April 20, 2005
Pope Benedict XVI: Proposing Faith as an Antidote to Relativism
With yesterday's election of Pope Benedict XVI, the hyperventilating of the liberal media has commenced as expected. The reactions tell an incomplete story, missing the broader and more significant issues threatening the civilized world.
In yet another example of how completely superficial and inaccurate their reactions can be, Professor Bainbridge highlights the over-the-top comments by Andrew Sullivan and, more importantly, contrasts Sullivan's reactions with actual words by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. After providing several specific examples, Bainbridge writes:
...in the political sphere, the new Pope demonstrably recognizes that there is legitimate room for disagreement on how one operationalizes all but the most basic Church teachings, such as the gospel of life, and that even there Catholics may in appropriate instances even vote for politicians who do not share the Church's view on that central tenet.
After reading his entire posting, ask yourself who offers the more thoughtful perspective.
Additional thoughtful insights into Pope Benedict XVI's thinking and world view can be found in commentaries at these sites: Captain's Quarters, George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, Richard John Neuhaus, Professor Bainbridge, Amy Welborn, Amy Welborn, Amy Welborn, Amy Welborn, Amy Welborn, RomanCatholicBlog, Michael Novak, James Pinkerton, The Anchoress, The Anchoress, The Anchoress, Peggy Noonan, Mark Roberts, Daniel Moloney, Daniel Henninger, Philip Lawler, Ken Masugi, Armavirumque, Joseph Bottum as well as these articles here, here, and here. ScrappleFace offers a satirical commentary about the American church.
These comments by Michael Novak provide further insight into the mind of Pope Benedict XVI:
If it happens that Josef Ratzinger becomes the 265th pope, journalists will have a field day reading all his voluminous writings, but especially his three books composed by answering face-to-face the questions of journalists. Two of these were great best sellers.
I cannot think of any cardinal who has been so fearless and open with the press, speaking for a dictation tape and allowing the journalist to frame the questions and supervise the editing (the cardinal was allowed to simplify and clarify the transcript where useful, but for the most part let the spoken words stand as spoken)...
...I could see an enormous intellectual contribution to the world's understanding of itself if Ratzinger had the papal bully pulpit. His work has involved him in intimate problems of international culture for more than two decades now, and at a very deep and holistic level...
For the great problem of the world at this juncture concerns what principles lie at its heart--nothing at all, with neither standards nor meaning -- or a reasoned faith that bursts with inner life and love and hope. It is on this problem that Ratzinger's mind has long been fixed. It is, I think, at the heart of the matter, for the world's future. And for the future of the faith...
Continuing along the same lines, Jana Novak also shares two of the new Pope's comments in recent years:
"The Council, in fact, wished to show that Christianity is not against reason, against modernity, but that on the contrary it is a help so that reason in its totality can work not only on technical questions, but also on human, moral and religious knowledge." (May 2004)
"The Church will continue to propose the great universal human values. Because, if law no longer has common moral foundations, it collapses insofar as it is law. From this point of view, the Church has a universal responsibility." (October 2001)
Novak then offers a context for understanding the Pope's comments:
Long before Monday's homily, Cardinal Ratzinger propounded about the dangers of relativism, of not believing that not only there is truth, but also that one can seek to understand it. As he noted in 2002, "I would say that today relativism predominates. It seems that whoever is not a relativist is someone who is intolerant. To think that one can understand the essential truth is already seen as something intolerant."
He has also pointed out this fundamental truth about Christianity itself: "Christianity is not "our" work; it is a Revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose." In other words, if to be "progressive" or "modern" is to reconstruct Christianity as we like or choose, then that is abandoning Christianity.
To further extend the point, many news commentators have unfavorably referenced the new Pope's homily last Monday before the beginning of the conclave. Here is the most-referenced excerpt:
How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking… The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth...Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.
I would encourage you to read the entire homily and contrast the words with some of the public commentary.
"...This new secularism is no longer neutral, but hostile to public manifestations of Christianity, which is being marginalised and privatised. "We must defend religious freedom against the imposition of an ideology that is being presented as if it were the only voice of rationality, whereas it is only the expression of a narrow rationalism."
The incident that occasioned such anguish is the case of Rocco Buttiglione, who was dropped from the European Commission merely for refusing to deny his Catholicism, in the private rather than the public sphere. For Cardinal Ratzinger, the implication is that anybody who defends Christian orthodoxy is now excluded from public life. He cites the example of a Protestant pastor in Sweden who was imprisoned for a month for preaching against homosexuality. Christianity has come full circle since the days of its persecution under the Roman Empire: an established Church no longer, it is now once again a persecuted band of the faithful.
Michael Novak provides a broad framework for understanding what many people believe is the central philosophical struggle going on around the world, a struggle addressed by many of Pope Benedict XVI's statements:
In his most formative years, Ratzinger heard Nazi propaganda shouting that there is no truth, no justice, there is only the will of the people (enunciated by its leader). As its necessary precondition, Nazism depended on the debunking of objective truth and objective morality. Truth had to be derided as irrelevant, and naked will had to be exalted...
Relativism means this: Power trumps.
Ratzinger experienced another set of loud shouters in the 1968 student revolution at Tubingen University, this time in the name of Marxist rather than Nazi will. Marxism as much as Nazism (though in a different way) depended on the relativization of all previous notions of ethics and morality and truth - “bourgeois” ideas, these were called. People who were called upon by the party to kill in the party’s name had to develop a relativist’s conscience.
In today’s liberal democracies, Ratzinger has observed, the move to atheism is not, as it was in the 19th century, a move toward the objective world of the scientific rationalist. That was the "modern" way, and it is now being rejected, in favor of a new "post-modern" way. The new way is not toward objectivity, but toward subjectivism; not toward truth as its criterion, but toward power. This, Ratzinger fears, is a move back toward the justification of murder in the name of "tolerance" and subjective choice.
Along with that move, he has observed (haven’t we all?), comes a dictatorial impulse, to treat anyone who has a different view as "intolerant." For instance, those (on the "religious right") who hold that there are truths worth dying for, and objective goods to be pursued and objective evils to be avoided, are now held to be "intolerant" fundamentalists, guilty of "discrimination."
In other words, the new dictatorial impulse declares that the only view permissible among reasonable people is the view that all subjective choices are equally valid. It declares, further, that anyone who claims that there are objective truths and objective goods and evils is "intolerant." Such persons are to be expelled from the community, or at a minimum re-educated. That is to say, all Catholics and others like them must be converted to relativism or else sent into cultural re-training camps.
On the basis of relativism, however, no culture can long defend itself or justify its own values. If everything is relative, even tolerance is only a subjective choice, not an objective mandatory value. Ironically, though, what post-moderns call "tolerance" is actually radically intolerant of any view contrary to its own.
Most of the commentators, however, even those who support him, are misinterpreting Ratzinger’s point. They are getting him wrong.
What Ratzinger defends is not dogmatism against relativism. What he defends is not absolutism against relativism. These are false alternatives.
What Ratzinger attacks as relativism is the regulative principle that all thought is and must remain subjective. What he defends against such relativism is the contrary regulative principle, namely, that each human subject must continue to inquire incessantly, and to bow to the evidence of fact and reason.
The fact that we each see things differently does not imply that there is no truth. It implies, rather, that each of us may have a portion of the truth, and that in this or that matter some of us may hold more (or less) truth than others. Therefore, since each of us has only part of all the truth we seek, we must work hard together to discern in all things wherein lies the truth, and wherein the error.
Ratzinger wishes to defend the imperative of seeking the truth in all things, the imperative to follow the evidence. This imperative applies to daily life, to science, and to faith. The great Jewish and Christian name for God is connected to this imperative - one of the Creator’s names is Truth. Other related names are Light, and Way. Humans are made seekers after truth.
It is no more than a fact that ours is a pluralistic world, in which individuals have virtually an infinite variety of views. For Ratzinger, not only is this individual variety normal and to be praised; it shows the infinite number of ways humans have been made in the image of the infinite God. Each one of us, as it were, mirrors a different aspect of the infinite abundance of God.
But the fact of human "relativity" - that is, the fact that we each see things differently, or that the life-voyage of each of us is unique and inimitable - should not be transformed into an absolute moral principle. The fact of relativity does not logically lead to the principle of moral relativism.
No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless. Except for the fragments of faith (in progress, in compassion, in conscience, in hope) to which it still clings, illegitimately, such a culture teaches every one of its children that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
The culture of relativism invites its own destruction, both by its own internal incoherence and by its defenselessness against cultures of faith.
This is the bleak fate that Cardinal Ratzinger already sees looming before Europe. His fear is that this sickness of the soul will spread.
For Cardinal Ratzinger, moreover, it is not reason that offers a foundation for faith, but the opposite. Historically, it is Jewish and Christian faith in an intelligent and benevolent Creator that gave birth in the West to trust in reason, humanism, science, and progress, and carried the West far beyond the fatalistic limits of ancient Greece and Rome.
To the meaninglessness of relativism, Ratzinger counter poses respect for the distinctive, incommensurable image of God in every single human being, from the most helpless to the seemingly most powerful, together with a sense of our solidarity with one another in the bosom of our Creator. This fundamental vision of the immortal value both of the individual person and the whole human community in solidarity has been the motor-power, the spiritual dynamic overdrive, of an increasingly global (catholic) civilization.
These concerns are highly relevant for us here in America, as has been noted here.
Our country - and all of the civilized world - could only be better off if we had a truly open and public debate about both the merits of these different philosophical views of the world and which one we want to be central to our lives.