Hungary’s Christian Realism
Hungary’s President Katalin Novák recently addressed Christian intellectuals in New York City with responses from Professors Vermeule and Pecknold
1. Summary & analysis by Professor Gladden Pappin
2. Remarks of Professor Adrian Vermeule
3. Remarks of Professor Chad Pecknold
Gladden Pappin on President Novák’s address
It is not every day that one gets to hear a head of state address the role of Christianity in the public life and politics. This Sunday, March 5, I was pleased to welcome Katalin Novák, president of Hungary, to New York along with Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, Chad Pecknold and other Christian intellectuals and friends of Hungary, hosted by the Bonum Commune Foundation. President Novák addressed exactly this topic.
President Novák outlined the role of Christianity in shaping public life and politics in Hungary on both the theoretical and the practical level. First, President Novák expressed that Christianity lies at the core of Hungarian identity. Hungary, she said, is a Christian nation both by definition—going back to its founding king, St. Stephen—and according to its destiny.
President Novák named five chief elements of Hungary’s Christian identity. The first, she said, is that Christianity gives priority to the common good and not only to the individual. Second, from Christianity Hungary draws the notion of its own sovereignty. Third, she mentioned respect for the contribution of work as essential to the Christian vision—that human beings are to work, while retaining their dignity as creatures made in the image of God. Thus, fourth, she highlighted Christianity’s fundamental commitment to the protection of human life and dignity. Finally, and relating to each of these, Christianity communicates the idea of responsibility—that is, that human choices matter.
Hungary, said President Novák, is in the fortunate situation of having the power to implement these elements of Christian understanding in concrete practice. That comes about, she said, through establishing them on a legal basis and carrying them out through policy decisions, resulting in a more Christian mentality—even where Sunday observance may be lacking.
Sometimes, the president noted, people suggest that public Christianity and the state’s support for it constitutes “pushing” Christianity. But the Hungarian view is that public support is “enabling” rather than pushing a Christian way of life. Hungary thus enables a Christian way of life by its constitution itself and by the subsidizing of traditional family values—including family support schemes and financial support for church-run institutions.
Speaking as a trained economist, President Novák noted that state support is necessary to decrease the burdens on childbearing. Accordingly, Hungary’s family policy allocates 6 percent of GDP to family support measures. These forms of support include tax breaks for parents, student loan reduction for mothers, housing subsidies to enable family formation and additional nurseries to help with childcare. Support for church-run institutions, both educational and charitable, has also enabled the visibility of churches in public life.
What stood out to me in President Novák’s speech were her emphases on how state and governmental support can enable Christianity (contrary to reductive liberal critiques of church-state coordination), and on how a strong legal basis and policy decisions work together to support a Christian mentality. Such a vision of the relationship of theory and practice, and the productive relationship of church and state, would in my opinion go a long way to redress Western ills.
Adrian Vermeule: The Baptism of the Roman Law
Thank you Madam President, and congratulations on your illuminating talk. I have little intelligent to say on public policy, so I was especially pleased that you mentioned the law, and in particular the preamble of the Hungarian Fundamental Law of 2011. As you will see those passages appear in my remarks as well.
I thought I would offer just a few thoughts on how Christianity baptized the Roman law. As grace perfects and elevates nature, so too Christianity perfected and elevated the Roman law, not by distorting its nature but by fulfilling its nature as—in the traditional formulation—ratio scripta, written reason. Let me mention three ways in which this occurred.
First, Christianity, both through the canon law and through indirect influence on the civil law, initiated a long process of development that brought the classical law as a whole into better conformity with the natural law. Of course the pre-Christian Roman lawyers, under the influence of Stoicism, theorized about the natural law and turned natural law principles into (part of) a practical working system; one sees here, very concretely, that the natural law is accessible to the reason of all mankind. But the pagan lawyers themselves noted grievous gaps between the positive civil law and natural law, such as the civil status of slavery. After the fourth century, one sees a process of gradual leavening of the civil law by the faith; examples include a prohibition on branding slaves and restrictions on second marriages. And this seed would flower in a much later century, when the law set its face against slavery altogether.
Second, Christianity clarified the very basis and point of public authority. A central example is the constitution or imperial edict Deo Auctore (By the Authority of God), by which in 530 A.D. the emperor Justinian commanded the compilation of the Digest, the crown jewel of the Corpus Juris Civilis. As the incipit itself suggests—the first word is God, as is also true of the Hungarian Fundamental Law of 2011 as later amended, at least if the translations are to be believed—the edict holds that imperial authority flows ultimately from God. But Deo Auctore goes on to observe that that same authority flows proximately from the Roman people, who delegated or transferred their authority and power by means of a fundamental law, the lex regia. So too, the Hungarian Fundamental Law provides that the historical unity of the nation and the continuity of the state is founded upon the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, and yet also provides that the people are the immediate source of public power. There is no contradiction between these two things; on the contrary, they represent an inspiring example of the interaction of grace and nature.
Likewise, Deo Auctore articulates the idea—the foundation not only of the whole European conception of lawful Christian kingship, but of lawful Christian democracy as well, mutatis mutandis—that law is not the mere arbitrary command of a dominus, a master, but has a fundamentally reasoned and public-regarding aim: to promote the public welfare and public goods of peace, order and justice. It is Justinian’s boast that he has not only successfully defended the realm but has also made peace honorable and upheld the condition of the state, and that he will reform the laws so as to drive out injustice. In terms recognizably descended from this, the Fundamental Law of 2011 holds that “the common goal of citizens and the State is to achieve the highest possible measure of well-being, safety, order, justice and liberty.”
Third and finally, and here is where I must become ever so slightly mystical, Christianity imparted to the Roman law something of the divine vitality of the Church’s founder, indeed even the power of resurrection. Goethe famously observed that the Roman law is like a duck that continually dives under and resurfaces, and Heinrich Rommen noted that the natural law has repeatedly buried its own undertakers. Baptism meant that the Roman law had in part to die, but would also be continually rediscovered and reborn. And, as I have indicated, this written reason elevated by grace even today finds, I think, a distinct and welcome echo in the Hungarian constitutional order. Thank you.
Chad Pecknold: A Cure for the Nations
The contemporary vision of politics has failed. It has failed because it has become detached from reality, from that goodness which is writ into the very order of things.
The ancients could tell us that we are suffering from a political illness—indeed, as Plato himself says, the democratic disorder means being ruled by the passions gone berserk. Who can look around and deny that we suffer from this political illness when we see how it has debilitated the beauty of nations, the order of the family, and the glory of the human person—we are rich, but signs of our political affliction are everywhere.
And then we have beautiful Hungary.
Hungary has a true vision of reality. She looks not to that democratic disorder which wrecks the family and the person, but to the memory of St. Stephen, and a great tradition which is mindful of the truth about God and his eternal law.
As a result, Hungary is a becoming a healthy nation amidst much political illness. Hungary is being renewed because she has returned to that greater light which has always attracted the saints and repelled foul spirits. Hungary has remembered God—the very antidote for national disaster that Solzhenitsyn prescribed exactly forty years ago.
A Christian nation is not a nation that coerces faith—which can only be a divine gift—but it does encourage it, safeguards it. A Christian nation is a just nation because it protects and rules according to those truths which have endured the great test of time, and can help us to endure time too.
Hungary shines today because it is rooted in a proper recognition of God, the cause of the very goodness of political order. And because Hungary remembers its saintly kings, it is a country which now produces new political heroes who dare to rule differently—the beauty, power and truth of this is self-evident—inspiring people to act for a better order, not only in Hungary, but in other countries as well.
As a university professor I see many of my students despair at the country they’re inheriting. The Bonum Commune Foundation exists to reverse our despair, to turn us from decay back to reality, and forward into abundance and goodness, back to the deep down things which endure, and forward into a better sort of rule.
When I teach my students about your great history, as well as your trials, they are inspired with a new kind of hope for their own country. This is marvelous to me as a teacher—to see despair reversed.
I am so grateful to your country for inspiring so many, including me, my students and all of us here to be bold and hopeful again about the very goodness of politics—you help us to remember that there is a better way: to live in accord with the structure of reality, so that everyone may have a share in the goodness of it.
Thank you, Madam President.