Cardinal Péter Erdö. Wikimedia Commons

Europe Can Have Faith

The financial crisis, the roots of the European continent, ecumenism... In light of his upcoming meeting with Metropolitan Filaret, we asked Cardinal Péter Erdö to explain the role of Christianity today.
Roberto Fontolan

In a few weeks, we will see him on stage together with Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk. Cardinal Péter Erdö, in his eighth year guiding the Archdiocese of Budapest, will participate in one of the most awaited encounters of the Meeting of Rimini. The Primate of Hungary and one of the most important exponents of the Orthodox Church will share ideas on the theme: “Can an educated man, a European of today, believe, really believe, in the divinity of the Son of God, Jesus Christ?” Born in 1952, for the past four years Erdö has headed the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe (CCEE). A great theologian and canon lawyer, he is an absolute protagonist on the contemporary scene and one of the most authoritative ecclesiastical figures because of his original vision of Europe as well as his work to renew the Church, with a particular sensibility for the Orthodox world.

Your Eminence, what does the title of the 31st Meeting of Rimini bring to mind?
In Biblical language, the heart is the seat of reason, of the intellect, not so much of the emotions, as symbolic thought of today would have it. Intellect and free will are the two great human capacities in which the face of God the Creator shines. Precisely in meditation on the complexity and immensity of the cosmos, and in the tension to want to know ever more completely the fullness of reality, to draw from it the consequences that also touch our individual and communitarian life, are born the “great desires,” that is, the longing to discover the meaning and value of the universe and our life. This is why, as Saint Augustine says, our heart is restless until it rests in God. Our structural and natural opening toward God today is perhaps more current than ever. People today need not fear God and His truth and love, which are fully revealed in Christ.

For several years, you have been President of the CCEE, the organism that gathers the European Episcopal Conferences. We can say that you have before you all of Europe, its institutions and cultures. What do we speak of when we speak of Europe today? What have you seen and observed in these years?
The word “Europe” is understood in many ways. For some it still means “the Christian West,” and for others it means the entire area of influence of the Greco-Roman culture, both in its Latin form and in its Byzantine one, and thus also the Americas, Australia, and all of Russia. Not a few speak of Europe in the political sense, indicating with this word the European Union… For Catholic theology, all human cultures are precious, because they are born of the creative will of God as the richness of nature, but they also especially represent an aspect of human dignity. The good news of Christ in the past thousand years has not destroyed the cultural diversity and identity of the individual European peoples, but has illuminated their patrimony and promoted the specific development of each. At times, I look with admiration at the life of the Catholic communities in Asia and Africa. I am convinced that from the encounter between the Gospel and these cultures new marvels will be born for the good of the Church and humanity.

What is revealed by the economic crisis that seems to be touching one European country after the other: Greece, your Hungary, Spain…? What risks are we running, and how will we find ourselves “after”?
It seems that the desires of man have distanced themselves, in many aspects, from reality. This cultural phenomenon observed with charismatic genius by John Paul II, for example in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, derives somewhat from the doubt about the human intellect’s power to know. Such extreme relativism cannot help but weaken our relationship with the totality of reality. We often tend to speak of abstract fiscal data, and politicians–even in their promises to voters–speak of these concepts and forget to promise that people will live better or be happier. By now, almost nobody speaks of the common good. Certainly, in order to speak of the common good you need a minimum of consensus on what man is, what the good for the human community is. That is, foundations on the level of world vision and ethics are needed. On the basis of extreme relativism it seems it is not even possible to protect the public good, public order, public “well-being.” The only factors of society to have legitimization to intervene–not only with prophetic words–in the interest of the public good would be the organs democratically elected or derived from them of the “democratic” nations. But, while on the one hand, even for them a relationship with the totality of reality is necessary, and not just a formal majority (which can at times support interests contrary to natural justice or even humanity, as Europe saw in the era of Nazism and Stalinism), on the other hand, the nations are beginning to be very weak and conditioned by international financial pressures. In this conflict, it is increasingly difficult to resist the temptation of corruption and the logic of criminality. To summarize, the financial crisis seems to be an aspect of the general cultural crisis.

Can we still speak of an East and a West of Europe, or are we one thing?
We could, we can, and we will continue to speak of an East and a West of Europe, and yet we are one thing. On the one hand, the division of the Roman Empire in the East and West, by Diocletian–even if not the individual details of the administrative structure deriving from his reform–has remained a living cultural reality in the continent. Still today, the Latin part and the culturally Byzantine part show the differences. Comprehending and appreciating them is still a current task. During the last Balkan wars, someone asked what was at stake in these complex struggles. A Hungarian who knew history a bit answered, “As always, it is a matter of the precise location of a line still defined by Diocletian.” Naturally, in the second half of the twentieth century, East and West had another meaning in Europe, the political one indicating the two areas of influence (Soviet and Western or U.S.). This line of demarcation, or the Iron Curtain, no longer exists, thank God. But there are other cultural and economic zones that demonstrate typical differences: there are the founding nations of the European Union that took part (even if not equally) in establishing the rules of the game and the characteristics of the Union, in determining its features. Then there are the so-called new members, above all ex-Communist countries, that had to “belong to something” out of historical, economic, or geopolitical need, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. In these countries, both because of public opinion and because of chronological order, it was more important to belong to NATO, the symbol of Western-ness or of the stability of the region belonging to that part of the continent that to the people of these countries seemed happier. But in addition to the Soviet past, in these countries there are new types of relationships with a Russia that is no longer Soviet. That is, economic relationships, those of understanding, of common elements in the way of living, certain similarities in the problems of society such as the ideological and moral vacuum following the abandonment of the official Marxist ideology, the elementary need for a cultural reawakening that can consist in appreciation for national languages, for literary, culinary, and artistic traditions, in the reawakening of an awareness of their own history, in the need to understand and elaborate constructively their own recent and distant past, the danger of destabilization of social and economic life due to corruption and anarchy that happen if the nation dogmatically observes the principles of extreme liberalism, far from the concrete reality of these societies.

On the level of the relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, what point have we reached on the journey? In what sense has the relationship with the Orthodox Church become a common witness able to have an impact in Europe?
After what we have said, it seems logical that we feel a special attraction in the dialogue with orthodoxy. But this commitment, as well, must not derive from a romantic vision. In reality, we should accompany with joy the fact that different Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe, violently destroyed and persecuted for decades, are finding anew both a high quality of Christian artistic and theological culture and an organic relationship with the life of their own people. You have to appreciate or imagine how important, for various Orthodox priests or bishops, but also for some laypeople and religious, the orthodoxy of the faith is, often the only value they could conserve in the midst of circumstances that were at times humiliating. This refers not only to the martyrs and prisoners, but precisely also to those who could officially carry out their function. The value that could justify many things was, in the perception of not a few, precisely that of saving the faith. Often it was not a matter of so-called pastoral efficiency, which for a long time was practically impossible, but of the objective content of the faith. This is why true joy erupted in the Orthodox world at the election of Benedict XVI as the successor of Saint Peter. A high level of dialogue with orthodoxy, then, is that of the faith itself. And, in this field, the similarity is so great that we feel an almost physical pain for the lack of full communion. This is particularly evident where Christians share the same lot in the context of non-Christian cultures. However, there is also a more modest level of dialogue, involving promotion of the values of Christian morality and social doctrine. Evidently, the Episcopal Conferences of Europe are competent, and are called to engagement in dialogue and in collaboration above all in this second field. The practical consequences of our faith, in fact, are very similar and often lead to the same position in the daily questions of social life. This is the reason for the creation of the European Catholic-Orthodox Forum, which is beginning to bear its first fruits, for example in the clear common position on the family.

Finally, a comment on the title of the highly awaited encounter at the Meeting, in which you will take part together with Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk: can a European of our days believe in Jesus?
I feel honored to be able to speak together with Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, whom I greatly esteem. The title of the dialogue reminds me of the days of my youth, when it was taught that religion is something backward that makes the people stupid. Analogously, one could believe that a modern and cultured European man cannot be Christian. I am convinced of the opposite. Precisely the complexity of the problems of our era, the poor functioning of the social mechanisms that require at least a minimum common denominator about the place of humanity in the cosmos, about the meaning and value of all of human history and of societies, demands a reflection on fundamental questions of the vision of the world. Therefore, according to me, a modern European cannot do without at least facing the question, the problem of God, of Jesus Christ, and His Good News.