A Hungarian cardinal has said that free societies must depend on the wisdom of religion to address the moral and social problems of the modern world.  

Cardinal Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, delivered the Bampton Lecture at Columbia University on Monday, Jan. 29.

Addressing Columbia students and faculty, Erdo warned about the dangers of moral relativism, and discussed the necessity of the Church in a secular state.

The cardinal said that relativism— the inability to declare something as objectively right or objectively wrong—is a “grave crisis” of modern secular states. Without a foundation in natural law, he argued, societies become unstable, and moral evil becomes permissible.

“It is difficult for the state to decide what is good for man,” said Erdo, without some foundation in natural law and a religious worldview. Absent natural law and “by a weakening of belief in the rationality of the world,” societies lose trust in democratic institutions.

”Even the majority can end up with wrong or harmful decisions, especially if the concept of the common good becomes uncertain, because there is no consensus even on the anthropological foundations of law,” explained the cardinal.

Erdo said that until the philosophical Enlightenment, societies were effectively governed with an understanding that moral law was based on transcendent realities.

“Law, morals and religion prove to form an organic whole, which is characteristic of Western society right up to the age of Enlightenment,” Erdo said.

But in the modern era, relativism has separated legal norms from the natural law, he said. "The idea of relativity and the unknowability of the natural law, or the rules of upright human behavior based on its connexion with nature, gains ground, as also does the separation of law from so-called natural morals.”  

Due to the rise of relativism, the relationship between religion, the state, and a person’s worldview became “a problem.”

The separation of morality from law has led to the creation of immoral laws, such as the ones that existed in Nazi Germany, said Cardinal Erdo.

“The trials of Nuremberg showed where the separation of law and morals can lead. It was not easy to convict people whose actions were based on current, but immoral laws.”

The cardinal said that in the era of the Soviet Union, religion and morals were, in theory, replaced by Marxist-Leninist ideology. When the ideology fell, a “moral vacuum” was formed. Seeing this, leaders of formerly communist countries began trying to recreate a religious and moral framework for society, and are not bothered with “relativist ideologies.”

He mentioned that many former communist countries countries specifically mentioned the importance of religion in their new constitutions. For instance, Erdo’s home country of Hungary explicitly recognizes “churches, denominations and religious communities […] are entities of prominent importance, capable of creating values and communities.”

The cardinal noted that in the West, humanity is witness a “shaking of the anthropological foundations of democracy.”

"Western democracies presume that politicians and parties present and defend their political programs on a rational basis and that mature and responsible citizens make their choices and elect people using rational arguments,” he said.  

“Today, this sounds like a utopia…the picture of reality has become very complicated.”

“There has to be a lot of trust for someone to believe the basic premises of a political program, so that the elected body, based on a democratic majority, can count on the trust of that society. It seems to be a vicious circle. We have to place our trust in somebody in anticipation, in order to let such a decision pass, in which we can trust,” he added.

Erdo expressed concern about the effect that scientific advances will have on human rights without a religious moral framework regulating society. He said that technological advances are moving quicker than legal morality can keep up, and that this is a new challenge humanity will be facing.

“But the discoveries open new levels of reality, so the description of facts needed for moral evaluation and legal treatment are falling behind,” he said.

Despite this, Erdo believes that humans “cannot grow weary” of maintaining “basic moral values,” and that these need to be applied to new situations as well.

Erdo said that the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage is centered on a belief in a benevolent God, and the hope that a Creator seeks to communicate with humanity. That communication drives trust.

“And this, beyond giving a basic moral point of view, gives something extra, which is even more important. It generates trust both in the individual and in the community,” said the cardinal.

“It generates trust that even though our cognitive abilities cannot keep up with the fullness of reality, we can always somehow reach the necessary knowledge and cognitions…the weakness of our recognition is not a reason to give up our pursuit of the truth.”

The Bampton Lectures in America were created in 1948, and feature talks from theologians, scientists, and artists.

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