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Cardinals on Trial: John Fisher and Joseph Mindszenty

by Marian Sitzmann, O.S.B.


This is a study of the lives of Cardinals John Fisher and Joseph Mindszenty as they were brought to trial for treason.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, April 1960

Just about ten years ago Cardinal Mindszenty went on trial in Budapest for treason. It was the first time that a Cardinal has been brought to trial in secular courts since the trial of Cardinal Fisher. In studying the lives of both of these Cardinals we see a parallelism not only with regard to the circumstances and details of the trial, but likewise in their lives as teachers, bishops, and later on as Cardinals. Both were given the honor of the red hat shortly before they went to trial.

This parallelism begins in the lives of the Cardinals when they are marched to the courtrooms. As Cardinal Mindszenty plodded his weary way up the two flights of steps to the courtroom on the morning of Feb. 3, 1949, he met with six checkpoints of submachine gunners. We know that time does not change the cruelty of wicked men because when Cardinal Fisher was marched to the court room William Rastell tells us he was accompanied "with a great number of halberds, bills, and glaives." 1

As they entered the courtroom both men were sick, weak, and at the point of death. We see from a letter, which Cardinal Fisher wrote to Cromwell that prison life and old age were the reasons for his condition:

I might easily suffer that if they would keep my body warm. But my diet also God knows how slender it is at many times. And now in my age my stomach can take but few kinds of meat, which if I lack I decay forthwith, and fall into coughs, and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health. 2

The sickly condition of Cardinal John Fisher is quite evident from some of the comments made by William Rastell:

. . . a long, lean, slender body nothing in manner but skin and bare bones, so that the most part that saw him there marveled to see any man bearing life, to be so far consumed, for he seemed a lean body carcass, the flesh clean wasted away and a very image of death, and as one might say, death in a man's shape, and using a man's voice. And therefore more monstrous was it that the king or any man could be so cruel to put such a man to death, yea, though he had been an offender, for very shortly he must have died by nature. . . For it is the most cruel thing that can be, to put any to death that is presently dying. 3

Because of his sickness the very time of the trial of Cardinal Fisher was delayed. No doubt the repeated interrogations while he was in prison were one of the contributing causes of the Cardinal's condition. In substance the interrogations centered around two important issues: namely, whether he would obey the king as Supreme Head of the Church of England, and whether he would acknowledge the king's marriage with Queen Anne to be lawful, and that with the Lady Catherine invalid.

We are told that Cardinal Fisher did not even walk all the way to his trial as we might be led to believe from some other accounts. Clothed in a black cloth gown he rode part of the way on horseback, and he was carried the rest of the journey by water. His extreme infirmity made this latter convenience even a hardship. This is confirmed by Cardinal Pole who writes that, "when he was carried out to his trial, in the short journey, from utter exhaustion he was at the point of death." 4 Thus we get a good idea of the appearance of Cardinal Fisher, as he faced his accusers at the trial on June 17, 1535.

Likewise, we know that Cardinal Mindszenty was very ill when he appeared in court. He was so ill that after the trial was over, he told his mother that he could not remember having been taken to court. He asked her when the trial was to begin.

Little is known of what happened to Mindszenty in prison except for the fact that he was questioned for hours on end, at one time for eighty-two hours without rest. On the fifth day of the quizzing, Mindszenty became unconscious. The police doctor who was present brought him to with "stimulant pills" (probably aktedron) dissolved in water. The Cardinal's resistance broke, and he gave the answers, which his torturers wished to hear. It is a fact that the hand of Mindszenty wrote the confession, which the Hungarian government published on the first page of the Yellow Book. This testimony was used against him in court. The pills given by the police completely broke his will, leaving him with a violent headache, total dullness, and tormenting thirst.

We are sure that whether by drugs or otherwise, Mindszenty was reduced while in prison to the state of insanity, and that while in this state he wrote the "confessions" now in the Hungarian government's Yellow Book.

After the desired confession was extracted from Mindszenty, the Hungarian police allowed the broken man a few days respite prior to the trial. But a broken spirit is not mended that easily and we find the weary Mindszenty fighting throughout the trial to clear his brain:

While the cross-examination of the Cardinal was in progress, the President of the Court, Dr. Olti asked according to the British United Press: "Are you mentally tired? Shall we adjourn? . . . Cardinal Mindszenty said he was willing to continue." Other reports mention this without quoting the Cardinal's words. But W. Pierre Denton, of the Gazette de Lousanne, relying on the broadcast of recordings made in court by Budapest Radio, says the Cardinal replied in a faint and halting voice: "Yes . . . Mr. President . . . I am," -- long silence -- "a man . . . broken in his mind" -- long silence -- "and in his body." 5

As we can easily see, the very speech of the Cardinal and his handwriting, as is shown in the photostatic copies of his "confessions" in the Yellow Book, are those of a man under some strong influence. In a statement taking two and a half pages the Cardinal no less than twenty times divides his words in two. There are fifty-nine spelling mistakes in the text and they are, we are told by the Hungarians, not the kind of mistakes that might result from illiteracy; they are the marks of clouded faculties in the writer. None of the handwriting is normal, and to compare the signature with the normal signature is to be struck by the contrast.

Everything about the "confession" in the Yellow Book suggests that it was dictated. "I am an Hungarian nobleman," begins the Cardinal.

It was in this condition that the Cardinal appeared in court, sick in mind and body. Many who had known him for a considerable time scarcely recognized him when his picture appeared in the papers:

The photographs of the Cardinal himself in the dock which appeared in the London newspapers last Saturday showed, as was widely noticed, a man clearly under great strain, with brows tautly knit and eyes staring, in contrast to all earlier photographs. 6

There was something sinister about the jury, the judges, and the officials for both of the Cardinals. The jury panel for Cardinal Fisher was selected by the sheriff, who in turn was a nominee and a creature of the king. We might well imagine that the sheriff would choose a jury that would give a favorable verdict. His very job depended upon it. "The jury (for Cardinal Fisher) was, to use the familiar phrase, a packed jury." 7

The judge and state officials for Cardinal Mindszenty were also handpicked; he was tried and convicted by former Nazis. They were turncoat Nazis who joined the Communists in order to obtain power. The president of the People's Court, Dr. Vilmos Olti, had been a member of the Arrow-Cross Party, and he had served as a judge under the Nazis. The state official was Dr. Martin Bodonyi, an assessor of the military tribunal under the Nazi regime. With such a line-up Cardinal Mindszenty's case was hopeless before it began. The entire procedure was a farce. The New York Herald-Tribune said: "He [Mindszenty] is an obvious victim of the communist judicial process with which we are all so familiar . . . the absence of a jury, the packed bench, the 'tame' counsel, and the dubious confession." 8

Strange as it may seem we also see a parallelism with regard to the actual trial proceedings of Cardinal Fisher and Cardinal Mindszenty. Both were accused of plotting against the government and were condemned for "treason."

When Cardinal Fisher came before the commissioners, he was not given the distinction of being addressed as a Cardinal, but was called "John Fisher, late of the city of Rochester, in the country of Kent, clerk: also called Lord John Fisher, late of Rochester, bishop." 9

The Cardinal was charged with refusing to call the king the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This was contrary to an Act of Parliament, which made it high treason for any citizen within the realm to deny any of the titles of the king:

Then was his indictment read, which was very long and full of words, but the effect of it was this: That he maliciously, traitorously, and falsely had said these words: The King our Sovereign Lord is not Supreme Head of the Church of England. 10

Since the only witness for the Crown who testified in court was Solicitor-General Rich, we might conclude that the trial was conducted in a very irregular way. The only evidence, which Rich offered to the court, was a verbal statement.

When the Cardinal heard Rich give his evidence, he said to him: "Sir, I will not deny that I so said to you, but for all my so saying I committed no treason. For upon what occasion I so said, and for what cause, you yourself know right well." 11 And then the Cardinal declared before all that Rich came to him from the king, and that Rich had given a solemn oath that he would not tell anything that Fisher told him except to the king.

"Now my lords," said the Cardinal: "I had as full and as sure a promise from the king by this his trusty and sure messenger as the king could make me by his word of mouth, that I should never be impeached nor hurt by mine answer that I should send unto him by this his messenger." 12

Rich attempted to excuse himself when the Cardinal spoke such bold words against him, and answered: "If I had said to you in such sort as you have declared, I would gladly know what discharge is this to you in law against his Majesty for so directly speaking against the statute." 13

When the Solicitor-General Rich spoke these words, the judges nodded their heads in approval. For no matter what Rich had promised, the Cardinal was not in any manner free to speak against the statutes of the law. For they said in effect that such speaking, even at the king's request, was high treason.

Cardinal Fisher was taken by surprise at the decision, which the judges gave. He further pleaded that the testimony of one man was not enough to prove him guilty. He said:

My Lords, if the law be so understood, then it is a hard exposition, and, as I take it, contrary to the meaning of them that made the law. But then, let me demand this question: Whether a single testimony of one man may be admitted as sufficient to prove me guilty of treason for speaking these words or no, and whether my answer negatively may not be accepted against his affirmative to my avail and benefit or no? 14

But the judges ruled against Fisher once more, and said that since his case was a royal one, it depended for judgment by the jury as to whether the testimony was sufficient. In other words, the judges were "passing the buck." However, before the jury left the room in order to arrive at a decision, they were warned by the Chancellor that treason was a great offense. Thus, the Chancellor more or less implied that if the jury came back with any other decision than "guilty," then they too would be liable for punishment.

In a way the trial was pathetic. Here was a sick man, seventy-six years old, being tried for treason. He had no powerful friend in all England to defend him; yet Cardinal Fisher had God on his side, and he did not care who was against him. The jury did not tarry long in giving a decision. In a few minutes they were back with the verdict of "guilty." The Chancellor then pronounced in a solemn manner the horrible sentence.

You shall be led to the place from whence you came, and from thence shall be drawn through the city to the place of execution at Tyborne, where your body shall be hanged by the neck, and half alive you shall be cut down and thrown to the ground, your bowels to be taken out of your body and burned before you, being alive, your head to be smitten off, and your body to be divided into four quarters, and after your head and quarters to be set up where the King shall appoint and God have mercy on your soul. 15

Cardinal Fisher gave a short speech, and was then led off to the Tower where he was to await his execution. Thus we see the end of a great humanist of the English Renaissance who, possessing the Catholic inheritance of the Middle Ages, had the Faith to know what God wanted him to do. He died willingly, and like Thomas More loved his king, but loved God more.

The trial of Cardinal Mindszenty was in most respects quite similar to that of Cardinal Fisher. At the very opening of the trial the President of the Court read the indictment against the Cardinal which accused him of the following crimes: leading an organization aimed at the overthrow of the Republic; secondly, committing the crime of treason; thirdly, exchanging money on the black market.

The Communist chief judge was Vilmos Olti, who before the war had been one of Hungary's foremost Nazis. Olti fired an endless stream of questions at the Cardinal, methodically building up the case against him with "yes" and "no" answers. Olti allowed seven prosecution witnesses, and no defense witnesses.

Vilmos Olti charged the Cardinal with having hid a metal document-box in his cellar, containing petitions written by Mindszenty in his own handwriting, in which he urges the Western Powers to interfere in Hungary's internal affairs. Also contained in the document-box were replies that the envoys of those countries gave to Mindszenty.

According to the chief judge, Mindszenty also wrote a letter to the envoy of a Western Great Power in which he asked that the Crown of St. Stephen be not returned to Hungary. Mindszenty also was supposed to have received financial support from foreign states. He sold dollars received from abroad and dollar cheques on the black market, and thereby damaged the Hungarian State to the value of several hundred thousand dollars.

Osservatore Romano maintained that on their internal evidence most of the documents, which the Yellow Book, contained were not discovered in the Cardinal's residence at all, but were fabricated in the Central Police Station in Budapest.

If the Cardinal were innocent, it may be asked why under the prodding from Olti he would ever say: "I am very sorry about everything . . . the books, letters, money, and manipulations? I am guilty." 16 The only possible answer to this is that the Cardinal was still under the influence of the drugs which had been given to him.

Just a few days before his arrest, the Cardinal sent a last communication to the Bench of Bishops, telling them that he had taken no part in conspiracy, that he had made no confession, and he would not resign. If they should hear that he had resigned or confessed, and even if this were authenticated by his own signature, they should consider this to be a result of human frailty. So we see how he declared his statement of guilt at the trial null and void in advance.

Others have different opinions as to the reasons for the Cardinal's admissions at the trial. A very interesting one appeared in the February 12, 1949, issue of the Tablet:

We believe that anyone who has followed these curious proceedings closely will conclude that the Cardinal chose and followed a course that was harder for him than a dramatic defiance of his judges and appeal to the consciences of the world would have been; that he, so to say, played down his own trial, and seemed to invite that diminished stature which it was the great aim of his enemies to give him; and that he did this as pastor, in agreement with the other pastors of the Hungarian Catholics, as being the course most likely to help them in their present danger and sufferings. He knew very well that his enemies were anxious not only to remove him from leadership, because he had proved himself a leader, but to prove to his followers, that he was not the hero they had believed, but a confused and vacillating and nervous man. There was in him no yielding on any point of religion or moral principle. But there was a meekness, and an acceptance of the jurisdiction of men who have no right to sit as his judges. 17

Furthermore, one might ask why Cardinal Mindszenty was arrested in the first place and put on trial? The late Pope Pius XII said that it was precisely for the purpose of disrupting the Catholic Church. In a sermon delivered at the time. Cardinal Griffin gave the following reason:

It is obvious to the whole world why Cardinal Mindszenty has been put on trial. He has dared to oppose the totalitarian dictators who have seized power in Hungary. He has dared to proclaim human rights and religious liberty. He has dared to attack the government for confiscating religious schools and imposing Communistic teaching on the children. 18

Dr. Kalman Kiczko summed up the testimony. He was supposed to be the defense attorney, but he completely agreed that the defendant, Cardinal Mindszenty, had harmed the popular Democracy. Kiczko was happy that the defendant had admitted his guilt, because it was a gain for popular Democracy, which was being unjustly accused in many parts of the world.

In Hungarian law the accused has the right of the last word at his trial. Taking advantage of this, Mindszenty made a long statement to the effect that he was never an enemy of the Hungarian people, and that he wanted peace for his Church.

The court adjourned for two days, and when it reconvened it sentenced the Cardinal to imprisonment for life. His sentence was later remitted to ten years.

In recapitulating the trial events of these two dynamic personalities, a reader cannot help being saddened that history is forced to record such infamy. Cardinal Fisher's trial had taken only one day and Cardinal Mindszenty's had lasted but three days. Both trials had been hasty; no valid evidence had been presented, and two innocent men had been condemned.

Though the trials of Cardinal Mindszenty and Fisher are separated by over four hundred years, we see that time does not change the evil intentions of men. The trials of these two holy men were used merely as a means of religious persecution in order to give legal validity to the actions of tyrants even though it was evident to everyone that their actions were contrary to justice.

In a normal trial there are witnesses, evidence, and decisions, but neither of these trials were normal. The only reason why tyrants have such trials is to give their prepared condemnations the appearance of legality. It is no wonder that the Church stands in the way of these tyrants, because she insists on freedom of conscience, justice, and fundamental rights.

Since the time of Cardinal Fisher, the trials sponsored by evil men have become more refined. Now they make use of scientific processes, drugs, for example, and shock therapy; but their intentions are the same.

We cannot help thinking that as these two innocent men walked from their court rooms, they must have thought of their sentences and meditated on what Christ suffered for both of them years before. He, too, was innocent; He, too, had a fake trial; He, too, was condemned, and a tyrant, by the name of Pilate, attempted to save face before the rest of the world. Such was the life of Christ, such also the life of His Church.

Marian Sitzmann, O.S.B.


1 Ernest Reynolds, Saint John Fisher (New York: Kenedy & Sons, 1955), p. 283.

2 Paul McCann, A Valiant Bishop Against a Ruthless King (St. Louis: Herder, 1938), p. 224.

3 Reynolds, op. cit., p. 284.

4 Thomas Bridgett, Life of Blessed John Fisher (London: Burns & Oates, 1888), p. 366.

5 "The Cardinal's Trial," in Tablet, CXCIII (1949), 118.

6 Ibid., p. 100.

7 Bridgett, op. cit., p. 364.

8 "The Cardinal's Trial," in Tablet, CXCIII (1949), 99-100.

9 McCann, op. cit., p. 243.

10 Bridgett, op. cit., p. 367.

11 Reynolds, op. cit., p. 277.

12 Ibid.

13 McCann, op. cit., p. 246.

14 Ibid., p. 247.

15 Ibid., p. 249.

16 Bela Fabian, Cardinal Mindszenty (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1949), p. 89.

17 "After the Verdict," in Tablet, CXCIII (1949), 28.

18 "Sermon of Cardinal Griffin," in Tablet, CXCIII (1949), 28.

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