The Dictatorship of Relativism


14 November 2016

One of my former students emailed me a few days ago that he is alarmed because I continue stressing religious change and an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture and church teaching. He fears that I have succumbed to “the dictatorship of relativism” which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI so often condemned.“Our Christian morality,” my correspondent insisted, “is unchanging.” 

Ok, let’s be historically honest. I tried to respond to my concerned writer, the way I believe a good teacher should respond: a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person but the one who raises questions and tries to help students think and act with a broader perspective on reality. I reminded him for instance, that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great “Doctor of the Church,” taught that women are inferior to men because they are really “misbegotten males;” and that St Augustine, the very influential Neo-Platonic “Church Father,” taught that sexual intercourse, even within marriage, was always sinful. Augustine and Thomas, any good student knows, have been major shapers of Christian moral attitudes and behavior for centuries. I asked my young friend if he could affirm the papal teaching of Pope Nicholas V, who in 1452 instituted hereditary slavery for captured Muslims, solemnly teaching from his papal pulpit that all non-Christians are “enemies of Christ.” My final question was what he thought about the morality of a centuries old practice in Christian Europe of castrating prepubescent boys to ensure, in future years, a good supply of soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto singers for church choirs, especially in the pope’s Sistine Chapel. Churchmen justified this practice to insure high tone voices for divine praise, because they were in agreement with the Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, that “women should keep quiet in church.” Just a few historic examples. 

Yes change happens; but when speaking about morality, I prefer to avoid using words like “relative” and “situational,” because they have become hot potatoes and impede dialogue. Nevertheless, morality deals with our ongoing human reality that is never static. Historical circumstances change, so too our understanding of appropriate and inappropriate moral behavior. In every age, moral reflection must be anchored in concrete human experience and circumstances. Sometimes developments in human understanding lead to a better appreciation for traditional moral norms. Sometimes, however, the norms themselves must change, as has occurred when we look at moral issues linked with slavery, misogyny, personal freedom, human mutilation, genocide, and human sexuality.  

A key focus in my professional life, for many years, has been Christian ethics and Christian moral behavior. Here I have big concerns and strong feelings. Our Christian moral life is much more than simply being obedient to a set of moral norms. For some it may sound strange, but the most fundamental moral reality for the Christian is not obedience to God’s commands but the discernment of God’s presence in our daily lives and our response to that presence. Not just observing a set of laws but pursuing an all-inclusive way of life: what we have traditionally called the life of grace. 

Sin, for instance, cannot be identified merely with actions against the Ten Commandments. Sin is the breakdown of our multiple relationships with God, neighbor, world, and self. Christian ethics differs from philosophical ethics precisely because it understands that our moral life, informed by the message of Christ and animated by his Spirit, is a grateful response to the Devine presence in our lives: God with us. Christian morality, therefore, springs from an authentic Christian spirituality. (Many years ago, one of my favorite professors in Louvain insisted that if we had a healthy spirituality there would be no need for courses in theological ethics.) 

Our Christian understanding of reality calls for a broader and more universal love that embraces the poor, the marginalized, and the needy. It stresses that in our complex world, our moral responsibilities are not just interpersonal. They involve our collaboration, our critique, and our continually challenging the organizations, structures, and institutions that constitute a vital part of our local and global existence.  

One cannot claim, for instance, to be a Christian leader and at the same time denigrate women and legislate against them, make fun of the physically impaired, despise “foreigners,” degrade black people, dismiss people from a non-Christian background, promote personal fantasies as statements of objective truth, and understand self-promotion and self-gratification as more important than service to one’s neighbor. 

Last week, Johan Bonny, the current Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, reiterated his position that homosexual couples, divorced and remarried Catholics, and cohabiting couples should be given some sort of Church blessing as part of a “diversity of rituals” that would recognize the “exclusiveness and stability” of their unions. He went on to stress: “There is no way we can continue to claim that there can be no other forms of love than heterosexual marriage. We find the same kind of love between a man and woman who live together, in gay pairs, and lesbian couples.” Bishop Bonny, whom I know and for whom I have great respect, understands very well the developmental nature of our moral understanding; and he has the courage, as a bishop, to publicly acknowledge it. 

Today I am less concerned about a dictatorship of relativism than I am about a dictatorship of ignorance, closed-mindedness, and socio-cultural barrel vision. 

Warmest regards to all.  

Jack at Another Voice  

9 thoughts on “The Dictatorship of Relativism

  1. Jack, all I can say is “wow!’. This is terrific. Your insights, wording, and turn of the phrase are superb. Thanks.

  2. Always enjoy your excellent and insightful work. The challenge as I see it for many people is looking for “simplicity” in a world of complexity. It is difficult work to constantly live a life of “Christ consciousness” and have that inform your actions, words and attitudes after a hard day of work, spending time with family and community. Much easier to pop a Bud Light and take the Sunday sermon as the way to live.
    In my experience, we don’t teach people of any age how to live with complexity and critical thinking. There are correct foundational approaches for sure, but they leave you with ways to inform who you are in the world and ways to be in the world. Peace, love and truth are a good start. Keep up the good work. Just wanted you to know that your message is reaching some and being passed on to others.

  3. PS — the date heading says “Nov 14, 2016” (typo?). I do agree that this post has enough wisdom to keep us busy for a month thinking it over…KMC

  4. A wise senior priest taught a class in Men’s Spirituality that began with him holding up a thick volume. He stated that in his seminary training, this book of over 1000 church canons was what he should learn as his priestly guide. In other words, he said, if he followed and taught these “rules,” he and all his followers would be “good” and get to heaven. He then proceeded to expand our notion of being “good” by saying as an example, “Not stealing my neighbor’s car isn’t enough,” and that we needed to develop a spirituality that is more commonly practiced by women—that of “relationship.” This wise and wonderful priest then guided us to the notion that God doesn’t want rigid “rule followers,” but rather people who have a loving, dynamic relationship with the God who loves us all. Yes, there are probably many absolutes in “being good,” but not being bad isn’t much of a way to grow in the love of God. The checklist method of faith doesn’t have much vitality. I think God wants more out of me.

    Thanks, Jack, for once again hitting a home run!

    Frank Skeltis
    Battle Creek

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