September 18, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Absolute moral norms

John F. Fink(Thirty-second in a series)

“What is truth?” That, of course, is the question Pontius Pilate asked Jesus when Jesus said that he had come into the world to testify to the truth. It appears, though, that Pilate isn’t the only one who was confused about what truth is. Apparently, so are most Americans.

A survey conducted in 2002 discovered that most Americans believe moral truth “always depends upon the situation,” and they reject the idea of unchanging “moral absolutes.” According to the poll results, this is true of the majority of people in all age categories.

A whopping 83 percent of teenagers said that moral truth always depends on the situation or circumstance. Young adults who believe that weren’t far behind—75 percent. It was 55 percent for those aged 36 to 55, and 61 percent for those over 55.

When asked how they base their ethical or moral choices, only 20 percent of teenagers said they did so on “principles or standards.” The most common answer, 33 percent, was “whatever feels right or comfortable.”

These people all seem to believe in relativism—the belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth is relative. What is true for you might not be true for me. We see the results of such a philosophy in our society’s embrace of tolerance.

Harvey Cox taught Harvard University undergraduates a course in “Jesus as a moral teacher” for about 20 years. In his book When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox says that, in his discussions with his students, he soon learned that the virtue his students valued most was tolerance. They loathed being looked upon as judgmental.

They were, he said, “benevolent but uncomfortable relativists.” However, he wrote, “I was glad they were coming to realize that a nation with 250 million separate moral codes is an impossibility, and a world with 6 billion individuals each doing his or her own thing would become unlivable.”

Contrary to what all these people think, there are moral absolutes. There is objective truth and it doesn’t depend upon the situation.

The day before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke out against what he called a new “dictatorship of relativism” that has pervaded society. He has repeated his condemnation of this false philosophy frequently.

Back in 1993, Pope John Paul II noted what he called “a crisis of truth.” To try to combat that crisis, he wrote his encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”).

He wrote, “Human persons are free. But their freedom is not unlimited; it must halt before the moral law given by God. Human freedom finds its fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God’s law does not reduce or do away with human freedom; instead it protects and promotes that freedom.”

Jesus said, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32).

Next week, I will write about the role that conscience plays in determining the truth. †

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