The Risks of Relativism

Fallacies That Confront Benedict XVI

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ROME, APRIL 30, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Upholding the value of moral principles against the modern tendency to relativism could be among the priorities of Benedict XVI. In a homily April 18, during the Mass celebrated before the start of the conclave, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger referred to the ever-changing trends in contemporary thought.



"How many winds of doctrine we have known in these last decades, how many ideological currents, how many fashions of thought?" he asked. "Every day new sects are born and we see realized what St. Paul says on the deception of men, on the cunning that tends to lead into error."

At the same time, for believers to uphold the values of their faith "is often labeled as fundamentalism," he noted. As a result, "relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of 'doctrine,' seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable."

Against what Cardinal Ratzinger termed "a dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the 'I' and its whims as the ultimate measure," the Church offers Christ as the true measure. Moreover, the Church offers its followers an adult faith that does not follow the latest trend and is, instead "profoundly rooted in friendship with Christ." And on the basis of this friendship we have "the measure to discern between what is true and what is false, between deceit and truth."

This criticism of relativism met with hostility in some circles. Writing in the Guardian newspaper in Britain on April 20, Julian Baggini stated: "The black-and-white choice Ratzinger offers us is, therefore, a bogus one. The absolute moral certainty he claims the church offers is hollow."

And on April 19 the New York Times described the pre-conclave homily as "uncompromising," and the cardinal himself as "an ultraconservative" who "is in favor of a smaller church, but one that is more ideologically pure."

Freedom in truth

However, the importance of preserving perennial truths and values was defended by others. In a commentary written for the Scotsman newspaper, John Haldane, professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, noted that a key element in Cardinal Ratzinger's thought has been the conviction that the revealed truths of Christianity "set us free on earth and save us in eternity."

The fallacy in modern thinking that the cardinal is warning against, explained Haldane, is the idea "that truth is manufactured rather than discovered." In part, he noted, this stems from the reaction modern man feels when confronted with the idea that we are sinners and that this may lead to eternal punishment. In these circumstances, the professor said, "it is more comfortable to deny that there is sin than to repent and reform."

Benedict XVI also received support in an interview with former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, published last Monday in the newspaper La Repubblica. Amato, a defender of secularist principles, noted that Cardinal Ratzinger's homily had prompted many to comment that the Church now has a conservative, or even reactionary, Pope. But, he continued, the criticism of relativism is firmly in the line of what John Paul II had taught on many occasions when he warned of the dangers of a society without ideals.

Amato argued that our freedom to choose is always a moral choice between good and evil, and not just simply of a good in itself. Hence we cannot avoid confronting our free will with the question of values. And even in Europe, Amato noted, there is an upsurge in religious sentiments and the search for values.

The former prime minister also affirmed that society cannot be based merely on an empty procedural basis that sidelines values in the name of liberty. Amato also pointed out that we need to take into account what Benedict XVI said in his homily during the inaugural Mass of his pontificate -- namely, that the Christian message is not imposed by force, but is a testimony to values based on love. For this reason, he added, we should not fear a new Crusade that evokes memories of violence, since the only weapon of Benedict XVI will be reason combined with love.

Subiaco insight

A more detailed idea of what the new Pope has in mind regarding the contrast between relativism and perennial values can be gleaned from his speech made just before the death of John Paul II. On April 1 Cardinal Ratzinger went to the monastery of St. Scholastica in Subiaco to receive the St. Benedict prize for the promotion of life and the family in Europe.

During a conference Cardinal Ratzinger observed that scientific advances have given us the power to alter even our own genetic code and that we now view the world and ourselves not as a gift coming from God, but as a product of our own making.

Yet our capacity to make moral decisions has not kept pace with technical progress, he warned. Rather, it has diminished, because the scientific and technical mentality that now dominates thinking in contemporary society confines morality to the purely personal and subjective realm. The divorce between our technical capacities and any moral norms that could limit the choices we face in utilizing this power, however, places us in a situation of grave risk, given the destructive potential of modern technologies.

The world today, urged Cardinal Ratzinger, more than ever needs the aid of a morality that influences the public sphere, to help us cope with the grave risks and challenges facing society. In the final analysis, he observed, the secure conditions which are a necessary precondition for the exercise of our liberty do not depend on a series of technical means, but on moral forces. And when morality is lacking, man's power is transformed into a destructive force.

We now have the capacity to clone humans, use people as organ banks for others, and make military weapons of mass destruction. And the prevailing philosophy of rationalism and positivism, which rejects any moral or religious beliefs, rejects attempts to put any limits on our liberty to put into practice what our technical capacity permits us to do.

Cardinal Ratzinger also noted that even though ideas such as peace and justice are common in public discourse today they are not based on moral values, but on a vague conception that is reduced to the level of party politics. Only too often these terms remain at the level of speeches, and is not translated into a personal commitment to these values in our everyday life.

In his conference at Subiaco, the cardinal did acknowledge the important contributions of modern thought in today's society. But the secularist mentality that often accompanies it should not ignore the profound Christian roots of society, he argued. The real culture clash in today's world, he said, is not between different religious cultures, but between those who seek a radical emancipation of man from God and the major religions.

Eliminating any reference to God or religion in public life is not an expression of tolerance that is a protection for nonbelievers, but is rather the expression of a viewpoint that wants to see God permanently barred from public life and set aside like some kind of cultural leftover from the past.

In this sense, Cardinal Ratzinger concluded, relativism, which is the starting point of this secularist mentality, becomes a kind of dogmatism that believes it has reached the definitive stage of awareness of what human reason really is. But, he warned, if we banish God, human dignity will also vanish.