It pains me to disagree with a writer I like and admire, but Srdja Trifkovic’s piece on Cardinal Stepinac makes no attempt to explain, much less understand, why Catholics respect and admire this brave Croatian martyr. Trifkovic takes umbrage at Pope Benedict’s treating Stepinac as a “saintly figure” and of saying this about him: “Precisely because of his strong Christian conscience, he knew how to resist every form of totalitarianism, becoming, in a time of Nazi and Fascist dictatorship, a defender of the Jews, the Orthodox, and of all the persecuted, and then, in the age of communism, an advocate for his own faithful, especially for the many persecuted and murdered priests.” But Benedict’s words offer a just appraisal of Stepinac, who did become, once he became convinced of the horrors that were occurring in Ante Pavelic’s Croatia, a defender of the persecuted.
It is true that it took time for Cardinal Stepinac to recognize the evil of the Ustasa regime. But his support for Croatian independence did not make him a supporter of the Ustasa. Before World War II, he was a supporter of the Croatian Peasants Party of Vladko Macek, who was imprisoned by the Ustasa. In 1938 he lectured university students on the Christian principles rejected by the Ustasa: “if love toward a nation crosses the borders of sound reason, then it is no longer love, but passion, and passion is neither of use, nor lasting. . . . Therefore love toward your own nation is not contradictory to the love for the whole of mankind; they complement each other. All the nations are children of God.” These views did not change after the Ustasa came to power. In 1942, he instructed the clergy of the Archdiocese of Zagreb that they could not participate in any political party and reminded them that “respect for every race and nationality” was one of the principles recognized by “The Church of Christ.”
It is also true that Stepinac wanted the Orthodox to become Catholics. It would have been unusual to find a Catholic bishop anywhere in the 1940s who did not want that. But Stepinac did not support the Ustasa program of forced conversion. Trifkovic quotes from a portion of the directive of the Croatian Catholic bishops regarding conversions to Catholicism, which does indeed state that “It is necessary to create amongst the Orthodox inhabitants a psychological basis for conversion.” But the thrust of the directive was against the Ustasa program of forced conversion: the directive provided that “It is . . . contrary to dogma and to canonical regulations that "missionaries" receive their mission . . . from the Ustashi officials of the Religious Section of the State Directorate for Reconstruction, or from any civil authority whatsoever” and that “Only those may be received into the Catholic Church who are converted without any constraint, completely free, led by an interior conviction of the truth of the Catholic faith.” And the section directly below that quoted by Trifkovic says this: “All proceedings contrary to law in regard to Orthodox shall be strictly forbidden and they shall be penalized as other citizens through due process of law. And, most important, all private actions in destroying the churches and chapels of the Orthodox or the alienation of their property should be severely prohibited.”
As the killings by the Ustasa increased, some Serbs and Jews sought conversion to save their lives. Stepinac responded to this development by writing this confidential circular for his clergy: "When persons of Jewish or Orthodox faith who are in danger of death and wish to convert to Catholicism present themselves to you, receive them in order to save their lives. Do not require any special religious knowledge for the Orthodox are Christians like us and the Jewish faith is the one from which Christianity originated. The role and task of Christians is first of all to save people. When these sad and savage times have passed those who converted because of belief will remain in our Church and the others will return to their own when the danger is over".
British scholar and Stepinac biographer Stella Alexander, in her 1978 article “Archbishop Stepinac Reconsidered” in Religion in Communist Lands, provides a useful summary of Stepinac’s actions in protesting the actions of the Ustasa: “As soon as Stepinac could bring himself to believe what was happening, and even more difficult to credit, that the highest authorities approved, he began sending protests to Pavelic, at first courteous and restrained but with growing indignation and forcefulness.” These protests were private. But “From May 1942 he attacked the actions of the government in sermon after sermon, not only the forcible conversions but the anti-semitism and anti-Serbianism of the regime, the taking and shooting of hostages and the forcible breaking up of Jewish-Gentile marriages, and he wrote bitterly to Pavelic about the conditions in the concentration camps, particularly the one at Jasenovac.” Historian of the Holocaust Michael Phayer, a critic of Pius XII, has this to say about Stepinac’s sermons: “No leader of a national Church ever spoke about genocide as pointedly as Stepinac. His words were courageous and principled.”
In one of those sermons, on October 31, 1943, a portion of which is quoted by Trifkovic, Stepinac said this: "We have always asserted the value in public life of the principles of the eternal law of God without regard to whether it applied to Croats, Serbs, Jews, Bohemians, Catholics, Mohammedans, or Orthodox. . . . The Catholic Church knows nothing of races born to rule and races doomed to slavery. The Catholic Church knows races and nations only as creatures of God, and, if it esteems one more than others, it is because it possesses a more generous heart, not because one has the strongest arm. . . . The Catholic Church cannot admit that one race or one nation, because it is more numerous or better armed, may do violence to a smaller nation with fewer people. We cannot admit that innocent people may be killed because someone, say a frontier guard, has, perhaps, killed a soldier, even if he is of a more noble race. The system of shooting hundreds of hostages for a crime, when the person guilty of the crime cannot be found, is a pagan system which only results in evil. . . . We condemn all injustice; all murder of innocent people; all burning of peaceful villages; all killings, all exploitation of the poor. We sorrow for the miseries and the sadness of all who today suffer unjustly, and reply: the Catholic Church upholds that order which is as old as the Ten Commandments of God. We are not for that order which is written on perishable paper but for that which is written by the hand of the living God in the consciences of men. . . . Our neighbor, no matter what his name, is not a cog in the machine of state, whether he be colored red, black, gray, or green; but is a free child of God, our brother in Christ. That is why we must recognize in our neighbor the right to life, to fortune, and to honor, because it is written: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. . . . It would be a very great mistake to think that in this order there is no Last Judgment for those who violate it.”
As a result of such actions, Alexander writes, “The ustasa authorities were furious with him, Pavelic detested him and according to Fr. Masucci, secretary of the Vatican representative in Zagreb, asked the Vatican on three occasions to withdraw him.”
Stepinac’s actions did more than infuriate the Ustasa. They also saved lives. According to Alexander, “He made repeated private interventions in individual cases” and “he arranged for about 7000 children, who were either orphans or had lost their families, to be accepted into Catholic homes, but forbad the clergy to baptize them into the Catholic Church.” And historian Esther Gitman, who studied Stepinac’s actions toward Croatia’s Jewish community, concluded that “Based on archival documents and oral testimonies given by both rescuers and rescued, it is clear that, during World War II, [Stepinac] rescued hundreds of Jews.”
One life that Stepinac did not seek to save was his own. In a May 1943 visit to Rome, Stepinac met the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic (who later commemorated Stepinac with the simple yet moving relief of the Cardinal kneeling before Christ, found in Zagreb Cathedral). Mestrovic urged Stepinac to stay in Rome, warning him that his life was in danger. Indeed, Stepinac could have chosen a life of safety in exile at any time. But he would not abandon his flock, even though he told Mestrovic, “Either the Nazis will kill me now or the communists will later.” It turned out, of course, to be the Communists.
After the Communists took power in Croatia and the rest of Yugoslavia, Tito met with Stepinac. Tito urged Stepinac to sever the tie between the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Holy See. This is exactly what the Communists asked Catholics in Ukraine and China to do. Stepinac refused. After this, the killing of priests intensified. Stepinac denounced the Communist persecution, pointing out that the Communists had murdered 273 Catholic priests and imprisoned 169, with another 89 missing. The Communist response to Stepinac’s refusal to break with Rome was to put him on trial for collaboration with the Ustasa. The result of that trial, as with the near contemporaneous Communist trials of Josyf Cardinal Slipyj of Ukraine, Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary, Josef Cardinal Beran of Czechoslovakia, and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynksi of Poland, was a foregone conclusion, even though, as Alexander notes, "Stepinac's lawyer defended him convincingly on a number of other accusations: he showed that Stepinac’s control over the rigorously censored [Catholic] press had been largely formal (and this was later confirmed to the writer by someone who was close to the events); that he had no control outside of his own diocese, or over publications belonging to religious orders.” This is significant because, to this day, most of the accusations against Stepinac are based on articles appearing in the press or the actions of priests outside of his Archdiocese.
After the trial, Stepinac spent 5 years in the Lepoglava prison from 1946 to 1951, followed by house arrest in his native village, dying there in 1960. (Stepinac’s doctor was convinced that his death was hastened by the conditions of his confinement, and since his death evidence has emerged that Stepinac was also poisoned by the Communists). The Communists made clear that Stepinac could leave prison to go into exile, but Stepinac steadfastly refused to abandon his flock. In 1994, Pope John Paul II, whose knowledge of Christian life under Communism cannot be questioned, visited Zagreb. He had sought to visit for years, but the Communist authorities would not let him enter because John Paul had made it clear he intended to pray at Stepinac’s tomb. Before finally kneeling to pray at Stepinac’s tomb, John Paul said this of Stepinac: “With his presence, his work, with his courage and patience, with his silence, and finally in his death, he showed himself to be a true man of the Church, ready for the supreme sacrifice rather than deny the faith." These words of John Paul are irrefutable, and provide reason enough for any Catholic to venerate Cardinal Stepinac.
It must be said, though, that for writers less balanced than Trifkovic, Stepinac, and the man who made him a Cardinal, Pius XII, have become scapegoats, men to be blamed for the crimes of others. In one sense, this impulse is understandable: the crimes of Hitler and Pavelic were enormous. But the regimes that committed those crimes are long gone, and neither Pius XII nor Cardinal Stepinac bear responsibility for what those regimes did. The portrayal of Pius as “Hitler’s Pope” and Stepinac as “the Patron Saint of Genocide” are lies, lies rooted in Communist propaganda. Neither the Pontiff nor the Cardinal sought or approved of mass slaughter; they did not create the hatreds unleashed by World War II, nor could they control those hatreds.
And their critics overestimate what more they could have done even to curb those hatreds. As Trifkovic relates, a guard at Jasenovac, confronted by the imprisoned Vladko Macek, forthrightly confessed that he was going to Hell for what he had done and intended to do again, but added he was happy to go, because “at least I shall burn for Croatia.” Nothing Cardinal Stepinac could have done would have dissuaded such a killer. Indeed, as Alexander notes, the Bishop of Mostar “instructed his priests to tell their congregations from the pulpit that those who murdered, or who misappropriated the possessions of others would not be granted absolution.” The killings in the Diocese of Mostar went on anyway. Similarly, the forthright denunciation of Nazi persecution of Jews made by the Dutch bishops saved not a single Jewish life. Indeed, because the Nazis responded to this denunciation by sending Jewish converts to Catholicism to the death camps (including Saint Edith Stein), the Dutch denunciations arguably cost lives.
Their critics also fundamentally misapprehend the primary duties Pius and Stepinac had to discharge. Pius XII’s fundamental duty was to protect and preserve the Universal Church that had been entrusted to him, just as Stepinac’s fundamental duty was to protect and preserve the Archdiocese that had been entrusted to him. Both men fulfilled those duties admirably, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They also opposed the barbarism that was engulfing Europe, and helped non-Catholics threatened by that barbarism. But asking Catholics not to honor these men because some non-Catholics believe they did not do more for those outside their flock is, frankly, asking too much.