Against Despair and Boredom the Certainty of Hope
In the East, the fall of Communism revealed an absence of public and private
morality. In the West, what triumphs is boredom; in other words, the interior
demolition of the person. The only answer is the person of Christ, present in
the Church. The Archbishop of Budapest speaks
edited by Renato Farina
When Cardinal Péter Erdö gave his address in the Catholic University
in Milan some weeks ago, the older professors recalled a precedent. In 1978,
a young cardinal passed through the same Aula Magna in Largo Gemelli, Karol Wojtyla.
There was the same impression of polite power, the same fascination for the students.
Erdö, 51 years old, is the youngest cardinal in the college. He is the Archbishop
of Esztergom-Budapest, and he belongs to that brilliant cluster of bishops with
culture and charism on which Pope Wojtyla’s hope for the future is based.
Erdö has written about two hundred essays on Canon Law and more than twenty
books. He speaks ten languages, and his Italian is perfect.
Your Eminence, these are times of war. Our time is characterized by fear—the
Pope said as much to the diplomatic corps. Should we be afraid? What are you
afraid of yourself?
In Hungary, people do not fear terrorism and the limitations linked to its necessary
prevention as much as you do. They are not shocked at the controls. They were
used to being controlled much more rigorously! I don’t know if you know
what Communism was…. If anything, what we are afraid of is the lack of
order. The empty shell of police checks has been broken and revealed the absence
of public and private morality. There is indignation, yes, but at the weakness
of public order.
Perhaps there is a little nostalgia, even for you?
Nostalgia for those times? No, not at all; and for me least of all. I often say, “Formerly,
it was more difficult to be Christians; now, it is more complicated.” Earlier
you mentioned fear, and referred this diagnosis to the Pope. It’s true.
The Pope, however, contrasted fear with hope. Fear is fought with hope. And he
sustained that the opposite of hope is not fear, but despair. Despair is when
man gives in to nothingness. This is the decisive evil of our time. In a certain
sense, then, fear is useful. It points to the horror vacui, the fear of nothingness,
which comes over us even when there are no external motives. When the backbone
of the external structures that people feared collapses—and I’m thinking
of Communism—everything seems empty and devoid of value. It’s the
much-quoted “lack of values.” If there is no justice, no tension
to the ideal, society can collapse into disorder and criminality. This is why,
today, politicians, even non-believers, seek the support of the historical Churches
for the re-birth of national institutions, of culture and the moral structure
of society. In Romania, they are building a thousand churches at the cost of
the State. In Russia, the old and much-persecuted Orthodox Church is supported
in many ways by the public authorities, even by non-believers.
You are speaking mainly of Eastern Europe. But you know the West well, too.
It’s worse in the West. Here there is nausea, boredom, even as regards
the Church. In our countries, they tried to destroy the Church through violence;
for you, there has been a kind of progressive interior demolition. Structures
that are too big have been occupied by bureaucratic power groups or aimed more
at social concerns rather than moved by faith.
How can this crisis be overcome?
The person of Jesus Christ! The religious, personal, and immediate relationship
with Christ. The Church exists for this. Without this, even the call to values,
which all the politicians are speaking of in order to face the challenges, including
that of terrorism, is ineffectual. It’s difficult to support values without
an organic view of the world, without religious foundations. We witness this
paradox. The authorities ask for values, but then those who practice them are
treated with a certain mistrust. I am thinking of the judgments given by the
Church on the questions of bioethics, drugs, abortion and other themes. Those
who take them up are treated at times as mentally unstable or obscurantist. In
the East, Christians are used to being non-conformists, so perhaps lack of social
recognition doesn’t scare us much. And yet this scandal seems to be necessary.
Even non-believers need it.
But there is a return to religiosity…
This is true, but Christianity is not a form of religious sentimentalism. It
has objective contents and truths, and these contents can be learned. The teaching
of religion has come back in various forms even in my country’s schools.
We have to go back to the methods of the primitive Church, in which catechesis
is fundamental. The fact that we are few should not discourage us too much. I
think it is significant that in Budapest, in addition to 6,000 infant baptisms,
each year, there are 500 adult baptisms. This is a sign of growth in the missionary
character of our Church. What God wants. And in the West, too, you need to take
up the Old Testament where it says, “Tell it to your children!”
What should we tell our children?
The contents of the Good News, your own religious experience—not the solemn
experience, but that of every day, that passes through the family. I was born
in 1952. My father was a jurist, but he couldn’t practice his profession
because he was a Catholic. I am the eldest of six children. A group of families
(a movement with no name) practiced the simplicity of Christianity. There were
young women who couldn’t become religious because of the State ban, but
they chose virginity. They would work, keep the minimum necessary from their
salary, and give the rest to help families with many children. This is the kind
of experience I mean. This can and must remain, despite the changing times.
There is a big question. How can a liberal State accept the limits of
personal freedom, laws that go against the use of drugs, birth control methods,
protect the institution of the family, etc. You are a jurist…
I am well aware of this criticism of the Church and the Pope. The question is
important, but there is not so much criticism. The Pope preaches these teachings
with Christ, as witness and conviction. He does not care about the opinion of
the majority—after all, the Christians in the East are used to being in
the minority. But I believe that a healthy human mentality still exists, even
though there has been a progressive conceptual erosion of law. We have to go
back to the illuminist origins of the codification of European law. There were
values ascribed to human reason and religion, not only out of historical debt,
but with philosophical reasons. It has always been clear that the right to individual
freedom is decisive. But if you don’t want the State to fall apart, it
is inevitable that there must be limits to subjectivism. September 11th saw the
affirmation of “zero tolerance.” Society must continually lay down
rules if it wants to survive. As a consequence of original sin, human nature
is wounded and weak; it doesn’t always see clearly what is needed for survival.
As well as human reason, the light of Revelation is needed. This is why what
the Pope says about where the road to true life lies is precious.
A curiosity. Is it true that you have found a novel way of financing your parishes?
I know what you’re referring to. The buildings for worship have survived,
but we don’t know how to maintain them. In the past, the basis for their
maintenance was often an obligation of the local authority. This was cancelled
over fifty years ago. The other goods of the Church were confiscated at the beginning
of the Communist era. There has been no re-privatization, but thanks to a constitutional
law, and an accord reached with the Holy See in 1997, we receive State financing
for our “public service” works and for the schools. However, the
economic aspect of our life is not our main concern. We are poor. In order to
find money for the restoration of the buildings we have to go around almost like
beggars, and I, too… In many of the churches, especially in the towns,
we have built underground crypts that are transformed into cemeteries. The Christians
of old times did so, too, and we follow their example in this… However,
the economic aspect is not our main concern. I would like to go back to something
I already said, and I say it humbly, “The religious, personal, and immediate
relationship with Jesus Christ: we are for this, we are beggars for this.”