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The Eastern Bloc’s Regime-controlled “Priests for Peace”

by Mary Lucia Darst
October 27, 2017

Eastern Europe's communist regimes set up official-sounding, government-sponsored associations for collaborating Catholic clergy.

Following World War II, as the Soviet behemoth consumed Eastern Europe, Catholicism behind the iron curtain went onto the defensive, fighting for survival in an extremely hostile environment. Communism condemned religion as the opiate of the people; the Catholic Church had condemned atheistic communism by name as early as 1881. Besides, Catholicism formed a powerful cultural link to the broader European tradition and to the world beyond the socialist bloc. Soviet authorities viewed the Church as a particular threat and desired to sever the connection between Rome and the national churches.

The communist regimes of Eastern Europe cracked down on the Catholic Church by nationalizing its property and seizing its buildings, closing its schools and welfare organizations, arresting, jailing, and murdering its clerics and priests, disbanding its religious orders, and exerting control over the appointment of bishops. Another step they took was to set up government-sponsored associations with official-sounding Latin names for collaborating Catholic clergy. Their ostensible purpose was to preach peace, especially nuclear nonproliferation, hence names that echoed Pope John XXIII’s anti-nuclear encyclical Pacem in Terris, or “Peace on Earth.” In reality, Eastern Europe’s Soviet spymasters used them to monitor priests and their flocks.

The “PAX” organization in Poland and “Pacem in Terris” in Czechoslovakia deceived few. PAX’s openly pro-Stalinist attitude and its support for the show trials and imprisonment of clergy prevented it from ever obtaining credibility; its members only totaled around 300 priests. Priests who collaborated with communist organizations faced excommunication from the Vatican and the censure of Poland’s primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. By contrast, the trade union Solidarity, which would eventually play a key role in the fall of communism in Poland, remained adamantly Catholic and anti-communist.

In Czechoslovakia, the highest-ranking clergyman, Cardinal František Tomášek, repudiated Pacem in Terris at its 1971 inception. Formed after the liberal interlude of the Prague Spring, Pacem in Terris was a herald of a new, extremely strict crackdown on the Catholic Church, resulting in the emergence of an underground church and even worse relations between the populace and the regime. A 1982 papal directive aimed squarely at Pacem in Terris prohibited priests from membership in political organizations. In 1989, Cardinal Tomášek saw his work rewarded with the Velvet Revolution, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and a reunion of the country and Church with the West and Rome.

Conversely, Hungary’s “Opus Pacis” was voluntarily founded by Bishop József Grősz to cooperate with the communist regime after the defeat of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The 1950s had been years of intense persecution for the Church, during which both Grősz and the Primate of Hungary, Cardinal József Mindszenty, had been imprisoned. Grősz believed that by cooperating voluntarily, he could prevent the return of pre-1956 “peace priests” organizations. In fact, Opus Pacis proved to be just another tool for the communist domination of the church. The Vatican condemned the organization’s newspaper and excommunicated several priests who served as deputies in parliament. Trapped in the US embassy, where he had found asylum, Cardinal Mindszenty, denounced the association. Despite the formal ban on Opus Pacis, over 90 percent of Hungarian clergy joined the organization.

The communist regime was able to limit Cardinal Mindszenty’s influence both by trapping him and by forcing him into exile in Austria, effectively silencing him before the Hungarian people and severing a crucial link with the West. The Cardinal continued to fight against the religious legitimation of the regime, refusing to retire from his position to prevent a collaborator bishop from succeeding him. Eventually, Pope Paul VI stripped Mindszenty of his rank and position and awarded them to Lászlo Lékai, and, in doing so, lost the propaganda war. Lékai, soon made a cardinal, pursued a policy of cautious cooperation with the regime.

At the conclave following Paul VI’s death in 1978, Cardinal Wyszyński of Poland openly castigated Cardinal Lékai for his betrayal of principle and his capitulation to communist authorities. Upon his ascension to the papacy only a little over a month later, John Paul II continued the Church’s censure of the Hungarian clergy and opposed promotion within the Roman Curia of all clergy who had participated in Opus Pacis or cooperated in any way. The Hungarian Church reached the 1989 finish line in a demoralized state compared to Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Today, the Chinese communist government and the Catholic Church are replaying the history of Catholicism in Eastern Europe. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) is the equivalent of Opus Pacis, PAX, or Pacem in Terris—an officially recognized, state-controlled religious association that serves as a tool of the regime. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association has even appointed bishops without the consent of the Pope, leading to major tensions between the Vatican and Beijing (which do not have official diplomatic relations) and a complicated split between China’s “official” Church and underground believers. A 2014 estimate put the total membership of the CCPA—laypeople and priests—at 5.7 million, out of a possible total of 28.7 million Catholics.

Like Cardinals Tomášek and Mindszenty, there are some in the Chinese Church who fiercely denounce this communist interference. Hong Kong’s retired bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, rejected all clergy involvement in party politics and is a continuing voice against communism. This summer, he spent three weeks in Eastern Europe learning about the experience of the Church there.

For decades, the Vatican has been trying to figure out how to regularize its position in China. Zen argues that some negotiators are willing to give up too much, including the right to appoint bishops, in order to reach a deal—and that they will thereby weaken the Church’s standing in the fight for human rights and freedom of conscience.


The 'denial, exclusion and repression of Afro-Cubans,' 58 years after the Revolution



Black Cubans. (IPS)

Denial, Exclusion and Repression is the title of the report on the human rights situation faced by the Afro-Cuban population, drafted by the Citizens' Committee for Racial Integration (CIR). The document was to be presented this month at the home of activist Aida Valdés, but this was impossible because this is "election" season, explained State Security agents to CIR members Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna (National Coordinator) and Marthadela Tamayo.

The report remains unknown to most of the Cuban population, particularly Afro-Cubans, who should be able to assess its content.

What will those who have access to the document read?

"Blacks live in the worst housing, have the hardest and worst-paid jobs, and receive between five and six times less in family remittances in dollars than their white compatriots. “This is not a statement by the CIR, but rather part of the response by Fidel Castro to journalist Ignacio Ramonet in 2006.

Almost five decades after he announced the end of racism in Cuba, the ruler was obliged to recognize that "the Revolution, despite the rights and guarantees achieved for all citizens of any ethnicity and origin, has not had the same success in the struggle to eradicate differences in the social and economic status of the country's black population."

Although Denial, Exclusion and Repression recognizes the transformations undertaken by the Revolution in the interest of equality, it demonstrates that it was premature to announce the end of racism in 1962.

The report manifests the marginalization of the Afro-Cuban population in the economic, political and social spheres. The "updating" of the economic model (which does not extend to Cuba's political model) has provided new opportunities to improve the economy for citizens, but it has also entailed the aggravation of inequalities that leave Afro-Cubans clearly disadvantaged.

"The Afro-Cuban population has been excluded from the main labor mobility scenarios, as shown by several studies carried out by official institutions. These findings contradict the results of the National Population and Housing Census, which alleges that there are no significant differences according to skin color in terms of economic indicators," said the document.

"The 'new opportunities' call for conditions that the Afro-Cuban population does not possess, as most do not have the capital to start entrepreneurial initiatives and to weather the uncertainties and challenges of the economy (...) they do not have movable or immovable property (housing, automobiles) permitting them to engage in the kind of economic activities that the State now allows," states the CIR.

The official institutions cited are the CITMA, the Cuban Institute of Anthropology, the Center for Demographic Studies at the University of Havana, and the Institute of Genetics.

The CIR analyses the extent to which Afro-Cubans, both men and women, can actually exercise each of the rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the Cuban State is a signatory. Many might argue that several of these rights are not enjoyed by any part of the Cuban population, such as the freedom of expression and opinion, the freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and free trade unionism. But one of the merits of the report is that it shows how these restrictions specifically impact Cuba's Afro-descendant population.

The report is backed up by a database containing 145 cases of human rights violations suffered by Afro-Cubans.

A confrontation with the State?

Although the CIR critically analyses both the human rights situation of the Afro-Cuban population and institutional responses to this reality, it does not seek to confront the State. Its objective is for the State to take into account its analyses and recommendations in order to honor the commitments that Havana has taken on at the international level to eradicate racism and to promote debate on the subject.

More than a confrontation, the State should perceive the opportunity to work with civil society towards the common goal of eliminating racial discrimination in Cuba, aside from any ideological differences that may exist.

The Cuban state claims to be working with civil society organizations to eliminate racism. But the harassment and restrictions experienced by activists before, during and after the drafting of this report, as well as the lack of legal recognition for many organizations, reveal how the government continues to subordinate the racial issue to the Revolution and the aims of socialist society. Historically, this has only contributed to masking the problem and stigmatizing those who address it.

The persistence of racial disparities was recognized by Fidel Castro himself. His brother Raúl Castro, at a press conference in March of 2016, during the visit by US President Barack Obama, admitted that all human rights are not being honored in Cuba. Doesn't this point to the need for a civil society that ensures respect for them?

All Cubans should have access to the CIR report, particularly those of African origin and the marginalized communities where the CIR worked. And the same may be said of the Havana report for the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Government should facilitate public access to and discussion of them, with absolute freedom and no fear of reprisals.