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~ Totalitarian States and Movements ~

     Popes Pius XI and Pius XII were key figures in articulating the Catholic Church’s position toward against communism and their attitude influenced succeeding papacies that rallied for “the conversion of Russia” well until 1989, the year of the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Europe. One has to bear in mind the historical antecedence that accounted for the evolution of such a rabid attitude against communism. Prior to ascending the papacy, both were papal diplomats to central and Eastern Europe and witnessed – and experienced, in the case of Pius XII – the violent rise of the Bolsheviks and Soviets to power between 1915 and 1920. Yet their personal confrontations with communists should not be too quickly dismissed as the roots of churchʼs opposition to communism.[1] From historical documents that are now available to us, it can be deduced that both the militant manifestation and the political deviations in the practice of Marxian philosophy in the Soviet Union significantly influenced the hard line stand of the papacy.

     In spite of his stern denunciation of it, Pius XI (whether he was aware of it or not) “borrowed” much of the social propositions in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno from the teachings of Karl Marx. If the pope defended the rights of the working class and the poor, emphasized the necessity of unions, and exposed the evils of capitalism, Marx has done that years before. The irony is that the document held a very negative opinion of Marx.[2]Apparently, what appalled Pius XI (and his successors) was “atheistic Communism as they are chiefly manifested in bolshevism.”[3] The pope encapsulated this side of the ideology: “Where Communism has been able to assert its power. . . it has striven by every possible means, as its champions openly boast, to destroy Christian civilization and the Christian religion by banishing every remembrance of them from the hearts of men, especially the young.[4]

     And yet what drove Marx to make his philosophy atheistic was the church of his time, which had been overly concerned with spiritual matters and administering sacraments. If the scenario was not so, Marx may not have spoken ill of religion as an opiate that made people resigned to their lot, thus only perpetuating the injustices then being perpetrated on the masses by capitalists, the ruling class, and aristocrats.[5]

     An ideology plays a crucial role in a totalitarian state. To justify its encroachment into the personal and political lives of its constituents, a totalitarian government embraces an ideology of its choosing. It so happened that the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe took up Marx’s communist doctrines. And yet it never developed in complete consonance with what Marx fully envisioned. These deviations were begun by the Bolsheviks, and further altered by Lenin and Joseph Stalin. In a communist state (as in all other totalitarian regimes), there can be no autonomous institution for the activities of every aspect of society was centralized. An institution of such nature could only exist with the approval of the state.[6]It was resistance to state control and to the innate atheistic principles of communism that produced a new batch of contemporary martyrs.

     At the time of the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917), the Catholic Church was not harmed. For the Bolsheviks, the Catholic clergy was among the victims of czarist oppression and were, thus, tolerated and even preferred over the Russian Orthodox clergy who were intensely persecuted by the new regime.[7] But what they could not count on was the subjection of the church (with its properties, clergy and adherents) directly under a commissariat in charge of religious affairs within the state. That would have been in direct contradiction with the provisions of canon law. In due time, the communists (as the Bolsheviks later chose to be called) counted the Catholic Church as a counterrevolutionary institution just like all other religions. In 1923, fifteen clerics including Archbishop Jan Baptyst Cieplak, his vicar Msgr. Konstantin Budkevič, and Exarch Leonid Feodorov of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, were tried by a communist court for opposing the decree on separation of church and state and the decree on the nationalization of church properties. Thirteen of the arraigned were sentenced with imprisonment; Cieplak and Budkevič were condemned to death by firing squad for “counterrevolutionary activities.” International outrage may have accounted for the commutation of Cieplak’s sentence to ten years’ imprisonment.[8] However, Budkevič was executed at Moscow’s Lubianka prison for his contacts with the government of his native Poland, “a foreign bourgeois government unfriendly to the Soviet power.”[9]

     The conflict between the church and communism greatly intensified after the Second World War. The provisions of the Yalta conference (1945) had assured Stalin of control over eastern Europe should the war end. When it did cease, communist parties, with the backing of the Soviet Union and its military, were able to secure power in all the countries of eastern and central Europe (except the Mediterranean countries of Greece, Malta, and Cyprus). Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia had already been forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union since 1939. By the end of the 1940’s, Moscow had considerable influence over its satellite communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany. Two other countries, Yugoslavia and Albania, resisted Stalin’s domination but were both governed by communists.

     There can be no argument that the Catholic Church in these countries suffered severely under its acknowledged atheistic governments. However, the oppression of the churches in the Eastern Europe varied in degree and scope according to their geopolitical situation. In most cases, the faithful who suffered from communist repression resisted the move of their governments to nationalize their churches and sever their communion with the Vatican. Most notable among these were cardinals József Mindszenty (+1975) of Hungary, Stefan Wyszyński of Poland (+1981), and Jósyf Slipyj (+1984) of Ukraine. But none of these three died as a result of physical harm. Others were not as fortunate. In 1946, Vincentas Borisevičius, bishop of Telšiai (Lithuania) was killed after a lengthy interrogation and torture. One year later, Bishop Teodor Jurij Romzha, apostolic administrator of Mukacheve (Ukraine) was assassinated. Bishop Evgeni Bosilkov of Nicopoli (Bulgaria) was executed by firing squad as a “Vatican spy” along with three Assumptionist priests in 1952.[10] In that same year, Bishop Janos Scheffler of Satu Mare (Romania) died in prison from burns after a “bath” in boiling water.

[1]  Hansjakob Stehle, Eastern Politics of the Vatican: 1917-1979 (Athens, OH.: Ohio University Press, 1981), p. 17.

[2]  Pedro V. Salgado, Social Encyclicals: Commentary and Critique (Quezon City: By the author, 1992), pp. 92-96. In the same encyclical Pius XI also criticized making class struggle an essential law of society, abolishing private ownership, and instituting the dictatorship of the proletariat. Salgado believes that in these the pope was right.

[3]  Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris, 7 (Engl. transl. Papal Encyclicals: 1903-1939, p. 538).

[4]  Ibid., 19, p. 541.

[5]  Salgado, pp. 96-97.

[6]  A Dictionary of Political Thought, 1982 ed., s.v. “Totalitarianism.”

[7]  Stehle, p. 15.

[8]  On March, 1924, Archbishop Cieplak was released and returned to Poland. He died two years later at Passaic, New Jersey during a pastoral visit to Polish Catholics living in America. [Joseph Ledit, Archbishop John Baptist Cieplak (Montreal: Palm Publishers Ltd., 1963)].

[9]  Stehle, pp. 46-47.

[10] Ibid., p. 330


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