Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI and Relativism

Recently, the new Pope came to the United States. I did not go to see him; however, I did watch a couple of specials on him on the Catholic channel (EWTN). There was an article on him in the New York Times, and another in the Newark Star Ledger. I haven't read either of them yet. However, from what I've gleaned from recent news articles and the Catholic channel specials, there is more to Pope Benedict that initially meets the eye.

For one—I share one great passion with him: books. He begged John Paul II not to take him away from his great library in Bavaria. If he hadn't joined the Church, I'd bet the man would have become a professional cataloger. He fits the stereotype—shy, bookish, not wanting to go out and entertain the general public. As a professional cataloger myself, I run into this stereotype all the time; I sort of fit it, but not in an extreme way. In any case, I understand the desire to be buried by books and avoid the idiocies and politics of the organization. Part of his negative reputation no doubt stems from his introversion—he is not charismatic in the way John Paul II was.

However, there is a downside to his insular, bookish approach to Catholicism. For all of the theologizing Benedict has done, it has isolated him in some respects from the real world and how it operates. This does not make him unique compared to a lot of priests, but it's more noticed because of his office—previously as a Cardinal, and now as Pope.

Before becoming Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger made some interesting statements. He blames the Church for turning the Mass into an empty recitation of formulas. The hollowness of much Catholic faith clearly disturbs him, and he is right to be disturbed. But it was one telling statement in particular that made my eyebrows go up, even though it really shouldn't; Ratzinger talked about the rise of “relativism” in Church culture—by telling the faithful that there are no absolute truths, they fall prey to a relativism that has a selfish egoism as its goal. I seem to remember him throwing mysticism of certain types into that category.

This is where I disagree with Ratzinger's theology, or at least it shows how Church theology does not square with life as people experience it. The goal of relativism is not egoism. The problem is that the faithful are told that there is only one version of the truth, and then their life experiences teach them in no uncertain terms that this cannot be so. Their life experiences do not jive with Church teachings. Certain issues like abortion and homosexuality are NOT black and white issues, and the faithful come to an uneasy realization about this that leads to conflict.

To give an example: my Mom told me about a Sunday in her church where the priest passed around a “pro-life” petition that all parishioners were asked to sign. He actually watched to see who signed and who didn't. In the end, most parishioners didn't sign. Why? Because they're in favor of abortion? Probably not. But they are uneasy with the idea that abortion is wrong in all cases. What if a father rapes his daughter and she gets pregnant? That's a tough one. Could you blame the girl for wanting an abortion? The alternative is to have no safe alternative, and we know the kinds of horrors that occurred prior to Roe v. Wade. The Church's hard-line teaching on abortion didn't come about until the 19th century—prior to that, they believed abortion was wrong after the second trimester, which is in line with Jewish teaching as well. So what changed? Did someone suddenly have a revelation from God that all abortion is wrong? Of course not. The Church was losing members. By not allowing the faithful to have abortions, and disallowing birth control, they hoped to increase the Church population. The reasons are political, not spiritual. And it has ballooned into a huge political issue, a sort of "litmus test" of a good Christian in more conservative circles who actually think being a Christian is a prerequisite for public office.

When “good Catholics” who are sincere about their faith find these things out, it causes serious struggles psychologically. This can cause them to either break with the Church, disregard most of Church dogma in favor of relativism, or embrace its doctrine in a “forced literalist” kind of way.

So, if the Pope is looking to keep members who are “healthy” Christians, he really needs to think his position on relativism, as do the theologians of the Vatican and elsewhere. I agree with Pope Benedict when he says theology should be a “guideline”--guideline necessarily means that it is not an absolute interpretation. From a faith point of view—how you can determine or control the will of God? Who says that God follows the rules you've laid out? It's pure hubris to think that the Ultimate only works within the limitations of our own religious thinking. The Ultimate is beyond our comprehension, and our level of surrender must therefore be flexible, open to whatever we are presented with. Too often the lessons learned from experiences do not jive with man-made doctrines, no matter how inspired or well-thought-out. Discriminating between right and wrong is not usually simple and straightforward.

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