Tag Archives: Péter Erdő

“Memorial mass” for Miklós Horthy cancelled

Governor Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s regent between 1920 and 1944, is in the news again thanks to the Keresztény Értelmiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ (Association of Christian Professionals), whose Budapest downtown chapter decided to hold a “memorial mass” in honor of the governor and his daughter-in-law, Countess Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai, “who were born 150 and 100 years ago respectively.” The connection between the leaders of KÉSZ and the Orbán government is very close. For instance, KÉSZ held its most recent conference in the former chamber of the Hungarian Upper House in the parliament building. Viktor Orbán was the keynote speaker with a ringing speech about the dangers threatening Christian Europe.

This “memorial mass” is an annual affair, normally held at this time of the year. The idea for it most likely came from the long-standing president of the organization Zoltán Osztie, a Catholic priest of decidedly reactionary views. He is known for his hatred of liberalism, which he calls the result of “the devil’s destructive fury.” He is a great admirer of the Horthy regime because, under Horthy, the relationship between church and state was the closest in Hungary’s modern history. He finds the anti-Semitic Prime Minister Pál Teleki, the extreme right-wing Bálint Hóman, and Ottokár Prohászka, the spiritual father of Hungarism, “wonderful people who with the help of God resurrected the dead, mutilated country.” His church in District V has been the scene of several memorial masses for Horthy, not just by KÉSZ but, for example, by an organization called Nobilitas Carpathiae, which is maintained by the noble families of Upper Hungary — that is, Slovakia. You get the idea.

Not every year, but on occasion, the media has picked up on Osztie’s penchant for holding masses for Horthy despite Orbán’s most recent word on the subject: Horthy should not be honored because he remained in his post after the German occupation of the country on March 19, 1944. This obviously hasn’t deterred Osztie, who is fond of celebrating masses to honor former and present politicians. In 2013, for example, he sent out invitations to a mass of thanksgiving in honor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s fiftieth birthday. Here and there the Hungarian media semi-jokingly reported on his activities.

Zoltán Osztie celebrating mass

But no one found this year’s announcement of the “memorial mass” that was supposed to take place on January 27 amusing. Since 2005 January 27 has been recognized as Holocaust Memorial Day. It was on that day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. That a priest would celebrate a mass in remembrance of Horthy on Holocaust Memorial Day was jarring enough. But when the public found out that Sándor Lezsák, one of the vice-presidents of parliament, Péter Boross, former prime minister, and Sándor Szakály, director of the Veritas Institute, the Orbán regime’s very own historical research group, would be delivering speeches, presumably in praise of Horthy, a well-deserved storm of protest broke out.

András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish groups, wrote a letter to Sándor Lezsák in which he expressed his serious misgivings about the Hungarian government’s involvement in the affair. Heisler pointed out that “everybody deserves prayers for their salvation and every religious community has the right to offer them. But doing that on Holocaust Memorial Day requires a falsification of history.” Miklós Horthy was complicit in the deaths of the overwhelming majority of Hungarian Jewry.

Heisler’s letter didn’t change the minds of the invited guests or the organizer, who presumably would have been officiating at the mass. Osztie claimed that they were unaware of the day’s significance, but he announced that the “memorial mass” will also be celebrated for the victims of the Holocaust. In fact, according to the organizers, “the goal of our mass is to prove that there is no contradiction between honoring the governor and remembering the victims.” But as an editorial in Szombat, a Jewish periodical, pointed out, how can one honor a man who assisted in the deportation of all Hungarian Jews living outside of Budapest?

In any case, Sándor Lezsák was not moved by Heisler’s letter. He announced that, in accordance with plans, he will attend and deliver his speech. Péter Boross was a bit more circumspect, although he also planned to attend. In his interpretation, the scheduling of the “memorial mass” was a mistake, but, as he said, he “hates cowardice” and is ready to take the consequences of that decision. He was planning to talk about the German occupation, the deportation of Hungarian Jews, and the victims of the Holocaust. And he would talk about Horthy, “who alone was brave enough to stop the deportation of Jews.” Without going into the historical details, let me simply say that this assertion by Boross is without foundation.

But then something happened behind the scenes. In short order, Zoltán Osztie announced that neither the mass nor a remembrance will be held in his church. Of course, he blamed those “who are full of hate and divide the country and create hysteria” for the upheaval when nothing extraordinary happened. The event has been part of a yearly routine.

This sudden change of heart looked suspicious, and questions were raised about the person or persons behind the decision to cancel the event. Given the centralized nature of Orbán’s political system, in which almost everything originates with the prime minister, people suspected that Orbán, who is very sensitive about his regime being labeled anti-Semitic, felt that it was time to intervene. Perhaps his decision was expedited by Rabbi Slomó Köves’s condemnation of the memorial mass. Köves is the “executive” rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, which is an affiliate of Chabad Lubavitch. He is certainly Viktor Orbán’s favorite Jewish religious leader. Orbán might not be moved by Mazsihisz, but Köves’s community is something else.

The other possibility is that Viktor Orbán was helped along in coming to the conclusion that this memorial mass must be cancelled by Ronald S. Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, who, according to the Israel National News, “urged Orbán to personally intervene” because he found it “truly disturbing that the event is being given legitimacy through the participation of a high dignitary of Hungary,” meaning Sándor Lezsák. Then today, Népszava learned that Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and primate of Hungary, personally asked Zoltán Osztie to cancel the event. Apparently, Osztie confirmed that he acted at Erdő’s request. That may be so, but I suspect that Erdő received, if not an order, strong prodding from Viktor Orbán himself.

Finally, a question and observation about the aborted memorial mass. Zsuzsanna Toronyi, director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, asked an obvious question in a television interview. Why would Horthy, who came from a long line of devoted Protestants with roots in the Hungarian Reformed Church, be honored by a Catholic mass? He married a deeply religious Catholic, but his sons were baptized in a Hungarian Reformed Church. His son, István, who also married a Catholic, insisted on a Protestant wedding.

The observation comes from someone well versed in Catholic affairs. According to János Dobszay, in Catholic liturgy there is no such thing as a “memorial mass,” although one can celebrate mass for the salvation of the soul of a deceased person. Moreover, given the fact that politicians were invited, the event became a political affair. As a result, Osztie acted against the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church. John Paul II, in his Redemptionis Sacramentum, clearly states that “It is not permissible to link the celebration of Mass to political or secular events, nor to situations that are not fully consistent with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, it is altogether to be avoided that the celebration of Mass should be carried out merely out of a desire for show, or in the manner of other ceremonies including profane ones, lest the Eucharist should be emptied of its authentic meaning.”

Finally, I would like to call attention to a short opinion piece by Tamás Bauer, one of my favorite Hungarian commentators, which appeared today in HVG. Fine, so “there is no mass, there will be no demonstration. Can we be relieved? Of course not,” starts Bauer. Would it be all right if Osztie and friends set another date for their “memorial mass”? Of course it wouldn’t be. By focusing on the date of the gathering, the discussion dealt only with Horthy’s responsibility for the Jewish victims when he was guilty of so many other things as well: anti-Semitism throughout the years between 1920 and 1944, anti-Jewish laws, revisionist foreign policy, entering the war against the Soviet Union, sending poorly equipped soldiers to the front, and herding Jews into labor battalions. All people who find Orbán’s regime abhorrent should stand fast against the Horthy cult that has been cultivated by Fidesz politicians, including Viktor Orbán.

January 26, 2018

They don’t see eye to eye: Pope Francis and the Hungarian bishops

Looking through the comments to yesterday’s post, I was struck by the general concern about the almost total disengagement of Hungarian churches from the most burning social issues of the country, the extreme conservatism of the Hungarian Catholic Church, and the Church’s antagonism to the refugees.

During religious holidays, the media usually bombards readers with articles with religious themes. Without searching very hard, I found two relevant interviews. One was conducted with Miklós Beer, the bishop of Vác. He is practically the only man in the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops who takes his calling seriously and who approves of and follows the guidance of the pope. The rest, 50 years after, still haven’t even accepted the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council. I like Beer very much; he reminds me of Gábor Iványi. Both men exhibit the kinds of qualities we would hope to find in priests and ministers.

The other interview was given to Pesti Srácok by Pál Bolberitz who, as I learned from this conversation, was the confessor of Prime Minister József Antall (1990-1993). Bolberitz manifests the less compassionate and tolerant side of the Church. We learn that Antall on his deathbed told Bolberitz that “I wanted a Christian Europe, believe me, because only such can have a future.” Yet, according to Bolberitz, the European Union “doesn’t want a Christian Europe.” What follows is a repetition of the official Fidesz view that the troubles of Europe began with the student revolution of 1968 and that “the gangsters of 68 by now are the chief bureaucrats who lead the Union and who want to force their ideas on Europe while they talk about freedom and democracy.” Bolberitz shows his true colors when, in his passionate assault on the EU, he maintains that “democracy is a nice tale; this is what the masses need.” But, he continues, there is something very wrong in Europe where “a distorted concept of freedom takes the place of God.”

I’m afraid Miklós Beer is about the only bishop who thinks that Pope Francis is true to the original and unadulterated teachings of the Church. The others might not openly say what an English cleric told a journalist of The Guardian–that “we can’t wait for him to die,” but they are convinced that the pope, being from Argentina, understands neither Europe nor the reality of the refugee crisis. The Hungarian Catholic clerics’ criticism of the pope was loud enough in the summer of 2016 for me to devote a post to the topic. Since then the relationship between the Hungarian Catholic Church and the Vatican hasn’t improved. The Hungarian government, in conjunction with the Hungarian Catholic Conference of Bishops and the city of Szombathely, devoted the year between November 2015 and November 2016 to the memory of St. Martin of Tours, who was born in Savaria, Pannonia, today called Szombathely. Pope Francis was invited, and the Hungarian Catholic leaders were very much hoping for a papal visit, but the pope sent Cardinal Dominik Duka, archbishop of Prague, as his representative. This was interpreted by Hungarian critics of the Church as a sign that Pope Francis disapproves of the migrant policies of Viktor Orbán and his supportive Catholic hierarchy.

Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops

A few months ago Attila Buják, a journalist for 168 Óra, wrote an investigative article reporting on the inner workings of the Hungarian Catholic Church. The information came from sources inside of or close to the Church. We learn from the article that apparently the Vatican already in the late 1980s anticipated a political change and tried to prepare for the day when democracy returns to the country. At that time four relatively young men were appointed to be bishops, but the choices were haphazard. Pope John Paul II didn’t really know the men he appointed. Moreover, being a conservative himself, he wanted people who would diligently follow the Vatican and not men with reformist ideas.

Péter Erdő’s rise in the church hierarchy gave some hope at the beginning. He was young and looked like a strong leader. His consecration as Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in December 2002 and primate of Hungary was hailed as a step in the right direction. A year later he was made a cardinal. Clearly, Erdő was a special favorite of John Paul II. But Erdő turned out to be a weak leader who lost his position as president of the Hungarian Catholic Conference of Bishops. He lost to the super-conservative András Veres, whose “ever stronger voice was the symbol of change in the atmosphere surrounding the Church.” Veres was the first bishop who was described as “fideszes püspök.” But it would be a mistake to think that Erdő is less rigid in his adherence to dogma; he is just not as outspoken as Veres. In the latest controversy within the Church concerning giving holy communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, Erdő said that he opposes Pope Francis on this contentious issue. In fact, it is a well-known fact in Catholic circles that Hungarian bishops with good connections in Rome are in close alliance with the pope’s adversaries.

Although on the surface it is the migrant question that seems to be the chief point of disagreement, the differences of opinion between the two sides are much more fundamental. There is a visceral hatred of what Pope Francis stands for on ideological grounds. In the Hungarian Catholic media, articles about him give the impression of a “pious, good-natured but somewhat muddle-headed old man.”

At the same time, the Orbán government “is pouring money and influence into the church, giving it schools and institutions which it cannot operate on its own. One cannot escape from the government’s embrace, especially since it declares ‘Christian’ everything that is important to the government.”

Although Catholic clerics have opinions on even the most insignificant domestic issues, they have for the most part avoided making religious judgments when it comes to the refugees, which “is a truly Catholic, universal cause.” Catholic churches west of Hungary, even if not exactly enthusiastically, eventually “stood by the teachings of the gospels.” But not Péter Erdő, who came up with the lame excuse that the Church must obey the laws of the land, which forbid giving shelter to refugees.

The 2011 census was a great disappointment to the Catholic Church. In 10 years the Church lost 1.2 million people. Whether the Church’s far too close relationship with the government has anything to do with the loss of declared Catholics, as some people claim, I don’t know. I do know, however, that despite all appearances to the contrary, Hungarians today are not really religious. The number of people who attend church services regularly is very small. I also have the distinct feeling that the incredible amount of money that is given to churches is distasteful to a lot of people, perhaps even the majority of the population. There seem to be three causes close to the heart of Viktor Orbán: sports, Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, and the churches. These causes receive huge amounts of money, which, I believe, greatly irritates Hungarians, working hard and getting nowhere.

P.S. Alex Kuli reminded us of an article that appeared in Népszabadság in September 2016 about a sermon given by a Hungarian Reformed Minister. In fact, I wrote about this incident, which I would like to quote here:

A Hungarian Reformed minister, László Károly Bikádi of Hajmáskér, a small town about 14 km from Lake Balaton, delivered a sermon last Sunday, offered to the soldiers and policemen defending Hungary’s borders against the refugees. The text for his sermon was Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In his exegesis he said: “You just have to take a look at the story of the Samaritan. Jesus asks who the brethren of this man are. Everybody? Are we all brethren of each other? It is true that we are all children of God. But who are the brethren? Those who are merciful to us.” Then the merciful reverend launched into a muddled story about “us as white men who didn’t treat the colored people, be they Arabs, Negroes, Africans, Asians, as our brethren and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t look upon us as their brethren. And they are coming like locusts, coming because we chased them away from their lands. … Allow me to say that they are like ants, like the feral of the wilderness” and because the white men pushed them out from their natural habitat “they come like ants. They move into our houses. What happens with mice, voles, and other creatures of the field? They come and beset us.” He finished his sermon by asserting that although it might be our fault that these people are on the run, “we shouldn’t make the mistake of throwing out our values just because people arrived among us who don’t consider us their brethren.”

December 27, 2017

Viktor Orbán: Christian Europe in danger

Once a year the Keresztény Értelmiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ (Association of Christian Professionals), an alleged NGO, holds its congress. The fact that since 2011 the event has been held in the chamber of the former Upper House (Főrendiház) says a lot about the independence of the organization.

Until very recently KÉSZ was a purely Catholic affair. It was established in 1989 by a Catholic priest and professor of theology who served as its president until his death in 1996. In that year another Catholic priest and a great admirer of Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Osztie, took over. He served until 2016. At that point the presidency was assumed by a Greek Catholic priest and canonist, I guess in an attempt to appear a bit more ecumenical.

The close connection between KÉSZ and Fidesz was obvious even from the few references Viktor Orbán brought up about the organization’s past. He specifically noted KÉSZ’s assistance in setting up thousands of “civic cells” that Fidesz used to widen the base of the party after the 2002 defeat. Then, in 2009, KÉSZ joined the notorious Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO financed in all sorts of devious ways by the Orbán government. KÉSZ also gives assistance to the government when it comes to its nationality policy outside the country’s borders. For example, KÉSZ has signed joint declarations of intent with the Keresztény Értelmiségi Kör (Christian Professional Club) in Serbia where the Hungarian political elite is an important supporter of the current government. KÉSZ’s website provides no details about its financial resources, but it has a publication called “Jel” (Sign) which looks quite professional, it finances books, and it organizes conferences.

At the KÉSZ congress held on September 16 Viktor Orbán delivered a lengthy lecture on the state of the world. His two most important statements, both made at the end of the speech, were that (1) “the Germans, the Austrians, and the arrogant western media” began a “smear campaign” against his country which was “centrally ordered, centrally controlled, centrally engineered against Hungary—out of vengeance because [Hungary] closed the Balkan route used by the migrants” and (2) if the European leaders are unable to find a path to coexistence between immigrant and non-immigrant countries “the tension that exists between them now will be even more intensified, which may lead to a greater chasm or even a fatal break in the history of the European continent.” Both of these claims are rather frightening.

The attentive audience / Source: Index / Photo János Bődey

Although these are the two statements I chose as the weightiest, there were some other noteworthy claims. One was that “the goal of today’s anti-Christian program” is the importation of non-Christian elements, which in turn will weaken Christianity in Europe to such an extent that it will actually die out. Before Orbán spoke, Cardinal Péter Erdő had delivered a speech in which he talked about the strong roots of Christianity in Europe. Picking up on this theme, Orbán accused “the anti-Christian European program” of planning “to change the subsoil” so that “the roots of Christianity, no matter how thick and strong they are, cannot take hold, and thus the giant tree simply falls over.” Again, Orbán sees a malicious design or at least tries to convince his audience that there is such a design–that European politicians are contemplating the Islamization of Europe and the death of Christianity on the continent.

Orbán also set forth a religious elaboration of his theme that “We want a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe.” He added: “But this is possible only if we take upon ourselves the task of creating a Christian Hungary within a Christian Europe.” This qualifying sentence is a new motif in Orbán’s political vocabulary. He is certain that under his leadership Hungary will remain a Christian country, but he is not so sure about Europe. “The ideology of the immigrant countries is international liberalism,” while in the case of the non-immigrant countries “the guiding principle is … sovereignty and Christian social teaching. The adoption of Western European liberalism by the people of Central Europe would simply mean suicide. Or to be more precise it would be a suicidal ideology for the countries of Central Europe” because it would result in their becoming immigrant countries. Obviously, liberalism in any shape or form should be banished from Central Europe. I wonder what the Czechs and the Slovaks would think of this demand.

Finally, here is something that Orbán uttered elsewhere, but I think it belongs here. In his speech to the members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation he apparently noted with great satisfaction that “in the last six years, on the left-right scale, a thoroughgoing shift has occurred toward the right.” I’m afraid he is correct.

September 19, 2017

The rise and fall of Mária Erdő, sister of the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church

What follows is an incredible story but I have the feeling not a unique one. It is about the rector of the Apor Vilmos Katolikus Főiskola (Vilmos Apor Catholic College/AVKF) in Vác, a teachers college whose main function is the training of elementary school and kindergarten teachers. Miklós Beér, bishop of Vác, has the misfortune of being in charge of this institution, which has had its shares of scandals over the last 15 years. The original home of this teachers college was Zsámbék, where it was under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Székesfehérvár, but in 2003 more than half of the building housing the college burned down and the decision was made to move the institution to Vác.

Why Vác? Because Vác had a very large building that could house the teachers college of Zsámbék. The building had originally served as the local state high school, but once it was given back to the Church, a brand new building was erected for those who didn’t want to attend a parochial school. So, the Church used it as a novitiate where at one time only 26 novices were housed. The final move from Zsámbék to Vác took place in 2004.

With the move came a new rector, Judit Szemkeö, who for a while was undersecretary in the Ministry of Education in the first Orbán government but apparently was let go before her appointment would have expired in 2002. In any case, she needed a job, and Fidesz, which usually takes care of its own, convinced the Bishop of Vác to appoint her as the new rector. Apparently, she immediately began “the methodical destruction of the institution,” starting with the wholesale firing of staff. According to the law, a rector must have a Ph.D., which Szemkeö didn’t have, and therefore she was “demoted” on paper. The Church came up with a number of priests with Ph.D.s who, one after another, were given the title of rector, but in fact it was Szemkeö who ran the show from the background. This was the situation until 2011 when Mária Erdő, the sister of Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, joined the faculty as an assistant professor. Her modest status changed within a couple of months when, to everybody’s surprise, she was named rector of AVKF.

Vilmos Apor Catholic College, Vác

The reason for Erdő’s delayed appointment was also her lack of a Ph.D. We don’t know all the details of her academic career. She most likely finished a three-year teachers college somewhere because for a while she taught as an elementary school teacher (tanító). Then, in 1989, she graduated with a degree in pedagogy from the University of Szeged. When it came to pursuing the Ph.D., she went to Katolícka univerzita v Ružomberku in northern Slovakia. This university has been in existence since 1995 in Ružomberok/Rózsahegy. It has four faculties: pedagogy, philosophy, theology, and health. A strange choice, I must say.

As for her dissertation, we don’t know in what language it was written. The professor who was the reader of the dissertation was a Pole, Jan Zimmy, who teaches at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. He referred to the title of the dissertation, in Slovak, as Mediálna kultúra – nové moznosti katolíckej vychovy a vzdelávania. We know that Erdő doesn’t speak Slovak. One person suggested that she may have defended her thesis in English. According to eyewitnesses, however, Erdő, although she claims to know both English and Russian, required the assistance of an interpreter every time she encountered foreign visitors to the college.

The dissertation was, it seems, basically plagiarized. A former psychology professor, who had lost her job at AVKF, read it and wrote a letter to both Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, and László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In her letter she claimed that she had acquired a copy of the dissertation and had come to the conclusion that Erdő’s academic title should be withdrawn because “she used falsified data designed to mislead” the granting authority. She asserted that the dissertation was basically a copy of a book that had been published in 2002. In 47 instances Erdő changed the publication dates of her sources in order to give the impression of recent research. These are serious charges, yet János Áder, on the recommendation of Zoltán Balog, bestowed a high state decoration on Mária Erdő “in recognition of her work in promoting the interests of the homeland and enhancing universal human values” two years after this fact became known.

That’s bad enough, but what was really distressing was that Mária Erdő almost totally destroyed the institution. She immediately began “restructuring,” which primarily meant staff firings. The atmosphere was such that within two years after her arrival the number of students plummeted. Between 2012 and 2013 the number of students shrank by 52%. Moreover, it turned out that about 60 degrees were granted illegally. Most of her dismissals of faculty members were arbitrary, and several fired faculty members sued the institution. In the last five years—that is, during Erdő’s tenure—the Vác police launched four investigations, but naturally they never found anything worth pursuing. Because of her authoritarian leadership, fear and tension were widespread among the faculty as well as the student body. If someone dared to disagree with one of her decisions, the next day that person couldn’t step inside the building. She also turned the institution into a kind of family business. After she got rid of the IT instructor, she hired her own husband to fill the position. Her daughter was appointed to head the office of the rector.

One more interesting piece of information about Mária Erdő. One of her former students said that when she was a lowly instructor she was so timid that “she would have even apologized to the threshold for tripping on it.” But as soon as she became a person of power and importance she became a tyrant.

She is the author of four textbooks on the teaching of religion and the general editor of 24 textbooks published and sold by the Catholic Church’s Szent István Társulat, a publishing company. In December 2012 Mária Erdő first appeared in the media when someone discovered that in her grade 4 textbook she was telling children that “homosexuality means a sexual relation between people of the same sex, which is a grave and mortal sin.” Admittedly, this is the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, but critics argued that instilling homophobia at an early age is inappropriate, especially in light of Pope Francis’s more lenient words on the subject. She also insisted that “even if a child chooses ethics instead of religion, that still should be taught in a spirit not far from the Catholic Church’s views.”

Well, this year Mária Erdő finally lost her job. The Vác Bishopric announced at the end of January that her tenure would expire on July 31 but that due to health issues she would be going on paid leave immediately. The statement said that “there is not and never was any infringement procedure against her.” Surely, one cannot touch the sister of the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church. However, Miklós Beér’s patience must have run out when, at the beginning of January, the secretariat of the office of the rector, without the knowledge of the bishopric, announced a new tender for the post of the head of the institution. Erdő most likely was trying to remain in her post through this back door. Once Bishop Beér learned about this ruse, he withdrew the illegally declared tender and removed her from the premises five months before the end of her tenure.

I wonder where Mária Erdő will end up after this fiasco. I’m sure she will receive a cushy job somewhere, where she can continue her destructive and poisonous activities. Fidesz is generous to its own. Of course, it is also possible that she will get a full time job at the Szent István Társulat, whose sponsor is Cardinal Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, who just happens to be her brother.

August 23, 2017

The Hungarian Catholic Church is not very Christian

In the middle of July Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of communication between the government and religious, nationality and civic organizations, called together the Council of Charitable Organizations, whose members are the Catholic Caritas, the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service, the Baptist Charity Service, the Hungarian Red Cross, and the Hungarian Ecumenical Aid Service. It was becoming painfully obvious that these charitable organizations were doing very little to alleviate the suffering of the asylum seekers who were arriving in Hungary on their way farther west.

The spokesmen for these organizations protested and tried to prove that quietly, behind the scenes they were hard at work. They said that they don’t like to brag about their accomplishments, that they were doing their job in a discreet manner. According to their critics, they had succeeded so well that they were practically invisible.

The media decided to look into the “quiet” activities of these organizations. Upon questioning, each of them described their accomplishments which, compared to the work of the ad hoc civilian groups, were minuscule. Two shelters that could give temporary shelter to 80 people (families exclusively), some food distribution in transit zones, psychological counseling, and occasional mobile medical service. The least active, I believe, had to be the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, which seemed to be involved primarily with refugees who had already received refugee status in Hungary. Admittedly, integrating newcomers into Hungarian society is an important job, which should be the duty of the Hungarian government. Language lessons, for example, are much more effective if they are given by professionals instead of church volunteers.

In fact, earlier we were told that there was no need for any charitable services, that the refugees living in camps were well looked after by the Hungarian government. So far this year the Catholic Caritas has sent only four trucks with food, baby food, clothes, and toiletries. In the future, they promised, they will distribute 10,000 bottles of mineral water. The Hungarian Red Cross apparently managed to get 92 million forints from the International Red Cross which is, of course, a drop in the bucket, so they are asking for contributions from the public. I have the feeling, however, that Hungarians have lost their trust in these charitable organizations and that they’d rather offer help to the civilians on the spot.

All in all, the general impression was that neither church-related organizations nor the churches themselves were doing much when it came to the refugee crisis. The silence of the so-called historic churches was deafening. Months ago György Bolgár decided to ask for an interview with Bishop Miklós Beér, perhaps the only bishop who seems to be at all sensitive to the needs of the poor and the downtrodden, especially Hungary’s Roma population. Although Beér was sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, it was clear from his answers that the Hungarian Catholic Church was not contemplating any statement about what a good Christian’s attitude ought to be toward the refugees. Pope Francis at least twice had called on Europeans to take in the desperate refugees and condemned the fences some countries were building to keep them out. In the face of the pope’s statements, it was more and more difficult for Hungarian church leaders to remain quiet.

The Conference of Hungarian Bishops

The Conference of Hungarian Bishops

On September 3 Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, gave an interview to Népszabadság which outraged those Hungarians sympathetic to the refugees. To the question of why the Catholic Church does not open its doors to refugees who need shelter, the archbishop claimed that the reason for the church’s refusal to follow the example of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, who will make space for 1,000 refugees, is that Hungarian law prohibits it. Giving such shelter is tantamount to human trafficking/smuggling. This excuse, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, is nonsense. Smuggling anything or anybody can only be done across national borders.

There is nothing surprising in Erdő’s reluctance to do anything that might irritate the Orbán government. Unfortunately, the Hungarian Catholic Church throughout its history has been a steadfast supporter of the government in power, especially if it leaned right. As far as I can see, the main concern of church leaders is how much money they can get from the government.

After the backlash to his interview, the archbishop claimed that the media “misunderstood” what he had actually said. The journalist took his words out of context. His explanation was anything but convincing, and the only additional information he provided was that “the church was planning to open church properties to the refugees.” Yes, sometime in the future.

Here I would like to record two reactions. One is Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s open letter to Cardinal Archbishop Péter Erdő. Kerék-Bárczy, who is currently on the executive board of the Demokratikus Koalíció, was previously one of the leading politicians of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF), a right-of-center party demolished by the machinations of Viktor Orbán. Kerék-Bárczy is a practicing Catholic.

In this letter he reminds Erdő of Pope Francis’s view that turning these refugees away amounts to “war, violence, and murder.” In June the pope called on those who build fences to beg the forgiveness of God. Many national churches have followed the pope’s instructions and teaching, but there is total silence from the Hungarian Catholic Church. Kerék-Bárczy “as a Hungarian Catholic” is full of questions. This is not the first time that he is confused. He no longer knows “what the Hungarian Catholic Church stands for.” The Bible says that “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37). And now, a thousand years after Hungarians accepted Christianity, “a government that calls itself Christian does the exact opposite” of what Christ ordered. Instead of accepting them, it sends armed soldiers to keep them out of the country. In Kerék-Bárczy’s opinion, the Conference of Bishops should as a body take a stand against the government’s inhumane behavior. It is not enough to do charity work quietly. One must stand up and provide guidance to Hungarian society, even if that means being on a collision course with the current government.

The other remarkable reaction came from László Vértesaljai, a Jesuit monk who is editor-in-chief of the Hungarian-language Vatican Radio. He delivered a mass yesterday whose message came from the story Luke tells:

On a sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath?” And Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” (6:1-5)

In Vértesaljai’s eyes, Erdő and the rest of the leading Catholic leaders are Pharisees who hide behind the laws. There are times when the laws ought to be transgressed because they go against the teachings of Christ.

Harsh words from both Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy and László Vértesaljai and foremost from Pope Francis who this morning called on Europe’s Catholics to shelter refugees. “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family.” According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are 120,000 parishes in Europe.

To be fair, one Hungarian churchman, the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of Pannonhalma, has in the last couple of days sheltered a few refugee families. But one must keep in mind two things. First, Abbot Asztrik Várszegi is an exception to the incredibly conservative Hungarian clergy. Second, it seems that it was not Várszegi who went to the civic organizers and asked how he could help, as, for example, Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister, did. He was approached by the organizers who were shepherding some refugees going to Austria on foot. Almost as if these young volunteers said to themselves: let’s see what they will do. Will they follow the example of Cardinal Erdő or will they decide to act as true Christians?

I assume that sooner or later the Hungarian high clergy will be shamed into offering shelter to the growing number of refugees, but at the same time I doubt that they will do what Szabolcs Kerők-Bárczy asked Cardinal Erdő to do: to speak openly and condemn the Hungarian government for its heartless, un-Christian behavior.

The Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center publishes its “professional communiqué”

I think that this latest tug of war between Hungarian Jewish organizations and the Orbán government should not be viewed solely in the context of the treatment and fate of Jews in Hungary. Yes, the debate broke out as a direct result of the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. But we are dealing here with a larger project: the government’s concerted effort to rehabilitate the entire Horthy era (1920-1944). Downplaying the country’s responsibility for the deportation of Hungarian Jews is part and parcel of this effort.

There has been a debate in the last couple of years among political commentators about the nature of the Orbán government’s policies. Are they the result of a grand design or are they a haphazard collection of on the spot decisions dictated by circumstances? I am inclined to think that the first hypothesis is closer to the truth, especially when it comes to Fidesz politicians’ views of the history of the Horthy period.

One of the first steps taken by the Orbán government was the removal of the director of the Holocaust Memorial Center. A few months after the formation of the government András Levente Gál, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, paid a visit to the Center and expressed his displeasure at what he saw there. He especially objected to the exhibit’s linkage of the Hungarian occupation of the regained territories with the deportation of Jewish Hungarians from those territories. And he was not the only one to complain. Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom, objected to the placement of the anti-Semitic Ottokár Prohászka, bishop of Székesfehérvár (1858-1927), right next to Hitler. A Christian Democratic politician announced that he will not visit the Holocaust Memorial Center as long as Prohászka’s picture is there. It was clear that the Orbán government’s view was that, since it is the Hungarian government that finances the Center, it can dictate what goes on there. As the Hungarian saying goes: “Who pays the Gypsy can order the music.”

Szabolcs Szita

Szabolcs Szita

Soon enough the government fired the director and appointed its own man, a non-Jew, Szabolcs Szita, in his place. He is the man to whom Professor Randolph L. Braham addressed his letter stating that in protest he will no longer allow his name to be associated with the Center’s library. I don’t know much about Szabolcs Szita’s work. I do have one of his books, but I must admit that I didn’t read it very carefully. In light of all these developments, it’s time for a much closer reading. The book, Együttélés–üldöztetés– holokauszt (Coexistence–Persecution–Holocaust), was published in 2001. According to an English-language postscript, it “won the first prize in the competition announced by the Ministry of Education” of the first Orbán government. The first half of the unfootnoted book deals with the history of European Jews with special emphasis on Germany while the other half, about 150 pages, looks at the history of Hungarian Jewry from their settlement to the Holocaust. There is a lot of emphasis on Hungarian civilians’ efforts to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Szita’s views seem to be more in sync with those of the government than were his predecessor’s.

Shortly after his appointment Szabolcs Szita gave an interview to Origowhich was severely criticized by fellow historians and Jewish leaders. Let me quote some of Szita’s contentions: “If there had been no aggressive German interference Hungary probably would have been the example in the eyes of Europe and the world. Until 1944 we were an island of peace. There were anti-Jewish laws but Jews were not facing the peril of death en masse as in other countries.” In this interview he put the blame more on individuals “who must be named and condemned, Baky, Endre and Jaross,” men in charge of the deportations in the Ministry of Interior of the Sztójay government. He also overemphasized the number of high officials who resigned rather than take part in the deportation of their compatriots. As we know, there were mighty few of those. A notable exception, by the way, was Károly Szendy, mayor of Budapest between 1934 and 1944. As far as I know, the “grateful nation” didn’t even bother to name a street after this decent man.

In 2011 Szita came up with some startling suggestions. For example, he thought that it might be a good idea to organize a professional debate on whether “there was national resistance” to German occupation. That question doesn’t need a lot of research. There is ample evidence already showing that there wasn’t. He also thought that it would be a good idea to set up an institute to investigate the activities of the People’s Courts. These were the courts that dealt with the fate of war criminals. How would that help our understanding of the Holocaust?

From this interview we learn about the genesis of the House of Fates. Szita came up with the idea that the abandoned building of the Józsefváros Railway Station should be acquired by the Holocaust Memorial Center. School children could visit there to learn something about the Holocaust. He would have placed a Wallenberg Memorial at the site because Raoul Wallenberg managed to save a few people at that station.

The Holocaust Memorial Center has been suspiciously quiet in the last few weeks, but I guess after Mazsihisz’s announcement of a boycott yesterday Szabolcs Szita could no longer remain silent. He and his staff came out with a “professional communiqué.” That sounds to me like: “here is the final truth on the matter.” It is a strange document. The first paragraph talks about March 19, 1944 as a dividing line (actually sorsforditó, which means an event that changes everything) when “the trampled down country without any resistance became free prey.” Further, the official statement claims that “it is probable that without the unexpected German occupation Hungarian Jewry would have survived the war.”

It is at this point that Szabolcs Szita goes further in his condemnation of Miklós Horthy and the Sztójay government than in his 2011 interview with Origo. Then he blamed only individuals lower down on the totem pole, László Baky, László Endre, and Andor Jaross, who were guilty because they organized the deportations. Now he seems to have moved from this position and also blames “Governor Horthy, the Sztójay government, and the servile attitude of the civil service.” He also makes reference to the “civil servants who were brought up in the spirit of anti-Jewish laws” and thus became violently anti-Semitic. Again, Szita refuses to admit that it was not just the members of the civil service who were infected by the all-pervasive anti-Semitism but the whole population. There were few people who raised their voices or moved a finger in defense of their Jewish compatriots.

Some people called the document “cowardly.” Well, it is certainly not a brave document, but what can one expect from an institute that is basically an arm of the Hungarian government? It tries to satisfy both sides and therefore its message is confused and contradictory. But at least the document names Miklós Horthy and the government he appointed as guilty of the crime, which is more than one might have expected from the new management of the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center.

The embattled Hungarian Constitutional Court fights back

Originally I wanted to write about the excitement over rumors that Péter Erdő, head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, might be a serious candidate to become the next pope. Not because I believe for a moment that Erdő has a chance but because devoting a post to him would give me an opportunity to spend some time on the state of the Hungarian Catholic Church under his leadership.

But then a barrage of legal news arrived. So today I would like to concentrate on two recent issues: the precarious position of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and its latest decisions.

Let’s start with the issue of the red star. The European Court of Justice ruled twice in the past few years on the display of the red star. In the early days of the Third Republic the use of symbols representing dictatorships, e.g. the red star on the one hand and the swastika or the symbol of the Arrow Cross Party on the other, was deemed a criminal act. At least two individuals tested the legality of the law by displaying the red star and being found guilty. When they exhausted all appeals  they went to Strasbourg. In both cases the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and the Hungarian state had to pay a few thousand euros to them by way of compensation. At this point even Tibor Navracsics, the minister of justice, thought that it was futile to stick with the original passage in the criminal code because time and again Hungary would lose in the European Court of Justice.

So, the Constitutional Court took the case and handed down an unexpected decision. They ruled that not only should the display of the red star be legalized but also symbols of far-right dictatorships. I guess the judges wanted to save themselves from the uncomfortable position of  repealing only half of the law, the one related to the communist symbol.

People who argue that the red star should be legalized while the swastika, for example, shouldn’t, claim that the red star was originally the symbol of the working class movement and social democracy and not the symbol of Soviet dictatorship. Only later were the red star and the red flag expropriated by a cruel dictatorship that had little to do with the original idea. Moreover, these people add that the far-left ideology is practically nonexistent in Hungary today and thus poses no threat to democracy.

On the other hand, goes the argument, the Hungarian far right is strong and poses a threat. Moreover, while in the Hungary of  the pre-war years the Hungarian communist party was a negligible organization, the Hungarian far right was strong. Thus, the swastika and the symbol of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party should be banned because of the history of far-right movements and their present strength in the country.

Political reactions to the Constitutional Court’s decision are telling. The first party to respond was the Christian Democratic Party. MTI reported that the party accepts the decision but “it regrets that from here on anyone can march with an emblem depicting the hammer and the sickle or the red star on May 1.” Then Antal Rogán expressed his regret that “anyone can loiter on the streets with a swastika, the red star, or an SS badge.” He considers this situation untenable and brought up the possibility of another amendment to the constitution that would forbid the display of these symbols.

But, of course, the last word is Viktor Orbán’s and he announced a couple of days ago that the law forbidding the use of these symbols must stay. He announced his opinion on the day that was devoted to the victims of communism. The communist symbols, as we know, bother him more than those of the far right. After all, Orbán makes every effort to appease the far right and therefore glosses over the past and present sins of the Hungarian Nazis.

A more important decision of the Constitutional Court is the ruling on the disputed church law. Today the Court repealed parts of the law and told parliament to work out new rules on the status of churches. I have written fairly extensively on the issue; one can read some of the details here. The decision is retroactive, which means that the seventeen churches that were stripped of their status as bona fide churches will regain their former legal status.

This decision was hailed by practically everybody as a great victory for Hungarian democrats and a serious defeat for the Orbán government. See, for example, the quick response to the law by Bloomberg. I would wait, however, before rejoicing. Again the first government politician who responded to the decision was a Christian Democrat, Tamás Lukács, a not so bright lawyer, who pointed out that the parliament at the moment is working on the new amendments to the constitution and if these amendments are approved (and who doubts that they will be approved) the Court’s decision might have to be re-examined.  This doesn’t sound too promising. Even less promising is what Antal Rogán had to say a few minutes later. In his opinion the amendments to the constitution “will solve the problem.” But he added that they will carefully study the matter and they will respect “whatever possible” of the decision. And naturally there will be parts they will ignore.

Law books

And finally, which I can touch on only very briefly here, there is the Orbán government’s decision to further strip the Constitutional Court of its already greatly curtailed powers. A few days ago we learned that the plan is to annul all Court decisions of the last twenty-two years. Zoltán Fleck, a professor of law, considers such a step a “liquidation of our twenty-year-old constitutional development and our legal culture.” However, according to an MTI report today, “ruling Fidesz lawmakers … will reconsider [their] earlier proposal to strip the Constitutional Court of its right to refer to its previous decisions when making a ruling.” Apparently, in the parliamentary committee on the constitution the legislators are contemplating another version of the proposal that would allow the Court to make decisions identical to its earlier rulings and/or make decisions contrary to earlier decisions.

The country is in legal limbo but probably not for long. Orbán has appointed a new judge who used to be a Christian Democratic member of parliament. He will join the five earlier appointees who vote together and always in the government’s favor. Within a few months another judge will be appointed. Soon enough, the Constitutional Court will also be Orbán’s plaything.