Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Roman Catholic Church and relativism

I contributed this to Wikipedia some time ago:

The Roman Catholic Church, especially under John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, has identified relativism as one of the most significant problems for faith and morals today.[40]

According to the Church and to some philosophers, relativism, as a denial of absolute truth, leads to moral license and a denial of the possibility of sin and of God. Whether moral or epistemological, relativism constitutes a denial of the capacity of the human mind and reason to arrive at truth. Truth, according to Catholic theologians and philosophers (following Aristotle and Plato) consists of adequatio rei et intellectus, the correspondence of the mind and reality. Another way of putting it states that the mind has the same form as reality. This means when the form of the computer in front of someone (the type, color, shape, capacity, etc.) is also the form that is in their mind, then what they know is true because their mind corresponds to objective reality.

John Paul II

John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of the Truth") stressed the dependence of man on God and his law ("Without the Creator, the creature disappears") and the "dependence of freedom on the truth". He warned that man "giving himself over to relativism and skepticism, goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself".

In Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), he says:

The original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people-even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the "right" ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the "common home" where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. [Italics added]

Benedict XVI

In April 2005, in his homily[42] during Mass prior to the conclave which would elect him as Pope, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger talked about the world "moving towards a dictatorship of relativism":

How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves ¬ thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth. Every day new sects are created and what Saint Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf Eph 4, 14). Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and "swept along by every wind of teaching", looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires. However, we have a different goal: the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism. Being an "Adult" means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. It is this friendship which opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false, and deceit from truth.

On June 6, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI told educators:

"Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own 'ego'".[43]

Then during the World Youth Day in August 2005, he also traced to relativism the problems produced by the communist and sexual revolutions, and provided a counter-counter argument.[44]

In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common programme–expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world in order to change it. And this, as we saw, meant that a human and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Public Reason and the Truth of Christianity in the Teachings of Benedict XVI Part I

By Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the director of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory

Public reason is human reason that believes it can attain, through dialogue and research, certain truths about man and, in particular, about man in society. Public reason is certainly a critical reason, but is also a constructive reason that is not only capable of achieving the "consensus" of opinions, but can also attain the truth and the good of man in society for which it has a cognitive and an arguing ability.

The ability to understand the foundations of the dignity of the person, the main elements of the common good, the inalienability of human rights, justice, the meaning of individual freedom and of community ties, all depend on the possibility of a public reason.

The primary problem of public reason is to determine if it is possible and, secondarily, whether it is self-sufficient, or whether it needs a relationship with religion and, in particular, with the Christian religion. Benedict XVI has addressed this topic on several occasions and in different places, talking on the one hand of the truth of reason and, on the other, of the truth of religions.

The public use of reason and relativism

Public reason is not possible in a culture that is dominated by the "dictatorship of relativism,"[1] for a very simple reason: Relativism is a dogma and therefore it a priori rejects rational argumentation, even toward itself. Those with a taste for paradox could say that relativism is a fundamentalism.

On several occasions, Benedict XVI said that now it has become a dogma, or a presumption, and that it cannot be sustained if not through some sort of faith.[2] Hence, relativism rests upon blind faith. This is unquestionably contradictory because the words "dogma" and "relativism" are incompatible.

The thing is that relativism becomes a faith in order to overcome its internal contradiction, only to fall into a new one. Relativism, in fact, cannot be argued; otherwise it would refer to a capability of reason to argue the truth. In this case, relativism would contradict itself because it would admit the possibility of non-relative truths. Thus, relativism can only be "dogmatically assumed."

The "dictatorial" character -- in the cultural sense -- of relativism, prevents the use of public reason because it prevents the public use of reason. At this point, it could be interesting to go back to the writing where this public use was strongly proclaimed for the first time -- the short essay entitled "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" written by Kant in 1784.

For Kant, reason has a public use that serves a critical purpose. To illustrate this public use, Kant especially dwells on the rational critique of religion, i.e. the complete freedom of citizens, indeed even the calling, "to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts concerning mistaken aspects of that symbol, as well as his suggestions for the better arrangement of religious and church matters."[3]

Reason, with its own categories, claims to be the testing ground and the measure of faith and religion too. Why is a public reason to which Kant assigned such challenging tasks now reduced to relativism, which is incapable of critiquing not just religion, but even itself?

Public reason and the self-limitation of reason

The reason lies in the "self-limitation" of reason, as Benedict XVI has suggested many times.[4] This self-limitation underpins the dogmatically blind assumption of relativism and its inability to play any kind of critical role. The faith in relativism can exist only when the scope of reason has been drastically limited.

The self-limitation of reason consists in its being reduced to mathematical-experimental[5] knowledge, i.e. a type of rationality that is incapable of founding even relativism. This type of knowledge -- the mathematical-experimental type -- simply has "no evidence" of relativism, nor can have any because it is not an empirically observable fact.

Relativism is a philosophy and not a fact, and its foundation would require a different kind of reasoning which, however, is excluded by self-limited reason. This is why relativism can only either be "implicit" -- lived and not justified -- or dogmatically "assumed" -- accepted, for example, by an act of faith. In this sense then, the "dictatorship of relativism" is the necessary conclusion of the "self-limitation" of reason. However, with relativism, the public role of reason fails.

Actually, this self-limitation was already present in Kant's thought. In the above-mentioned 1784 short essay he "pretended" to assign to reason the public role of critiquing even religion, but it was an incautious claim as his vision of reason was already confined to mathematical-experimental knowledge. This is why that claim has to be denied, however, while nevertheless rejecting it and showing how it leads to relativism. It must also be said that a different reason, a reason that can fully breathe, can play a public role and can also engage in some sort of critique of religion.

In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger participated in a debate with philosopher Jurgen Habermas in Munich that focused exactly on the public role of reason.[6] On that occasion, he argued that if terrorism that is fuelled by religious fundamentalism is the symptom of a pathology of religion that must be corrected by reason, then in the same way the technical-scientific capability of producing human beings is the symptom of a pathology of reason that needs to be corrected by religion.

This is his conclusion: "There are extremely dangerous pathologies in religion that require us to consider the divine light of reason as a control mechanism ... there are also pathologies of reason that are not less dangerous … therefore reason has to accept warning as to its limits and must be willing to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind."[7] As we can see, he credits reason with the ability of "controlling" religion. Christianity, then, does not ask reason to shrink from its public role but to fully fulfill it; however, in order to do that, reason needs to rediscover its own greatness. Christianity wants a reason that is able to breathe and is willing to help reason do that. It wants to be "put to the test" by this reason.

Philosophical relativism and religious relativism

What are the repercussions of the dictatorship of relativism and of such a reductive vision of religions on the part of reason? The consequence of philosophical relativism can only be religious relativism: All religions are different and yet actually the same. They are irrational, they are the result of an unfounded choice, and thus they cannot be compared.

Relativism, unfoundedly dogmatic, views religions as unjustified beliefs. Because it does so in an unfounded manner, it cannot demonstrate it, hence it simply "believes it." Relativism "believes" that religions are unfounded, thus they cannot be compared. In other words, it believes that religions have nothing to do with reason and truth. Then all religions are dogmatic, in the trivial sense of the word, i.e. in the sense of "accepted without evidence" (just like relativism, but relativism does not seem to be aware of that).

In the current relativistic vulgate, in fact, the word dogma generically and superficially means "something that is accepted without evidence and thus in a dogmatic manner." Just as philosophical relativism deprives religion of a true public role, the corresponding religious relativism deprives religion from playing its public role. As we will see better later, the public role of reason and that of religious faith either stand together or die.

In this way, all religions are reduced to myth, i.e. to a way of exorcizing mysterious, bizarre and irrational forces. If religions are unfounded, it means that the divine forces they refer to are irrational and that arbitrariness rules the word. If the primordial forces are arbitrary, religion is a form of insurance against the repercussions of this imponderableness. Therefore religious relativism regresses to a kind of religious primitivism: religion is a way of exorcizing irrational forces.

The critique of religion as myth of the Greeks and Israel

To consider religion as something irrational, according to Benedict XVI, is entirely inconsistent with our whole Western and Christian history. In fact, both Greek thought and the Jewish religion, as well as Christianity, of course, rejected the vision of religion as myth and conceived religion as knowledge and God as Logos.[8]

Let us take a brief look at Greek thought. If we examine the Greek religions of "the mysteries" and even the Olympic religion, we find the characteristic features of the pre-rational myth: mysterious and unfathomable forces, arcane, obscure, underground impulses, the arbitrariness of the gods where the same human action can be either good or bad depending on the deity, man's struggle to placate divine wrath and exorcize these unforeseeable forces.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite

By Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

If we consider the present cultural situation, about which I have tried to give some indications, frankly it must seem to be a miracle that there is still Christian faith, despite everything, and not only in the surrogate forms of Hick, Knitter and others, but the complete, serene faith of the New Testament, and of the Church of all times.

Why, in brief, does the faith still have a chance? I would say the following: because it is in harmony with what man is. Man is something more than what Kant and the various post-Kantian philosophers wanted to see and concede. Kant himself must have recognized this in some way with his postulates. In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite. None of the answers attempted are sufficient. Only the God himself who became finite in order to open our finiteness and lead us to the breadth of his infiniteness responds to the question of our being. For this reason, the Christian faith finds man today, too. Our task is to serve the faith with a humble spirit and the whole strength of our heart and understanding.