The Catholic Church in Hungary and Romania during the Communist Dictatorship: A Comparative Analysis

9 April 2024

Author GÁBOR BÁNKUTI, Associate Professor, University of Pecs, Department of Modern History, Pecs, Hungary

The paper takes a comparative approach to examine the situation of the Catholic Church in Romania and Hungary during the communist dictatorship, looking at the specific style of the local churches from the point of view of their differences. This history cannot be adequately described in terms of the usual model of oppression-resistance to communist rule, but requires an approach that also takes into account the interaction between the ruling classes and their "subjects". The possibility or impossibility of cooperating with secular power was shaped not only by religious beliefs but also by social, ethnic and denominational interconnections and traditions, and action against the churches was differentiated by the complexity of ethno-religious relations. This is why the dictatorships that emerged east of the Iron Curtain are different versions of the Soviet model and of each other. The adaptation of the pattern has been shaped by different internal conditions and external constraints in each country, with external influences being incorporated into local contexts through a dual process of reception and mutation. The ambition was essentially the same, the means used were, however, extremely varied and the result even more mosaic. This has resulted in substantial differences, and in any case point to the specific differences between the societies concerned. To understand all this, therefore, it is essential to take account of the conditions, the characteristics of local societies across political eras, and to be aware of continuous factors.

Communist Dictatorship, Church history, Church and State, Denominational relations, Comparative analysis

[1] From a church-historical point of view, a fundamental work is Sabrina P. Ramet, Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics, and Social Changes in East-Central Europe and Russia (London: Duke University Press, 1998); see also Bohdan Cywiński, Tűzpróba: Egyház, társadalom és állam Kelet-Közép-Európában I–II [Fire test. Church, Society and State in East-Central Europe I-II] (Budapest: EFO Kiadó és Nyomda, 2005).

[2] In terms of Romania, the same conclusion is found by Ovidiu Bozgan, “Rezistenţă, represiune, destindere iluzorie: Biserica romano-catolică în România comunistă” [Resistance, repression, illusory détente: The Roman Catholic Church in Communist Romania], in Dosarele Istoriei, no. 9 (2003): 39–52.

[3] Marc Bloch, “Az európai társadalmak összehasonlító történelméről” [On the comparative history of European societies], in A történész mestersége: Történelemelméleti írások [The Historian’s Craft: Writings on Historical Theory] (Budapest: Osiris, 1996), 169–200; Bloch’s concept of comparativism was first presented in 1928: László L. Lajtai, A komparatisztikától a történeti keresztezésig. A francia társadalomtörténet útkeresései Marc Blochtól az histoire croisée-ig [From comparatism to historical intersection. The quest for French social history from Marc Bloch to histoire croisée], in Sic Itur Ad Astra, no. 1–2 (2006): 73–83.

[4] This is where Reinhart Koselleck’s comment on the abundance of sources and the ‘theoretical straitjacket’ of the expectation of totality, of the total context, comes in: “Since it is obviously impossible to achieve all of these at the same time, it ultimately depends on the researcher’s individual interests, knowledge and assumptions as to what he or she chooses. […] All choices are equally legitimate and to some extent mutually exclusive. Much therefore depends on the individual preferences and practical considerations of the researcher”. See Reinhart Koselleck, “Hinweise auf die temporalen Strukturen begriffsgeschichtlichen Wandels,” in Begriffsgeschichte, Diskursgeschichte, Metapherngeschichte, ed. Hans Erich Bödeker (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2002), 32–33.

[5] On the distribution of nationality and religiousness, see Hans-Christian Maner and Martin Schulze Wessel, eds., Religion im Nationalstaat zwischen den Weltkriegen, 1918–1939 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2002); Pedro Ramet, ed., Religion and Nationalism in Soviet and East European Politics (London: Duke University Press, 1989); Hans-Christian Maner and Norbert Spannenberger, eds., Konfessionelle Identität und Nationsbildung: Die griechisch-katholischen Kirchen in Ostmittel- und Südosteuropa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007) (Forschungen zur Geschichte und Kultur des Östlichen Mitteleuropa Band 25); Martin Schulze Wessel, ed., Nationalisierung der Religion und Sakralisierung der Nation im östlichen Europa (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006) (Forschungen zur Geschichte und Kultur des Östlichen Mitteleuropa Band 27).

[6] My reflections were mainly shaped by the following studies within the very rich methodological literature on the subject: Heinz-Gerhard Haupt and Jürgen Kocka, eds., Geschichte und Vergleich: Ansätze und Ergebnisse international vergleichende Geschichtsschreibung (Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1996); Hartmut Kaelble, Der historische Vergleich. Eine Einführung zum 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt, New York: Campus Verlag, 1999); Hartmut Kaelble and Jürgen Schriewer, eds., Vergleich und Transfer. Komparatistik in den Sozial-Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften (Frankfurt am Main/New Yor: Campus Verlag, 2003); Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (University of Michigan, 1983),

[7] The present study was preceded by a comparison of the history of the Jesuits in Hungary and Romania. I was inspired by the need to place the results of the basic research at the source level in Romania and Hungary in a broader historical context. Gábor Bánkuti, “Die Jesuiten in Ungarn und Rumänien in der Zeit der kommunistischen Diktatur – ein Vergleich,” in Christen und totalitäre Herrschaft in den Ländern Ostmittel- und Südosteuropas von 1945 bis in die 1960er Jahre, eds. Rainer Bendel and Robert Pech (Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2022), 321–40. (Forschungen und Quellen zur Kirchen- und Kulturgeschichte Ostdeutschlands 53); I have summarised the research on which the comparison is based in two volumes: Gábor Bánkuti, Jezsuiták a diktatúrában. A Jézus Társasága Magyarországi Rendtartománya története (1945–1965) [Jesuits Under the Dictatorship: The History of the Hungarian Province of the Society of Jesus (1945–1965)] (Budapest: L’Harmattan, ÁBTL, JTMR, 2011); Gábor Bánkuti, Iezuiții în România în secolul XX. [Romanian Jesuits in the Twentieth Century] (Oradea: Ratio et Revelatio, 2019).

[8] In recent years, a volume of studies with a narrower thematic focus and a broader one have examined the ecclesiastical aspects and consequences of the Treaty of Trianon: György Sági, ed., A magyar katolicizmus és Trianon (Budapest: Fraknói Vilmos Római Történeti Kutatócsoport, ELKH-PPKE-PTE, 2023). (COLLECTANEA STUDIORUM ET TEXTUUM I/5); István Zombori, ed., Trianon és az egyházak [Trianon and the churches] (Budapest: METEM, 2022).

[9] For the latest on our topic, see: Máté Gárdonyi, “‘We Cannot Stay Silent’: The Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Political and Social Changes after 1945,” in The Trial of Cardinal József Mindszenty from the Perspective of Seventy Years. The Fate of Church Leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, eds. András Fejérdy and Bernadett Wirthné Diera (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2021), 19–34. A comprehensive overview of Catholic Church history of the period is given by Nándor Dreisziger, Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora (University of Toronto Press, 2016); László T. László, Egyház és állam Magyarországon 1919–1945 [Church and State in Hungary 1919–1945)] (Budapest: Szent István Társulat, 2005); Norbert Spannenberger, Die katholische Kirche in Ungarn 1918–1939: Positionierung im politischen System und ‘Katholische Renaissance’ (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006). More recently on the political and public role of churches: Éva Petrás, ed., A modern magyar katolikus politizálás arcképcsarnoka [The Portrait Gallery of Modern Hungarian Catholic Politics] (Budapest: Barankovics István Alapítvány, Gondolat Kiadó, 2019); Tibor Klestenitz, Pajzs és kard: Bangha Béla élete és eszmeisége [Shield and Sword: The Life and Ideas of Béla Bangha] (Budapest: Századvég Kiadó, 2020). On the socio-political function of the contemporary cultural concept: Anna Dévényi, “A középfokú oktatás társadalompolitikai vetületei a Horthy-korszakban” [The socio-political aspects of secondary education in the Horthy era], Századok 154, no. 1 (2020): 81–106.

[10] Data source: Árpád E. Varga, Az erdélyi magyarság főbb statisztikai adatai az 1910 utáni népszámlálások tükrében [Main statistical data of the Hungarians in Transylvania in the light of the censuses after 1910],

[11] An analysis of the Greek Orthodox Catholic press in the period between the two world wars: Nicoleta Nidelea, “Presa Greco-Catolică interbelică,” in Ovidiu Bozgan, ed., Biserică, putere, societate. Studii şi documente [Church, power, society. Studies and Documents] (Bucureşti: Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, 2001), 106–129.

[12] On this, see: Philllipe Chenaux, L’Église catholique et le communisme en Europe (1917–1989): De Lénine á Jean-Paul II (Cerf, 2009), 57–83.

[13] Netzhammer’s views were shared by the Austrian and German ambassadors. The latter sent the following report to Berlin on 23 July 1924: “The curia’s policy is clearly failing the minorities, who are Roman Catholics, Germans and Hungarians, and is relying on Romanian Greek Catholics”. See Raymund Netzhammar, Bischof in Rumänien: Im Spannungsfeld zwischen Staat und Vatikan, Bd. I–II. Veröffentlicht von Nikolaus Netzhammer in Verbindung mit Krista Zach, (München: Verlag Südostdeutsches Kulturwerk, 1995–1996), 1549. (Veröffentlichungen des Südostdeutschen Kulturwerks, Reihe B: Wissenschaftliche Arbeiten 70–71). Basic information on this topic: Hans-Christian Maner, Die griechisch-katholische Kirche in Siebenbürger/Rumänien 1918–1939. Zwischen nationalem Anspruch und interkonfessioneller Wirklichkeit, in Hans-Christian Maner and Norbert Spannenberger eds., Konfessionelle Identität und Nationsbildung. Die griechisch-katholischen Kirchen in Ostmittel- und Südosteuropa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017), 177–187.

[14] On this, see: Nándor Bárdi et al., Népszolgálat: A közösségi elkötelezettség alakváltozatai a magyar kisebbségek történetében [Public Service: Forms of Community Engagement in the History of Hungarian Minorities] (Budapest: MTA BTK, 2014); Mihály Zoltán Nagy, “Community Building under Religious Persecution: The Persecution and Witness of Transylvanian Bishop Áron Márton,” in András Fejérdy and Bernadett Wirthné Diera, eds., The Trial of Cardinal József Mindszenty from the Perspective of Seventy Years: The Fate of Church Leaders in Central and Eastern Europe (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana,  2021), 267–90.

[15] An analysis of Soviet imperial church policy based on Russian archival sources is provided by Margit Balogh, “A szovjet birodalmi egyházpolitika és a romániai katolikus egyház” [Soviet imperial Church Policy and the Romanian Catholic Church], in Megmenekültem az oroszlán torkából: az erdélyi katolikus egyház a megpróbáltatások idején: 1848, 1948. [I have escaped from the jaws of death. The trials and tribulations of the Transylvanian Catholic Church in 1848 and 1948], eds. József Márton and Diósi Dávid (Budapest, Kolozsvár: Szent István Társulat, Verbum Keresztény Kulturális Egyesület, 2015), 89–144. The strategy is analysed by Cristian Vasile, Între Vatican și Kremlin. Biserica Greco-Catolică în timpul regimului comunist [Between the Vatican and the Kremlin. The Greek Catholic Church during the Communist regime] (Bucureşti: Curtea Veche, 2013), 50–52.

[16] See Gábor Bánkuti, “Egyháztörténet helyben. Szempontok a katolikus egyház (politikai) társadalomtörténetének értelmezéséhez a diktatúra kiépítésének és intézményesítésének időszakában (1945–1950), a Pécsi Egyházmegye példáján” [Church history on the spot. Perspectives for the interpretation of the (political) social history of the Catholic Church in the period of the establishment and institutionalisation of the dictatorship (1945–1950), using the example of the Diocese of Pécs], in Horváth Gergely Krisztián, ed., Vakvágány: A ‘szocializmus alapjainak lerakása’ vidéken a hosszú ötvenes években 2. [Blindtrack: 'Laying the foundations of socialism' in the countryside in the long fifties] (Budapest, Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága, MTA BTK, 2019), 255–277. A comprehensive work on the changing context of the 1960s: András Fejérdy, Pressed by a Double Loyalty: Hungarian Attendance at the Second Vatican Council, 1959–1965 (Budapest, New York: Central European University Press, 2016).

[17] The process is summarised by: Margit Balogh, “‘Isten szabad ege alatt’ – az egyházak Magyarországon 1945 és 1948 között” [“Under God's free sky” the churches in Hungary between 1945 and 1948], in Margit Balogh, ed., Felekezetek, egyházpolitika, identitás Magyarországon és Szlovákiában 1945 után [Confessionalism, church politics, identity in Hungary and Slovakia after 1945] (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 2008). After decades of research, Margit Balogh summarises in a highly important monograph the expectations, opinions and personal fate of József Mindszenty, the most influential archpastor of the period, in relation to the events. Margit Balogh, “Victim of History”: Cardinal Mindszenty: A Biography (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021).

[18] Balogh Margit and Gergely Jenő, eds., Egyházak az újkori Magyarországon 1790–1992: Kronológia [The Churches in modern Hungary 1790–1992: Chronology] (Budapest: MTA BTK, 1993), 293. From then on, only four religious orders, the Benedictine, the Franciscan, the Piarist and the nuns of the Order of Our Lady, were allowed to operate in Hungary with a limited number of students, which was necessary to maintain the eight secondary schools allowed by the state.

[19] “Decret Nr. 177 din 4 august 1948 pentru regimul general al cultelor religioase” [Decree No. 177 of 4 August 1948 on the general regime of religious cults], Monitorul Oficial, no. 178 (4 august 1948).

[20] The codification features of church policy are analysed by Ulrich A. Wien, “Religionsfreiheit im Socialismus am Beispiel Rumäniens. Rechtshistorische Perspektiven,” in Jana Osterkamp and Renate Schulze, eds., Kirche und Sozialismus in Osteuropa, (Wien: Facultas, 2007), 71–116. (Recht und Religion in Mittel- und Osteuropa. 1).

[21] Mihály Zoltán Nagy and Zoltán Csaba Novák, “The Roman Catholic Church during and after the Communist regime,” in Lucian Turcescu and Lavinia Stan, eds., Church Reckoning with Communism in Post-1989 Romania (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021), 93–114.

[22] Romanian Patriarch Nikodim, who died on 27 February 1948, was initially reticent about the advance of the Communists. On this, see: Lucian N. Leustean, Ortodoxia és állam. A kommunizmus építése a Román Népköztársaságban (1948–1949) [Orthodoxy and state. Building Communism in the Romanian People's Republic (1948–1949)], Pro minoritate (Fall-Winter, 2007): 91–95.

[23] The merger process is analysed in detail by Vasile, Între Vatican, 103–212; Cristian Vasile, “Atitudini ale clericilor ortodocşi şi catolici faţă de URSS şi fată de regimul de tip sovietic (1944–1948)” [Attitudes of Orthodox and Catholic clergy towards the USSR and the Soviet-type regime (1944-1948)], in Biserică, putere, ed. Bozgan, 155–182.

[24] “Decret nr. 358 din 2 decembrie 1948 pentru stabilirea situației de drept a fostului cult greco-catolic” [Decree No 358 of 2 December 1948 establishing the legal status of the former Greek-Catholic cult], Monitorul Oficial, no. 281 (2 December 1948).

[25] László Holló, “Die katolische Kirche in Rumänien zwischen 1945 und 1964,” Zeitschrift für Siebenbürgische Landeskunde 28, no. 2 (2005), 153.

[26] The provision and the related exceptional powers are communicated by Imre Tempfli, Sárból és napsugárból. Pakocs Károly püspöki helynök élete és kora 1892–1966 [From mud and sunshine. Life and times of Károly Pakocs, Bishop’s Vicar 1892–1966] (Budapest: Metem 2002), 963–969.

[27] “Hotărâre nr. 810 din 29 iulie 1949 privind interzicerea functionarii pe întreg teritoriu al Republicii Populare Romane, a mai multor formaţiuni şi organizatiuni, ce formează diferite ordine şi congregatiuni romano-catolice” [Decision No. 810 of 29 July 1949 on the prohibition of the functioning on the whole territory of the Romanian People's Republic of several formations and organizations forming various Roman Catholic orders and congregations] Buletinul Oficial, no. 51 (29 July 1949).

[28] Based on a comparison of various records, the eminent researcher on the subject, Ovidiu Bozgan, estimates that the twenty-five Roman Catholic monastic orders in Romania had about 2,500 members in January 1948. There were about half a thousand monks in the eighty-one monasteries and about 2,000 nuns in the 134 convents at the time. Bozgan, Rezistenţă, represiune, 42; see also, Bánkuti, Iezuiții în România.

[29] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socializm and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1947), 12–13.

[30] Jens Gieseke, Állambiztonság és társadalom – érvek az együttes vizsgálat szükségessége mellett [State security and society - arguments for the need for a joint investigation], Betekintő no. 3/2010, 1.

[31] Janos C. Andrew, Haladás, hanyatlás, hegemónia Kelet-Közép-Európában [Progress, decline, hegemony in East-Central Europe] (Budapest: Helikon, 2003), 33–34. A recent comparative synthesis of the political, social and cultural diversity of the region is Stefano Bottoni, A várva várt Nyugat. Kelet-Európa története 1944-től napjainkig [The long-awaited West. The history of Eastern Europe from 1944 to the present] (Budapest: MTA BTK, 2014).

[32] Gábor Bánkuti and Mihály Zoltán Nagy, eds., Az egyház társadalma – a társadalom egyháza: Egyház és társadalom Közép- és Kelet-Európában a 20. században [The society of the Church- the church of the society. Church and society in Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century] (Pécs, 2015). (Seria Historiae Dioecesis Quinque -ecclesiensis XIII).

[33] An innovative analysis of institutional heterogeneity in the Catholic Church is given by Antje Schnoor, Gehorchen und Gestalten. Jesuiten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur in Chile (1962–1983) (Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2016). On the diversity of the survival-adaptation strategies of the church, see: Máté Gárdonyi, “Túlélés – együttműködés – ellenállás. A katolikus egyház stratégiái a ’népi demokráciákban’” [Survival ‒ cooperation ‒ resistance: The strategies of the Catholic Church in the “people’s democracies”], in Csapdában. Tanulmányok a katolikus egyház történetéből, 1945–1989 [Trapped: Studies on the history of the Hungarian Catholic Church, 1945–1989], eds., Gábor Bánkuti and György Gyarmati (Budapest: L’Harmattan kiadó, 2010), 31–42; András Fejérdy, ed., «La Chiesa cattolica dell’Europa centro-orientale di fronte al comunismo. Atteggiamenti, strategie, tattiche» (Roma: Viella, 2013); Mihály Zoltán Nagy and István Zombori, eds., Az Egyház hatalma – a hatalom egyháza: A közép-kelet-európai egyházi vezetők felfogása az állam–egyház kapcsolatáról 1945 és 1989 között [The power of the Church - the church of power. The perception of church leaders in Central and Eastern Europe on the relationship between church and state between 1945 and 1989] (Budapest, 2015).