Friday, September 30, 2016

Aloysius Stepanic - to canonise or not to canonise - that is the question

Aloysius Viktor Stepinac (1898-1960)

Saint, martyr, collaborator, conspirator, antisemite or …?

Aloysius Stepinac has been a source of controversy for over 70 years.  Depending on who one listens to, or what one reads about this man, he has been either praised as a fearless bishop who defended to the best of his ability the Jews of Croatia who were slated for death by the Ustase; a Catholic martyr who gave his life in defence of the faith in the face of Communism; a pro-Ustase Croatian nationalist who was silent as Pavelic’s regime perpetrated some of the most horrible crimes against Jews, Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roma and more than a few of his fellow Croats.

The historical record is not clear.  There are sources from both sides that point to Stepinac’s protests at the murder of the Jews; but there is more documentation that demonstrates his intense dislike of Orthodox Christianity, a tacit approval of forced conversion, and, above all, the most significant historical fact of his relationship with the Ustase regime until the end of the so-called “Independent State of Croatia” in 1945. 

Stepinac’s defenders cite verified documentary evidence of the archbishop’s protests, but none are able to satisfactorily explain why he did not break with the Ustase once the enormity of their genocidal criminal actions became clear – which was virtually from day one of the regime’s life in 1941.  Attempts to explain his alliance with Pavelic as a way of mitigating the evils perpetrated are simply threadbare and hold no weight.  Further, arguments that Stepinac sought help from Pius XII are likewise weak, if only because Pius XII insisted on playing a diplomatic cat and mouse game with a regime he abhorred but considered a lesser evil to a communist alternative.  Even by the standards of the day – in the middle of a war – this logic was brutal and appalling. 

If Metropolitan Andrej Sheptysky of Lviv in the Ukraine who very quickly realized the German intentions towards the Jews and other “undesirables” could not only order his clergy and religious to open their doors to take in those fleeing for their lives but write forcefully to Hitler, Himmler and then the Pope protesting as strongly as he could denouncing the slaughter of the Jews and the enslavement of Ukraine begs the question why Stepinac could not have done the same? 

And while it is true that the murderers were, for the most part, fellow Croats not Germans, was it not the archbishop’s duty to speak the truth – “You shall not murder”?  And could he not speak to his fellow bishops, the clergy, religious orders and the Catholic people a word in the same way that bishops in France and Holland did?

After the war Stepinac was put on trial by the new communist regime charged as a collaborator and sentenced to life imprisonment.  After five years he was released to house arrest in his home parish of Krasic where he remained until his death in 1960. 

Pope John Paul II believed Stepinac was a martyr for the faith and declared him “Blessed” in 1998.  Catholic tradition allows a person to be beatified without the customary miracle if they are believed to have been a martyr.  In his homily the Pope said of Stepinac:

One of the outstanding figures of the Catholic Church, having endured in his own body and his own spirit the atrocities of the Communist system, is now entrusted to the memory of his fellow countrymen with the radiant badge of martyrdom.

Nothing was mentioned about the war years.

The cause for canonization proceeded slowly gaining pace under Benedict XVI.  By 2012 it appeared that canonization would indeed take place, a decision that was confirmed in early 2014.  The Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irenij wrote a letter to Benedict asking that the canonization be halted until such time as all the evidence relating to Stepinac was studied.  A reply was received from Cardinal Bertone that made it clear that the matter was an internal Catholic affair, leading some to believe that Benedict did not see the letter.  Undaunted and with growing concern voiced by Serbs, Patriarch Irenij wrote again on 30 April 2014 to Pope Francis. 

In his letter to Pope Francis Patriarch Irenij wrote:
We are afraid that there are too many open questions and wounds which Cardinal Stepinac symbolizes. His canonization, to our great regret, would return the relations between Serbs and Croats, as well as between Catholics and Orthodox faithful, back to their tragic history… We ask you to remove the question of the canonization of Cardinal Stepinac from the agenda, and to leave it to the infallible judgment of God.

This time the reply was much different.  The canonization process was stopped in April 2016 on direction of Pope Francis.

Reactions from some Croatians were not positive, but the Archbishop of Zagreb showed pastoral restraint and welcomed the opportunity for a joint study of Stepinac’s life.  One of the most balanced articles was the short piece in the Jerusalem Post written by Drago Pilsel who argues convincingly that Francis’ decision was a sound and prudent choice.

An Orthodox delegation from Serbia met with Vatican officials to begin a conversation.  This led to the formation of a commission under the Presidency of Fr Bernard Ardura, president of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences. 

The commission was made up of equal representatives from the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Members of the Catholic Church of Croatia: Cardinal Josip Bozanić, archbishop of Zagabria; Bishop Ratko Perić of Mostar-Duvno; Bishop Antun Škorčević of Požega; Dr. Jure Krišto, Croatian Institute for History; Dr. Mario Jareb, Croatian Committee for Historical Sciences.

Members of the Serbian Orthodox Church: His Eminence Amfilohije, Metropolitan of Montenegro and of the Littoral; His Eminence Porfirije, Metropolitan of Zagabria and Ljubljana; Bishop Irinej of Novi Sad and of Bačka; Bishop Jovan of Slavonia, Professor Darko Tanasković, ambassador and permanent delegate of the Republic of Serbia at UNESCO.

The first meeting of the Commission met over 12-13 July 2016 in Rome.  The mandate of the Commission is to clarify questions about Stepanic’s life that is to be done as a joint “re-reading” of the evidence.  The Commission is not an alternative canonisation process; the original cause remains a matter for the Holy See.

Both sides said the meetings were positive and respectful.  The next meeting will be in Zagreb on 17-18 October 2016.

Whatever the outcome will be, this shared re-evaluation of documentation is a positive step not only in sound history and historiography, but for Catholic and Orthodox Christians it is a valuable and precious opportunity to grow in understanding of one another.  For Catholic Christians the need to understand the deep hurt that still resonates in many parts of Orthodoxy over the past is essential.  For Orthodox Christians the need to come to a more full appreciation of the diversity of Catholicism and the attempts at reform of the institution are also necessary. 

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