« Income Is Income | Main | NHS In Raw Dollars »

Ratzinger and Relativism

I was reading Benedict XVI's "Relativism: The Central Problem of Faith Today" (PDF) at the recommendation of readers. It seems to have as its main target certain kinds of ecumenical tendencies that might be inclined to suggest that, somehow, Catholicism is right for Catholics, but maybe some other religion is right for other people. Or that traditional Catholicism is right for Europeans (and the Western Hemisphere?) but some different kind of Catholicism is right for Asia and/or Africa. Or something of that sort. While I'm strongly discinclined to agree that adherence to orthodox Catholicism is an important thing to do in life, his case against wish-washy Catholicism seems persuasive enough to me. It's either right or it isn't. If that's relativism, then I'm against it, too.

On the other hand, he seems to connect this problematic relativism to Kant's view that we can't know the ding an sich, the thing-in-itself, the way things we would be if we didn't have specific ways of knowing about things. My inclination would be to say the reverse, that pernicious forms of relativism come about specifically because of the belief that "real" objective knowledge must be knowledge of the thing-in-itself and that when people see you can't do this there's a tendency to throw up your hands in despair. Ratzinger's apparent view that the only coherent alternative to his traditionalist Catholicism is Marxism (like Edward Oakes' belief that everything is Catholicism or a really, really naive sort of emotivism) seems to me to be in a similar spirit. Perfectly viable middle grounds are being dismissed out of hand without particularly good reason.

April 20, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d83422fcaa53ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Ratzinger and Relativism:

» Close your mouth, no barking like a dog! from Notes in Samsara
To deny the relative is to live in a world that is not our own. To deny the absolute is to deny conciousness and thinking about the world. Each has its function and position, as it says above. [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 20, 2005 9:30:59 PM

» New Pope Denounces Relativism from Am I A Pundit Now?
The future Benedict XVI made a statement against relativism before the conclave: We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism that has at its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires" - Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) Now... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 21, 2005 1:48:33 AM

» Potpourri from Grammar.police
Anti-papist hipsters visuals courtesy of DCeiver, with a nod to Louis XIV. I have neither the time right now nor, truthfully, the inclination to devote the attention the new papacy has been deemed as deserving. But I do enjoy the... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 21, 2005 2:08:51 PM

» Good Pope, Bad Pope from Begging To Differ
I have neither the time right now nor, truthfully, the inclination to devote the attention the new papacy has been deemed as deserving. But I do enjoy the Pope jokes. I will say, for reasons that are partly aesthetic, slightly... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 21, 2005 2:12:50 PM

» Benedict XVI from Lance Mannion
I've written about my high school girlfriend's father. If you read that post you probably inferred that I didn't like the guy. Good call. But the truth is, apart from admiring his ability to terrorize me, I didn't feel all that strongly about him, beca... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 21, 2005 5:36:30 PM

» The Dictatorship of Relativism from Motes & Theories on Anthropology
The speech that apparently put Cardinal Ratzinger over the top in the final rounds of papal politics does not bode well for the future. Here is the now-famous quote in a Washington post article: "We are moving," he declared, toward "a dictatorship of r... [Read More]

Tracked on May 6, 2005 11:38:54 AM

» The Dictatorship of Relativism from Motes & Theories on Anthropology
The speech that apparently put Cardinal Ratzinger over the top in the final rounds of papal politics does not bode well for the future. Here is the now-famous quote in a Washington post article: "We are moving," he declared, toward "a dictatorship of r... [Read More]

Tracked on May 6, 2005 11:40:09 AM

» The Dictatorship of Relativism from Motes & Theories on Anthropology
The speech that apparently put Cardinal Ratzinger over the top in the final rounds of papal politics does not bode well for the future (pdf version here). Here is the now-famous quote in a Washington post article: "We are moving," he declared, toward "... [Read More]

Tracked on May 14, 2005 9:13:41 PM

» poker 487 from poker 487
poker 487 [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 9, 2005 8:06:08 PM

Comments

bigendianism v. littleendianism, and I'm not talking about computers.

Silly doctrinal dogmatism in catechism was one of the first signs I got that the faith I was being exposed to was crap.

The bible is a rich and varied enough text for people to pull anything they want to out of it. Hell, the NT was constructed that way, with different texts crafted for different audiences.

Posted by: Troy | Apr 20, 2005 3:36:46 PM

Ratzinger's apparent view that the only coherent alternative to his traditionalist Catholicism is Marxism (like Edward Oakes' belief that everything is Catholicism or a really, really naive sort of emotivism) seems to me to be in a similar spirit. Perfectly viable middle grounds are being dismissed out of hand without particularly good reason.

And just maybe there are coherent ideologies that cannot be expressed as a convex combination of Catholicism and Marxism.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Apr 20, 2005 3:37:46 PM

Among other things, I'm particularly bothered by this part:Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way, and it is enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better ... a liberal society would be a relativist society: Only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future.However, saying that I do not know the true way does not mean that I think everything else is equal. This straw man is, in fact, pretty typical of the "Relativism is evil" crowd-- set up as the only possible alternative to their own belief in an absolute truth a hypothetical, anything-goes belief system that very few people actually believe. I would suggest *at least* one other alternative, which is that there's stuff in which I believe (for a variety of reasons), but I'm not unwilling to contemplate the idea that my mind might be changed.

Posted by: Pete | Apr 20, 2005 3:49:31 PM

"My inclination would be to say the reverse, that pernicious forms of relativism come about specifically because of the belief that "real" objective knowledge must be knowledge of the thing-in-itself and that when people see you can't do this there's a tendency to throw up your hands in despair."

There were at least some people who actually committed suicide shortly after the appearance of the Critique of Pure Reason, concluding that if knowledge of the Ding-an-sich can't be had then knowledge is impossible for us. But I've always thought relativism comes out of the view that making knowledge dependent on nonperspectival access to the Ding-an-sich, the way things are "in themselves," is an incoherent picture that needs to be thrown out. Then you get in its place pragmatic considerations, whatever helps us cope or get around, social construction, power relations ... you know the story.

Posted by: live | Apr 20, 2005 3:50:38 PM

What's wrong with wishy-washy Catholicism? Seriously, in this context, the response "given his premises, he's right" is pretty much unintelligible to me. Are you just tuttering aprovingly over the desired wedge here, or is there an actual content to this statement. I bet not.

Posted by: spacetoast | Apr 20, 2005 4:00:29 PM

When all you've got is 'authority' then anything that undermines authority is obviously not tolerable.

The world is flat and everything revolves around the earth. Because we said so.

And BTW, marriage is for procreation.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 20, 2005 4:01:42 PM

However, saying that I do not know the true way does not mean that I think everything else is equal. This straw man is, in fact, pretty typical of the "Relativism is evil" crowd-- set up as the only possible alternative to their own belief in an absolute truth a hypothetical, anything-goes belief system that very few people actually believe.

This is a particular pet peeve of mine too, and Ratzinger's address bothers me for the exact same reason. When this straw man comes up I tend to direct people to Isaiah Berlin's explanation of the the difference between relativism, which almost no one actually believes, and pluralism, which is a key part of liberal society.

Posted by: cwk | Apr 20, 2005 4:10:27 PM

cwk - Thank you for linking the Berlin essay. What a breath of fresh air!

Posted by: jlm | Apr 20, 2005 4:24:39 PM

Or that traditional Catholicism is right for Europeans (and the Western Hemisphere?) but some different kind of Catholicism is right for Asia and/or Africa.

This is funny. For over a thousand years, each region of the world had its own variation of Catholicism who nominated bishops for their own regions. If Catholicism got the entire idea wrong for so long, one has to wonder why we should believe it has suddenly got the right idea. More likely they were wrong from the very beginning.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Apr 20, 2005 4:30:05 PM

When Matt says that "either it's right or it isn't", he's neglecting the real argument against authoritarian religion. It is right and proper for the Church to change its views over what is right and what is wrong over time. JPII issued an apology to Galileo. In the first century, Paul went to Jerusalem to plead his case that church teachings were wrong, Peter ultimately agreed, and the teachings changed. Paul didn't go form another church and simply say, "they believe in one thing, I in another." He felt he was right and the church hierarchy was wrong, he stayed in the church, and formed consensus that he was right.

The writings of the current Pope indicate that if he had been in Peter's place, Catholics today would be required to keep kosher and be circumcised.

Posted by: bunny | Apr 20, 2005 4:35:49 PM

Okay, let's play pope's advocate.

It's fair to say that individualism is a huge value in the West. You're supposed to realize yourself, express yourself, develop yourself. Your self is supposed to be free. You're supposed to be unique, and any tendencies to conform are assailable as inauthentic.

This is of course too extreme for any sane person to embrace 100%, and most of us are happy to be inauthentic. Exhibit A, the paradox of "Be a Pepper -- Drink Dr. Pepper!" Nevertheless, this individualism surely sounds familiar to us all.

I don't think you can have this individualism without a certain degree of relativism, pace Berlin. "One law for the lion and ox is oppression," said Blake. We're all familiar with the notion that what's right for me may not be right for you.

Christianity as I understand it, and as Benedict XVI (can we call him B16?) understands it, sees this focus on self as dangerous, insofar as the religion requires an identification with God's will rather than with one's own desires and will. Conformity with God's will at the expense of self is pretty much inseparable from any serious conception of Christianity, I'd say. Leaving aside, again, our inability to achieve such conformity. Individualism is, in short, our fallen state of being, which the Christian seeks to escape.

So far, so good; I think I agree with what B16's up to. The problem, and here I show my Protestant colors, is that knowing God's will is often difficult; following it is even moreso; and the church does not necessarily know God's will any better than I do. At the very least, even when the church thinks it knows, it should have the humility to admit it could be mistaken, particularly on subjects not well defined in Scripture. (The church is pretty safe saying that theft and murder are inconsistent with a Christian life, less so on contraception.)

So I think the pope is onto something, but all the evidence I've seen suggests that he lacks the humility that has to counterbalance the opposition to individualism. Else, one becomes the monster one fights. B16's apparent willingness to identify his beliefs with God's beliefs suggests that he's glorifying what can only be an individual, fallen perspective into God's own viewpoint.

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 20, 2005 4:42:10 PM

"Perfectly viable middle grounds are being dismissed out of hand without particularly good reason."

It is dismissed not becasue such beliefs can't work, but because they don't exists in a sustainable social equilibrium.

Posted by: yoyo | Apr 20, 2005 4:42:47 PM

Anderson:

And don't forget, it's a lot easier for pope B16 to be against YOUR individualism, and for the eternal word of god, when HIS individual interpretation of god's word is always the correct one.

Posted by: epistemology | Apr 20, 2005 4:55:25 PM

Epistemology: that's why Lord Acton and other Catholics of good will were so utterly opposed to the dogma of papal infallibility. Which, I trust everyone reading this thread knows, applies only rarely to anything the pope pronounces.

More generally, I've read through the Berlin relativism/pluralism material that was linked above, and do any of you Real Philosophers think his relativism is anything but a straw man? What relativist actually bases his values on whim, rather than on an appeal to his objective human nature and its ostensible requirements?

Second question: Does Berlin think that all subsets of objective values are compatible, in that Society A and Society B that subscribe to subsets A and B of said values can live in tolerance with each other? His Nazi example is puzzling to me in that respect; he seems to be suggesting that, if we all simply knew the real facts, we could live in tolerance with those who pursue different values from ours.

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 20, 2005 5:02:01 PM

"Ratzinger's apparent view that the only coherent alternative to his traditionalist Catholicism is Marxism"

Already I like the guy. A lot. Joyce when asked why he didn't become a Protestant said he could not substitute for a coherent and logical system one that was incoherent and illogical.

Many people just can't be comfortable with some sort of nominalist pragmatism. Is there a middle ground between believing in God and not-believing? Sort of sometimes believing?

The middle ground between direct experience of the transcendant and the denial of its possibility is something called faith. A creative tension.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 20, 2005 5:09:24 PM

Joyce (in the person of Stephen Dedalus) was a bit more biting:

What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 20, 2005 5:18:07 PM

Anderson:

The problem, and here I show my Protestant colors, is that knowing God's will is often difficult; following it is even moreso; and the church does not necessarily know God's will any better than I do.

Not only that, but monotheists of any stripe, Catholic or otherwise, don't necessarily know whether or not God exists any better atheists (or pantheists or polytheists) do. And even if a monotheistic God does exist, Christians don't necessarily know any better than non-Christians whether the Christian scriptures are His authentic word, rather than the made-up beliefs of mere mortals. If the Pope lacks humility in asserting that his Catholic understanding of Christian scripture and God's will is superior to your Protestant understanding, then you also lack humility in asserting that God exists and that the Christian scriptures are his authentic word.

Perhaps you will appeal to faith to justify your belief in God's existence and in the authenticity of the Christian scriptures, but if you do that you're not really in a position to criticize the Pope for doing the same thing with respect to his beliefs about God's will.

Posted by: Don P | Apr 20, 2005 5:21:07 PM

jlm: You're welcome.

Anderson: You're right that almost no one (surely there are *some*, even if I can't name them) actually subscribes to the relativism that Berlin is talking about, but that's his point. It's an attack on those who run around pointing at everyone who disagrees with them shouting "relativst!" Many of these people really do believe that liberal pluralists have no objective morals, and Berlin's trying to correct that mistaken belief.

As for your other question, I'll defer to someone who's read more Berlin than I.

Posted by: cwk | Apr 20, 2005 5:27:15 PM

The middle ground between direct experience of the transcendant and the denial of its possibility is something called faith. A creative tension.

That's a rather strange definition of faith. I occupy the middle ground you describe. I do not believe I have directly experienced the transcendant, but I don't deny the possibility that I have (or that the transcendant exists, regardless of whether I have experienced it). I don't see how that position constitutes faith.

I prefer Russell's definition: faith is belief unsupported by evidence. If you have evidence, you don't need faith.

Posted by: Don P | Apr 20, 2005 5:27:34 PM

Don P, I think there's a difference between (1) acting on the theory that God exists, etc., and (2) insisting that others accept that God exists. I don't see any failure of humility in (1). (I am not a particularly evangelical Christian, you may notice.)

I would agree with Berlin that pluralism best describes where we find ourselves, and that monism in this world is to be feared. A pluralistic Christianity, perhaps, offers some satisfaction for the hankering after monism that is obviously an objective human value, by displacing that monism onto an unknowable deity.

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 20, 2005 5:31:28 PM

Anderson, many relativists, particularly post-modernists, reject the idea of any human essence, so I think by endorsing the idea of a human nature he hopes to avoid the label. As for your second question, he says that it may well be necessary to go to war with another society to attack and destroy their values, as with the Nazis, but I think his point is that you shouldn't *demonise* the people that hold those values, no matter *how* much you detest the values.

Personally, I don't see the difference between Berlin's pluralism and relativism. He says that the number of potentially valuable things are not infinite, as proposed by *some* forms of relativism, yet he has absolutely no idea how many such things there are- in practice, how do the stances differ?

If we have no even vaguely delineable idea of human nature, how can he make a distinction between things that one can value whilst still remaining 'human' and those one can't, especially if he regards the Nazis' values as 'human.' If I think homosexuality destroys one's eligibility for Heaven and that human nature is fulfilled only when it gets to Heaven, then surely the homosexual is 'sub-human,' since his pursuit of male romantic partners is not "something I can conceive of men pursuing while remaining human"? He seems to base his idea of what is human solely on the ability to imagine, and, lets face it, not everyone is very imaginative. It's a pretty weak position...

Thirdly he says that "[This] is why pluralism is not relativism -- the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of men's subjective fancies." But then he goes on to say that pluralism ITSELF is such a creation of man's subjective fancies!

I really respect Berlin as a historian of ideas (his 'Roots of Romanticism'is very good) but he always seems to phone in his own philosophical performance. I hope I'm misunderstanding him though...

Anyone going to defend him?

Posted by: neruda boy | Apr 20, 2005 5:31:33 PM

don p--but this raises an additional question, namely what constitutes reliable evidence? is it merely something that can be measured, and objectively verified?

Posted by: jk | Apr 20, 2005 5:31:45 PM

Ratzinger seems to use "relativism" is a bewildering variety of ways - sometimes for skepticism, sometimes idealism, sometimes pluralism, sometimes for the view that the commonly accepted standards for co-existence held by the members of a community are as much the result of a process of negotiation and compromise than critical thinking, sometimes for nothing more than an attitude of epistemic caution and humility. Like many theologians, he seems to scavenge among philosophical views for loose associations, rough conceptual fits and scraps of persuasive-sounding terminology, without caring much for exactitude. It sounds like much of the usual indigestible stew of Catholic obstreporousness about the many different intellectual currents of the "modern age". Like many other Catholic theologians, Ratzinger sees these many different views as one - since they all share for him the one intellectually overwhelming characteristic of being not Catholic.

The suggestion that the only reason for granting people in any organization or community equal power in the making of decisions for that organiztion or community is that they have equal good judgment, that is, equally good abilities to discern the relevant truths or assess and compare the relevant values, is a typical fallacy of authoritarian religious minds. Ratzinger seeks to draw a sharp distinction between the political and the theological, outlandishly asserts that "relativism is the foundation of democracy" and suggests that relativism does apply in the political realm. He then says there is "no one correct political opinion", a claim of obvious truth and dubious relevance. Of course there is no one correct political opinion. The question is whether there are any correct political opinions. And the claim that there are some is no more, or less, plausible in the realm of politics than the relam of theology.

Perhaps what Ratzinger means is that there is no one correct political ideology, but that many political ideologies, as simultaneously vague and complex as they are, possess some share of the truth. Quite plausible. This is the area in which Ratzinger wishes to contrast political ideology with theology, since he clearly believes that there is one correct theology, or religion. But if this is his claim, it is surely implausible.

There actually is little reason for Matt's bald assertion about Catholicism that "its either right or it isn't". First, because Catholic doctrine consists of a great many claims, some of which might be true while others are not. But also because, particularly in the realm of theology, where people devise concepts for the attempted description of very lofty realities, realities that are dimly accessible, if at all, to the human intellect, and then attempt to relate those concepts in some roughly coherent manner to the same concepts with which they undertsnd their moral aspirations and orientations, their cultural traditions, their histories, their relation to the natural world and their own selves, it is abundantly plausible that even individual propositions lack a clear truth value, but capture something of reality while distorting some other aspects of reality. Just as in science, the concepts employed by systematic theologians are formed by a groping process that exploits metaphor and analogy, coupled with an always incomplete effort to hammer out a systematic logical order among the resulting conceptual tools.

Think of all the debates and disagreements in the Catholic tradition over matters like Aquinas's doctrine of analogy, and the competitors to it. Catholics and Christians can't even agree among themselves about what they mean by key terms like "atonement", "redepmtion", "incarnation", "salvation", "begottenness", "trinity", "kingdom of heaven" etc. There are various creeds and traditional verbal formulas that attempt to give more precise content to the relavant claims, but the words of those formulas are often open to just as much interpretation as the original terms.

Ratzinger strikes me as a classic modern, conservative European Catholic, anxious to establish some rock of indubitable certainty and hope and unchallengeable authority in a contentious, morally weary and confusing world of competing claims to truth and allegience. It might give him some psychological satisfaction to think that, despite the complexities, disputes and confusions that beset traditional Catholic doctrine, and their dubious provenance, Catholics have nevertheless, on the big questions, got it almost entirely right, while Hindus, for example, have screwed up big time. But it's not a very intellectually honest approach.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 20, 2005 5:32:04 PM

Thanks, cwk.

Don P's second remark was apparently being composed while I was responding to his first. Russell is being trite, as he was so painfully fond of being (e.g., his History of Western Philosophy, passim). The whole problem is that, people feel the need for faith precisely because there are areas of life that lack evidence. Life after death, existence of God, etc. The lack of evidence *for* these possibilities does not amount to positive evidence *against* them.

I'll just add that, contrary to the obnoxious American tendency to behave as though one pleases God by how much faith one has, Jesus seems to have been quite aware that his followers had little or no faith---the parable of the mustard seed. In other words, God does not really expect us to believe in him, certainly not with our whole hearts; he knows better. Cf. the centurion: "I believe! Help me with my unbelief!"

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 20, 2005 5:39:48 PM

Ratzinger seems to use "relativism" is a bewildering variety of ways.

Aha! Ratzinger is a relativist on relativism! ;)

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 20, 2005 5:42:05 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.