September 16, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

‘Dictatorship of relativism’ separates God from human life

One of the blessings of my summer vacation is the opportunity to read books and articles at leisure. The most challenging read of this past summer was a work by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI , Truth and Tolerance, published in 2004 by Ignatius Press. He reflects on the problem of truth, tolerance, religion and culture in our world. In the face of the vast array of religions in the world (the now) Pope Benedict addressed our belief that salvation comes through Jesus Christ.

In the preface, he wrote: “Beyond all particular questions, the real problem lies in the question about truth. Can truth be recognized? Or is the question about truth simply inappropriate in the realm of religion and belief? But what meaning does belief have, what positive meaning does religion have, if it cannot be connected with truth?”

I have read many of the numerous works of Cardinal Ratzinger that were published over the years. There is a theme that runs through many of them, and he surfaced it in the homily he gave to the cardinal-electors just before the papal conclave last April. He spoke of a growing “dictatorship of relativism,” a central issue facing the modern world. What does he mean? What is relativism?

Simplistically, it means that truth is subject to a democratic determination. Truth is determined by majority opinion. It is truth by vote. What is considered truth today is subject to a different vote tomorrow. In other words, there is no absolute truth. It also means minority opinion of what is true is overruled by the (shifting) majority.

The prevailing roots of skepticism about our ability to know absolute truth can be found among philosophers of the 17th and 18th century, who taught that we humans can only know appearances of the truth, not truth itself. In the age of the Enlightenment, particular emphasis was given to the idea that there cannot be a true relationship between faith and reason, between faith and science. If there is no absolute truth, God is separated from human life. Therein were the seeds of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany and atheistic Communism in the Soviet Russia. Therein also are the seeds of secular materialism.

If there is no absolute truth, then faith is determined by the individual. As Benedict XVI has said, “A faith we can decide for ourselves is no faith at all. Either the faith and its practice comes to us from the Lord by way of the Church and her sacramental services, or there is no such thing. The reason many people are abandoning the faith is that it seems to them that the faith can be decided by some officials or institutions, that it is a kind of party program; whoever has the power is able to decide what should be believed, and so it is a matter of getting hold of power oneself within the Church or, on the other hand—more obviously and logically—just not believing” (p. 129-130).

A clear example of relativistic thinking was apparent in the speculation among pundits within and outside the Catholic Church before last April’s papal election. A frequent media question was posed in these similar words: “What changes in the Church will the election of a new pope (“liberal or conservative”) bring about? How will Church teaching change?”

This line of questioning implied that the pope can determine or change Church doctrine. It implies that the doctrine of the Catholic faith is relative, that it is changeable. Neither a pope nor any other authority figure arbitrarily determines Church doctrine. Papal authority is significant, but it does not determine the truth of the faith. Defend the faith? Yes. Teach the faith? Yes? Explain the faith? Yes. Apply the faith? Yes. Change it? No. (Of course, there is a difference between changing the received doctrine of the Church about faith or morals and certain practices, e.g., abstinence from meat on Fridays.)

As the title of Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, Truth and Tolerance, suggests, he discusses the possibility of absolute truth in the context of contemporary concerns for the sensitivities of others who perceive faith and reality different than we do. The “dictatorship of relativism” would impose a restriction of freedom when “tolerance” overrides a claim to the truth. The values of pluralism and inclusivism may lower the threshold of what may be asserted as true. Theoretically, this implies that faith and its expression are determined by plausible cultural values that are determined by majority ­opinion.

Pope Benedict’s assertion that the growing “dictatorship of relativism” is a grave challenge for contemporary society and not only for our Catholic faith is timely. His voice and capacity to address the challenge may be the legacy of this papacy. †


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