Facing ‘the Dictatorship of Relativism’

Sean O’Conaill © Reality July/August 2005

Of all the dangers that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw facing the church, relativism was the greatest. Just before his election to the papacy he warned the church’s cardinals, gathered in Rome, about the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. This ‘call to arms’ may well have secured his election.

As Pope Benedict XVI, how will he address that danger? This question has enormous importance for the church.

To understand ‘relativism’ we need to understand that the human family has come through an astonishing expansion of knowledge in the past four centuries – an expansion that is still accelerating.

This has given birth to attitudes that are sceptical of the claims of any religious faith. These attitudes are broadly termed ‘secularism’.

We need to understand also that the movement of human populations has intermingled all the world’s faiths. No large city on earth now has a population that is uniformly of one religious faith.

And this means that any claim by any faith to ‘absolute’ truth – to a truth that must be true for everyone – is potentially explosive.

And this, of course, is what many religions do claim – to have a ‘saving truth’ that is necessary for the salvation of the world. We Christians are so sure that Christ takes us to ‘the Father’ that we believe that, in time, this truth should be shared with, and by, the entire human family.

And we Catholic Christians believe that our church has a ‘fullness’ of Christian truth that obliges us to deny that it has only equal status as truth, with other Christian traditions.

For every convinced religious believer, the truth in which he believes is the only complete or absolute truth – the only truth that is always and everywhere true.

Secular wisdom, on the other hand, insists that to maintain peace in the ‘global village’ no claim to absolute truth can be accepted. Many secularists believe, therefore, that relativism – the belief that all truth claims are only equally valid (and therefore also equally false) – is the only ‘faith’ that can bind a modern society together. This attitude is shared by most of those who govern modern western societies.

And this is what Pope Benedict XVI means by ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

Serious problem for the church

There is no doubt that relativism poses a very serious problem for the church. On the one hand we must hold to whatever gives us a unique identity as a ‘faith family’ – for otherwise we will lose both our faith and our identity. We will also allow to perish a body of truth that we have been entrusted with by two millennia of Catholic tradition. This is a huge responsibility and trust.

There is no doubt also that many young educated Catholics are being influenced by relativistic attitudes prevalent in universities – and this must somehow be countered.

But on the other hand we have an obligation to maintain peace and friendship in a modern multi-faith society.

We Catholics have somehow to find a way of passing on a vibrant faith without making that faith a force for intolerance, division and even violence.

The issue is complicated by the fact that many people on both sides of it see no hope of any compromise. Some secularists see all religion as necessarily ‘wrong’ and divisive. So they ‘evangelise’ by claiming that only relativism can save the world – by insisting that all religion is ‘bunk’!

And on the other hand there are many religious believers that see secularism as a threat they must oppose. This attitude drives, especially, Islamic fundamentalism.

In Ireland also, many Catholics feel oppressed by the secularisation of our society in just a few decades. Some look back with nostalgia to a time when our church almost owned the public spaces in our cities – through which Catholic processions often passed on certain feast days.

Now Ireland too is becoming a multi-faith society, while trying to maintain a tradition of welcoming strangers. How are we to remain both confidently Catholic and respectful towards those with radically different beliefs – beliefs that may even include a strong desire to convert all of us from our own faith?

The power of love

Oddly enough, the solution to this huge problem may lie in something Benedict XVI himself said, almost casually, in 1996. Faced with a reporter’s question on the apparently greater power of evil in the modern world he said:

“This is the question that I would ask of God: Why does he remain so powerless? Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who failed?”

He went on:

“But apparently that is the way he wants to rule; that is the divine form of power. And the non-divine form of power obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.”

This perception – that our God wishes to rule us without imposing himself upon us – suggests a simple solution to the problem of reconciling adherence to absolute truth with social peace: that while we hold our truth firmly we see its essence as a love that cannot impose itself on others – because love cannot coerce.

That is to say while holding ourselves bound by our own truth, we can simply lose the need for others to share that belief now. Indeed, in communicating our belief that God does not coerce, we pass on a key part of our truth – a truth that can be shared, and can bind the whole human family.

Such a truth – that God has asked us to unite the human family in love and freedom – can be shared with all faiths that prioritise love. And all the great religions do so.

If we prioritise love – as God seems to – we can surely tolerate divergence of faith on other matters – without betraying faith to relativism.

False argument

The great argument of relativism – that it alone can bind a multifaith society together in peace – is false in any case. In all the great cities of the world people of strong religious faith are meeting to discover what they have in common.

And in many cases they are finding that the supreme being they worship prioritises an unconditional love – a love of the stranger, whatever his belief. For Christians, that truth is plainly seen in, for example the parable of the good Samaritan – because for Jews of Jesus’ time the Samaritan was not a Jew.

In this way the global family is setting out on the same pilgrimage that John Paul II began with the leaders of many other faiths in Assisi in 1986. On that pilgrimage we can each describe the God we hope to meet at the end. Disagreeing amicably on the journey, we can all bear witness to the falsehood of the claim that only relativism – the belief that there is no great truth – can unite us in peace.

Differences within the Church

This solution could also guide how our church also deals with divergent view within itself – for example on the issue of the ordination of women and married men. Clearly, the unity of the church requires some kind of unity in the regulations it makes for itself. But does it require also the suppression of those views with which the church leadership may disagree at any given time?

Surely the prioritisation of love within the church would counsel also the toleration of the expression of divergent views?

The opposite view – that it can’t – surely implies some weakness in the arguments for the official view. If it is love that binds the church together also, and love forbids coercion, how can love, and truth, be retained by what amounts to coercion within the church?

As Pope John Paul II’s top theological ‘policeman’, Pope Benedict feared that to give liberty to ‘powerful intellectuals’ was to endanger the faith of ‘simple people’. But simple people have a surprisingly strong grasp of what they believe, and usually also have a quite sceptical attitude towards ‘powerful intellectuals’. Deluged by claims to truth that are obviously false they are learning to sift what they hear.

They will even more readily look to the papacy for direction if it too shows confidence that God’s truth will prevail over all contradiction – by the power of love alone.

And that is what the Vatican II document on religious freedom proclaimed also: that truth conveys itself by virtue of its own truth. It does so, surely, by prioritising, not knowledge propositions – but God’s uncoercive love of us all.

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