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 too 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.