Wednesday, February 3, 2021

THE TRIPLE MYTH , A Life of Archbishop Stepinac by Stella Alexander – book review.



You cannot find two things on the internet about Aloysius Stepinac that do not contradict one another and I almost feel sorry for the poor man that Pope John Paul II ever agreed to raise him to the altars, because there has been no peace about him in heaven or earth since.

The preface to this fascinating book, published in 1987, did not fill me with confidence. ‘There is only one main primary source available to the ordinary researcher,’ Alexander commences rather dismally, ‘…two other sources exist but are not available.’ Another source ‘is not always a reliable witness’, a further source requested by the author was ‘refused’ and several others suffer from ‘tendentious’ tendencies or came from representatives of the foreign press who may have had ‘little knowledge of Yugoslavia.’

I know that this is not the reason Pope Francis put Stepinac’s canonization on hold and upset everybody, but it’s tempting to suggest that Pope JP2 could have done his research better (had he been able to). As an example, although the Pope allowed the archbishop to bypass the two miracles required for sainthood by proclaiming him a martyr, the communist government in fact looked after him comparatively well, precisely because they did not wish martyrdom to occur. ‘He was never ill-treated…He was imprisoned in decent conditions, in a double cell with a third neighouring cell arranged as a chapel where he celebrated mass every day. He had books and writing materials and was allowed visitors from time to time.’ He was well fed, and his sister visited him once a month, bringing with her whatever he needed.

To have been archbishop under the Ustasha government seems to have been as confronting an experience for Stepinac as it would conceivably have been for us. Whilst condemning the atrocities against Jews and Serbs, he nevertheless kept up a running tirade against a theoretical communism, so that I had to reread several of his passages in order to understand what he meant. (Stepinac had a tendency to overwrite.) His unfortunate references to returning the ‘schismatics’ (the Serbs) to the ‘true faith’ (Catholicism) are typical of his time, as is the European anti-Semitism he gradually sloughs off as the war progresses. The elegant and conciliatory language of his letters towards Ante Pavelić, leader of the Ustasha, renders his refusal to break from them (on the pretext of not being able to help people if he had) more poignant.

‘Two things stand out,’ writes Alexander. ‘He feared communism above all; and he found it hard to grasp that anything beyond the boundaries of Croatia, always excepting the Holy See, were quite real.’

In 1945, as Pavelić fled Zagreb and Stepinac, grim-faced, awaited the arrival of the Partisans, there were so many accusations and counteraccusations between the two sides that it is possible to believe whatever one wants.

‘Objective history will show that the representatives of the Catholic Church in Croatia never betrayed their callings and that the mistakes of a few priests are trifling beside what is happening…[under] organized atheism’ – Stepinac.

‘Some of his ideas about the role of the Catholic Church in recent happenings were basically incorrect’ – Partisan response to the Catholic Bishop of Šibenik.

‘Only individuals personally and directly responsible for crimes would be brought to justice’ – communist policy towards relations between the state and the Catholic church.

‘I dare to say that the Croatian people will refuse to accept any regime either of the far left or the far right which does not completely respect its more than thousand year old Catholic tradition’ – Stepinac.

‘We want to create a great community of South Slavs in which there would be both Orthodox and Catholic, who must be closely linked with all the other Slavs. The Orthodox are nearer to this than the Catholics’ - Tito.

The mix of these strong and flawed personalities created a huge mess. Certainly, in not breaking with the Ustasha government when he was advised to, and in launching himself into a head-on collision with the communists after the war, Stepinac gave Tito enough rope to hang him with. Yet, as Tito correctly pointed out, Stepinac did not broadcast the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Serbs by the Ustasha with anything like the same energy as he uncompromisingly defended the Croatian Church against communism. 

My own feeling is that the Partisans who so upset the archbishop in Zagreb after the war had been witnesses of the unspeakable atrocities of the Ustasha genocide against the Serbs, Jews and Roma. Because the Ustasha claimed to be Catholic, and some of their crimes were committed by Catholic priests, and because Stepinac refused to break with the Ustasha government, the Catholic church in Croatia was compromised. The Partisans, many of whom were Orthodox, were hurting, they were angry and, as other writers have observed, revenge was in the air. Stepinac does not seem to have empathized with their trauma. To him it was simple: the communists were attacking the Catholic church in Croatia because they were atheists.

The archbishop’s trial I found particularly fascinating. Though it was no doubt set up to find him guilty, its political implications are not well known and are worth considering here. Alexander writes, ‘the actions of the government in bringing Stepinac to trial were understandable,’ and she goes on to list reasons, such as the unstable nature of Yugoslavia in 1946 (which his attacks on the government weren’t helping), disillusion with the Allies regarding land claims and ‘its conviction that the Vatican supported the expansionist aims of Italy in its territorial dispute with Yugoslavia.’

Various communist excesses against the church continued to take place, from time-to-time observers from the west made encouraging (or otherwise) observations about religion in Yugoslavia, and the battle between the two sides seems to have gradually resolved in the years between 1950 and 1953. I can’t help feeling that the Vatican was a major player that allowed neither side to move freely, Stepinac, because he referred all important matters to them, and the Yugoslav government, because the Vatican was a political body.

The Triple Myth ends by lengthy examples of how political opponents in Yugoslavia have exploited the archbishop’s memory for their own ends.

Not a lot of peace there. Let’s hope the Pope can sort it out.


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