Nervous about the new Pope

I am surprised by the amount of attention bloggers are paying to the election of the new Pope. The choice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) clearly makes people nervous.

Cardinal Ratzinger is an outspoken proponent of moral absolutes, as defined by his Church. The evidence is unambiguous. For example: (1) Under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its mandate is to enforce official doctrine. (2) Cardinal Ratzinger is notorious for a statement in which he pronounced all faiths other than Roman Catholicism “defective”. (3) The first official statement of the new papacy was a denunciation of Spain’s political leaders for legalizing gay marriage.

Even apart from Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict’s personal convictions, the office of Pope is absolutist. One man ultimately determines the theological position of the global institution. When a Pope speaks ex cathedra (from Peter’s chair) he is considered infallible. In such a system, there is limited acceptance for dialogue or consensus, never mind dissent.

Rick Salutin, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, recently took issue with the absolutist worldview. Salutin asked, “What’s so scary about relativism?”* In brief, he argued:

Relativism defined:
“The point of ‘relativists’ is not that everything thought by anybody is true, but that any view might hold some truth and no one vision can contain it all….This is sometimes called perspectivism, the notion that every view of reality emerges from a particular standpoint, so each of us has only a partial grasp of ‘the’ truth.”

Relativism’s method illustrated:
“Where knowing works best, in science, it is always tentative, gradual and rejoices in overturning what it once knew.”

An admonition to rethink thought itself:
“As Nietzsche said, ‘Our apparatus for acquiring knowledge is not designed for knowledge.’ He meant our minds. What are they designed for? Wondering. Pondering. Asking….

“I don’t think it’s easy for Catholics or anyone else to retool their thought processes away from a focus on absolute truth. It means radically rethinking thought itself, from a quest to know, into a process less about truth than about exploring the world and the human condition thoughtfully and, to some extent, for its own sake.”

I find the Salutin column instructive, which is why I offer the above excerpts. I would like to supplement it with an analysis of my own.

I believe that every system has both strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, I believe that each system’s greatest strength is the flip side of its greatest weakness. As a result, it is impossible to eliminate the weakness without also eliminating the strength.

Let me illustrate the point with an example. Imagine that you have a friend who always sees the good in people. When others behave badly, she always gives them the benefit of the doubt and rationalizes their behavior. This is undeniably a strength: it means you can rely on unconditional acceptance from her.

But it can also be a weakness: for example, when you are in conflict with a third party. You want — you may even need — your friend to support you; but, as ever, she is inclined to make excuses for the other person’s behavior. You may feel that she has let you down, that she has betrayed your friendship.

The same trait is at work in both circumstances. In one instance, you experience it as a good; in another instance, you experience it as a failing. Her greatest strength as a friend is also her greatest weakness.

I am tempted to describe this as a yin/yang worldview. According to this philosophy, every phenomenon contains within itself the seed of its opposite state; and all phenomena change into their opposites in an eternal cycle. But I don’t want to appropriate language that I understand only dimly, at the risk of introducing distortions.

The particular trait we are discussing here is the Roman Catholic commitment to moral absolutes. It is both a strength and a weakness of the Church. Likewise, the moral relativism touted by Rick Salutin has both merits and demerits.

The most serious objection to moral relativism is that it calls into question the very possibility of moral knowledge. If all views contain some truth, and every view contains error, and truth is contingent on one’s perspective, what is left of “truth”?

How will we argue, for example, that female circumcision (aka genital mutilation) is wrong? The practice is a product of a particular worldview, and arguably we are guilty of cultural imperialism if we presume to oppose it.

In such situations, a system of moral absolutes can do great good. It can come to the rescue of those who would otherwise be victimized.

But in other situations, moral absolutes do great harm. In fact, the problem of female circumcision itself arises from a system of moral absolutes. Certain cultures regard female circumcision as a Muslim practice. In those cultures, people insist it is for the girl’s own good, as well as the good of society.

Similarly, biblical texts have been used to negate the values of others and demean them as individuals. Homosexual marriage is a current example. The Church hides behind fine distinctions (“love the sinner; hate the sin” — a slogan that originated with St. Augustine). Meanwhile, religious leaders oppose a fundamental human right: the equality of homosexuals before the law.

Pope Benedict’s absolutism may maximize the positive impact of Roman Catholicism. (That is certainly his expectation.) If so, the gain will come at a great cost. Pope Benedict’s absolutism will also maximize the negative impact of Roman Catholicism, for the strength and the weakness are flip sides of one another.

Ultimately, I believe we would be better off if the Church were less dogmatic in its positions. If the Roman Catholic Church were to embrace moral relativism, it could still be a force for good in the world. By appealing to reason, the Church could attempt to persuade us of the validity of its beliefs and the utility of its moral positions.

By embracing moral relativism, the Church would also minimize the destructive impact of its traditions. It would create some wriggle room for itself: some capacity to retreat when its theology, rigorously applied, would lead it to negate and demean others.

The solution, as Rick Salutin suggests, is to rethink thought itself. Religious institutions already concede, in principle, that no human system can contain all truth. They are less eager to embrace the concomitant belief, that others also have a contribution to make to human beliefs, values, and mores.

Religious institutions must become more open to dialogue, consensus, and even dissent. They must focus less on “knowing” and more on wondering, pondering, and asking: on exploring the human condition thoughtfully, while recognizing that all conclusions are provisional and subject to change.

Pope Benedict XVI will likely maintain the current direction of the Roman Catholic Church. But, in due course, another Pope will be elected. Perhaps the Church will one day ask, in its turn, What’s so scary about relativism?

*The Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s national newspapers. “What’s so scary about relativism?”, was published on Friday, April 22, 2005, p. A13.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Journeywoman
    Apr 30, 2005 @ 08:33:00

    It strikes me that the kindly friend who always sees the good, but can’t bring herself to stand unequivocally against anything typifies the strengths and weaknesses of the moral relativist position quite effectively.

    There does come a point (female genital mutilation is a good example) where one needs to be prepared to say, unequivocally, “This is wrong!” Relativism can allow us to feel compassion for the people perpetrating this evil, but it becomes no less evil for that.


  2. Q
    May 01, 2005 @ 21:04:00

    I hadn’t thought of the friend as an illustration of moral relativism, but it’s an apt comment.

    And I am deeply committed to the cause of social justice, so I agree that we must be willing to take a stand on moral issues. The challenge, in a pluralistic society, is to build a consensus on which to act.

    Human rights codes are our best approximation in the Western world. Even then, some members of society can’t join the consensus when it comes to certain issues (e.g. same sex marriage).

    That’s the problem with taking a stand on moral issues: it is inevitably divisive. But that certainly doesn’t mean we should never do it.


  3. Bill
    May 02, 2005 @ 14:17:00

    This is not an issue I tend to put my mind to, because personally I gesticulate between absolutism and relativism. However I was discussing this with a friend some time ago and the conclusion (or lack of one) that we came to was that the relativist sees himself as having a symbiotic relationship with the greater world and the absolutist agrees to a point but defines the relativist as a parasite.


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