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The bishops who could learn from Becket

27 May 2016

Christian leaders in Hungary should learn to speak truth to power, argues Alexander Faludy


In charge: Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, photographed last month

In charge: Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, photographed last month

THE temporary return to England from Hungary of some of the remains of St Thomas Becket connects Anglicans and Roman Catholics with an important facet of their shared past. It also illuminates aspects of life in 20th- and 21st-century Hungary in thought-provoking, but not always comfortable, ways.

The history of Becket’s struggle with Henry II, and his martyrdom by knights in the King’s service, make him a symbol of Christian willingness to resist the undue use of state power, and to bear the con­sequences. Such a symbol provides an important lens through which to view recent history and current events in Central Europe. Not all of what one finds there is edifying.

Becket’s bone has been lodged in Esztergom, Hungary, since the 12th century. Its resting place is near that of Cardinal József Mindszenty (1892-1975), who is seen by many as Hungary’s own 20th-century Becket.

Cardinal Mindszenty’s life was characterised by spirited resistance to the post-war Communist govern­ment. His ill-treatment at its hands is sometimes referred to as a “dry martyrdom”. As the Prince Primate of Hungary from October 1945, he put up a dogged fight against the incremental Communist takeover between 1945 and 1948.

After he was arrested on Boxing Day 1948, Cardinal Mindszenty was tortured, starved, injected with mind-altering drugs, and subjected to a show-trial, which resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment. Freed from prison in October 1956, amid the exhilaration of the anti-Soviet uprising, he enjoyed only five days of liberty, before having to seek shelter in the US Embassy after the Red Army invasion.

There he remained, under effect­ive house arrest, for 15 years, until the Vatican was able to negotiate safe conduct for him to travel to Vienna as a refugee in 1971. After his death in 1975, he was at first interred in the city of his exile, and returned to his cathedral posthum­ous­ly when he was reburied in 1992.

THE period between the late 1940s and mid-1950s marked the high-water mark in terms of Becket-like resistance to government inter­ference across the three principal Churches in Hungary: Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran. After that, a mixture of attrition and incentive under the post-1956 regime of János Kádár (which lasted until 1988) resulted in a more pliant attitude on the part of church leaders.

Incentives increased from 1966 onwards: this was the era of “Goul­ash Socialism”, when Hungary was described by observers as “the hap­piest barrack in the Eastern bloc”. Ecclesiastical figureheads from that period are now regarded scornfully as collaborationist. About ten per cent of the clergy are thought to have acted as informers for the secret police.

MORE recently, and especially since 2010, the Hungarian Churches have found it as hard to speak truth to power as they did in the Goulash Socialism era, but for a different reason: friendly proximity. Unfor­tun­ately, this has been the case at just the point when vigorous witness has been needed most acutely.

In 2010, the Hungarian Civic Alliance party Fidesz came to power, replacing the unpopular MSZP (the so-called “Blairite” Hungarian Socialist Party). It immediately set about remodelling the structures of public life.

The BBC’s Central Europe corres­pondent, Nick Thorpe, has characterised the drift of the admin­istration, led by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, as “authoritarian”, and he is far from alone in his assess­ment.

In its first term, Fidesz enacted a series of substantial modifications to the country’s legal system, in the form of a new constitution in 2011. This, together with subsidiary legislation, had a significant detri­mental impact on judicial indepen­dence.

The powers of the constitutional court were eviscerated, and unco-operative judges put out of office. The International Bar Association said last year that “independence of the judiciary and the rule of law remain under threat in Hungary”.

An all-out assault was mounted on civil-society organisations that had been seen to ask awkward questions about the government — particularly those monitoring human rights.

NGOs were subjected to harass­ment, including police and tax-authority raids and the seizure of computer equipment. These were conducted under the cover of inves­tigating financial irregularities (even though no charges were brought), but NGO staff reported that officials accused them of being “foreign agents”.

The raids stopped last December, only after concerted intervention by the governments of the United States and Norway.

During 2015, the Hungarian government came under unfriendly scrutiny for its handling of the refugee crisis. The UNHCR’s long­standing contention, that the government’s propaganda within Hungary amounted to “vilifying refugees”, gained international credence when, at a press confer­ence in Brussels in September, Mr Orbán defended his government’s harsh treatment of migrants on the basis that they posed “a threat to Europe’s Christian identity”.

THROUGHOUT this, senior clerics, Roman Catholic and Prot­est­ant alike, have remained conspic­uously silent in public about the legal and social changes, although some have expressed criticism more readily in private.

In the past 18 months, two im­­portant figures — the Lutheran Bishop of Northern Hungary, Dr Tamás Fabiny, and the RC Bishop of Vác, the Rt Revd Miklós Beer — have broken ranks by criticising the government. Their voices, however, remain exceptions.

The reasons for the reticence of church leaders are complex. Most senior clergy grew up under circum­stances of state antipathy to their religion. They were thus relieved to encounter in Mr Orbán a party leader who was not afraid to talk unabashedly of the importance of Christianity in his own and the nation’s identity.

As Prime Minister, Mr Orbán has been known to begin his speeches with the words “Kedves gyülekezet” (”Dear congregation”), and to end them with the exclamation “Sola Dei gloria!” (”To God alone be the glory”).

In the preamble of the new 2011 constitution, Mr Orbán restored the explicit legal recognition of Hun­gary as a Christian State, which had been lost since 1945.

After 2010, the government offered the Churches a greatly expanded place in the provision of social care and education, and the funding to support it. Since then, it has handed 550 schools to the RCs, 250 to the Reformed, and smaller numbers to the Lutherans and others. Overall, the proportion of schools in church hands has grown by 58 per cent.

After decades of marginalisation under Communism, and an uneasy relationship with the successive Socialist administrations of 2002-10, the change understandably came as a source of relief and excitement to church leaders. It also meant, how­ever, their entering into a degree of personal co-operation with, and financial dependence on, the ruling party, and made it more difficult to criticise government decisions.

The problem of a lack of overt critical witness came into sharp focus during the refugee crisis in the second half of last year. Church-affiliated charities did commendable work with the displaced people who were passing through the country, but leading clerics were careful to avoid any open challenge to the government. This remained the case, despite mounting criticism from the Vatican, the EU, and the UNHCR.

SILENCE is not the whole story, however. Active support for the government came from the RC Archbishop of Veszprém, the Most Revd Gyula Márfi, and, now from his colleague, the Bishop of Szeged-Csanád, the Rt Revd László Kiss-Rigó.

Last September, four days after Mr Orbán’s notorious “threat to Christian Europe” statement in Brussels, Bishop Kiss-Rigó gave an interview to The Washington Post. Speaking of the increasing number of Syrians entering Hungary through his diocese, he said: “They’re not refugees. This is an invasion. . . They come here with cries of ‘Allah Akbar.’ They want to take over.”

When asked about his views on the government’s approach, he responded: “I am in complete agree­ment with the Prime Minister.”

Reading recent Hungarian history through the lens of Becket highlights important issues about the relationship between religion, power, and public truth. I can only hope that prolonged active engage­ment with Becket’s story will even­tually give church leaders in Hun­gary greater courage in saying things to the powerful which such people do not wish to hear.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist, Wallsend, and the co-editor of Az Anglikán Kereszténység Évszázadai (Budapest, 2014), an introduction to Anglican theology in Hungarian.

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