The Christmas season always stops the flow of time and presents an opportunity for us to meditate, a time to contemplate our direct and more distant roots: our family, our communities, our country and the gifts of Christianity. One recalls the memorable words of the late József Antall, the prime minister during the regime change three decades ago: Even an atheist is a Christian in Europe. Indeed, Europe and Christianity are inextricably linked by many aspects. Throughout Europe, the mystery of Jesus Christ, the message of Christianity, the Son of God, who became a man, died and was resurrected for us, has been inherited from generation to generation for thousands of years. Christianity gave Europe a vision. Europe was the cradle of the Christian religion, its ideology and its churches; it served as Christianity’s sole guardian for thousands of years. At the same time, the words of the late prime minister also demonstrate his foresight. Indeed, they foretell the debates on identity that are eroding Europe today. But what does Christianity give to Western civilization, and what does Europe risk by turning her back on everything it has given?
Due to the “Constantine shift,” the ethics of Christianity overcame the pagan traditions that had dominated the ancient world, becoming dominant during the Roman Empire as well as later periods in Europe. Unlike other value systems, the defining idea of Christian ethics is that God created all men in His own image. The adoption of this central concept brought change, for example, the banning of the bloody circus games that were popular in the ancient world, by restricting the torture and killing of slaves and limiting child trafficking. It also brought about change in the public rituals established by pagans, which mandated immolation in honor of the emperor.
While preserving and passing on the values of the ancient world, including Roman law, Christianity articulated a solid set of ethical standards that became the dominant way of thinking in medieval Europe. By accepting this way of life, King St. Stephen gained admission to Europe and managed to lay down the foundation for independent Hungarian statehood in the European community of Christian states, which God will gather together at the end of time. Furthermore, in the spirit of religious tolerance, the Parliament of Torda was the first in Europe to proclaim religious freedom among established Christian denominations and can thus rightly claim to be among the achievements of the Hungarian historical constitution.
While Christian ethics and political thought created a theoretical system, the mystery of the Christian faith established a unique vision and civilization in Europe. God not only created man in His own image, but gave him the gift of free will. This provides immense freedom, which, however, comes with responsibility, as the Scriptures put it, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6: 7-8).
The Christian vision of the relationship between freedom and responsibility points the way between the extremes of individualism and collectivism, recognizing both the protection of individual autonomy and the community dimension of their relationship. The individual and the community, while in constant struggle, are also partners by necessity. According to the apt wording of the late László Ravasz, the bishop of the Reformed Church, the community cannot function without individual spirit, as a flock will never become a nation, but at the same time, the individual without any sense of community leads to anarchy. A precious part of our Christian heritage is the principle of subsidiarity, which seeks to fulfill the communal dimensions of the individual by providing the greatest possible freedom.
The cross, which had been a hated symbol of death and defeat, emerged as a symbol of resurrection, triumph and the Kingdom of God. Europe was elevated by this vision, and with it, Europe could become the “focal point of civilization” in the subsequent chapters of history. Seeking to preserve its independence, Hungary made sacrifices to defend this vision in, among others, Muhi, Nándorfehérvár, Szigetvár and Eger, as well as in Budapest in 1541 and 1956. At noon, the bells toll in honor of this vision for Europe. In his encyclical Datis Nuperrime, Pope Pius XII, in connection with the events of 1956, pointed out “[f]or so the blood of the Hungarian people cries out to God.” The Christian faith played a decisive role in maintaining the desire and will of the Polish, Hungarian and other Central European nations that longed to restore freedom during the oppression of Soviet communism.
Europe, of course, has lost her way many times, giving up the vision of Christianity in exchange for the illusion of ideologies that offered an attractive utopia. Be it the overstretched idea of the Enlightenment in the French Revolution, or Marxism and the National Socialist and Communist dictatorships. And every time Europe did so, she suffered severe trauma. Thus, it is no coincidence that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the cornerstones of European integration were laid by legendary Christian Democrat politicians like Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi. The reconstruction had to embrace a return to Christian roots because they knew that what was left of Europe could only be saved from the threat of the spreading Soviet empire by a vision of Christianity. Therefore, instead of questioning Europe’s values, they saw the preservation of them as a priority.
In light of this, it saddens me that European political life is once again drifting further and further away from its Christian foundation. Listening to the debates in the European Parliament, I often feel as if I am attending a service without prayer and where the European Union itself is becoming a religion. Part of the ceremony is dedicated to the idea that the continuous construction and deepening of the European Union, along with the policy of integration, cannot be questioned. It has become a dogma that one must believe in without reservation. The key concept of the EU has become the non-existent “European citizen” who, overthrowing Christian teaching on the relationship between the individual and the community, displaces and excludes any local or national identity or community.
The European Union is itself emerging as an ideology. And the Central European states that have recently experienced totalitarian dictatorships are now warning the rest of Europe that this path is leading us astray. The achievements of European integration are valuable; the internal market and the four freedoms are important, perhaps indispensable for prosperity; and European institutions and symbols are also essential for institutionalized dialogue. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that none of these have the force necessary to create civilization. They can be tools for a lofty and noble goal, but they themselves cannot provide a vision for Europe nor hold her together.
If Europe turns her back on her Christian heritage, the continent may survive in a geographical sense, but the civilization that has preserved and elevated us for millennia will be lost forever.
The original, Hungarian version of this op-ed was published in Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet.