Hungarian Conservative

‘The Idea of a Christian Society’

Transylvanian fortified church, 1913
A Transylvanian fortified church photographed in 1913
Zoltán J. Kerekes/Hungarian Geographical Museum/Fortepan
‘Today, we are faced with the fact that in our pluralistic societies, it seems to pose an insurmountable challenge to agree on a generally accepted moral standard, with values that provide common foundations.’

This article was published in Vol. 3 No. 4 of our print edition.

Jacques Maritain expressed the need for a Christian form of politics as follows: ‘We must understand the term “Christian state” correctly. The true Christian state in the absolute sense of the word is the Church, not any secular state. However, we are talking here about a secular state. The political order, like philosophy, has its own characteristics. But, like philosophy, it can absorb Christian influences and thus become Christian; furthermore, just as, in our opinion, there is such a thing as practical philosophy—a “correctly interpreted ethics”—which is subordinated to theology and which by this title already indicates its Christian nature in its definition, so politics […] can and must undertake to introduce the Christian character into its own domain, which however does not diminish its own specific character. A Christian state is a secular state enlivened and permeated from within by Christianity.’1 This connects to a previous study of mine, which took as its starting point the deficit created by modernity as reflected in the so-called ‘Böckenförde Axiom’, and continued as far as the famous Habermas–Ratzinger dialogue to argue that the Christian faith can resolve the current worldview vacuum.2 Now I raise the question (following in the footsteps of T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, Joseph Ratzinger, and others) of whether Christianity can still, in the twenty-first century, provide a viable model for structuring society. As such, the title deliberately echoes T. S. Eliot’s classic essay The Idea of a Christian Society.3

Let us recall that in the answer given to the Böckenförde Axiom, faith only serves as a stopgap solution. However, the current approach raises the question of whether the Christian faith, taken as a structure, might in fact replace the vacuum itself. Might it indeed be possible to do so in a way that remains faithful to Christ’s message, in a manner that does not transform into cultural Christianity and does not enforce personal faith on anyone, but enables it to be lived socially? On the one hand, therefore, we are arguing for more than patching up the deficit revealed by Ernst Böckenförde, since we do not merely seek to conceal the vacuum but to overcome it, while on the other hand we are proposing rather less, since we are not talking about existential, lived faith,4 but merely a framework conducive to it. I am convinced that this is particularly relevant in the present circumstances, because the Hungarian government is currently trying to implement something of this sort.

‘Today, we are faced with the fact that in our pluralistic societies, it seems to pose an insurmountable challenge to agree on a generally accepted moral standard, with values that provide common foundations’

After 2010, ‘the renewed Hungarian state can be defined as a Christian-democratic state based on national-conservative values, the main core values of which were laid down in the preamble, called the National Avowal, to the new Fundamental Law, effective from 2012, as well as in the chapter entitled Fundamentals.’5 Thus, I take as my starting point (though I have no way of arguing against the representatives of extreme relativism and liberalism within the current framework) that all social structures and indeed human coexistence itself require some legitimizing basis and canon of values to enable their successful realization. However, this foundation cannot be satisfactorily discovered by simply searching for the lowest common denominator. In our fragmented, stratified, and extremely pluralized world, there is no Weltethos (global ethos) serving as social leaven. Thus, I claim that Christianity can be the basis that enables the social coexistence of people on our continent. Christianity corresponds to this in three aspects: 1) thanks to its historical and cultural role in shaping Europe; 2) due to its identity-giving, value-creating nature, which remains effective even today, as well as its wide acceptance and intellectual base; 3) and finally because it has an added value and legitimation potential, which is recognizable and acceptable even for non-Christian citizens, and without offending them in their personal convictions it can have a positive return for them as well.

A Christian Framework

As part of a more thorough examination of the topic, it is necessary to distance our concept from some dangerous interpretative possibilities, just as we cannot avoid briefly summarizing the problem of the worldview deficit. On the one hand, we must emphatically state that we do not wink at any revival of the Constantinian church model, as it would be both unfeasible and undesirable; in the Constantinian model, the church was too deeply enmeshed in the culture and lost sight of its prophetic and critical calling. This proved a straight path towards the other paradigm that must be avoided, namely the cultural Christianity that tames the gospel and is anti-theological in its internal logic. Finally, we must distance ourselves from any confusing of the concepts of the kingdom of God and the earthly kingdom. The Christian faith cannot be fully translated into political and cultural language, and the claim that a secular order desirable for the Christian person can be realized on earth cannot entail mixing it up with the eschatological and transcendent kingdom of God.6

We are talking about a framework in which—despite the shortcomings of the earthly city, and to the extent that it can be achieved by sinful individuals—we try to build a human coexistence in harmony with the ideals stemming from our faith. At the same time, we bear in mind that Christianity has greatly contributed to the creation of the values, ideals, and hopes that are an integral part of our European culture today. Our faith provides the foundation for concepts such as the ‘affirmation of the transcendent dignity of the human person, the value of reason, freedom, democracy, the constitutional state and the distinction between political life and religion’.7 As Eliot insightfully put it, the culture, arts, and laws of Western civilization unfolded in a Christian context, and Christianity provided the spiritual background which nurtured them: ‘The Western world has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, and Israel, from which, owing to two thousand years of Christianity, we trace our descent.’8 Jürgen Habermas, though hailing from one of the ‘bastions of secularization’, also recognized this when he spoke about religion and the secular public learning from each other to form a new relationship ‘in such a way that religious contents are translated with “transferrable” power into cognitive contents that are generally understandable for everyone, i.e. into secular language patterns’.9 One of the most significant legal philosophers of the twentieth century, the openly atheist Ronald Dworkin, bore witness in his final work that religiosity is possible without belief in God, because the basic moral values of religion are valid and useful for society regardless of belief in God.10

Today, we are faced with the fact that in our pluralistic societies, it seems to pose an insurmountable challenge to agree on a generally accepted moral standard, with values that provide common foundations, and which can provide a suitable foundation for democracy (the starting point of the aforementioned Böckenförde Axiom). Following Isaiah Berlin, liberal intellectuals argue that the government’s primary task is to ensure the maximum freedom of individuals, even at the price of having to give up the determination of moral priorities.11 The modern state therefore tries to solve the Augustinian tension between the earthly state and the Christian faith through a policy of neutrality. Political liberalism ‘renounces the strongly cosmological and salvation-historical assumptions of classical and religious natural law doctrines’ and derives the legitimizing foundations of state power from the profane sources of Enlightenment philosophy.12 This idea goes back to John Locke’s view that the government’s goal is not the pursuit of virtue, but the creation and maintenance of an order within which citizens can freely exercise their will, constrained within the boundaries of reason. The task of governments is therefore only to ensure the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property, because ‘the state’s role is only to be an arbiter between individuals and groups that are opposed to each other […] it does not have the final say on moral good […] and sees its role only as the protection of individual rights.’13 Like Locke, Thomas Hobbes did not include religion among the important goods to be provided by the state when he discussed the nature of man determined by needs.14

Ultimately, our liberal democracies are based on the false and utopian premise of the Enlightenment: they aim at the liberation by the government of the autonomous individual, who is considered by nature free and independent.15 It is from these ideas that there emerged the offer of modern democratic states to their citizens to provide a pluralistic approach to personal morality, in exchange for the individual accepting that the law necessarily reflects the wishes of the majority. The modern European state sees self-determination as each individual’s own task and opportunity, and this radically distinguishes it from traditional societies defined by ideology, where the tasks, roles, and relationships of the individual are largely predetermined.16

The state’s religious neutrality is absolutized as an achievement of modern constitutional development, and it is common to espouse extreme versions of this, according to which if society or the state takes transcendent considerations into account, the framework of constitutionality is ruptured.17 On the other hand, even if the separation of church and state is accepted, such state neutrality does not entail indifference, because no state can exist in a vacuum.18 State neutrality is also unfeasible from a practical point of view, because ‘when [the state] supports culture, maintains public service media, prescribes the celebration of tragic historical events, organizes public education and decides on its content, it is always working in the spirit of specific values.’19

Reflecting on this problem, Böckenförde formulated his thesis, which can be understood as follows: ‘The liberal state is unable to create the foundations of its own legitimacy, and needs the support of dogmatic religions to establish itself.’20 This is because ultimately its existence is predicated on the internal motivations and bonds that are mediated by the religious faith of its citizens.21 Human will—whether it is expressed through the people as a whole or a particular social class— does not create law or dictate what is good and what is bad. The reason for this is that there is a higher court, recognized in natural law, which assumes responsibility for limiting state power.22 This statement assumes the existence of a political order that is not at the mercy of either a particular individual or the community, which as a value system imposes obligations upon everyone, and is based on the inalienable value and dignity of the human person.23 Even Yuval Noah Harari, who evinces a certain cynical scepticism towards religion, agrees with this diagnosis and points out that modern governments, science, and the nations of the world have so far failed to create a viable vision for the future of humanity. As such, it is necessary to ask whether the answer might not lie in the pages of the Bible, the Koran, or the Vedas, and whether the richness of religious traditions might be the only source of workable visions.24

The Christian State

It cannot be denied that the ideal of a democratic state was of great benefit to Europe, which had been riven by religious wars. This state, however, is now in turn forced to confront serious challenges. The disintegration of families, emerging religious fanaticism, increasing violence, overconsumption and the consequent destruction of created nature, and, above all, our loss of faith in a meaningful future, all stand before us as a dramatic reality. Our democracies are incapable of generating social unity and providing answers to these problems without the help of religion. The European Union struggles with even greater problems of legitimacy than do individual states. The EU’s democracy deficit is so serious that it comes close to imperilling human dignity.25

Christian thinking considers the state to be more than just the guarantor of the legal order and of general wellbeing in a given political-social community, but also—by the grace of God, as a supremacy that exists to curb sin—as a positive institution meant to ensure peaceful human coexistence. In a Christian understanding—as in the ideal of the ‘educating state’ so dear to Plato and Aristotle—the state can thus never be value-neutral, as it is meant to support the human community in the development of its moral, economic, and political potential.26 Viewed from a Christian perspective, politics is likewise not purely Machiavellian. Nor is it purely Kantian, nor purely expressive of the ideas of Isiah Berlin, but rather destined to protect spiritual values in a world recognized as the interplay of various forces, on the level of political realism.27

According to Lesslie Newbigin, the neutrality of secular society is in any case a myth. What was actually created was not a neutral society without idols, but a pagan society worshiping false gods instead of the real God. To overcome this deception, the British theologian recommends a new kind of enlightenment: the clarification and questioning of the basic assumptions of secular economics and a thorough examination of its a priori assumptions.28

‘Christianity is also able to ensure that politics remains rational and does not fall into the trap of ideologies’

The separation of church and state, or the neutrality of the state, does not mean that the state must be atheistic or agnostic! The destruction of transcendence and its exclusion from our world means the amputation of the human, from which all our other problems also arise.29 Likewise, guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion for everyone does not entail renouncing the possibility of truth and universal values, and sinking ever deeper into extreme subjectivism and relativism. It is our belief that there are norms and values that can be recognized by the light of natural reason, that the state is obliged to protect them, and that there is an objective good that can be recognized and is binding upon everyone.30 Relativism, which frequently becomes dogmatic, asserts itself as the possessor of the complete knowledge that human reason can provide, and regards other worldviews as a stage that has already been passed.31 The worldview-neutral state is unable to create its own foundation because the urges and bonds mediated by religious faith are the basis of its existence.32

Christianity is capable of saving those truths which our modern culture believes in and yearns for, purified from the errors of extremism, and of handing them on to the European people of the future.33 Our fundamental values are derived from the fundamental truths of theism.34 To mention just a few of the most prominent examples: human dignity in the story of creation, freedom in the exodus from Egypt, truth in the act of making a covenant, solidarity in the behaviour of Jesus and the activities of the prophets, conversion in the evangelizing mission of Jesus, equality in Pauline theology, and community responsibility and subsidiarity in the mission of the apostles and in the Pauline letters.35

By erasing mythical creatures from the universe and believing in the knowability of created nature, it was Christianity that opened the door to scientific knowledge. By liberating history from its paralysis, chained as it was to a conception of cyclical time, it created a vision of history as more than a mere chronicle of events or passive suffering. And finally, Christianity regards the human individual as a moral being endowed by God with dignity. In this regard we may cite the words of Tamás Molnár:

‘Christianity created the conditions for meaningful political and social action within the framework of institutions that cannot be compared to anything that came before, because they are based on both spiritual and worldly loyalty, which do not stand in contradiction with one another, but in freedom-generating tension.’36

The Christian worldview, with biblical justification, emphasizes that God has placed mankind in this earthly environment in such a way that, on the one hand, He will take care of us in making covenants and giving us direction, while on the other hand, He expects humanity to protect and cultivate its created home.37 As early as in the story of the Pentecost, Christianity echoes a question that cannot be separated from its social dimension: ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37). This exclamation, testifying to a deep existential concern, seeks to learn not only how to behave in relation to God, but also how to be present in secular life with the Pentecostal evangelical consciousness—within society, within the bonds of the nation, and within the framework of the state.

View of the Esztergom Basilica, Hungary. PHOTO: Balázs Mohai/MTI

Christian Society and New Christian Humanism

According to the nineteenth-century Spanish politician Juan Donoso Cortés, Catholicism (which we can safely extend to the whole of Christianity for the purposes of this discussion) creates order and harmony in human society. ‘The body is subject to the will, the will to the intellect, the intellect to the mind, the mind to the faith, and all this to the love of neighbour’,38 he wrote. Modern ideas about the construction of a possible Christian society were expressed most profoundly by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and in the works of the Nobel-prize-winning English writer T. S. Eliot. They are connected by their era, their faith, their European culture, and also by their titanic spiritual profundity. Maritain started from the critique of humanism, Eliot from the recognition of the impasse reached by liberal, value-neutral democracy. Although their works cannot be fully adapted to today’s conditions, now that many decades have passed, each remains an invaluable intellectual inspiration from the point of view of our topic.

In 1936, Jacques Maritain made a grandiose attempt to reveal the essence and pitfalls of ideologies, and especially to formulate a new, true or ‘integral humanism’, which would be theocentric in its orientation, but at the same time satisfy the secularized environment and expectations of modern society. His ultimate goal was to realize ‘the true reflection of the Gospel in the secular order and culture’.39 He believed that the system he called the new Christian secular society, despite being based on the same fundamentals, would be different from medieval Christian society, since it would ‘come with a profane Christian and non-sacred Christian concept of secular power’. The French philosopher’s dream arrangement of theocentric humanism stood in opposition to both the ‘inhuman humanism’ of liberalism and the features of the medieval sacrum imperium. The goal, which Maritain formulated in a very beautiful concept, would be the following: in place of either dehumanizing, creaturely self-worship or sacred dominion that refers to God as power, the holy freedom of man united with God in grace. As we read in Maritain, ‘The world cannot remain neutral towards the Kingdom of God. One either draws life from it or fights against it.’40 A choice must be made between Christianity and chaos.

According to Maritain’s concept, the social body needs a form, i.e. an ethical definition, without which the common good cannot truly be pursued in the state. The state, on the territory of which non-Christian groups would also enjoy complete freedom, would in fact be Christian, since in its plural legal structure even the stages of development that are apparently far from Christianity are oriented towards the ‘perfect form of natural law and Christian law’.41 The Maritain model of a new Christian society would not seek to return to the past, in the sense that it would seek to preserve the mature secular order built up during modernity. As such, the earthly common good would not merely be a means towards the end of eternal life, but an end in itself. It is no longer on the basis of the sacred precepts of cultura christiana that the highest values can be called ‘Christian’, but rather through the concept of analogy. The French thinker enumerates certain values that are firmly rooted in the Christian faith, but which can be recognized and accepted by anyone.

The earthly life of a Christian is a pilgrimage. However, it does not follow from this that secular civilization does not have the dignity of a goal, and of course, it does not mean that we should view social events with resignation. The believer’s concept of the state conveyed by Maritain aims to ‘provide relative but real happiness on earth’ for an earthly existence with finite possibilities. The state does not—indeed cannot—take over the evangelizing mission of the church. Introducing Christ to our fellow men is the task of the church. The role of the secular state is to help the church so that it can freely fulfil its mission. A few decades later, soon after the Second Vatican Council, Maritain returned to the same theme. At that time, he emphasized that authentic and fundamentally Christian political activity means that ‘although it is inspired by the Christian spirit and Christian principles, it would only rely on the initiatives and responsibility of the citizens active in it, and no worldly policy would be dictated by the church’.42

The Christian Social Idea

In an essay published in 1939, T. S. Eliot made a passionate inquiry into what the ‘idea’ of our societies might be, and what purpose animates those societies. He was seeking ‘not a programme for a party, but a way of life for a people’.43 Accordingly, by the term ‘Christian state’ he was not implying a specific political system, but any form of coexistence which, within its framework, would be suitable for a Christian society.44 The social changes he proposes can be derived from the Christian system of values, but at the same time, they are acceptable to all sane people, and not necessarily related to the Christian religion or its institutions. Eliot, who converted to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927, at the age of thirty-nine, realized that Europe’s Christian roots are so strong that, despite the questioning and denial of countless fundamentals of our culture, it remains Christian. At the same time, Eliot prophetically saw that liberalism, caught in the net of self-criticism, would destroy itself, reaching the point of ‘dictatorial democracy’ and leaving behind only democracy and the liberal interpretation of freedom as the last values, though now hollow and without foundation. Writing about the attractiveness of Christian society, he remarks drily that ‘a Christian society only becomes acceptable after you have fairly examined the alternatives’. Christianity is indeed justly fighting for an arrangement that creates the maximum possibility for us to live a Christian life within the confines of an earthy existence, and provides the greatest opportunity for our fellow human beings to become Christians.

‘We need to find a solution that expresses Christianity’s need for a public role in a way that does not undermine pluralism or the state’s religious tolerance’

Catholic social teaching also emphasizes that the task of the state is to ensure the fullest development of all its members. Not only in terms of liberty, but also the common good, intellectual and spiritual values, and the fulfilment of one’s orientation towards the divine.

Catholic social teaching also emphasizes that the task of the state is to ensure the fullest development of all its members. Not only in terms of liberty, but also the common good, intellectual and spiritual values, and the fulfilment of one’s orientation towards the divine.

Among the components of the Christian state he outlines, Eliot emphasizes the theistic elements of legislation, public administration, and the law. A society in which a recognizably Christian religious code of conduct exists can be called Christian. However, that does not mean that leaders are chosen based on their Christian status or the excellence of their faith. The aim will not be to create an ‘army of saints’. Following Disraeli, he states that good statesmen are characterized by the fact that during their activities they remain ‘confined, by the temper and traditions of the people which they rule, to a Christian framework’.45 Eliot considers a Christian education necessary for all of this, with the aim of educating young people ‘to be able to think in Christian categories, though it […] would not impose the necessity for insincere profession of belief’.46 We must therefore distinguish between the communities of believing Christians, whose members are expected to lead a conscious and professed Christian life, and the majority community based on Christian forms and led by a Christian state. It is worth quoting at length the distinction he makes here:

‘The Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organisation of society—which is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians. It would be a society in which the natural end of man—virtue and well-being in community—is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end—beatitude—for those who have eyes to see it.’47

Eliot drew attention to the modern worldview-neutral culture, which in fact corresponds to the worldview of pagan societies, whereas only a positive, affirming culture can exist permanently. The society that has become completely liberal—which he calls ‘repudiating’—is in a state of continuous decline. Joseph Ratzinger grasped the essence in this regard, when he said that a civilization which cuts off its historical and religious roots is imperfect, because it has cut itself off from cultural memory and the life-giving roots connecting it to its origins.48 This is because one of the main tasks of the state, the administration of justice, is based on moral foundations derived from religion. Liberal democracy cannot survive without the supports of tradition, authority, and the Christian religion. It is important to make it clear that Eliot was not a utopian. He did not believe in re-educating people or in political utopias: ‘Our choice now is not between one abstract form and another, but between a pagan, and necessarily stunted culture, and a religious, and necessarily imperfect culture.’49

Christian Perspectives

After Maritain and Eliot, coming to our own time, we turn to the approaches of Joseph Ratzinger, Erich Kussbach, and Walter Kasper, although it would also be worthwhile to reflect on the Christian humanism and social concepts of H. W. Rüssel and Tamás Molnár. Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, also emphasizes that a non-Christian state can survive, but an atheistic one cannot—or at least not as a state that permanently retains the rule of law. The reason for this is that democracy can only function if conscience also functions, and conscience is nurtured by Christianity. And one essential role of the state is not to banish God to private life, but to recognize Him publicly as the highest value and point of reference. However, this vision explicitly includes tolerance towards atheists.50

Austrian professor and diplomat Kussbach connects Maritain’s social ideal with the Christian values we have already touched upon. The connection of his thought process to our topic gives us the chance to raise a question: If we accept the statement that it is impossible to base social coexistence merely on the lowest common denominator of all worldviews, given the amplitude of differences, and also accept Böckenförde’s concept of a vacuum,51 then might not one solution be to build on the principles that are widely recognized and rooted in Christianity? This does not necessarily mean an attempt to create a Christian society—a Christian humanistic state—as dreamed of by Eliot or Maritain, because the present era affords scant opportunity for that. It does mean, however,  presenting  our  fundamental values in their full light—that is, upon their Christian foundation—and indeed making them fundamental once more. Kussbach mentions values such as human dignity, human rights, solidarity, and subsidiarity. However, he also speaks of social principles that are less frequently referenced, such as trust in life and the world, the ability to maintain oneself, realistic knowledge of oneself and the world, the culture of the heart, and self-discipline. He believes that these values and principles, which are undeniably rooted in Christianity, are also acceptable for our pluralistic states. In order to reintegrate them into our societies, it is necessary to cultivate a new moral consciousness that recognizes the basic rules of Christian-based morality as human behaviour and as a need arising from within. Important elements of this new consciousness include solidarity towards others, tolerance in the Christian sense, hope, and trust. With a realist’s eye, he sees that peaceful coexistence can only be realized if certain values—such as human dignity, religious feeling, and the institution of the family—are protected against all attacks in public discourse. No one has the right to question these or trample them into the mud.52

Kasper arrives at the same conclusion as Böckenförde, though from a different starting point. The German cardinal scrutinizes the erroneous interpretation of freedom that has appeared in our time, and opines that more and more people confuse it with emancipated liberalism that recognize neither truth nor binding values, which results in a postmodern individualism that also entails the disintegration of society. The fact is that without certain binding minimums, our societies can only remain cohesive for a limited period. One of these minimums, says Kasper, is the value and dignity of humankind, which is much more than mere rhetoric or an empty postulate. Despite all the attempts of emancipated liberalism, the correct interpretation of freedom remains inseparable from biblical anthropology and the responsibilities incumbent upon all people. Our true liberation came through Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we talk about humankind or society, we are really talking about God and humankind. Only God the Creator and Redeemer is able to give content and purpose to our world. God revealed our true vocation to us in Christ, so in fact our dignity, freedom, and basic human rights originate from him. A secularized, pluralistic society betrays a lack of legitimacy, and is unable to supply its own ultimate justification.53

Christian Democracy

Just as is important for constitutions, in addition to stipulating the limits and responsibilities of the state, and spelling out the relationship between the state and citizens, to define a third aspect, namely the ethos and telos of a state, this is also true when it comes to the viable functioning of society. A set of values, ideas and symbols make a society a community, providing its cultural foundations and setting its aspirations.54 Scepticism and relativism are not a sufficient basis for the maintenance of a society, since neither can provide answers. The basis of politics is legitimacy, which, however, stems from the awareness of a common heritage. The political order has a fundamental external obligation to provide a common identity.55

From the beginning, Christianity saw itself as a rational religion, the religion of the Logos. It found its reference points in the twin compasses of theology and philosophy, which ‘blazed a trail from the traditions of the search for truth and goodness towards the one true God’, as Pope Benedict XVI put it. On the other hand, any attempt to act without God pushes human society into an abyss. Ratzinger’s axiom borrowed from Blaise Pascal, according to which we should try to live and act under the assumption that God exists (veluti si Deus daretur),56 which can be extended from the original individual level to the level of social organization. As Marcello Pera, the former president of the Italian Senate, wrote in regard to Ratzinger’s and Pascal’s insight, a person who assumes God in this way, without confession or ceremonies, but relying only on his or her conscience, understands and feels something of the touch of the transcendent. For Christian social development, this also means that on our continent, the same foundations and the same framework crystallize for the theistic individual and those who merely listen to their conscience, if they start from the common good and natural law. In Europe, we are all at home and act in harmony with our identity when we act as if God exists.57

Ratzinger points out that our pluralistic democracies can never achieve completely unity in loyalty to the state among their citizens. In others words, ‘there is something absolutely necessary for a pluralistic democracy that lies outside the field of politics’.58 In order to ensure the survival of our societies, it will be necessary to restore a fundamental moral consensus. And in order to be able to shape our imperfect world in such a way that we can live dignified lives in it, we have need of transcendence.

In Christianity, we find the values that provide the necessary foundation for democracy, and Christianity is also able to ensure that politics remains rational and does not fall into the trap of ideologies. Cardinal Ratzinger points out that when it comes to the deficit highlighted in Böckenförde’s Axiom, in searching for a solution among the possible Christian sources, the best starting points are not to be found in St. Augustine’s civitas dei or the Lutheran two-kingdom doctrine, but rather in the insight of medieval Catholic theology, which accepted the tenets of Aristotelian natural law and made them interpretable for the profane state. However, the question is how Christianity can be made a positive force and a necessary support for the democratic state, so that it does not appropriate the state, or, conversely, so that the state does not use Christianity to further its political goals. The Christian faith can help by awakening the conscience, establishing an ethos, supporting moral education, and steering people towards the correct uses of freedom. This is necessary because the enlightened ethos also lives on the afterglow of Christianity, and does not itself provide foundations, meaning that it is unable to hold our states together permanently. Where this Christian foundation is denied, there is no longer anything to hold the ethos together. As an example of this, Ratzinger cites the slow disintegration of the model of marriage based on biblical anthropology.59

In Ratzinger’s view, we are faced with an aporia: if the church withdraws into the private sphere and renounces the need to provide a foundation, no longer wishing to see itself as a public realm that goes beyond the state, then it cannot provide the state with the buttress it needs. (Moreover, according to Böckenförde, such religion fades, becomes weak, and loses its binding force and relevance from a societal perspective.)60 However, if the state accepts this religious support, Ratzinger continues, then it ceases to be pluralistic. We need to find a solution that expresses Christianity’s need for a public role in a way that does not undermine pluralism or the state’s religious tolerance. An answer to one half of the question can be easily found in the recognition that politics is the domain of ethos and not of theology. It can also be seen that the Christian faith establishes this ethos by awakening the conscience. Thus, the critical point is to find a solution that allows the state to recognize the absolute need of Christianity to be a religion of the public sphere without ceasing to be pluralistic. This is only possible if the state renounces the myth of complete value neutrality and realizes that ‘there is a segment of truth that is not subject to consensus, but precedes and enables it’.61

Christian Culture

In relation to the above, we can quote the mutually supporting statements of a number of thinkers. Roger Scruton, for example, saw that a lack of religion naturally leads to the disintegration of society, because institutionalized belief in God enables a community to maintain cohesion across generations, to rise above individualistic interests, to gather fragmented energies, and to provide the necessary impulses towards self-sacrifice, purity, and solidarity. Following the conservative tradition, he therefore talks about the fact that the manifestations of moral and religious sentiments cannot be separated from the law or, in a broader sense, from the communal space.62 Alexis de Tocqueville also highlighted this function of religion towards social integration. He believed that democracy would not survive the disappearance of Christianity, because the self-government of a community requires common moral foundations in order to avoid human selfishness, or at least keep it under control. In his view, the most solid foundation can be provided by the moral order revealed by God and handed down to us. He believed that, especially in democracies, it is important that religion establishes duties and elevates human desires above material possessions.63 Joseph H. H. Weiler, a Jewish South African and American constitutional lawyer, insightfully summarized the essence of Christian society when he argued that ‘A “Christian Europe” is not a Europe exclusively or necessarily confessional. It is a Europe that respects equally, in a full and complete way, all of its citizens: believers and “laicists”, Christians and non-Christians. It is a Europe that, while celebrating the noble heritage of Enlightenment humanism, also abandons its Christophobia and neither fears nor is embarrassed by the recognition that Christianity is one of the central elements in the evolution of its unique civilization.’64

Both our faith and our rationally held conviction testify that the voice of Christianity and the content of its teachings, as Tamás Molnár put it, ‘form the most precise combination of statements that could be made about the nature of man, the balance of faith and reason, the inner and outer person, the basic conditions of society, and human relations’.65

Translated by Thomas Sneddon


1 Jacques Maritain, Humanisme intégral: problèmes temporels et spirituels d’une nouvelle chrétienté (Integral Humanism: Temporal and Spiritual Problems of a New Christianity) (Paris: Editions Aubier, 1947), 164–165.

2 Koppány Zsombor Nádor, ‘A kereszténység kulturális lehetőségei és küldetése napjaink Európájában’ (The Cultural Possibilities and Mission of Christianity in Today’s Europe), Kommentár, 3 (2021), 26–35.

3 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) [1938].

4 Issues which involve the life of our faith and are existential to the nature of our church include evangelization, mission, and bearing witness. These roles are indispensable both for individual salvation and for social involvement, but at the same time do not fit organically into the topic of this study.

5 István Kovács, Balázs Molnár, and Miklós Szánthó, ‘Újra naggyá teszik Magyarországot, 2010–2020. Őszinteség, bátorság, büszkeség’ (Making Hungary Great Again, 2010–2020: Honesty, Courage, and Pride) (Budapest: Alapjogokért Központ, 2021), 201–202.

6 Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Zondervan, 2007).

7 Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in Europa (2003), point 109.

8 T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (Faber & Faber, 2010), 143.

9 Tibor Görföl, A kritika hangja és a valóság szeretete. A kereszténység korunk európai kultúrájában (The Voice of Criticism and the Love of Reality: Christianity in the European Culture of Our Time) (Budapest: Gondolat, 2018), 47.

10 Quoted in: András Koltay, A vallások, az állam és a szólás szabadsága (Freedom of Religion, State and Speech) (Budapest: Századvég, 2016), 25.

11 Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

12 Pablo Cristóbal Jiménez Lobeira, ‘Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State. Europe and the Habermas-Ratzinger Debate’, Research School of Social Sciences (Australian National University, 2010).

13 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Penguin, 2018), 66.

14 Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Religion, Law, and Democracy: Selected Writings (Oxford University Press, 2020), 18.

15 For more, see: Patrick J. Deneen, Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2016).

16 Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (A&C Black, 2012), 78–79.

17 András Koltay, A vallások, az állam és a szólás szabadsága, 21.

18 Balázs Schanda, Magyar állami egyházjog (Hungarian State Church Law) (Budapest: SZIT, 2003), 80.

19 Koltay, A vallások, az állam és a szólás szabadsága, 24.

20 Görföl, ‘A kritika hangja és a valóság szeretete’, 20.

21 Böckenförde, Religion, Law, and Democracy: Selected Writings, 24.

22 For more, see: Zoltán Turgonyi, Természetjogállam (The Natural Law State) (Budapest: Kairosz, 2021).

23 Jean Daniélou, Scandaleuse vérité (Scandalous Truth) (Le signe/Fayard, 1968), 178–179.

24 Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Random House, 2018), 117.

25 Cf. Joseph H. Weiler, ‘A Christian Europe? Europe and Christianity: Rules of Commitment’, European View, 6/1 (2007), 143–150.

26 Attila Borsi, A közélet etikája – A protestáns etika kézkönyve (The Ethics of Public Life: Handbook of Protestant Ethics) (Budapest: Luther–Kálvin, 2017), 334–335.

27 Daniélou, Scandaleuse vérité, 182–183.

28 Lesslie Newbigin, ‘Teaching Religion in a Secular Plural Society’, Learning for Living, 17/2 (1977).

29 Joseph Ratzinger, A közép újrafelfedezése. Alapvető tájékozódások (Rediscovering the Centre: Basic Orientation) (Budapest: SZIT, 2008), 268.

30 Péter Erdő, Egyház, kultúra, társadalom (Church, Culture, Society) (SZIT, Budapest, 2011), 273–274.

31 Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval (Ignatius Press, 2006), 47.

32 Böckenförde, Religion, Law, and Democracy: Selected Writings, 23–24.

33 Maritain, Humanisme intégral, 201.

34 For more, see: Koppány Zsombor Nádor, ‘Vallás, kereszténység és a deficit pótlásának a lehetősége’ (Religion, Christianity and the Possibility of Filling the Deficit), Teológia, 3–4 (2020), 216.

35 Ferenc Beran, Vilmos Lenhardt, Az ember útja. Az Egyház társadalmi tanítása (The Way of Man: Social Teaching of the Church) (Budapest: SZIT, 2017), 27–42.

36 Tamás Molnár, Keresztény humanizmus: A szekuláris államnak és ideológiájának kritikája (Christian Humanism: A Critique of the Secular State and Its Ideology) (Budapest: Kairosz, 2007), 18–19.

37 Borsi, A közélet etikája, 325–326.

38 Juan Donoso Cortés, Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism: Considered in Their Fundamental Principles, trans. William McDonald Kelly (Cornell University Library, 2010), 117.

39 Maritain, Humanisme intégral, 205.

40 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 62.

41 Maritain, Humanisme intégral, 164.

42 Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself About the Present Time, (Wipf and Stock Publishers. 2013).

43 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 18.

44 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 32–40.

45 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 46.

46 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 28.

47 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 53.

48 Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, 43.

49 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 18.

50 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Europa: verpflichtendes Erbe für die Christen’ (Europe: Obligatory Inheritance for Christians), in Franz König and Karl Rahner, eds., Europa. Horizonte der Hoffnung (Europe: Horizon of Hope) (Styria, 1983), 61–74.

51 Cf. Christopher Dawson, Beyond Politics (London: Sheed and Ward, 1939), 81.

52 Erich Kussbach, ‘Keresztény Európa és európai integráció’ (Christian Europe and European Integration), Vigilia, 4 (1997), 271–273.

53 Walter Kasper, Egyház merre tartatsz? A II. Vatikáni Zsinat maradandó jelentősége. A II. Vatikáni Zsinat dokumentumai negyven év távlatából (Church, Whither Goest Thou? The Lasting Significance of the Second Vatican Council: The Documents of the Second Vatican Council Forty Years Later) (Budapest: SZIT, 2002), 36–37.

54 George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God (Basic Books, 2005), 62.

55 Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (St Augustine’s Press, 2002), 114.

56 Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, 48–52.

57 Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, 20–22.

58 Ratzinger, A közép újrafelfedezése, 261.

59 Ratzinger, A közép újrafelfedezése, 254–276.

60 Böckenförde, Religion, Law, and Democracy: Selected Writings, 144–145.

61 Ratzinger, A közép újrafelfedezése, 256–279.

62 Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, 47–49. 63 Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy, Revolution, and Society (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 356.

64 Joseph H. Weiler, ‘A Christian Europe?’, 34.

65 Tamás Molnár, Keresztény humanizmus, 173.

‘Today, we are faced with the fact that in our pluralistic societies, it seems to pose an insurmountable challenge to agree on a generally accepted moral standard, with values that provide common foundations.’