Hungarian prelates and the revolution of 1948-1849

I’m neither a church historian nor a student of 1848-49, but I was intrigued by an op ed piece that appeared in Népszava (October 8) written by László Bartus, editor-in-chief of the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava. The occasion was the “Day of Mourning” (October 6), remembering the execution of the thirteen Hungarian generals who fought against the Habsburgs. The executions took place in Arad, today in Romania. The thirteen generals are known as “the Arad martyrs” (az aradi vértanúk).

Few years ago, after long negotiations with the Romanian authorities, the monument commemorating the event was re-erected after it had been removed in 1925 and stored somewhere. In 2004 it was placed in a memorial park celebrating Romanian-Hungarian reconciliation. Ever since a Hungarian delegation has always visited Arad on October 6. This year the bishop of Kalocsa, Balázs Bábel, delivered a homily that was greatly appreciated by such people as Béla Lipták, head of a right-wing organization active in the United States called the Hungarian Lobby, and Géza Jeszenszky, József Antall’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington during the Orbán period. Jeszenszky spoke of being greatly moved when he read Bábel’s lines. László Bartus doesn’t understand why these people are so moved. Perhaps because Bishop Bábel speaks of today’s Hungary in these terms: “The prayer is timely today too because Hungary has sunk into misfortune. . . . We are at the mercy of the great powers and, even worse, to the impersonal rule of money. They are not sending armies against us but the birds of prey of capital.”

Bartus is right in pointing out that this kind of speech is typical of the Hungarian far-right. Jobbik politicians talk about “birds of prey of capital” (karvalytőke). Bartus must have had a grand time when he noted that the bishop wouldn’t win a spelling bee because he misspelled the word “karvaly” (hawk). In any case, what do the Arad martyrs have to do with hawkish capitalists?

Instead of talking about today’s exploitation of the country by foreigners, perhaps the bishop should have said something about the Catholic church’s role in 1848-49. Because, Bartus continues, the Szemere government in March 1849 named three prelates who had committed treason: János Hám, archbishop of Esztergom; János Scitovszky, bishop of Pécs; and Domokos Zichy, bishop of Veszprém. A few words about these prelates. János Hám had been bishop of Szatmár before he was named archbishop of Esztergom and Prince Primate of Hungary on June 25, 1848. He was a compromise candidate. The liberal Hungarian government wanted to name József Lonovics, bishop of Csanád, while Ferdinand V, emperor-king, preferred János Scitovszky, bishop of Pécs and an arch-conservative. Hám was a good compromise from Vienna’s point of view. By September 1848  he swore allegiance to the king and in January 1849 he sent a circular to the Catholic faithful urging them to be loyal subjects. In April, hearing of the approach of the Hungarian army, he joined the imperial forces and left Buda in a hurry. A few days later he ended up in Vienna. The emperor, by that time Franz Joseph, wasn’t too appreciative and removed him from his post as Archbishop of Esztergom and appointed his favorite János Scitovszky, bishop of Pécs, to replace him. Hám went back to Szatmár.

János Scitovszky was no better. He opposed the government from the very first moment of its creation. He was a reactionary through and through. Perhaps it is enough to note that he signed a petition in 1857 in which a group of arch-conservatives asked Franz Joseph to restore the constitution of 1847. That is, to restore serfdom. The third bishop, Domokos Zichy, took the easy way out. In September 1848 he simply left the country. The Hungarian government subsequently took away his appointment as bishop of Veszprém and sequestered his estate. He at least had the decency to give up his post. After his resignation he became the canon of Olmütz (Olomouc).

These three were the most notorious arch-conservative prelates in 1848, but the high clergy in general weren’t enamored with the ideas of the Hungarian liberal politicians. First, they had to give up the enormously lucrative tithe collection. Second, they had to accept the fact that the Catholic church no longer enjoyed a privileged position as the state religion. Moreover, they didn’t like the idea that the government wanted to take over education. Appointments to the bishoprics had to be countersigned by the Hungarian government. There was talk about civil marriages. All in all, they had a lot of gripes, and they fought hard to retain their privileges. When they agreed to some of the new provisions they did so under duress as they later admitted in a letter to the pope.

One must keep in mind that the Catholic church and conservatism go hand in hand. The Catholic church usually allies itself with conservative governments. This was especially the case in the Habsburg Empire where the ruling royal house was the mainstay of the Catholic church. Charles III’s proclamation, the Carolina Resolutio, made Protestants pay church duties to the Catholic church. Protestants had to attend Catholic church services. Protestants couldn’t be civil servants unless they swore allegiance to the Virgin Mary. So the Catholic church couldn’t have been happy with the events in Pozsony (Bratislava) where the Diet held its meetings in those days. Some church leaders thought that what was happening was “communism that spread as red-hot lava.”

In any case, I think it shows either a lack of historical knowledge or self-delusion on the part of the Conference of Bishops to send one of its members to eulogize in Arad on the occasion of the 160th anniversary of the execution of the thirteen. Because there will always be someone who will remember the role of the Catholic church in 1848-49. And there will always be historians who will remind people that the Archbishop of Esztergom celebrated a thanksgiving mass when the army of Prince Alfred von Windischgrätz occupied Buda. The Archbishop even helped the Habsburg cause financially. And he wasn’t alone.

Of course, the Catholic church wasn’t eager to call attention to these unpatriotic acts at the time of national peril. In the Horthy regime there was even an attempt to prove the opposite. Somehow to convince people that the Catholic church was always on the national side. Even today “Múlt-kor,” an MTV series, glosses over some of the unsavory behavior of the Catholic prelates and instead goes on and on about the empty seminaries because the seminarists were flocking to serve in the Hungarian army. An increasing number of studies, however, prove that the church as an institution was squarely on the side of Vienna. Therefore, perhaps it would be better not to say too much about those thirteen who were executed by the very same emperor whom the Catholic church served so faithfully.