What Is 'Relativism'?

Pope Benedict XVI's new buzzword causes confusion and consternation. But does he mean what it sounds like he means?

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Dobson, Pope Benedict XVI, and others who oppose relativism say that modern society, especially in North America and Europe, is filled with the influences of evil--and that evil must be actively battled. Christianity, they say, is the only possible victor.

Evangelicals tend to see Christian belief and practice as a method for avoiding evil and immorality--that's what Bush means when he says John Paul II stood against moral relativism. But Pope Benedict means something slightly different and perhaps deeper. He is most worried about relativism arising from pluralism, the idea that other religions are valid ways of searching for meaning.

"He thinks relativism is something that happens when people live in pluralism," says William Portier, a theologian at the University of Dayton who specializes in Catholic intellectual thought. "It's like an occupational hazard-you begin to think in this way because you have to live with all these different people."Portier says he sees this "occupational hazard" all the time among his students. "They don't want to say that someone else is wrong," says Portier, who has taught for more than 30 years. "It's because they live in this incredibly chaotic, pluralistic, fragmented world. And they don't want anybody to say they're wrong either."

The "problem of relativism" is especially resonant among U.S. Catholics, Portier says. Here, as well as in parts of Europe, Catholicism created its own subculture-which is now largely dismantled as a result of pluralism. "My students don't come from Catholic grammar schools where they were taught by nuns," Portier says. "So people do live in pluralism. And pluralism affects how you think, so if you want to be a [Catholic] believer in the midst of pluralism, you have to correct for that thinking."

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In a 2002 interview, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said this: "Christ is totally different from all the founders of other religions, and he cannot be reduced to a Buddha, a Socrates or a Confucius. He is really the bridge between heaven and earth, the light of truth who has appeared to us. The gift of knowing Jesus does not mean that there are no important fragments of truth in other religions. In the light of Christ, we can establish a fruitful dialogue with a point of reference in which we can see how all these fragments of truth contribute to greater depth in our faith and to an authentic spiritual community of humanity."

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