Cardinal Péter Erdö. Wikimedia Commons

Helping People Come to Jesus Christ

The Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest was elected last October as the President of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE) for the five-year term 2006-2011. We began our conversation for Traces with this new appointment.
Roberto Fontolan

The Primate of Hungary, elected in October as President of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences, spoke about faith in Europe, the freedom of the Church, and her challenge of mission in a society that tends to deny truth and identity, in the name of subjectivism and formalistic rules. Taking the road indicated by Benedict XVI in Regensburg, he spoke of the task of Christians to restore faith in the cognitive capacity of man, and the need to view the results of faith and reason as a whole.

Cardinal Péter Erdö bears the characteristics of the great Central European intellectual. In general, when we think of Central Europe, we refer to a geographic and historical area identified by borders, languages, and events, a place and a cultural tradition in the midst of the continent. Instead, Central Europe is a center, in the sense of a heart, or an engine, a panoramic terrace from which one can take in the entire horizon. The Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest was elected last October as the President of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE) for the five-year term 2006-2011. We began our conversation for Traces with this new appointment.

Your Eminence, what will your agenda be?
I don’t think a President needs to have his own agenda, because the goals of the Council are clear and present in the statutes. For that matter, there are always new challenges, and the Council is already equipped to face them. Rather, I feel that I am a servant who must foster the unity, both spiritual and of action, of the different Conferences. John Paul II emphasized the need for exchanges of gifts between the different parts of Europe, but those of us from the East have always had the impression that many brothers of the West have difficulty accepting the gifts that come from the other part of the continent. Naturally, these aren’t material gifts–it’s easy to accept material gifts, and it’s true that the Catholic Church in the West has been helping the Christians in Central and Eastern Europe for many long decades. I’m speaking of other gifts: experiences. On the occasions of our meetings, such as synods, I have observed that not a few of the bishops of these regions note and evaluate critically certain phenomena encountered in the Western Church, but receive no answer.

For example?
It ranges from the Liturgy to manifestations of secularism, or anticlericalism. Here, we have a certain sensibility born of the era of persecutions, but it seems to me that our brothers accept these manifestations too easily. And yet, it doesn’t seem that this concern of ours is shared enough. From the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Coast, the hostility against Christianity felt by our Christians is more sophisticated than what they experienced in the past, but not for this reason any less ideological. As early as the end of 1989, our newspapers began to fill with affirmations from the West, such as, “The greatest social danger of this ex-Communist world is clericalism.” What? The Church doesn’t even exist as a social force, and she’s already under accusation? And how do some politicians from here behave? The have a servile race to show how anticlerical they are–after all, they know all too well the methods of the preceding regime–seeking to gain Western approval.

Thus, what has the collapse of Communism brought to all of Europe?
I don’t know.

It has brought certain freedoms, as well as enormous competition from small religious denominations arriving from the West. But true freedom must have positive goals and contents. The raison d’être of freedom is values.

Don’t you think that Christians of both the East and the West had the illusion that freedom would lead to a more Christian Europe, one more faithful to its own history? Instead, we’ve had a great surge of secularization.
Even at the end of the Communist era, the Hungarians were very secularized, disillusioned, and lacking in great ideas. For us, the defeat of the 1956 revolt had dire psychological consequences that are still felt today. This is why, for the fiftieth anniversary of the revolt, our Church proclaimed a year of prayer for the spiritual renewal of our nation. We see that we have absolute need of a renewal of our spiritual attitude. I believe that this is true for our European brethren as well.

At the 2005 Meeting in Rimini, you quoted Jesus’ question, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on the earth?” Will He find it in Europe?
Yes, He’ll find it. We don’t know in how many people, or in what form, but I am convinced that the Christian faith has the strength not only to survive, but to give life to peoples and also to the entire so-called Western culture, even though many who consider themselves part of this culture reject its Judeo-Christian roots.

So Europe isn’t on the road to abandonment...
Naturally, yes, but it won’t go on ad infinitum. On this issue, I’d like to say that by now we can almost calculate up to what point it is still possible to destroy the human, conceptual, moral, and cultural foundations of the West, without risking total collapse. It is very clear that we’re also dealing with a complex set of demographic and economic questions. In the face of this tendency, it could be that the continent’s powers-that-be almost feel “bound” to turn to the historic Churches, that they themselves are the ones to ask the Churches to carry out their mission more effectively, but without a jurisdictionalism like that imposed by Joseph II of Austria, without attempting to spell out their tasks, drawing inspiration a bit from Charlemagne, granting and guaranteeing freedom of action. In this regard, our “Eastern” experience is interesting. In Russia, in Romania, we see that those in power support the historical Churches of their own nations; they do so because they acknowledge the tremendous cultural void left by the collapse of Communism. It certainly isn’t a religious conversion; rather, it’s an attempt to avoid further criminalization of society, reinforcing what there was of culture, common sense, and morality. They know that the Orthodox inheritance still exists, notwithstanding all the suffering and devastation it underwent.

Again, on the future of Christianity in Europe: A few years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of a “Christianity in the minority.” Isn’t this now in some way the condition common to the entire continent?
There are two aspects. The first is the task of evangelization. This involves the West, the East, the entire world helping people come to Jesus Christ, because He is the only liberator. He frees us from sin and also from the consequences of sin. The Church’s mission is universal, even though some would want to limit it to the West. It is definitely true that Christianity founded Western culture and saved many elements of ancient culture, but the goal was, and is, to put people in contact with Christ, and that means here in Europe as well. For example, four other European bishops and I are organizing city-focused missions, in Vienna, Paris, Lisbon, Brussels, and Budapest, trying to show our faith to the world around us boldly (but not aggressively). Then, there is a second aspect: regardless of whether we’re a majority or minority, the question is whether we’re respected, whether we have true freedom in society or we are discriminated against. It is the problem. The more we are in the minority, the greater the danger of discrimination, of persecution.

Doesn’t Democracy reassure you?
Just a minute. Let’s not fool ourselves with the Western idea that to make a society democratic it’s enough to introduce formal elements typical of Western democracies, when the society’s historical, sociological, economic, and cultural foundations are different. On the one hand, fundamental human values are objective and common for all; this is our conviction, based on the creation of the human being, one the Holy Father holds very firmly and has spoken of many times. These values are not specific to one culture, but have universal validity and truly respond to the nature of things, to human nature. In earlier times, it was called the natural law, as Saint Thomas said. The problem is that often the West equates fundamental values with what in reality is a cultural and juridical form, a technique. But this is the trap of formalism and subjectivism: is this what the West wants to export? Formalities? For example, there are countries where we know very well that “free” elections install groups that profess an ideology or have a criminal mentality that proves contrary to those fundamental values.

Current events offer many examples…
And not just current ones: think of Germany in 1933. I want to say that if only some formal criteria are enforced, without looking at the overall social reality, then the effect is the destruction of the social classes who have the least. At the end of the nineteenth century, Leo XIII began summarizing the Church’s social doctrine precisely for this reason, reflecting on the grave injustices caused by a formal concept of freedom, all concentrated on the economy. Look at us post-Communist countries that belong to the European Union: our traditions were destroyed fifty years ago with a violence that the West can’t understand and doesn’t even want to imagine. Nobody remembers that here, the Hungarian people were completely stripped of means of production, and nothing was done after the political change to help us survive the competition with the big foreign companies. Robbed twice, then. Not to mention the great problem of Communist welfare, rightly eliminated, but substituted with what? They tell us to be modern, to be liberal in our economy; that’s fine. But if I start out so far behind you, how can we reach the finish line together? There’s such a climate of suspicion against the European Union here that I receive letters daily, even today, accusing the Church of having propagandized integration with Europe.

The theme of formal and substantial Democracy leads to another great question of identity, about which there is enormous confusion today...
In the final analysis, this is the theme of freedom. If it means having no ties, no obligations, no rules, then identity is also a fault, a defect of freedom. But if we consider freedom as we ought to, that is, as the possibility of appropriating for oneself positive contents, then identity is a value, one that must be lived and realized with Christian charity, but without separating it from the truth. If in our famous “dialogue” we reject truth, the only thing left is courtesy. If, instead, we are convinced of the possibility of objective truth, then we can also respect the other. As the Second Vatican Council wrote in Dignitatis Humanae, the foundation of freedom, religious freedom included, is the existence of reality, of truth. Man must know and accept truth worthily, in a way that corresponds to his dignity, that is, in a reasonable way. This is the way by which truth is not contrary to freedom, but constitutes its foundation. I would add, in regard to the relationship with the Muslim world, that I still see no grave conflict necessary between our cultures. Here in Hungary, almost the only real conflict of theory is that between intolerant libertinism and faith. But maybe this isn’t the case only with us. In the public discussion at the city mission in Brussels, I was asked why the West doesn’t defend the Christians in the Middle East. I answered, “And why doesn’t the West defend the Christians in the West itself?”

In a recent article of yours, “War, Science, and Christianity,” I was struck by the fact that you examined together the great contemporary questions: war and science…
I set forth the need for an “objective morality”: every human act must be responsible, as much in scientific research as in political decisions. Engagement with these worlds is very demanding and urgent. Think of the theme of “just war.” Precisely because of the changes in the world, a new challenge has come forth for the powerful, for the strong of this world, who now have to decide on the basis of their own convictions. They can no longer look to any international consensus or some formal element; they have to find their own criteria for their actions, and these criteria have to be objective. It is a great challenge for human reason.

The relationship between faith and reason was at the center of the Pope’s words in Regensburg. Though Europe comes from a culture that has prohibited this relationship for centuries, Benedict XVI has re-proposed it. Is this perhaps the true “scandal” of his speech?
Fides quaerens intellectum. You have to view the results of faith and reason as a whole. There isn’t a dual truth, because we are in a universe created by the same God. Therefore, we have the light of faith for seeing the truth better, and we have intellectual resources for understanding the created world. Today, however, subjectivism means not only doubting the possibility of coming to the faith, or having certainty about the existence of God, but also extends to the very possibility of knowing a historical truth or a truth in the world of the natural sciences. Many have lost hope of knowing objective truth, and this commits us to restoring faith in man’s cognitive ability. The created world can be known by human intelligence, even if imperfectly. Don’t you find that encouraging for all?

Péter Erdö was born in 1952, the first of six children in a family of intellectual Catholics. Having completed his studies at the Scolopian Fathers High School, one of three schools the religious were permitted, he entered the seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1975. After his doctorate in Theology, he pursued further studies in Rome, earning a doctorate in Canon Law (1980). The following years were marked by intense activity in his studies and in his commitment as a university professor in Hungary and Rome (the Gregorian and the Lateran Pontifical Universities). With the regime change in Hungary (1989), he represented the Catholic Church in the new government’s preparation of numerous laws on freedom of religion and the Church, as well as various accords between the Holy See and the Republic of Hungary (1998). During the same years, together with a group of scholars and intellectuals, he contributed to refounding the Péter Pázmány Catholic University, serving as its Rector from 1998 to 2003. Ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Szekesfehérvár in 2000, in December 2002 he was nominated Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and Primate of Hungary, then Cardinal on October 21, 2003. In 2005, he was elected President of the Hungarian Episcopal Conference and in October 2006 President of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE).