pope sought to get along with the Soviets — that is, with Hungary’s captors.

He sought accommodation. The Kremlin, in turn, applied pressure on the Vatican to convince Cardinal Mindszenty to leave the U.S. embassy and his flock.

Throughout his voluntary confinement, Cardinal Mindszenty spurned repeated requests to abandon his people. In 1971, he finally relented, particularly through the urging of Paul VI and President Richard Nixon, who bowed to the golden calf of détente.

Paul VI, a wise and prophetic pope in many ways, particularly on sexuality issues, was not so when it came to the communist threat. Along with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Paul VI pursued a form of Western European-style Ostpolitik, the West German version of détente.

He and Cardinal Casaroli (and Nixon) regrettably but effectively accepted the Cold War division of Europe as the prevailing situation into the far-foreseeable future. Their goal was to try to engage the communist world and work with it for a better, more constructive relationship and improved human rights, including religious freedom. They aimed for diplomacy rather than confrontation.

For the record, this policy, in retrospect, obviously did not liberate the people of Eastern Europe, nor grant them religious freedom. That would come under the very different approach of another pope and president: John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. Cardinal Mindszenty, however, would not live to see either of them.

Cardinal Mindszenty had always steadfastly refused to consent to Moscow’s wishes that he exit Hungary, but now the loyal cardinal faithfully accepted the request of his Pope. Tag-teamed by the détente duo of Pope Paul VI and President Nixon, he relented.

Alas, on Sept. 23, 1971, the cardinal departed the country for Vienna, Austria. There, he continued to lead the Hungarian Roman Catholic Church.

In the winter of 1973-74, however, Paul VI removed the 81-year-old Cardinal Mindszenty’s titles. The cardinal suddenly found himself retired from his Church posts as primate of Hungary and bishop of Esztergom. The Pontiff declared the Archdiocese of Esztergom officially vacated.

To his credit, Paul VI refused to fill the seat while Cardinal Mindszenty was still alive, though he did appoint an apostolic administrator, much to the dismay of Cardinal Mindszenty, who saw it as a betrayal. The Pope also annulled the excommunications placed on Cardinal Mindszenty’s tormentors by Pius XII.

The Hungarian communists were pleased. For these haters of the Catholic Church, Paul VI had shown himself a “reasonable” pope, a “sophisticated” diplomat. For communists, the dressing down was a delicious slap in the face to the “stupid” cardinal. Surely it made them smile and think of greater days, such as when their secret police routinely lashed the clergyman during nightly naked beatings at 60 Andassy St. in Budapest in the winter of 1948-49.

This was even better for communists, because it came from the cardinal’s pope in Rome.

Cardinal Mindszenty was not surprised by the communists’ glee at his further humiliation. Communism “knows no God,” he would write in memoirs published at the end of 1974. Communism has “no immortal soul.”

He died not long thereafter.

“Once a storm center in the Cold War, Cardinal Mindszenty, an intractable, uncompromising foe of both Fascism and communism, by the late 1960s had become a bit of an embarrassment,” wrote The New York Times in its obituary for the cardinal. An embarrassment to whom? “Both to the Church, which was seeking a modus vivendi with the Soviet bloc, and the United States, which was seeking détente with the Soviet Union.”

To countless Catholics, however, Cardinal Mindszenty was no embarrassment. He was a courageous crime fighter. Bill Clark, who would spearhead Reagan administration efforts to defeat those criminals in the early 1980s, and would seek to vindicate Cardinal Mindszenty’s resistance, was very upset at the way his Church and country at the highest levels had treated the cardinal.

“Some martyrs slip through the cracks,” Clark told me, sadly. “They did not recognize his heroic life. He was not given his due.”

But now, with the announcement of Jozsef Mindszenty being declared “Venerable,” one must say that the cardinal is finally being given his due.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has formally decreed that Cardinal Mindszenty possessed heroic virtue. That’s something that the saints of the ages no doubt already knew. Now, many more will know of this holy man and heroic crime fighter who opposed some of history’s worst ideological gangsters.

Paul Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.

His books include A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century

and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand.