Rules Are for Schmucks: The Latest Christian Salvos: Cardinal Péter Erdő

Last week we looked one of the latest Christian smears against us nonbelievers, Protestant theologian William Lane Craig’s argument at a Toronto forum that it’s impossible to be both “consistent” and “happy” unless you believe in God. Three days after Craig’s denunciation, we were treated to finger-pointing from Hungary’s Catholic Cardinal Péter Erdő, who crossed the Atlantic to lecture Americans about democracy.

Erdő is a heavyweight within the church. He was touted as one of the leading European contenders for pope at the 2013 conclave that picked Jorge Bergoglio, after having been the youngest member of the 2005 conclave that picked Joseph Ratzinger. Indeed, one of the raps against his 2013 candidacy was that at age sixty, he was “too young” to be pope—a problem that recedes every day. He was also selected by Pope Francis to be the “relator general” of the 2015 Synod on the Family, assembling the dozens of points of view into a coherent whole. Whether the confusion surrounding that synod hurts his cause remains to be seen.

Anyway, this cardinal from a country that has experienced democracy for less than thirty years came to New York to warn us that our democracy’s foundations are shaking. Is his concern due to the fact that the presidential candidate who gets fewer votes seems to wind up in office anyway, as has already happened twice in this century? No, it’s because of “moral relativism,” which is “shaking of the anthropological foundations of democracy.”

“It is difficult for the state to decide what is good for man,” said Erdő, without some foundation in “natural law” and a religious worldview. “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.

The problem, he informs us, started with the Enlightenment. Before that cursed development, “Law, morals, and religion prove to form an organic whole, which is characteristic of Western society right up to the age of Enlightenment.” The leading example of what results from the Enlightenment, of course, is Nazi Germany. “The trials of Nuremberg showed where the separation of law and morals can lead.”

I would be ecstatic to live in a world that exclusively followed “natural law” and divinely ordained moral imperatives rather than messy, inconsistent man-made laws that have an annoying tendency to change over time.

If only I knew what that natural law and those divinely ordained moral imperatives actually were. One thing I know for certain: the institution Erdő represents doesn’t know.

For almost all of its history, the Catholic Church that Erdő celebrates as the repository of “natural law” and moral absolutes taught that some people should be slaves and other people (especially cardinals) should be their masters. Church lawyers, in fact, constructed the detailed slave codes of Europe, specifying what types of offenses could be addressed with what types of bodily mutilation. It was only after moral relativists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine started questioning the clear dictates of the Bible that slavery began losing steam, and only after the last major Christian-majority slaveholding country (Brazil) decided to abolish it that the church finally flip-flopped.

For almost all of its history, the Catholic Church endorsed the use of torture to extract the truth from suspected wrongdoers (though I don’t recall any instances of torture being used against cardinals). Natural law and moral absolutism gave us the Inquisition, which continued into the nineteenth century. Not until 1917 was canon law revised to renounce the use of torture.

For almost all of its history, the Catholic Church has taken a dim view of science and its fruits. Not just Galileo, but even advances as important as smallpox vaccination, which has saved hundreds of millions of lives (no thanks to the church). Now they say they’re past that. Except of course, when it comes to vaccination against cervical cancer, which they’re still against, because it might encourage sex.

For almost all of its history, the Catholic Church was virulently anti-Semitic. Fresh insights into “natural law” and unchanging “moral imperatives” over the last few decades have reversed this bias. But it’s more than merely ironic to hear Cardinal Erdő blame the Nazi Holocaust on moral relativism, when history presents an overwhelming case to demonstrate that the resurrection of European anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century resulted primarily from a massive propaganda campaign conceived and managed by the Vatican (which blamed Jews for the loss of its money and power when Italy reunified). Adolf Hitler was able to seize absolute power precisely because the pope ordered Germany’s centrist Catholic Party to stand down and get out of his way. In exchange, Hitler gave the church tons of taxpayer money. Erdő is blaming secularism for that?

While we’re doing irony, the idea that a Catholic cardinal would moan and groan about threats to “democracy” is downright ludicrous. For almost all of its history, the Catholic Church has been bitterly opposed to democracy. Now they’re for it?

I find “moral relativism” to be a non-useful term. Not all of my relatives are moral! I find it much more useful to go back to Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” We need to do the best we can to use our not-too-perfect brains to figure out the best way to live, which means allowing for a little play in the joints. Not an unlimited amount—just because someone else believes in laws against blasphemy or apostasy doesn’t mean that I can’t find such a view offensive and asinine. But whether a highway speed limit should be 65 mph or 70, whether abortion at various points in the gestation period is ok or not, and what kind of restrictions should or shouldn’t be placed on immigration are questions we just have to muddle through as best we can, being willing to change our minds when necessary. Having blowhard cardinals tell us “No, here is the natural law that God wants” is a massive obstacle to our already difficult task of getting these questions right.