2016-06-30
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Just before he led the cardinals into sequester in the Sistine Chapel on Monday, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger laid down the theological gauntlet, calling upon the church to wield Jesus Christ as a shield against a "dictatorship of relativism." He depicted the church as a "little boat of Christian thought" tossed by waves of "extreme" schools of modern thought, identified as Marxism, liberalism, libertinism, collectivism and "radical individualism."

Two days later, he emerged Pope Benedict XVI--and that term, relativism, suddenly became an important key to understanding the direction the new pope will take his church. So what does it mean?

In a nutshell, relativism (or moral relativism-they're often used interchangeably), is the idea that moral principles are based on your culture (such as where and when you live, your education, your age, and your level of wealth) and therefore subject to individual choice. Taken to an extreme, a moral relativist believes there are no rules governing right and wrong. So, for example, when certain sectors of African society permit polygamy, some thinkers say that practice is acceptable because it arises from that particular culture-making it moral in "relative" circumstances.

But people who oppose moral relativism say that unless global society clearly defines right and wrong--for instance, prohibiting polygamy, or for that matter, gay marriage--we head down a treacherous path. You will often hear opponents of gay marriage say that if we permit that, what stops society ultimately from permitting bestiality. This is why those who wring their hands over "moral relativism" also often say that by not stopping Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunctions," society has inevitably allowed itself to slide into pornography, premarital sex, abortion-on-demand, and assisted suicide.

Americans have heard the term because evangelical Christians, including President Bush, often use it to describe their view of American culture. In fact, when Bush returned from Pope John Paul II's funeral, he had this to say: "I would define Pope John Paul II as a clear thinker who was like a rock," he said "Tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him, but he stood strong."

Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family talks frequently about the concept. In a 1998 <"http: www.wildershow.com/dobson.htm"="" target="_new" "="">speech, he talked about the fears of his audience: "I know their heart. I read their letters. I talk to them on the telephone. They love their God and they are very, very concerned about what's happening today. They see this moral freefall. They see this moral relativism and they're very concerned about it. It contradicts everything they stand for and they also feel under attack. They feel under assault by Hollywood and they can't do anything about it and by the rock music industry that just sells sex and violence and all sorts of evil to their kids..They feel the culture has got their families."

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."

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.

"What I'm trying to say is no religion, including my own, can hold itself up as the only way to God or as having the fullness of truth," he says. "That's impossible because all religions are human enterprises, and that means they're limited. Pluralism states there are many valid religions, and no religion can set itself up as superior. And that [stance] is what Pope Benedict is so afraid of."

But the new pope certainly isn't the only person afraid the world is spinning out of control, says Gary Dorrien, the new Reinhold Niebuhr Chair in Social Ethics at Union Seminary in New York. "Even people who don't agree on some of the specifics admire the spirit of standing against the modern world," says Dorrien, who has written books on neo-conservatism. "It does play well for a substantial group of people who feel anxiety about the course of moral disintegration in the world."

In his new role Dorrien is expected to act as a public intellectual in the footsteps of Niebuhr, one of the great theologians of last century. He thinks that despite liberal hand-wringing, for a lot of people Pope Benedict will be a welcome relief. "We're in a period now where the swing in the churches is toward homogeneity and security," Dorrien says. "There is a lot of anxiety."

But is moral relativism really all that bad? Essentially, what it means is allowing others the freedom to determine their own set of values. Moral relativists argue that with 6 billion people on earth, there can be no "one size fits all" set of behaviors or beliefs. Further, moral relativists are not saying that anyone can do anything-they're saying that humans should be constrained by values they've developed through experience, reason, and contemplation.

In other words, you can't be a polygamist in America because that hurts, or at the very least negatively impacts, other people. But you can be a polygamist in Africa because the community condones it. Further, moral relativism recognizes an undeniable truth: society's values change over time. Slavery and sacrificing your first-born (both practices found in the Bible) are no longer acceptable. Some day polygamy may be thrown overboard in Africa. So if you try to hold to absolute values, you're closing off the possibility of humanity making advances in our moral understanding.

To put it in Christian terms, says Dorrien: "God still speaks to us."

The most recent example of what he considers God's new language is the gains in women's equality. "To be a witness to the extraordinary changes that have swept through parts of Christendom based on raised awareness of women as agents as equal in God's sight-and all the scripture that goes with that-it's a hugely significant movement. And it's a movement of the Holy Spirit in our time," Dorrien maintains.

So what will Pope Benedict XVI do about these competing visions of truth? Will he clamp down, as liberals fear? Or will he make Christian theology unbending, yet superior, as conservatives hope?

"He'll try to be clear, and he'll try to be attractive," says Portier. "The best apologetic is holiness and spiritual attractiveness, spiritual beauty. He's got to go with that, somehow, because to approach pluralism as a hated theoretical idea is not going to get him far."

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