Ratzinger Is Right


#1

NPQ
Summer 2005

René Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book Violence and the Sacred, is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Recently NPQ editor Nathan Gardels spoke with Girard at his home near the campus.

NPQ: When Pope Benedict XVI recently denounced what he saw as the “dictatorship of relativism,” especially in European culture, it caused great controversy. Is the Pope right that we live in such a dictatorship?

René Girard: Yes, he is right. This formula—the dictatorship of relativism—is excellent. It is going to establish a new discourse in the same way that John Paul II’s idea of recovering “a culture of life” from the “culture of death” has framed a whole set of issues, from abortion to stem cell research, capital punishment and war.

It makes sense that this formula comes from a man—(the former) Cardinal Ratzinger—whose specialty is dogma and theory.

This reign of relativism which is so striking today is due, in part, to the necessities of our time. Societies are so mixed, with such plurality of peoples. You have to keep a balance between various creeds. You must not take sides. Every belief is supposed to be accorded equal value. Inevitably, even if you are not a relativist, you must sound like one if not act like one.

As a result, we have more and more relativism. And we have more and more people who hate any kind of faith. This is especially the case in the university. And it hurts intellectual life. Because all truths are treated as equal, since there is said to be no objective Truth, you are forced to be banal and superficial. You cannot be truly committed to anything, to be “for” something—even if only for the time being.

Like Ratzinger, however, I believe in commitment. After all, we are both convinced by the idea that responsibility demands we must be committed to one position and follow it through. …]

NPQ: Just as there is clash within Islam between tradition and modernity, doesn’t Pope Benedict’s crusade against relativism also announce a clash within the West? But the issue in the West is not about accommodating faith with reason. It is about resisting a culture of materialism and disbelief by insisting on values, as the Pope has put it, beyond “egoism and desire.” Figuratively, the conflict is between the Pope and Madonna (the pop singer).

Girard: It is a culture war, yes. I agree. But it is not Ratzinger who has somehow changed and suddenly become reactionary and conservative. It is the secular culture that has drifted beyond the pale.

Remember, Ratzinger was a supporter of the Vatican II Council that reformed the Church in the 1960s. He opposed the idea that the Church should stand still in a modernizing world. For him, to be a Roman Catholic is to accept that the Church has something to learn from the world. At the same time, there is a Truth that doesn’t change the Gospel. Today, he is just reaffirming his position. He is just standing his ground.

Ratzinger is an intelligent conservative. He wants to avoid the fundamentalism of some Muslims and Christians—no change at all—but also avoid this idea that whatever is new is better than what is old. He wants to resist this dissolving of the Church in whichever direction the world goes. In this sense, I am pro-Ratzinger . . .

digitalnpq.org/archive/2005_summer/10_girard.html


#2

I’m not quite sure why Benedict would have said anything concening relativism as being bad. It sounds as though he is misusing terms.

Relativism is the concept that there are different ideas, but some are better than others. For example, in relativism atheism and Catholicism both exist, but Catholicism is a much better idea.

Pluralism is the thing that is destroying our society. Pluralism is the concept that there are different ideas, but that they are all equal. To a pluralist, atheism and Catholicism are equally good.


#3

[quote=Lazerlike42]I’m not quite sure why Benedict would have said anything concening relativism as being bad. It sounds as though he is misusing terms.

Relativism is the concept that there are different ideas, but some are better than others. For example, in relativism atheism and Catholicism both exist, but Catholicism is a much better idea.

Pluralism is the thing that is destroying our society. Pluralism is the concept that there are different ideas, but that they are all equal. To a pluralist, atheism and Catholicism are equally good.
[/quote]

Actually I believe he is speaking about moral relativism which is the idea that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truths.

But then I did a quick google search and found this on Wikipedia.

Relativism is the view that the meaning and value of human beliefs and behaviors have no absolute reference.

So that would be wrong too.


#4

[quote=ByzCath]Actually I believe he is speaking about moral relativism which is the idea that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truths.

But then I did a quick google search and found this on Wikipedia.

Relativism is the view that the meaning and value of human beliefs and behaviors have no absolute reference.

So that would be wrong too.
[/quote]

This is my undestanding as well.

Peace


#5

Dictionary.com defines Relativism as “A theory, especially in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them.”

Relativism denies the existence of absolute objective truth. It says that truth or falsity can only be evaluated relative to the circumstances of the observer. When the circumstances change or when the observer changes, then the evaluation of true and false can also change.

Relativism makes some sense in certain areas. One can argue that standards of beauty are relative. Others will argue for the existence of universal ideals. It’s a reasonable and relatively harmless discussion.

In other areas, however, relativism is a dangerous and damaging idea. Moral relativism says that Western society has no right to condemn the practice of honor killing in other societies. Moral relativism asks “Who are we to judge?” Moral relativism says that your truth can be different from my truth. What’s wrong for you isn’t necessarily wrong for me.

This sort of relativism is antithetical to Catholicism. By definition we believe in universal truth and a universal church.

–Bill


#6

I’ve heard other Catholics say the same about pluralism (including a medievalist whose judgement I respect a lot). Perhaps I have an incorrect concept of pluralism or Catholicism has another definition. I was raised believing it an expression of classical liberal democracy: Tolerance without, necessarily ,approval. The freedom to criticize ideologies but not demand they be repressed. In this definition of pluralism there is no moral equivalency, indeed one has a duty to speak out against that which undermines a just, moral society.

An example of what I mean: A classical liberal democrat would condemn gay marriage as a threat to the family and liberty. But he would acknowledge (this is where pluralism comes in) that tolerance be shown and something be worked out so everyone can live in relative peace. That is the opposite of what liberals preach today of course. Not enough to tolerant that which is not going away, one must “celebrate” and endorse it as an equally valid life style.

Appreciate any enlightenment on this subject.


#7

What Pope Benedict XVI is condemning is the philosophy of relativism.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
iep.utm.edu/r/relativi.htm

Although there are many different kinds of relativism, they all have two features in common.1) They all assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, or meaning) is relative to some particular framework or standpoint (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, an era, a language, or a conceptual scheme).

  1. They all deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.

Catholicism, on the contrary, insists that what is revealed to us by God through natural and supernatural revelation is privileged over all other forms of epistemology.

According to the same Encyclopedia:
iep.utm.edu/c/cog-rel.htm

Cognitive relativism asserts the relativity of truth…cognitive relativism denies that any of these standpoints enjoy a uniquely privileged status. None of them…represent the standpoint dictated to us by objective standards of rationality.

Cognitive relativism, like many other forms of relativism, is often said to have been first put forward by the ancient sophists, particularly Protagoras, who began his work ‘Truth’ with the famous statement: "Man is the measure of all things–of things that are, that they are, of things that are not that they are not.’ But with the possible exception of the sophists, few philosophers in the Western tradition have espoused any form of cognitive relativism until relatively recent times. Most assumed that there is some standpoint–for example, that of God–in relation to which our judgements are definitively true or false.

In the nineteenth century this assumption came to be seriously questioned by a small number of important thinkers, most notably Nietzsche and William James. In the twentieth century a relativistic view of truth, although it still provokes vituperative responses from anti-relativists, has undeniably gained many more adherents; indeed, it has become almost commonplace in some philosophical circles.

… Cognitive relativists do not simply assert that different cultures or communities have different views about which beliefs are true; no-one disputes that. Nor do they merely claim that different communities operate with different epistemic norms–i.e. criteria of truth and standards of rationality. That, too, seems to be obvious. The controversial claim at the heart of cognitive relativism is that no one set of epistemic norms is metaphysically privileged over any other. This is the claim which non-relativists reject, arguing, on the contrary, that some epistemic norms–for example, those employed by modern science–enjoy a special status in virtue of which they can serve as objective, universally valid, criteria of truth and rationality.

The standard objection to cognitive relativism is that it is self-refuting. ***If I assert that all judgements are only true relative to some non-privileged standpoint, the objection runs, I am implicitly claiming that this judgement–i.e. the thesis of relativism–is true in some non-relativistic sense. ***

In other words, to assert relativism as definitely true is self-refuting, because now you’ve just asserted an absolute truth, which may be rejected by anyone since “truth for you is not truth for me.”


#8

“*Relativism, which justifies everything and treats all things as of equal value, assails the absolute character of Christian principles.” – *Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam (1964)

**"… any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life…This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed…ethical relativism…characterizes much of present-day culture. There are those who consider such relativism an essential condition of democracy, inasmuch as it alone is held to guarantee tolerance, mutual respect between people and acceptance of the decisions of the majority, whereas moral norms considered to be objective and binding are held to lead to authoritarianism and intolerance. **But it is precisely the issue of respect for life which shows what misunderstandings and contradictions, accompanied by terrible practical consequences, are concealed in this position." – John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (1995)

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Homily, 18 April 2005)


#9

[quote=David_Paul]I’ve heard other Catholics say the same about pluralism (including a medievalist whose judgement I respect a lot). Perhaps I have an incorrect concept of pluralism or Catholicism has another definition. I was raised believing it an expression of classical liberal democracy: Tolerance without, necessarily ,approval. The freedom to criticize ideologies but not demand they be repressed. In this definition of pluralism there is no moral equivalency, indeed one has a duty to speak out against that which undermines a just, moral society.

An example of what I mean: A classical liberal democrat would condemn gay marriage as a threat to the family and liberty. But he would acknowledge (this is where pluralism comes in) that tolerance be shown and something be worked out so everyone can live in relative peace. That is the opposite of what liberals preach today of course. Not enough to tolerant that which is not going away, one must “celebrate” and endorse it as an equally valid life style.

Appreciate any enlightenment on this subject.
[/quote]

The Catholic position on this is not one that allows every harmful licentious behaviour for the sake that we all just get along.

Every individual is bound by Divine Law, and so is every government. Thus, civil laws cannot contradict Divine law.


#10

[quote=itsjustdave1988]The Catholic position on this is not one that allows every harmful licentious behaviour for the sake that we all just get along.

Every individual is bound by Divine Law, and so is every government. Thus, civil laws cannot contradict Divine law.
[/quote]

This merits repeating!


#11

[quote=itsjustdave1988]The Catholic position on this is not one that allows every harmful licentious behaviour for the sake that we all just get along.

Every individual is bound by Divine Law, and so is every government. Thus, civil laws cannot contradict Divine law.
[/quote]

Seems to be the same as 19th c liberal democrat pluralism.
Or does it go further? Should other faiths have a social disability enforced by law? (as was the case in some areas during the Colonial period and moderately so here and there during the early Republic)


#12

David Paul,

I recommend you read the discussion between me and RSiscoe on religious liberty and indifferentism, here:

Against Indifferentism

There are two rights regarding religious liberty that the Catholic Church professes. There are other kinds that have been condemned as error. Yet, these two kinds–*1) freedom to worship God as God intends, and 2) So long as just public order be observed, immunity from being coerced or forced against one’s will to worship against their beliefs, whether their beliefs are true or false–*are ecclesiastical law.

Should other faiths have a social disability enforced by law?

It depends upon whether just public order be observed. If contrary to just public order, then civil society has the right to suppress harmful religions. Just public order is to be determined by juridical norms that conform to the objective moral order.

For those that worship their left shoe, for example, it is certainly true that they do not have a right to worship falsely. One can only have a right to what is good and true. And such worship is evil. Such false worship cannot be with impunity, as it is contrary to Divine Law. Yet according to Dignitatis Humanae, the Catholic Church professes that they have a right to immunity from coercion from civil society from being forced to convert against their beliefs so long as just public order be observed.


#13

David Paul,

Your example of gay marriage is one that ought to be suppressed by civil society, and not be tolerated, as it is contrary to just public order. When civil society, using their juridical norms conclude to the contrary, they make this conclusion erroneously as it is contrary to the objective moral order, the competency of which the Catholic Church is final authority.


#14

itsjustdave1988…thanks for the details. Exactly what I would expect. Think my definition was just different as what you posted fits in exactly with the liberal democratic pluralism in which I was raised.


#15

itsjustdave1988…now I see where I went wrong:

A reply to Jim Kalb at Turnabout:

. . . .the Fundamental Theorem of Pluralism (which you have so admirably summarized as the sovereignty of individual will and desire, and the exclusion of any authority, tradition, or person who would question or challenge that premise) . . .

That is not at all what I understood by the term “pluralism” and I am, of course, opposed to it so defined.


#16

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