Cardinal Erdo: Democracy’s foundations are ‘shaking’

Cardinal Peter Erdo_Credit Thaler Tama?s CC 3.0_CNA

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.

Source: Cardinal Erdo: Democracy’s foundations are ‘shaking’

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.

Our Founders were well aware of this problem! I am reminded of the famous quote by John Adams, in an address to the Massachusetts Militia on 11 October 1789, in which he reminded them that

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

And no less a personage that George Washington, in his Farewell Address on 19 September 1796, enjoined his countrymen to recall that

“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens.”

And the growing number and intensity of laws, passed in an attempt to reign in the unleashed appetites of humans who have forgotten moral obligation, religious duty, and philosophical self-control alike, is a reminder of the pithy observation of G.K. Chesterton, who, though neither a Founder nor an American, aptly noted,

“If men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they will be governed by ten thousand commandments.”

Chesterton also observed, along the same lines, “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.”

We often – and by “we,” I mean not the readership of this blog, but the larger secular society of which we are a part, or at least within which we find ourselves constrained to operate – often think of religion and morality as constraints upon freedom, liberty, and democracy (although we in the United States are not and were not intended by our Founders to be a democracy, but a representative, constitutional Republic, characterized by an ordered liberty grounded in classical moral standards).

But as the words of Cardinal Erdo, and the others quoted above, make clear, religion and morality are not the enemies of liberty, but its foundation.

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Primo de Rivera: “Freedom does not exist except within an order”

Freedom does not exist except within an order

I was very pleased to have one of my young driver’s education students, in response to a comment on the importance of following “the rules of the road,” respond, “Without order, there’s chaos.” Maybe there is hope for the rising generation, after all!

Indeed, freedom is only possible within order: in chaos, or raw anarchy, the only persons to have “freedom” are those in the highest positions of power. An orderly society both protects the rights and also enunciates the responsibilities of all members.

The Constitutional, representative Republic bequeathed us by our Founders is one way of accomplishing this end, and, so long as their prescription was faithfully followed, an effective one. But it is not the only approach; King Charles I of England, executed by the “Roundhead” Parliament during the English Civil War, articulated another:

“No man in England is a better friend to liberty than myself, But I must tell you plainly that the liberty of subjects consists not in having a hand in the government, but in having that government, and those laws, whereby their lives and their goods may be most their own.”

James Kiefer goes on to elaborate,

“one may reasonably ask of a government that it establish justice in the land; so that judges do not take bribes, so that innocent men are not convicted of crimes, while the guilty are convicted and punished, so that honest men need fear neither robbers nor the sheriff. One may further ask that taxes be not excessive, and that punishments be not disproportionate to the crime. Charles would have said, ‘Do not ask whether the laws were made by men whom you elected. Ask whether they are reasonable and good laws, upholding justice and the public weal.'”

These principles are equally manifest and necessary whether the source of orderly government and society is viewed as “top-down” (from God, through a Monarch, to the people) or “bottom-up” (ultimately from God – if you read the Declaration of Independence – but flowing through the sovereignty of the people to those elected to perform the functions of government).

Like a human person whose physical being is defined by skin and skeleton, a cell defined by its walls, a poem defined by form and meter, a country defined by its borders, or art or music defined by the conventions thereof, one’s freedom can be expressed most fully within an orderly society. The alternative is indeed chaos, and the “freedom” thus engendered is temporary and illusory.

George Washington’s wisdom

Just created this a little bit ago. It seemed apt, in light of the Las Vegas massacre, among many other things…

George Washington - Believe me now?

The words are from then-President George Washington’s “Farewell Address” (1796). By “religion and morality” is meant Christian religion and morality, or at any rate the Judeo-Christian religious and moral tradition which has formed one of the major underpinnings of Western civilization for the last 1500+ years.

We have, as a culture (if one can use the term, currently…) and society, been abandoning this “great pillar of human happiness” – along with other pillars of our civilization, such as the Greco-Roman political and philosophical tradition, and the courage, passion, and physical prowess of our Celtic and Germanic forebears – at an alarming rate over the last 50 to 75 years, and I think it is not coincidental that we have also seen our civilization in steep and accelerating decline over the same period.

A tree cut off from its roots does not grow, blossom, and bear fruit: it withers. The same is also true of a culture.

The prescient wisdom of Robert E. Lee

General Lee - portrait photograph

“I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, is not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”

~ Robert E. Lee in correspondence with Lord Acton

As “Marse Robert” accurately perceived, our Founders carefully set up a detailed and intricate system of “checks and balances” to preserve our Constitutional liberties, and our status as not a pure democracy, but a representative Republic.

And that included not only a balance of power between and among the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), but between the Federal government and the States. Indeed, it it worth noting that the Preamble to the Constitution speaks of the establishment of a Constitution “for these United States.” Note that: “for these” States, as distinct, sovereign entities, not “for the” single entity called “the United States.” That is not accidental, or an infelicitous choice of words!

Unfortunately, since our Founding, the corruption that comes with the desire for power has been leading the Federal government to constantly accrue powers to itself, against the clear directive of the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people” (the Tenth Amendment).

President Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union even at the cost of the Constitution – against which Lee, at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, so ably but ultimately unsuccessfully contended – was a body-blow to the Founders’ intentions, and the pace of Federal usurpation has been accelerating ever since. For many of us, “aggressive abroad and despotic at home” is not too strong an expression of the unfortunate result.