What Is 'Relativism'?

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

BY: Deborah Caldwell


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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."

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."

In other words, the new pope believes the source of God's saving power comes through Jesus, and by extension through the Catholic Church. While he believes God's presence exists in other religions (and other Christian denominations), he says that presence exists because of Jesus--and therefore whatever truth is found in Buddhism or Hinduism, or any other religion, is preparation for their adherents to become Christian, and ultimately Catholic.

Taking that argument a step further, Pope Benedict XVI believes that pure Christianity-channeled through the Catholic Church-must remain a bulwark in order to stop the immorality that can naturally flow from giving other faiths-or the no-faith option of secularism--equal footing with Christianity.

In 1997, then-Cardinal Ratzinger described relativism as "the central problem of the faith at the present time." And in an interview last year, he said much the same thing. "Today it is regarded an act of pride, incompatible with tolerance, to think that we have really received the truth of the Lord. However, it seems that, to be tolerant, all religions and cultures must be considered equal. In this context, to believe [in Christ alone] is an act that becomes increasingly difficult."

The main reason for his concern is his childhood in Nazi Germany-where Christianity was appropriated by a corrupt ideology--and then his adulthood in the increasingly faithless Europe. He was particularly disturbed by the Marxism and atheism of the 1968 student protests in Europe. Today he is concerned about Europe's emptying churches and increasing secularism. "Europe is a considered a historically Christian society," notes Portier. "The new pope is asking, 'Is it possible to reevangelize Europe and regain it for Christianity?' That would require doctrinal clarity."

Many of Pope Benedict's ideas were previously articulated by Pope John Paul II, who dissected "relativism" in two of his encyclical letters, The Splendor of Truth (1993) and The Gospel of Life (1995). In the former letter he said that the alliance between democracy and ethical relativism "easily turn into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism." In the latter, he linked philosophical and moral relativism to the "culture of death."

He is perhaps best known for his views because of Dominus Iesus ("Jesus Is Lord"), the 2000 encyclical he primarily authored that says the Catholic Church "rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism 'characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that one religion is as good as another.''"

One of the theologians the new pope has accused of "relativism" is Paul Knitter, theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Knitter says Pope Benedict misunderstands his theology. Knitter says the sort of pluralism he promotes advances the view that many religions are valid ways of searching for meaning. But Ratzinger, says Knitter, thinks that means all religions are the same-which is not what Knitter and other Catholic theologians are saying at all.

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