Dictatorship of relativism

Tuesday 26 April 2005

A few days before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger gave his now famous homily in which he deployed the phrase “dictatorship of relativism”. I don’t like this phrase, for a few reasons.

First, the phrase itself is an oxymoron. The essence of dictatorship is that one has absolute power over all. The essence of relativism (as Ratzinger described it) is that its “ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires”. Surely “anarchy of relativism” is a much better description. But like “terrorism” or “Hitler”, “dictatorship” is a universal boogieman that anything can be compared to, and then is accepted to be a Bad Thing. Dictatorship of relativism is not a good metaphor, but it is not bad sloganeering.

More importantly, though, I am suspect of anyone railing against “relativism”. All too often, the “absolute” we are urged to adhere to is in fact a point along a sliding relative scale, but a point a little bit in the past. American conservatives seem to yearn for the 1950’s, for example. Those who were outraged by the recent attempt to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance conveniently ignored the fact that the words weren’t in the original version.

Surveys report that 63% of Americans believe the bible is literally true. Presumably those 63% shun “relativism”. Yet almost none of them keep kosher as (for example) Deuteronomy 14:8 rules:

And the swine, because it divideth the hoof, yet cheweth not the cud, it is unclean unto you: ye shall not eat of their flesh, nor touch their dead carcase.

Apparently Christians accept this seeming inconsistency because Paul said it was OK. Sounds like relativism to me.

This is what gets me about the “Bible is truth” crowd: The Bible is a big book written a long time ago. It is easy to ignore the parts that don’t seem right. Everyone does. No one accepts all of it. Partly this is because it is filled with metaphor. Has anyone really been offended enough by their right hand to cut it off? But mostly it is because times change, and people construct their faith and beliefs from a wide range of sources, including their society around them.

Getting back to Benedict XVI, do we think he’ll run the church just as Benedict XV would have? Or Benedict XIV? Bendict XIII? Of course not. (Actually, what with objecting to Turkey joining the EU, maybe I shouldn’t be so sure!)

“Relativism” is a canard. The question is not whether beliefs and actions bend to fit the times, but to what degree they do.


Sylvain Galineau 8:54 AM on 26 Apr 2005
I don't think that was a bad slogan or the wrong word; this is the Vatican after all, so unless the translator screwed up - which is a possibility - I doubt the word was not carefully chosen. It would be anarchy if relativism was deem to err this way or that way at random. But if one wants to argue it always leans to one side - the wrong side - dictatorship fits.

I don't have a problem with relativism per se. I do have an issue with the way it's commonly used and abused. Namely, as an excuse for intellectual laziness, to avoid difficult answers or choices, and more generally to support vacuous claim to intellectual sophistication. And there does seem to be a common cultural assumption that relativism is simply smarter, regardless of the argument being made, which is every bit as weak and self-defeating as the opposite attitude.

As for being suspicious of 'anyone' railing against relativism, that sounds rather absolutist to me...
I doubt Ratzinger was worried about intellectual laziness or false sophistication. He's not denouncing relativism, he's denouncing change. He's pissed that people are willing to accept change in their beliefs. He, like so many older people, wants everything to stay the same. Well, I'm sorry, but society evolves, and the church will have to evolve with it, or be left behind. You wonder why more and more people in Europe and the US are turning from Catholicism, fewer and fewer people are becoming priests... it's because the Catholic church is still stuck in the 1920s. And Ratzinger's doing his best to keep it that way.

I m sure that the Catholic Church is really interested in the opinion of a non-Catholic, secular, western, north-eastern liberal. It just happens to be The Truth (not the "truth", which is what the NY Times prints) that parishes and vocations that advocate strict adherence to traditional Catholic doctrine are the parts of the Church that are experiencing explosive growth. It is the liberal, permissive parts of Christianity that are whithering on the vine. It would appear that the world is experiencing a Christian revival, and western secularists are the ones that are being left behind. And you are angry. That is understandable.

"Relativism" as Pope Benedict (get used to using his real name, you can't actually filibuster a pope. Sorry!) referred was talking about the vogue practice of redefining immorality as "modern" and then condemning the rest of the world for not being "progressive" enough.

Are there Truthes that are inconsistant with all parts of the Bible? Sure, there is many pages in the bible and many, many writing associated with it, plus 2000+ years of Catholic history, much of it we are not proud of. Can you spot inconsistencies? From orbit, I would imagine. But that does not ameliorate the Church from TRYING to provide absolute definitions of good and evil. What else would you expect from a Church? If you are looking for a religion that rubber stamps your lifestyle, regardless of what it is, they have a place for you: the Episcopal "church."
Here are some sources that say that Catholicism is in the decline (I only chose the ones that are from religious sites, so you can't use the "leftist media" defense). Please feel free to post some sources that back your claim of explosive growth in the more strict parishes and vocations.

Catholic World News (cwnews.com)
"Mass attendance in Scotland has fallen by 19 percent over the last eight years"

"Mass Attendance Down 20% Since 1985 [in Italy]"

"[The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan] found that church attendance was in decline in 15 of 19 industrialized democracies. Only two showed small increases: Northern Ireland and Great Britain."

traditio.com Traditional Roman Catholic Internet Site
"According primarily to Gallup Polls in various years, Sunday Mass attendance among Catholics in the United States has sunk by 400% since [1958]"

I used Ratzinger's name (Pope Benedict is not his "real" name, it's his papal name. His baptismal name is Joseph Ratzinger.) because he was a cardinal when he wrote those words. That and it's a great name for using when you want to sound condescending.

And I'm not angry about being left behind. Hell, if this is left behind, I didn't want to be on the bus in the first place.

My main problem with the Catholic Church is its lack of tolerance... for other beliefs, other lifestyles, and evidently, even other Christian churches. If the Catholic Church weren't so influential, I wouldn't even care about that... but the fact that the Church is huge and teaches this intolerance across the globe really concerns me.
Sylvain Galineau 1:14 PM on 26 Apr 2005
Nate. Well, you may have doubts as to what was meant. So what ? Are personal doubts authoritative or sufficient to justify an argument ? That is only your take on it.

Mine is that for every person I know who disliked the Church's traditionalism, I know another one who loves it for exactly that reason. And given the size of the - ahem - installed base, it's pretty clear they can't please everyone.

But even if it was more business-like an institution, should it care so much about the aging and, relatively speaking, shrinking Western European markets, as opposed to the booming Latin American, African and Asian ones ? Who would want to turn off 1 billion people here to - maybe - regain the favors of 100 million there ?

It seems simplistic to dismiss the relative decline of the Church in some western countries as a consequence of shortsighted 'conservatism', as if American and European Catholics should remain the center of its universe no matter what. Maybe the Church can and should remain conservative precisely because American and European catholics will matter less and less to its long term future, as inherently western an insitution it might seem to most of us.

Oddly as it sounds, the Church might very well be more farsighted as it seems. The conservative Catholicism that turns you off so much is a hot ticket throughout much of the developing world. Messing with the formula to please the oldest customers at the expense of an exploding population of new ones would be rather dumb.

But we're getting way off topic here, I'm afraid.

(By the way : things can grow 400%; they can't 'sink' by 400%. If something is a 4th or a 5th of what it used to be, it shrunk by 75% or 80%, or to 25 or 20% of its former size...).
Andrew, you speak as a strong proponent of Benedict's views. But I wonder where you and he stand on the question "When is it acceptable to kill a person?" I suspect you and he have different answers to that question. We won't even talk about the differences of opinion among the Popes of history on that point. Right now, how do you deal with the discrepancy between your view and his? Where does that put you on the relativism scale?
Ooops. Long and thoughtful post ruminating on this subject "previewed", but not "added". Argh. If I am feeling up to venting my spleen again, I might retype it.
Ned, I assume that you are referring to my support for the death penalty versus my complete opposition to abortion. My position (and that of the Church) is that the difference between the two can be summed up in a single word: guilt. Unborn children are the very height of innocence, whereas people on death row (at least in the US) are the beneficiaries of decades of habeas corpus and many, many retrials coming to the same conclusion: guilt.

The Church’s position on war and the death penalty is that they are permissible only under “extraordinary circumstances” (see “Encyclical Evangelium Vitae” from Pope John Paul II). An admonition of “justly” is inserted which would seem to be the differentiator. In the US, does the state act “justly” when it commits a person to death? By most Catholic accounts, yes, it does. This is obviously subject to much interpretation and the Church would do well to offer some clarification. Strangely the Encyclical referred to above does offer some hope of a resolution, but falls quite short. The hope is that the devout Catholic will ruminate with prayer and come to their own thoughtful conclusion. Ironically it was then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who pointed out this inconsistency and stated that this doctrine was “in development” (his words, not mine). I eagerly await the first beta release of this doctrine.

Should the Church come out doctrinally foursquare against the death penalty and war in any and all circumstances, I suppose I would have to rethink my values. Will I change with the Church? I can earnestly hope that I will, but I am too old and set in my ways. Talk to me then about my “relativism” in Church teachings. I will likely be in stark contrast at that point.

We are all sinners and incomplete before God. We can all strive for Christian perfection and advocated by the Church, but be aware of our failings as humans.
As I understand it, the church's position is that there are cases where it is permissible to kill a person, but it is "subject to much interpretation" and each individual must "come to their own thoughtful conclusion". And how can that person's surroundings (cultural, environmental, political, familial, etc) not enter into their decision? And once those factors have entered into their decision, how do we still have an absolute moral system?

I'll say it again: "Relativism" is a canard. The question is not whether beliefs and actions bend to fit the times, but to what degree they do.

I think we can all agree that the Catholic Church is more absolutist than most religions or organizations, and Benedict XVI will probably only make it more so. But don't kid yourselves: relativism is inescapable. We humans have judgement, and use it all the time, and once we do, we are relativists. Otherwise, we'd be automata.
Sylvain Galineau 7:34 PM on 26 Apr 2005

So relativism is a canard but we're all relativists ? Right.

And assuming we are, how could you then postulate that 'we can all agree' on something, especially when it is so manifestly false for successful religious institutions with millions of committed followers ? The Catholic Church more absolutist than Iran's mullahs ? Than the Taliban ? Than Saudi Arabia's Wahabi establishment ? Than the Russian Orthodox Church ? Than Protestant Evangelicals ? Than the Church of the Latter Day Saints ? Than Jehovah's Witnesses, the Pentecostals or the Seventh Day Adventists ? Says whom ? And since it's all a matter of relative judgment, how could we 'all' possibly agree on such a view anyway ?

Relativism is no more nor less a canard than absolutism. The latter is as routinely used to summarily dismiss individuals or ideas as 'wrong' according to a particular intellectual canon as relativism is. Never mind that you flatly assert relativism to be a universal, inescapable human truth. What could be possibly be more absolutist than that ? Stating that 'relativism is inescapable' is logically self-defeating, I'm afraid.

If one is truly relativist, the conservatism or 'absolutism' of others should be perfectly acceptable as just another relative position along a vast, open and ever changing spectrum. But I'm afraid the dirty secret here is that the vast majority of us are in fact closet absolutists.

All we are doing when we call others 'ultras' or 'extremists' or 'far-this' or 'loony-that' is position our own beliefs relative to those of the people being so characterized. And announce our unwillingness to listen or compromise.
Sylvain, you are right that I have missed a number of more absolutist religions than Catholicism. I stand corrected.

When I say that "Relativism is a canard", I mean that accusing someone of relativism and claiming your own absolutism is misleading and disingenuous.

If one is truly relativist, the conservatism or 'absolutism' of others should be perfectly acceptable as just another relative position along a vast, open and ever changing spectrum.

Precisely my point: I haven't said any of Benedict's viewpoints are unacceptable (though I disagree with many of them). I've simply accused him of dishonesty when it comes to dividing the world into "relativists" and "absolutists".

But I'm afraid the dirty secret here is that the vast majority of us are in fact closet absolutists.

Ah, here is where you are wrong, and this it my point: most "absolutists" believe absolutely in their own relative view of the world, but cling to the misguided idea that their view has been handed down by some higher authority (usually God, or the Bible). They'd like to think that they are hewing to some eternal guideline, but those guidelines change over time.
Cool thread, BTW...
I want to respond to Andrew's bit on the death penalty. Were you arguing that simply because one is on death row for too long, endures many retrials, that they are therefore probably guilty and should be killed by the state? Do you really believe that that particular system is so infallible?

And how is it that the innocent life of a woman, one who is actually alive, means nothing?
Sylvain Galineau 10:38 PM on 26 Apr 2005

The logic of your reasoning is rather difficult to tell apart from your opponents' - if I may call them that for simplicity's sake - overall line of argument.

It doesn't matter whether people choose to call their source God or Allah; a huge number of human beings choose to believe in truths that transcend the inherently relative human nature. Which is precisely what makes them so attractive and helpful to them. Another large number of people does not share their beliefs; for those, this dependable certitude is precisely what makes them suspect.

Regardless of your leaning or mine in this matter, and no matter the importance or relevance we may attach to these beliefs as they relate to our own circumstances, calling them misguided not only contradicts your implicit claim to an enlightened relativism, it is rather self-righteous, if not condescending, and, in the end, no more nor less 'dishonest' that the very attitude you attempt to denounce.

Is a claim of moral superiority more likely to be valid by mere virtue of not invoking a higher power to justify itself ? Always ? Why ? And how could this reasonably be deemed a relativistic position ?

Case in point : try and read yourself again. 'They', 'their view', 'They'd like to think'...who's busy dividing the field between 'we' vs. 'them' ?

The one thing both sides of this argument always did and will have in common is that they hold it as a self-evident truth that 'they' are the 'dishonest', 'misguided' souls.
In Brazil (biggest country in Latin America) the Catholic Church has been shrinking consistently in the last years, while Evangelical ones experience constant growth. The thought that the conservative 'no sex before marriage' position taken by the Roman Church might appeal to people in Latin America (or anywhere else, for that matter) is actually funny. Some Catholic priests here have recently gathered huge crowds and media attention since they introduced pop music and dances into the masses, but at the bottom they are the same old Church. Anyways, Ratzinger has already signaled that he dislikes this kind of initiative, he will probably restrain them as he did with liberation theologists in the 80's.
Sylvain, we seem to be going in circles. You are right, I am contrasting my views to theirs. That is why I use words like "they" and "their view". I object to their dividing the world into relativists and absolutists. I object to their claiming Truth. I haven't claimed any truth except this: all moral systems are relative to their time, even the Catholic Church's.

There are two types of people in this world: those who think there are two types of people, and those who don't.
Sylvain Galineau 6:59 AM on 27 Apr 2005
Ned, the people you are referring to don't see themselves as absolutists or call themselves such. It's only your characterization of their position relative to yours. You're no more nor less responsible for the division than 'they' are. Why is their contrasting of their own views to yours more divisive than your own ? We are only going in a circle because it is one.

Human nature always produced relative absolutisms, whether religious, philosophical, political or moral. It's a built-in feature. Railing about our universal predisposition to dualism seems about as productive as complaining about gravity, imho.
I am not railing about relativism. I am railing about those that rail against it. To use your metaphor, it is as if Benedict said, "Gravity is a dictatorship" (which it is!), and then implied that the Catholic Church was free from its grip.
Cardinal Ratzinger use of the word relativism reminded me of some speaches by President Bush. I figured this was just neo-conservitive speak for saying the church will take a hard line. As someone raised in a Catholic household and who went to parochial school during the 60s and witnessed the fallout from Vatican II, the relativism of the Catholic tradition is very real.
Sylvain Galineau 11:17 AM on 27 Apr 2005
Ned, I understand that. I am saying your railing is fundamentally no different than 'theirs', and, as such, is unlikely to achieve much beyond preaching to your own favorite choir. Both arguments are completely symmetrical.

Your interpretation of Benedict's quote is as predictable a consequence of your own position as that of a conservative catholic commenting on your perceived 'relativism' from his own perch. They're both absolutist dismissals of the other side as 'misguided', both presuming a universal self-evident truth that is in fact absolute to no one but their own side side of the argument.
The Catholic Church is never going to "get with the times." Thank God! The "times" don't tell me anything about truth. The "times" don't change what love is. Truth is truth. Compassion is compassion. Charity is charity. Love is love. Greed is greed. Selfishness is selfishness. Hate is hate. They care nothing about the "times."

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