Public Reason and the Truth of Christianity
according to Benedict XIV
Bishop Crepaldi Examines the Teachings of Benedict XVI
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 10, 2007 (ZENIT.org).- Here is an essay written for
ZENIT by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council
for Justice and Peace and the director of the Cardinal Van Thuân
International Observatory, on the teachings of Benedict XVI on the role
of reason and Christianity in the public square.
* * *
Public Reason and the Truth
of Christianity in the Teachings of Benedict XVI
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
Public reason is not possible in a culture that is dominated by the
"dictatorship of relativism," 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. Hence, relativism rests upon blind faith. This is
unquestionably contradictory because the words "dogma" and "relativism"
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."
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. 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 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
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. 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." 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
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
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.
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.
Nevertheless, Ionian Physics search for the "Arché," which is
the nomos that transforms a chaos into a cosmos, the Pythagoreans say
that everything is measure and for Anaxagoras a distinct and highly
noble pure Mind rules all things. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates asks
Euthyphro what holiness is and when an action can be said to be holy.
Euthyphro answers that holiness is that which is dear to the gods.
However, Socrates notes that different things are dear to different
gods and then asks the crucial question: "The holy is holy because it
is dear to the gods or is dear to the gods because it is holy?"
In the first case, the gods are arbitrary, in the second case they are
connected with truth and good. As we can see, the issue raised by
Benedict XVI in Regensburg, using a quotation from Manuel II
Paleologus, emperor of Constantinople -- "not to act in accordance with
reason is contrary to God's nature" -- has deep and ancient roots.
Socrates' question raises the issue of whether the gods are capricious
and arbitrary like acrobats and jugglers or whether they follow the
good and the truth.
Euthyphro does not answer, but the path had been opened by Socrates and
will be ratified by Plato: "The gods are not magicians who transform
themselves, neither do they deceive mankind in any way" ("The
Republic," II, 376 c). Therefore Greek philosophy detaches itself from
myth and definitely turns to God as Logos. For Aristotle, the
supersensible Substance is Intelligence that eternally grasps itself.
The world has an order that is transparent to reason and reason can
know it because the gods are rational and act according to truth, as
Plato's Demiurge, who does not mould and shape things at random, but
drawing inspiration from the truth of eternal forms.
If we look at the Jewish religion, we find the same path. The "God
of the Fathers" Israel looks to is not a local or a political god, he
is not Baal nor Moloch. He is "he who is," he who existed before all
powers and will continue to exist even after them. The God of Abraham
is not fixed in one place but is everywhere. He is not linked to any
specificity, he does not depend from a people, he does not even depend
from the Temple, he does not need sacrifices. He is the Spirit of which
the world is a reflection, he is the Spirit that is capable of creating
matter. Just as Greek philosophy surpasses itself and goes beyond
its own religion of myth, the faith of Israel saves him from belonging
to a people.
For all these reasons, Benedict XVI said at Regensburg that there is a
profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word
and the biblical understanding of faith in God.
Christianity was the ultimate synthesis of all this: For the Gospel of
St. John, Jesus is the Logos, he is the spirit of God that created all
things. Christianity does not borrow from the many religions of the
time, the religions of the myth, but presents us with God-truth
reconnecting directly with Greek thought and developing the experience
of Israel. It relates "to that divine presence which can be perceived
by the rational analysis of reality … In Christianity, rationality
We believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word,
with Reason and not Unreason. Justin (second century) believed that
the Word had sown its seeds in Greek philosophy because what is true
for reason comes always from the Word. Clement of Alexandria even
thought that Greek philosophy had been a natural revelation of the
Christian God. There was often the danger of sliding toward an
irrational God but it has always been met and overcome by the authentic
orthodox line that was embraced by the Church.
William of Ockham, in the 14th century, argued that God, in his
omnipotence, could quite as well have created a diametrically opposite
world. He, in his absolute power, could have given us one table of the
law that was the exact opposite of the Ten Commandments. Ockham
embraced and echoed many similar ideas that had already been expressed
before and would be expressed again in later centuries, especially
after the Protestant Reformation. They believed that a God who was
subject to truth was not an omnipotent God. The point is this: Not even
God can produce something that is intrinsically impossible.
This is precisely what Ockham thought: To say that God cannot produce
something that is intrinsically impossible would be to limit the divine
freedom and omnipotence. Then came St. Thomas. His opinion is the
following: "Whatever implies contradiction does not come within the
scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of
possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done,
than that God cannot do them." Divine omnipotence is wise, not
arbitrary and capricious.
Christianity and the public
use of reason
Christianity, and especially Catholicism, cannot accept philosophical
relativism, cannot be linked to philosophies that exclude the problem
of the truth. This would mean to negate creation and the existence of a
creative Spirit. For the same reason, the rational notion of "human
nature," which is currently questioned, is not relinquishable.
Therefore, Christian faith confirms and supports the rational search
for truth and calls for a public role of reason that will also include
the critique of religions. In fact, we cannot say that all religions
relate to truth and reason in the same way as Christianity. They relate
to truth and reason in a different manner, which is the same as saying
that they are more or less rational and that they can more or less
adequately support the public role of reason. This was the theme
touched upon by the Holy Father at Regensburg. A God who preaches
violence is not a rational God, because reason rejects violence as
means of transmission of faith. What is not rational cannot come from
the true God.
We see here a very important criterion for the evaluation of religions
that, in some way, is new to our eyes. Religions are concerned with
eternal salvation. Religious relativism says that as far as salvation
is concerned, religions are incommensurable, it is not possible to
establish which is the most rational. Religions, however, in addition
to the promise of an eternal salvation, also say that it starts here on
If a religion teaches a way of life that is not righteous, it cannot be
a true religion. Only when man has lost sight of the ability to know
what is good and what is true, then all offers of salvation become the
same. If we do not have any standards of right living, then all
religions are the same. If the standards for right living are
relativized, man remains trapped inside religions. Again, this
demonstrates that religious relativism is founded on philosophical
relativism. Cardinal Ratzinger points out that St. Paul (Romans 2:14ff)
does not say that non-Christians will be saved by following their
religion, but by following natural religion.
We have to always bear in mind that also the reverse influence is true
as well: Religious pluralism in turn produces philosophical relativism.
In fact, Benedict XVI reminded us that "The convergence of differences
must not convey an impression of surrendering to that relativism which
denies the meaning of truth itself and the possibility of attaining
The common good and the truth
If it is possible to criticize religions starting from the reasons of
man, then it must also be possible to criticize them starting from the
reasons of man in society, that is from a public religion. Then it
becomes clear that not all religions are equally respectful of the good
of man in society.
It is also clear that the political power that seeks to organize
society according to reason not only cannot relate to all religions in
the same way, but should also cherish its obligations to the true
religion. Of course, if the political power is based on the
relativistic democracy, it will not feel any obligation in this regard.
Relativism, in fact, can only express a procedural public reason. When
the truth is replaced by the decision of the majority, culture is set
against truth. The relativistic presumption leads to the tearing up of
people's spiritual roots and the destruction of the network of social
Relativism regards all religions as equivalent. It does so because it
is incapable of engaging in a public critique of religions because for
relativism common good cannot be rationally identified. By doing so, it
precludes the possibility for the true religion to religiously support
what men do to attain the common good. Here, too, we see a negative
spiral. Relativistic democracy produces religious relativism and this
strengthens ethical and social relativism.
All this happens when a society is no longer able to use public reason
to criticize religions that proclaim polygamy, that incorporate the
rite of physical mutilation, that do not respect the dignity of women,
that preach violence or offer religious paths that depersonalize and
hamper human reason and knowledge. How will our public reason be able
to discern between religions if it loses sight of authentic humanity?
The state, the Church and the
problem of reciprocity
The respective roles of state and Church are clear, in their
complementary distinction, if we take the example of the so-called
reciprocity. Benedict XVI has often stressed the importance of
interreligious dialogue. He particularly focused on this issue during
his trip to Turkey.
However, dialogue requires reciprocity without which there is no real
dialogue. The problem is this: Who should demand such reciprocity, the
Church or to the state? Not the Church, who must be guided by charity
and truth. Her only duty toward the faithful of the other religions is
to bear witness to the charity and the truth of Jesus Christ. On the
other hand, reciprocity should guide the actions of the states that
recognize elements of public truth in Christianity, i.e. a fundamental
contribution to the common good. These states often acknowledge the
contribution of Christianity to their history and to the formation of
their cultural identity.
This is extremely important: Acknowledging that their roots are
grounded in Greek thought, in the Jewish religion and in Christianity
is a crucial step for developing the awareness of their own identity.
However, it is not sufficient because, unfortunately, the past can be
forgotten and, given the rapid disenchantment of the new generations,
it is possible to lose sight of the importance of Christianity even in
the face of historical, artistic and cultural examples that bear
witness to its civilizing function.
Alongside the criteria of history and culture we also need the
criterion of truth, i.e. of public rationality. This, then, will also
foster appreciation for our history and the pride of our own identity.
If, instead, we lose sight of the idea that Christianity expresses a
truth that relates to the human being and that Christianity corresponds
to authentic public reason more than other religious confessions, we
also lose appreciation for our history and the pride of our identity.
When Benedict XVI bitterly wondered if the West truly loved itself,
this is exactly what he meant: Does it truly love the truth it has
Interreligious dialogue is not founded on religious relativism or
indifferentism. This is true for the Catholic religion, but is also
true for a public reason that has not entirely surrendered to the
dictatorship of relativism. By proclaiming the right to religious
freedom, the Church has never meant to deny that Christianity is the
true religion or that the state has obligations towards the true
According to the declaration "Dignitatis humanae" of the Second Vatican
Council, the right to religious freedom "leaves untouched traditional
Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the
true religion and toward the one Church of Christ." Now, from where
does the state, which is secular, derive these obligations to the true
Not from being a "Christian" state, but from reason, that is from the
natural ability to see truths about man in society, from the ability to
understand the common good. This also founds the ability to see that
one religion consolidates and helps pursue humanization objectives
while another contributes to the degradation of man. Christian religion
has this claim, the claim of preaching a "God with a human face."
 "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 Ratzinger, Homily at the Mass "Pro
Eligendo Romano Pontifice," April 18, 2005). See also Benedict XVI,
Address at the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Participants at the
Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome, June 8, 2005, p. 7. See
the analysis of G. Crepaldi, "Brief Notes on Laity According to Joseph
Ratzinger-Benedict XVI," in "Social Doctrine of the Church Bulletin,"
January-February 2006, pp. 3-16.
 Expressions such as "the dogma of relativism," "the presumption of
relativism," or relativism as "the religion of modern man" are frequent
in the book: Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief
and World Religions," Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004.
 Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?,"
translated by Ted Humphrey in "Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace and Other
Essays," Hackett, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 41-46.
 "Self-limitation of reason" is the expression used by Ratzinger
(Joseph Ratzinger, "Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures -- The
Europe of Benedict," Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2006).
 It is a "purely functional rationality" that "maintains that you
can only call rational what can be proven with experiments" (Joseph
Ratzinger. "Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures -- The Europe of
 Joseph Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede. Scambio reciproco per un'etica
comune" [Faith and Reason. Mutual Exchange for a Common Ethics], in J.
Habermas-J. Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede in dialogo" [The Dialectics of
Secularization: On Reason and Religion], Marsilio, Padua 2005.
 Joseph Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede. Scambio reciproco per un'etica
comune," [Faith and Reason. Mutual Exchange for a Common Ethics] cit.,
 Joseph Ratzinger, "The God of Faith and the God of the
Philosophers" in "Introduction to Christianity," Ignatius Press, San
Francisco, 1990, pp. 93-104.
 Benedict XVI, Lecture at the University of Regensburg, Sept. 12,
 Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity" cit., pp. 77-93:
"The Biblical Belief in God." Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990.
 Many times and in many places Benedict XVI wonders, rhetorically,
whether it is more rational to think of a Spirit that creates matter or
of matter that creates spirit.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Conference "2000 Years After What?," University
of Sorbonne, Paris, Nov. 27, 1999 in "Christianity. The Victory of
Intelligence Over the World of Religions," English text in 30 Days, no.
1/2000, pp. 33-44
 "So we end up with two alternatives. What came first? Creative
Reason, the Creator Spirit who makes all things and gives them growth,
or Unreason, which, lacking any meaning, yet somehow brings forth a
mathematically ordered cosmos, as well as man and his reason" (Benedict
XVI, Homily at "Islinger Feld," Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006).
 "We have to ask what heaven is and how it comes upon earth. Future
salvation must make its mark in a way of life that makes the person
"human" here and capable of relating to God" (Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth
and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions" cit., p. 205.
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004).
 Benedict XVI, Message to the Bishop of Assisi on the occasion of
the 20th Anniversary of the Interreligious Meeting of Prayer for Peace
of Oct. 27, 1986. "One cannot simply see in any and every religion the
way for God to come to man and man to God" (Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth
and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions" cit., p. 75).
Ratzinger reflected on the theme of interreligious prayer for peace and
on the possibility that it could foster relativism and provided clear
answers also in "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World
Religions" cit., pp. 106-112.
 "Salvation begins with becoming righteous in this world --
something that always includes the twin poles of the individual and
society." (Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and
World Religions" cit., p. 205).
 Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World
Religions" cit., p. 76. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004.
 Joseph Ratzinger, "The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today
and Tomorrow," in Joseph Ratzinger & Marcello Pera, "Without Roots:
the West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam," Basic Books, New York,
 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on religious freedom
"Dignitatis humanae," Dec. 7, 1965, No. 1.
 Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the Fourth National
Ecclesial Convention of Verona, Oct. 19, 2006. The Holy Father also
mentioned "God with a human face" on Nov. 3, 2006 in the Address at the
Gregorian Pontifical University.
Benedict, The Peace Pope
Sept. 3-9, 2006
by ANGELO MATERA
First in a series
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI when he was
elected Pope in April 2005, influential Catholics in the United States
cheered his choice of names.
The name, obviously, honored St. Benedict, the man who founded European
monasticism and sparked Europe’s recovery from barbarism after the
collapse of the Roman Empire. It also signaled that a new, tough Pope
would be sharply critical of Europe for forgetting its Christian
heritage and embracing moral relativism, in contrast to the religious
and moral vigour of the United States.
But from the beginning, it was impossible to ignore another, unspoken
Catholic “hawks” in the United States had been unhappy with Pope John
Paul II’s stance against almost all wars, a position they viewed as
unrealistic and a departure from their interpretation of the classic
“just war” tradition that began with St. Augustine. For them, the
figure of St. Benedict became a symbol, and the Pope’s name a secret
code, for those who believed they saw most clearly the threat of
Islamic fascism and the need to use violence in the clash of
civilizations between the West and Islam.
They clearly hoped that Benedict XVI would look more favourably on the
United States’ use of armed force in the fight against Islamic
terrorists and rogue states.
But with the Vatican’s reaction to the recent Israeli incursion into
Lebanon, the hawks discovered they were only half right about the new
While Benedict has indeed been firm in calling Europe back to its
Christian roots and warning against the “dictatorship of relativism,”
any speculation that he would diverge from John Paul II’s “Gospel of
Peace” ended when the Holy Father came out strongly against Israel’s
pre-emptive attack on Lebanon.
Why did the pro-war Catholics misread the Pope so badly on this issue?
One reason is that they had overlooked, or chosen to ignore, the Holy
Father’s clear and repeated references to another inspiring Benedict —
Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922).
In his first general audience April 27, 2005, in St. Peter’s Square,
Pope Benedict XVI began his explanation of why he chose the name
Benedict: “Filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving, I wish to
speak of why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I remember Pope
Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church
through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps I place my ministry in
the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples.”
And in his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace Jan.
1, 2006, the Holy Father cited Benedict XV “who condemned the First
World War as a ‘useless slaughter’ and worked for a universal
acknowledgment of the lofty demands of peace.”
Why did pro-war Catholics downplay these strong references to Benedict
XV and that Pope’s anti-war position? Was it a deliberate attempt to
“spin” the issue in the media? Or was it a case of subconscious
filtering of disagreeable information based on hopes for a more pro-war
Whatever the case, the significance of Pope Benedict XV for the new
Pope is now unmistakably clear.
Who was Pope Benedict XV?
Known as the “peace Pope,” he was elected soon after the outbreak of
World War I and spent the war years desperately trying to broker a
peace settlement. On Aug. 1, 1917, he delivered his “plea for peace,”
proposing that the warring nations cease hostilities, reduce their
arms, guarantee freedom of the seas and submit to international
Although his efforts had gained some popular support, he was viewed
with suspicion by the governments of both sides, and his proposals were
rejected. Historians consider him a tragic figure, especially since
most view World War I as a senseless slaughter that did much to
discredit Western civilization for subsequent generations of Europeans,
and paved the way for even greater horrors in World War II.
A similar sense of tragedy, albeit on a smaller scale, seemed to
surround Pope Benedict XVI during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict.
The Holy Father’s increasingly urgent pleas for an immediate
cease-fire, and his pronouncements about the plight of innocent
civilians in Lebanon and Israel, were almost completely ignored by
Israel, the United States and other Western nations, and were mostly
dismissed, even ridiculed, by influential Catholics in the press and on
On July 16, a few days after the conflict began, in his first public
statement, the Pope called on both Israel and Hezbollah to end
hostilities, stating that “neither the terrorist acts nor the reprisals
— above all when there are tragic consequences for the civilian
population — can be justified.”
On July 20, with 300 already killed and a half million displaced in
Lebanon by Israel’s invasion, and 29 killed in Israel and many
thousands displaced by Hezbollah rockets, the Pope and his
representatives again denounced the conflict, and called for an
On July 30, after an Israeli air strike on an apartment block in the
biblical town of Qana killed 54, including 37 children, the Holy Father
pleaded, “In the name of God, I call to all those responsible for the
cycle of violence to lay down their arms — both sides — and bring a
halt to the violence. … You cannot re-establish justice, establish a
new order and build authentic peace when you resort to instruments of
Then, during a television interview with German media taped Aug. 5, the
Pope made an unusual appeal: “Naturally, the Holy See has no desire for
political power,” the Pope said. “But we wish to call Christians — and
all those who feel challenged by the voice of the Holy See in one way
or another — to mobilize all the powers that recognize how war is the
worst solution for everyone.”
By Aug. 6, the Holy Father showed signs of frustration, when, during a
public audience, he expressed his “bitter consternation that thus far,
the pleas for an immediate cease-fire in this martyred region have been
In every public appearance thereafter, Pope Benedict continued to
condemn the killing of innocent civilians in both Israel and Lebanon,
called urgently for the fighting to stop and instructed Catholics to
pray for a lasting peace, until finally a cease-fire was negotiated
that began Aug. 14.
Caught off-guard throughout the conflict by this Pope’s echoing of John
Paul II’s anti-war stand, some Catholic writers and bloggers expressed
varying degrees of shock and disappointment with the Pope and his
Vatican representatives, especially for, in their view, treating Israel
and Hezbollah as “morally equivalent,” and not giving sufficient weight
to the threat of Islamic terrorism.
Angelo Matera is
editor of Godspy.com.
8 Keys to Reading Joseph
Suggested by Archbishop Forte
ROME, JUNE 25, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Archbishop Bruno Forte of
Chieti-Vasto recently presented eight keys for reading Joseph
Ratzinger's theological work.
The archbishop, a member of the International Theological Commission,
presented his ideas at the closing the first course of Specialization
in Religious Information, organized by the University of the Holy Cross.
The prelate began his address June 17 by presenting, as the first key,
an analysis of the historical and cultural context in which the
theological work matured of the man who today is Benedict XVI.
After 1968, when the "age of utopia" and its vision of an essentially
"useless" God came to the fore, Ratzinger's work began to develop its
anti-ideological conviction, said Archbishop Forte, 56.
Moreover, after 1989, when the "age of disenchantment" and the idea of
the "death" of God prevailed, Ratzinger's challenge was to "propose
horizons of meaning, joy and hope," the Italian archbishop said.
During this period, Joseph Ratzinger elaborated the concept of "Deus
caritas," which shows that the topic of his first encyclical was "long
in maturing," observed Archbishop Forte.
The second key is the task Joseph Ratzinger assumed with his theology:
"to give witness with the service of the intelligence to the Word amid
the words of men," that is, "a 'diakonia' [service] to truth in the
house of truth," namely, the Church.
In fact, "God is not found in solitude" but in a "community that
remembers and narrates and which, at the same time, interprets the
truth that has been transmitted to us," said Archbishop Forte.
The third key is the meaning of believing. Quoting Ratzinger himself,
in his "Introduction to Christianity," Archbishop Forte said that to
believe "means to give one's assent to that sense that we are not
capable of building ourselves, but only to receive it as a gift, so
that it is enough to accept him and abandon ourselves to him."
Illustrating the fourth key to the reading, the archbishop said that
the God in whom one believes, can only be a personal god, God the
Father, who is revealed in biblical history as the living God, that is,
the God of Jesus Christ. An unknown God cannot be loved. Only a
personal one can be loved, one who addresses us and who, at the same
time, we can address.
In this context, the relationship between man and God must be
characterized by the move from "dualism," which has opposed the human
and the divine, faith and reason, in many periods of the modern spirit,
to "meeting" and correspondence.
According to the fifth key of Ratzinger's thought, "the human and
divine meet but are not confused in Jesus Christ," noted the prelate.
God is not the answer to man's expectation, but is always superior; "he
is the beyond who overtakes, disconcerts and troubles us."
The sixth key is the vision of the Church as the place where God
dwells. "The Church must always live in docility to the Spirit and must
be ready to acknowledge resistances to the Spirit," Archbishop Forte
observed, indicating the importance of admitting faults of the past.
The seventh key, the vision of the beyond, eschatology, is a "dominant
theme in Ratzinger's thought" and affects first of all the identity of
the Christian: "a prisoner of the future of God," who must measure his
decisions on the horizon of the infinite God, according to the
In this connection, "the Christian lives in an anticipated and
anticipating experience of the last things," through faith and the
sacraments, but is also "critical reserve" because at times the
Christian goes against the current.
The last stage illustrated by Archbishop Forte was the image that
summarizes this theological work -- Mary -- synthesis of ecclesiology:
"a concrete and personal icon in which the coordinates of Christian
thought are expressed."
The archbishop concluded his address highlighting the differences
between Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If Pope Karol Wojtyla was a
personalist anthropologist, he said, then Pope Joseph Ratzinger is a
theologian who is "almost a catechist," bearer of the possibility of
the meeting of different traditions and cultures.
The course of Specialization in Religious Information took place March
3-June 16. During the course, professors of several pontifical
universities and athenaeums of Rome alternated in addressing topics
relative to religious information, to offer some keys to its reading in
order to understand the Catholic Church better.
When Civilizations Meet: How
Joseph Ratzinger Sees Islam
The author of this essay is an Egyptian Jesuit who is very familiar
with both the pope and the Muslim religion. It was written for and
published by “Asia News.” Here it is in its entirety
by Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.
Benedict XVI is probably one of the few figures to have profoundly
understood the ambiguity in which contemporary Islam is being debated
and its struggle to find a place in modern society. At the same time,
he is proposing a way for Islam to work toward coexistence globally and
with religions, based not on religious dialogue, but on dialogue
between cultures and civilizations based on rationality and on a vision
of man and human nature which comes before any ideology or religion.
This choice to wager on cultural dialogue explains his decision to
absorb the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue into the
larger Pontifical Council for Culture.
While the pope is asking Islam for dialogue based on culture, human
rights, the refusal of violence, he is asking the West, at the same
time, to go back to a vision of human nature and rationality in which
the religious dimension is not excluded. In this way – and perhaps only
in this way – a clash of civilizations can be avoided, transforming it
instead into a dialogue between civilizations.
Islamic totalitarianism differs from Christianity
To understand Benedict XVI’s thinking on Islamic religion, we must go
over its evolution. A truly essential document is found in his book
written in 1996, when he was still cardinal, together with Peter
Seewald, entitled “The Salt of the Earth”, in which he makes certain
considerations and highlights various differences between Islam and
Christian religion and the West.
First of all, he shows that there is no orthodoxy in Islam, because
there is no one authority, no common doctrinal magisterium. This makes
dialogue difficult: when we engage in dialogue, it is not “with Islam”,
but with groups.
But the key point that he
tackles is that of shari’a. He points out that:
“the Koran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of
political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be
Islamic. Shari’a shapes society from beginning to end. In this sense,
it can exploit such freedoms as our constitutions give, but it cannot
be its final goal to say: Yes, now we too are a body with rights, now
we are present [in society] just like the Catholics and the
Protestants. In such a situation, [Islam] would not achieve a status
consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from
This alienation could be resolved only through the total Islamization
of society. When for example an Islamic finds himself in a Western
society, he can benefit from or exploit certain elements, but he can
never identify himself with the non-Muslim citizen, because he does not
find himself in a Muslim society.
Thus cardinal Ratzinger saw clearly an essential difficulty of
socio-political relations with the Muslim world, which comes from the
totalizing conception of Islamic religion, which is profoundly
different from Christianity. For this reason, he insists in saying that
we cannot try to project onto Islam the Christian vision of the
relationship between politics and religion. This would be very
difficult: Islam is a religion totally different from Christianity and
Western society and this makes does not make coexistence easy.
In a closed-door seminar, held at Castelgandolfo, September 1-2, 2005,
the pope insisted on and stressed this same idea: the profound
diversity between Islam and Christianity. On this occasion, he started
from a theological point of view, taking into account the Islamic
conception of revelation: the Koran “descended” upon Mohammad, it is
not “inspired” to Mohammad. For this reason, a Muslim does not think
himself authorized to interpret the Koran, but is tied to this text
which emerged in Arabia in the 7th century. This brings to the same
conclusions as before: the absolute nature of the Koran makes dialogue
all the more difficult, because there is very little room for
interpretation, if at all.
As we can see, his thinking as cardinal extends into his vision as
pontiff, which highlights the profound differences between Islam and
On July 24, during his stay in the Italian Aosta Valley region, he was
asked if Islam can be described as a religion of peace, to which he
replied “I would not speak in generic terms, certainly Islam contains
elements which are in favour of peace, as it contains other elements.”
Even if not explicitly, Benedict XVI suggests that Islam suffers from
ambiguity vis-à-vis violence, justifying it in various cases.
added: “We must always strive to find the better elements.” Another
person asked him then if terrorist attacks can be considered
anti-Christian. His reply is clear-cut: “No, generally the intention
seems to be much more general and not directed precisely at
Dialogue between cultures is
more fruitful than inter-religious dialogue
On August 20 in Cologne, pope Benedict XVI has his first big encounter
with representatives of Muslim communities. In a relatively long
speech, he says:
“I am certain that I echo your own thoughts when I bring up one of our
concerns as we notice the spread of terrorism.”
I like the way he involves Muslims here, telling them that we have the
same concern. He then goes on to say: “I know that many of you have
firmly rejected, also publicly, in particular any connection between
your faith and terrorism and have condemned it.”
Further on, he says: “Terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel [a
word that he repeats 3 times] choice which shows contempt for the
sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil
coexistence.” Then, again, he involves the Islamic world:
“If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of
rancour, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every
manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel
fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders
progress towards world peace. The task is difficult but not impossible
and the believer can accomplish this.”
I liked very much the way he stressed “eliminating from hearts any
trace of rancour”: Benedict XVI has understood that one of the causes
of terrorism is this sentiment of rancour. And further on:
“Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the
negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual
respect, solidarity and peace.” And also:
“There is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of
fundamental moral values. The dignity of the person and the defence of
the rights which that dignity confers must represent the goal of every
social endeavour and of every effort to bring it to fruition.”
And here we find a crucial sentence:
“This message is conveyed to us unmistakably by the quiet but clear
voice of conscience. Only through recognition of the centrality of the
person can a common basis for understanding be found, one which enables
us to move beyond cultural conflicts and which neutralizes the
disruptive power of ideologies.”
Thus, even before religion, there is the voice of conscience and we
must all fight for moral values, for the dignity of the person, the
defence of rights.
Therefore, for Benedict XVI, dialogue must be based on the centrality
of the person, which overrides both cultural and ideological contrasts.
And I think that, getting under ideologies, religions can also be
understood. This is one of the pillars of the pope’s vision: it also
explains why he united the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and the
Council for Culture, surprising everyone. This choice derives from a
profound vision and is not, as the press would have it, to “get rid” of
archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who deserves much recognition. That may
have been part of it, but it was not the purpose.
The essential idea is that dialogue with Islam and with other religions
cannot be essentially a theological or religious dialogue, except in
the broad terms of moral values; it must instead be a dialogue of
cultures and civilizations.
It is worth recalling that already as far back as 1999, Cardinal
Ratzinger took part in an encounter with Prince Hassan of Jordan,
Metropolitan Damaskinos of Geneva, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, deceased
in 2003, and the Grand Rabbi of France René Samuel Sirat.
and Christians were invited by a foundation for inter-religious and
inter-cultural dialogue to create among them a pole for cultural
This step towards cultural dialogue is of extreme importance. In any
kind of dialogue that takes place with the Muslim world, as soon as
talk begins on religious topics, discussion turns to the Palestinians,
Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, in other words all the questions of
political and cultural conflict. An exquisitely theological discussion
is never possible with Islam: one cannot speak of the Trinity, of
Incarnation, etc. Once in Cordoba, in 1977, a conference was held on
the notion of prophecy. After having dealt with the prophetic character
of Christ as seen by Muslims, a Christian made a presentation on the
prophetic character of Mohammad from the Christian point of view and
dared to say that the Church cannot recognize him as prophet; at the
most, it could define him as such but only in a generic sense, just as
one says that Marx is “prophet” of modern times. The conclusion? This
question became the topic of conversation for the following three days,
pre-empting the original conference.
The discussions with the Muslim world that I have found most fruitful
have been those in which interdisciplinary and intercultural questions
were discussed. I have taken part various times, at the invitation of
Muslims, in inter-religious meetings in various parts of the Muslim
world: talk was always on the encounter of religions and civilizations,
Two weeks ago, in Isfahan, Iran, the title was “Meeting of
civilizations and religions.” Next September 19, at Rome’s Pontifical
Gregorian University, there will be a conference organized by the
Iranian Ministry of Culture along with Italian authorities, and this
too will be on the encounter between cultures, and will include the
participation of former Iranian president Khatami.
The pope has understood this important aspect: discussions on theology
can take place only among a few, but now is certainly not the time
between Islam and Christianity. Instead, it is a question of tackling
the question of coexistence in the concrete terms of politics, economy,
history, culture, customs.
Rationality and faith
Another fact seems to me important. In an exchange that took place on
October 25, 2004, between Italian historian, Ernesto Galli della
Loggia, and the then cardinal Ratzinger, the latter, at a certain
point, recalled the “seeds of the Word” and underscored the importance
of rationality in Christian faith, seen by Church Fathers as the
fulfilment of the search for truth found in philosophy. Galli della
Loggia thus said: “Your hope which is identical to faith, brings with
it a logos and this logos can become an apologia, a reply that can be
communicated to others,” to everyone.
Cardinal Ratzinger replied:
“We do not want to create an empire of power, but we have something
that can be communicated and towards which an expectation of our reason
tends. It is communicable because it belongs to our shared human nature
and there is a duty to communicate on the part of those who have found
a treasure of truth and love. Rationality was therefore a postulate and
condition of Christianity, which remains a European legacy for
comparing ourselves peacefully and positively, with Islam and also the
great Asian religions.”
Therefore, for the pope, dialogue is at this level, i.e. founded on
reason. He then went on to add:
“This rationality becomes dangerous and destructive for the human
creature if it becomes positivist [and here he critiques the West],
which reduces the great values of our being to subjectivity [to
relativism] and thus becomes an amputation of the human creature. We do
not wish to impose on anyone a faith that can only be freely accepted,
but as a vivifying force of the rationality of Europe, it belongs to
Then comes the essential part:
“It has been said that we must not speak of God in the European
constitution, because we must not offend Muslims and the faithful of
other religions. The opposite is true: what offends Muslims and the
faithful of other religions is not talking about God or our Christian
roots, but rather the disdain for God and the sacred, that separates us
from other cultures and does not create the opportunity for encounter,
but expresses the arrogance of diminished, reduced reason, which
provokes fundamentalist reactions.”
Benedict XVI admires in Islam the certainty based on faith, which
contrasts with the West where everything is relativized; and he admires
in Islam the sense of the sacred, which instead seems to have
disappeared in the West. He has understood that a Muslim is not
offended by the crucifix, by religious symbols: this is actually a
laicist polemic that strives to eliminate the religious from society.
Muslims are not offended by religious symbols, but by secularized
culture, by the fact that God and the values that they associate with
God are absent from this civilization.
This is also my experience, when I chat every once in a while with
Muslims who live in Italy. They tell me: this country offers
everything, we can live as we like, but unfortunately there are no
“principles” (this is the word they use). This is felt very much by the
pope, who says: let’s go back to human nature, based on rationality, on
conscience, which gives an idea of human rights; on the other hand,
let’s not reduce rationality to something which is impoverished, but
let’s integrate the religious in rationality; the religious is part of
In this, I think that Benedict XVI has stated more exactly the vision
of John Paul II. For the previous pope, dialogue with Islam needed to
be open to collaboration on everything, even in prayer. Benedict is
aiming at more essential points: theology is not what counts, at least
not in this stage of history; what counts is the fact that Islam is the
religion that is developing more and is becoming more and more a danger
for the West and the world. The danger is not in Islam in general, but
in a certain vision of Islam that does never openly renounces violence
and generates terrorism, fanaticism.
On the other hand, he does not want to reduce Islam to a
social-political phenomenon. The Pope has profoundly understood the
ambiguity of Islam, which is both one and the other, which at times
plays on one or the other front. And his proposal is that, if we want
to find a common basis, we must get out of religious dialogue to give
humanistic foundations to this dialogue, because only these are
universal and shared by all human beings. Humanism is a universal
factor; faiths can be factors of clash and division.
Yes to reciprocity, no to
The pope’s position never falls into the justification of terrorism and
violence. Sometimes, even when it comes to Church figures, people slip
into a generic kind of relativism: after all, there’s violence in all
religions, even among Christians; or, violence is justified as a reply
to other violence… No, this Pope has never made allusions of this kind.
But, on the other hand, he has never fallen into the behaviour found in
certain Christian circles in the West marked by “do-goodism” and by
guilt complexes. Recently, some Muslims have asked that the Pope ask
forgiveness for the Crusades, colonialism, missionaries, cartoons, etc.
He is not falling in this trap, because he knows that his words could
be used not for building dialogue, but for destroying it. This is the
experience that we have of the Muslim world: all such gestures, which
are very generous and profoundly spiritual, to ask for forgiveness for
historical events of the past, are exploited and are presented by
Muslims as a settling of accounts: here, they say, you recognize it
even yourself: you’re guilty. Such gestures never spark any kind of
At this point, it is worth recalling the Pope’s address to the Moroccan
Ambassador, February 20, 2006, when he alluded to “respect for the
convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal
manner, the exercise of freely-chosen religion is truly assured to all
in all societies.” These are two small but very important affirmations
on the reciprocity of religious freedoms rights between Western and
Islamic countries and on the freedom to change religion, something
which is prohibited in Islam. The nice thing is that the pope dared to
say them: in the political and Church world, people are often afraid to
mention such things. It’s enough to take note of the silence that
reigns when it comes to the religious freedom violations that exist in
I really like this pope, his balance, his clearness. He makes no
compromise: he continues to underline the need to announce the Gospel
in the name of rationality and therefore he does not let himself be
influenced by those who fear and speak out against would-be
proselytism. The pope asks always for guarantees that Christian faith
can be “proposed” and that it can be “freely chosen.”
The author of the essay, Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit, is a
professor of Islamic studies and of the history of Arab culture at the
Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental
Institute in Rome; he is the founder of the Centre de Recherche Arabes
Chrétiennes and president of the International Association for
Christian Arabic Studies. In September of 2005 he participated, at
Castel Gandolfo, in a study meeting with Benedict XVI on the concept of
God in Islam.
The first online publication of this essay was on April 26, 2006, on
“Asia News,” the news agency that specializes in Asia – and is also
translated into Chinese – founded and directed in Rome by Fr. Bernardo
Cervellera of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions:
Caritas Est" and C.S. Lewis' "Four Loves"
Interview With Andrea Monda
ROME, MARCH 6, 2006 (Zenit.org).- In Benedict XVI's first encyclical it
is possible to find affinities with "The Four Loves" of C.S. Lewis,
says journalist Andrea Monda.
St. Paul's has published two of Monda's works on the British author:
"Invito alla lettera di C.S. Lewis" (2000) and, with Paolo Gulisano,
"Il Mondo di Narnia" (2005).
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Nov. 29,
1898. He was educated at Oxford, where he was a tutor and member of the
governing council of Magdalen Collage from 1925 to 1954, the year in
which he was appointed professor of medieval and Renaissance literature
in Cambridge. He died on Nov. 22, 1963.
An atheist for many years, Lewis described his conversion to
Christianity in "Surprised by Joy." His works of fiction include "The
Chronicles of Narnia" series.
Monda spoke to ZENIT about the similarities of Lewis' "Four Loves" with
Benedict XVI's encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est."
Q: What are the affinities between Pope Benedict XVI and the British
Monda: It is known that the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger read and
appreciated several works of the writer C.S. Lewis …… and every now and
then traces of that experience also appear in the texts of Pope
Benedict XVI, including in the encyclical "Deus Caritas Est."
Q: In what passages in particular?
Monda: Above all in the decision to place love at the center of his
reflection, essence of Christian doctrine and, especially, in having
dedicated the first part of the encyclical to the comparison and
distinction between "eros" and "agape," with a brief allusion to
It is quite likely that the Supreme Pontiff recalled Lewis' splendid
1960 essay on "The Four Loves," in which the writer analyzes four kinds
of love: affection; friendship -- "philia"; and, specifically, eros and
charity -- "agape."
But it is not just in structure where a harmony is perceived, but also
in the contents: Lewis' sharp intelligence goes to the core of the
Christian faith with the same capacity of penetration of the German
Pontiff, and with the same ability to illuminate, explain and give to
the reader's attention.
Q: Can you give an example?
Monda: Lewis writes, for example, speaking of charity, that "natural
love-gift is always directed to objects that the one in love considers
in a certain sense intrinsically worthy of love. …… But divine
love-gift in man enables him also to love what is not naturally worthy
of love: lepers, criminals, enemies, the mentally retarded, the
embittered, the proud and the scornful."
Further on, he continues to affirm: "We want to be loved for our
intelligence, beauty, generosity, honesty, efficiency. In noticing,
however, that someone is not offering supreme love -- charity --this
makes a terrible impact on us. …… In a similar way, receiving is harder
and perhaps more meritorious than giving. …… All those who have good
parents, wives, husbands or children can be sure that sometimes -- and
perhaps always, in regard to some specific feature or habit -- they are
receiving charity, that they are not loved because they are lovable,
but because Love itself is in those who love them."
It is quite likely that the Holy Father remembered this page of Lewis
when, in point 17 of the encyclical, he wrote that "He has loved us
first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love.
God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of
producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and
since he has 'loved us first,' love can also blossom as a response
And in the following point, he continues affirming that "Love of
neighbor is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the
Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with
God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can
only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an
encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my
feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my
eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His
friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in
others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can
offer them not only through the organizations intended for such
purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with
the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward
necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave."
Q: How can love, literature and spirituality coexist?
Monda: It is true that the Spirit blows where it will: A
philologist-writer of fantasies, layman and Anglican -- even if he was
very close to Catholicism -- and a German Catholic theologian, today
Universal Shepherd of the Catholic Church, meet, are reunited in
thought and word, united by the Spirit of Love.
What comes to mind is that English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton,
read and loved by Lewis and Ratzinger, was right when he wrote that the
Church is the place where all truths meet.
On Reading the Pope (part one) | Fr. James
V. Schall, S.J. | January 19, 2006
Already in reading the remarkable amount of material the present Holy
Father writes each week, it is clear, as in the case of his
predecessor, that it is a full time job just to keep up with him. The
public responsibilities of a pope both to be present for and to speak
to an amazing variety of differing people from all over the world
requires him–in both short talks or letters, in weekly exhortations and
audiences, and in a variety of other fora–to explain to us how he
understands our faith and its foundations. Regularly, the Pope speaks
to members of the diplomatic corps, as to heads of state or high
officials, to a constant stream of bishops and curial staff, to
visitors, to conferences, to members of other religions, to athletes,
actors, and philosophers, to the small, the great, and the ordinary.
Obviously, the Pope has a staff, a schedule, and a thought-out agenda,
for he also has his own ideas about what needs to be said. The Church
needs to be ruled, governed. His position allows him to say what no one
else in the world will tells us. Yet he must be prudent and careful. In
these days, the wrong word might cause St. Peters to be blown up.
Fanatics, as they are called, seem to spare nothing and no one. Many
audiences regularly occur. People will hear him differently, some with
sympathy, some with hostility, some with curiosity, some with doubts,
some with faith, some with questions.
Benedict XVI, in his weekly audiences, continuing the reflections on
the Psalms that John Paul II began, always manages to cite one of the
Fathers of the Church, or sometimes a more obscure bishop or
theologian. For example, in his comments on Psalm 136 (OR, 16 Nov
2005), Benedict recalls St. Basil the Great. Interest in the Fathers,
of course, was one of Benedict’s many scholarly interests. But it is
also a reminder that, in the intellectual and religious world, we do
not just have the Bible and modern thought. We also have tradition.
That is, we must be aware that Christians have been constantly thinking
and writing about this revelation given to us throughout the history of
the Church. The same core of revelation is explained in every century.
"I find the words of this fourth-century Father (Basil) surprisingly up
to date," Benedict tells us, "when he says:
Some people, "deceived by the atheism they bore within them, imagine
that the universe lacked guidance and order, at the mercy, as it were,
of chance." How many these "some people" are today! Deceived by atheism
they consider and seek to prove that it is scientific to think that all
things lack guidance and order as though they were at the mercy of
chance. The Lord through Sacred Scripture reawakens our reason, which
has fallen asleep and tells us: in the beginning was the creative Word.
In the beginning the creative Word — this Word that created all things,
that created this intelligent design which is the cosmos — is also love.
In view of a recent court decision by a Pennsylvania judge telling us
that intelligent design cannot be taught because it is covert religion,
this passage is of remarkable interest. The Pope here does not say that
the order of the cosmos is a religious question, even though religion
also affirms it. To see this design, we are prodded by Scripture to
"reawaken our reason," quite a different thing. The even more subtle
message of this reference is that patristic interpretation of Scripture
is not made wholly obsolete by modern methods.
The Pope is ever sensitive to the effect such teachings of atheism or
scientific disorder have on our souls, especially the young. To a group
of Mexican bishops, he said that the young "find themselves facing a
society marked by growing cultural and religious pluralism.
Furthermore, sometimes very lonely and bewildered, they come up against
currents of thought which hold that men and women, without the need for
God and even opposed to God, achieve fulfillment through technological,
political and economic power" (OR, 21 September 2005). Again and again,
the Pope will meet this skeptical position head on. It simply will do
not do what it claims.
In his audience at Castel Gandolfo for that same week, on Psalm 132,
the Pope cites the fifth-century priest, Hesychius of Jerusalem. But he
first tells us of the importance of temples and, a pari, churches,
following the example of David in the Old Testament to build God a
And this is a very important thing, because it shows that at the heart
of the social life of a city, of a community, of a people there must be
a presence that calls to mind the mystery of the transcendent God, a
proper space for god, a dwelling for God. Man cannot walk well without
God; he must walk together with God through history, and the task of
the temple of the dwelling of God, is to point out in a visible way
this communion, this allowing God to guide.
The Pope is obviously aware that there are governments today that will
not allow such temples or churches to be built, or which put severe
restrictions on them.
Implicitly, the Pope underscores a form of polity that recognizes, as
part of its own dignity, and therefore a guidance to its youth, the
presence of such temples in its midst. The state by itself does not
"worship" God, as it is not itself a physical, substantial being, but
it must provide a place, a space for those who can. Technical,
political, and economic power are not enough to satisfy the human
heart, yet, to recall what he told the Mexican bishops about youth,
they need to see through the currents of thought that cut man off from
The Pope often turns to the subject of what the Church is. It is first
listening to what is revealed. This is the starting point, the only
starting point of the theological enterprise. On occasion of the 40th
anniversary of Vatican II’s document on divine revelation, the Pope
the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, whose drafting I personally
witnessed as a young theologian, taking part in the lively discussions
that went with it, begins with the deeply meaningful sentence, "Hearing
the Word of God with reverence, and proclaiming it with faith...." The
Church does not live on herself but on the Gospel, and in the Gospel
always and ever anew finds the direction for her journey. This is a
point that every Christian must understand and apply to himself or
herself; only those who first listen to the Word can become preachers
of it. Indeed, they must not teach their own wisdom but the wisdom of
God (OR, September 21).
This was a theme that the then Cardinal Ratzinger touched on in his
Spirit of the Liturgy–that the preacher is not there to tell us what he
thinks or concocts about spiritual things, but what the Gospel says.
The Pope can be a bit whimsical. In his homily for the opening of the
Synod on the Eucharist, he spoke of bread and wine. With all due
respect to the tea totalers of this world, especially those who must
forgo this pleasure for their own safety, the German pope shows that he
is aware of the good side of what grows on those orderly vines along
the Rhine, Mosel, and Main riverbanks in his homeland. "Wine ...
expresses the excellence of creation and gives us the feast in which we
go beyond the limits of our daily routine: wine, the Psalm says,
‘gladdens the heart.’ So it is that wine and with it the vine have also
become the images of the gift of love in which we can taste the savour
of the Divine" (OR, 5 October 2005). Belloc would have loved such a
But the Pope uses this imagery to talk of love itself. "God instilled
in men and women, created in his image, the capacity to love, hence
also the capacity for loving him, their Creator." Often, as in this
instance, the Pope will come back to the relation of creation and love.
He will show that the whole structure of our world is contingent on
this respect of God for our freedom and of the centrality of our
freedom as something that God holds most sacred. "In the foreground of
the Old Testament is the accusation of the violation of social justice,
of contempt for human beings by human beings. In the background,
however, it appears that with contempt for the Torah, for the law given
by God, it is God himself who is despised. All people want is to enjoy
their own power." These are sober thoughts. Behind the contempt of
human beings for human beings lurks the contempt for God, for the order
of His creation. What replaces it–with overtones of Machiavelli and
Nietzsche–is the desire for power for its own sake.
How does the Pope explain the logic of the relation of love and power?
"We men and women, to whom creation is, as it were, entrusted for its
management, have usurped it. We ourselves want to dominate it in the
first person and by ourselves. We want unlimited possession of the
world and of our own lives. God is in our way." We should, on reading
such lines, have no doubt that we have a first-class mind on the Chair
of Peter. He starts right off teaching us about ourselves, our culture,
and the heart of our culture’s disorders. "Either he (God) is reduced
merely to a few devout words, or he is denied in everything and banned
from public life so as to lose all meaning. The tolerance that, as it
were, admits God as a private opinion but refuses him the public
domain, the reality of the world and of our lives, is not tolerance but
hypocrisy." One form of tolerance allows us to speak, another form only
allows itself to speak.
When Benedict was elected pope, several commentators remarked that,
just as John Paul II was chosen because he came from the communist
world, so Benedict was selected because the primary spiritual disorder
in the world today is found in the souls of the Europeans and their
betrayal of their own heritage, in their freely chosen loss of
population and confidence in what they are. The Pope continues in the
The judgment announced by the Lord Jesus refers above all to the
destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Yet the threat of judgment
also concerns us, the Church in Europe, Europe and the West in general.
With this Gospel, the Lord is also crying out to our ears the words
that in the Book of Revelation he addresses to the Church of Ephesus:
‘If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lamp-stand
from the place.’ Light can also be taken away from us...
Even if we are unbelievers, these are sober words indeed. Again and
again in his writings, as did John Paul II in his last book, Memory and
Identity, the Pope has returned to the subject of Europe: What is it?
What is its problem? Does it have a future?
On his first Christmas as Pope, Benedict had many nice things to say
about its traditions. At the Angelus on December 11, commenting on
Christmas preparations, the Pope said, "following a beautiful and
firmly-rooted tradition, many families set up their Crib immediately
after the Feast of the Immaculate conception, as if to relive with Mary
those days full of trepidation that preceded the birth of Jesus.
Putting up the Crib at home can be a simple but effective way of
preserving faith, to pass it on to one’s children" (OR, 14 December
At Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s, the Pope continued, "Along with the
Christmas tree that our Austrian friends have also brought us this year
a small flame lit in Bethlehem, as if to say that the true mystery of
Christmas is the inner brightness radiating from this Child." (OR, 4
January 2006). And at the General Audience December 21, 2005, he added,
"As we prepare to celebrate the Saviour’s Birth joyfully in our
families and our Ecclesial Communities, while a certain modern,
consumerist culture tends to do away with the Christian symbols of the
celebration of Christmas, may it be everyone’s task to grasp the value
of the Christmas traditions that was part of the patrimony of our faith
and our culture, in order to pass them an to the young generation."
(OR, 4 January 2006).
How does one deal with the temptations and problems presented to us in
modern culture? Writing to the First National Day of Young Catholics in
the Netherlands, Benedict observes: "How easy it is to be content with
superficial pleasures that daily life offers us; how easy it is to live
only for oneself, apparently enjoying life! But sooner or later we
realize that this is not true happiness, because true happiness is much
deeper, we find it only in Jesus. ..." What to do about it? "The
recitation of the Rosary can help you learn the art of prayer with
Mary’s simplicity and depth. ...Take care to grow in the knowledge of
the faith in order to be its authentic witnesses. Dedicate yourselves
to understanding Catholic doctrine ever better even if at times in
looking at it with the eyes of the world it may seem a difficult
message to accept, in it is the answer that satisfies your basic
questions" (OR, 14 December 2005). Notice that the Pope proposes
awareness of the problem, of our reaction to it, the need both of
prayer and intellectual understanding.
The Pope is clearly very aware of the high level of intelligence
demanded within the Church. The Catholic Church is definitely a thing
of intellect. To members of the International Theological Commission,
the Pope pointed to a number of perplexing issues that need attention.
He recalled something related to Dominus Jesus, namely "The fate of
children who die without Baptism in the context of the universal
salvific will of God, of the one mediation of Jesus Christ and, of the
sacramentality of the Church" (OR, 14 December 2005). This is part of
the more general discussion of the relation of all non-baptized to
salvation and its specific relation to the Church as its primary locus.
It is of interest how calmly the Church can identify problems, state
their dimensions, and propose the limits within which the solution must
be found, taking all issues into consideration.
In the same consideration, the Pope turns to another important issue.
One of the great problems in modern social thought has been the great
confusion over "natural" or "human rights." This is an unfortunate term
in many ways. In its current usage, it is usually a product, not of
classic or medieval, but of modern political philosophy. In its modern
form, it has a specific meaning, usually from Hobbes, namely that a
"right" is a power to do whatever we want. For its basis, it
presupposes nothing but the will of the one who demands it.
As the Church documents themselves often use this same phrase "natural
rights," nothing but confusion has resulted when "rights" are declared
to be the foundation of Catholic social thought. Many immediately
assume that the Church is using and accepting the modern meaning when
it uses the modern words. Thus, abortion and homosexuality are called
"rights" in modern usage, but are violation of natural law or right in
Church usage. In fact, the modern understanding of the term "natural
rights" undermines what this term is intended to mean in Church
The Pope, obviously aware of what is at stake, addresses this problem.
First, he says, we can understand "the natural moral law" only if we
see that rights "are rooted in the person’s nature and as such, derive
from the will of God the Creator." That is, they are not rooted in
one’s freedom to choose what ever he has the power to do–the modern
conception of rights. "Even before any positive law by a State, these
(natural) laws are universal, inviolable, and inalienable, and must
therefore be recognized as such by all, and especially by the civil
authorities who are called to promote them and guarantee respect for
them" (OR, 14 December 2005). Notice the special emphasis always put on
the intelligence and conscience of legislators and judges.
Thus, the roots of "rights" are not in the simple will of the
legislators who propose positive laws as the contents of rights. Behind
all laws are objective standards, not subjective wills. "Even if the
concept of ‘human nature’ seems to have been lost to contemporary
culture, the fact remains that human rights cannot be understood
without presupposing the values and norms, which are to be rediscovered
and reaffirmed and not invented or subjectively or arbitrarily imposed,
are innate in the human being."
Benedict knows that such a view of the ontological basis of rights is
rejected in much of modern legal and political thought. But he insists
in challenging this same thought on the basis of reason. "The dialogue
with the secular world is of great importance: it must appear clearly
that the denial of the ontological foundation of the essential values
of human life inevitably ends in positivism and makes law dependent on
the currents of thought that predominate in a society, thereby
corrupting law and making it an instrument of power instead of
subordinating power to law" (OR, 14 December 2005). That this
subordinating of law to power is a pretty good description of what has
happened in most political jurisdictions goes without saying.
• Part Two of "On Reading the Pope" (January 20, 2006).
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality,
culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and
Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A
Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Benedict XVI on
Religion and Public Life
A Frequent Theme in First
Months of His Pontificate
ROME, SEPT. 17, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Social and public life needs a
religious element, insisted Benedict XVI during his weekly audience
this Wednesday. "At the very center of social life there must be,
therefore, a presence that evokes the mystery of the transcendent God,"
he said. "God and man walk together in history."
On numerous occasions Benedict XVI has spoken about the valuable
contribution Christianity and religious believers can make to today's
society. During one of his early major addresses, on May 12 to the
diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the Pope declared that the
Church would continue to "proclaim and defend fundamental human
rights," which are often violated in many countries.
Conscious of the clashes that sometimes take place where religion and
politics interact, the Pontiff explained that in this activity the
Church "asks for no privileges for herself, but only the legitimate
conditions of freedom and action to fulfill her mission." In turn, the
Church will work to safeguard the dignity of every person and to work
for the common good, he said.
On June 24, during his visit to Italian President Carlo Ciampi, the
Pope dealt specifically with the theme of Church-state relations,
defending the role of religion in a secular, modern state. "Christ is
the Savior of the whole person, spirit and body, his spiritual and
eternal destiny and his temporal and earthly life," said the Holy
Father. "Thus, when his message is heard, the civil community also
becomes more responsible and attentive to the needs of the common good
and shows greater solidarity with the poor, the abandoned and the
Quoting the Second Vatican Council constitution "Gaudium et Spes" (No.
76), Benedict XVI noted that both the Church and the state are
autonomous and independent. Yet, they have in common an interest in the
human person, albeit in different ways.
There is room, the Pope continued, for "a healthy secularism of the
state." This does not mean, however, that religion should be excluded
from a valid role in ethical matters. The Holy Father told the Italian
president that "the Church desires to maintain and to foster a cordial
spirit of collaboration and understanding at the service of the
spiritual and moral growth of the country."
Any attempt to weaken the long-standing historical ties binding
Christianity and today's society would not only harm the Church, but
would also be detrimental to Italy, the Pope warned.
Dangers of secularization
In a number of addresses to newly arrived ambassadors who present their
credentials the Pope has returned to the theme of religion and the
state. Speaking on June 16 to Geoffrey Kenyon Ward of New Zealand, the
Pope mentioned the "disquieting process of secularization" taking place
in many parts of the world.
"Where the Christian foundations of society risk being forgotten," he
said, "the task of preserving the transcendent dimension present in
every culture and of strengthening the authentic exercise of individual
freedom against relativism becomes increasingly difficult."
Perhaps keeping in mind that New Zealand had recently given official
recognition to same-sex unions, the Pope stressed the need "to recover
a vision of the mutual relationship between civil law and moral law
which, as well as being proposed by the Christian tradition, is also
part of the patrimony of the great juridical traditions of humanity."
In this sense, he continued, we can see what should be the limits to
claims to rights, which should be linked to the concepts of truth and
And on Aug. 25, addressing Venezuela's new ambassador,
Iváán Guillermo Rincóón Urdaneta, the Pope
noted the long-standing Catholic traditions in that nation, and its
constant efforts to help the population.
No doubt aware of the bitter divisions in the country, as well as
tensions between Church leaders and Venezuelan authorities, the Pontiff
stressed that dialogue, respect, forgiveness and reconciliation are
The Church, he observed, cannot desist from proclaiming and defending
human dignity. "She asks to have constantly at her disposal the
indispensable space and necessary means to carry out her mission and
her humanizing service," added the Holy Father.
Moreover, improving Church-state cooperation would enable both of them
to render better service to the population. Benedict XVI also explained
to the Venezuelan ambassador that the Church needs freedom to exercise
her mission and to guide the faithful. In turn, the state should not
fear the Church, for "in exercising her freedom she seeks only to carry
out her religious mission and to contribute to the spiritual progress
of each country."
The following day, speaking to Guatemala's new ambassador, Francisco
Salazar Alvarado, the Pope encouraged the country's population to
develop a "true" democracy. That is, he said, one in which the nation
is "inspired by the supreme and immutable values, which enables the
cultural wealth of people and the gradual development of society to
respond to the needs of human dignity."
Benedict XVI also quoted from Pope John Paul II's encyclical
"Centesimus Annus," noting, "A democracy without values easily turns
into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism" (No. 46).
With priests and bishops, Benedict XVI has also dealt frequently with
religion's role in public life. In an address July 2 to Zimbabwean
bishops who were visiting Rome, he noted the recent national elections
in their country.
The Pope encouraged the bishops to provide "clear and united
leadership." He also noted the correctness of what they had expressed
in a recent pastoral statement, in saying that "responsibility for the
common good demands that all members of the body politic work together
in laying firm moral and spiritual foundations for the future of the
On July 25, during an address to the clergy of the Diocese of Aosta, in
northern Italy, the Pontiff commented on "the impression of so many
that it is possible to live without the Church, which appears as a
vestige of the past."
He went on to explain that only through the help of moral values and
strong convictions is true progress in building society possible. "If
there is no moral force in souls, if there is no readiness to suffer
for these values, a better world is not built; indeed, on the contrary,
the world deteriorates every day, selfishness dominates and destroys
This moral force, the Pope explained, must be rooted in love. "In the
end, in fact, love alone enables us to live, and love is always also
suffering: It matures in suffering and provides the strength to suffer
for good without taking oneself into account at the actual moment."
Benedict XVI was hopeful that awareness is growing of the importance of
this truth, and he encouraged the priests to be patient in their task
of communicating this message to people, and to continue an active
dialogue with the secular world.
During his homily on Aug. 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, the Pope
spoke of the need for God to be present in public life. This presence
-- for example, by means of the crosses that are present in many
Italian public buildings -- is important, "for only if God is present
do we have an orientation, a common direction; otherwise, disputes
become impossible to settle, for our common dignity is no longer
The dictatorship of moral relativism
Written by Christopher Martin
Friday, 29 July 2005
The Pope has warned of the emergence of a
of moral relativism. But how can having no fixed principles be a
Pope Benedict, in the homily he gave as Cardinal
before the beginning of the conclave which elected him warned us of the
danger of a dictatorship of moral relativism. What exactly does this
The question is more complex than it seems, and the
equally so. At the beginning of the 20th century — in 1903, to be exact
— the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore published an extremely dull and
extremely confused book, Principia Ethica, in which he laid down what
took to be the basic principles of ethics. No one had ever managed this
before, he thought, and what he achieved in that book was definitive
would endure for ever. It certainly had an immediate effect on British
intellectuals, particularly those littérateurs who were later to
form what came to be known as the Bloomsbury group.
Moore searched for the nature of goodness, as being
central notion of ethical judgement. He concluded, however, that the
of goodness could not be defined. One could not give an account of
in terms of its relationship to any other properties.
This view he took in part because the other
which may make one thing good may precisely be the properties which
another thing bad. If the properties which make a good doughnut to be a
good doughnut are softness, sweetness, sponginess and freshness, one
conclude that the properties which make a good mechanical wrench to be
a good mechanical wrench are also softness, sweetness, sponginess and
Thus Moore, at great length.
Since Moore could not find any way to relate
to other properties in a regular way, he concluded that it was a
kind of property, a “non-natural” one, which could only be directly
by intuition. His own intuition was that nothing in the world was of
goodness (or “value”) as intercourse with friends and the contemplation
of works of art. This point was taken up eagerly by his young disciples
in the Bloomsbury group, led by Lytton Strachey, who thereafter devoted
their lives to the pursuit of artistic and literary excellence, and of
one another in a dizzying whirl of (largely homosexual) affairs.
Perhaps, despite the supporting activities of
literary claque, this theory would never have had any serious effect.
is true that friendship and the contemplation of works of art can come
to seem supremely important and supremely valuable, if one focuses on
alone. But all one has to do is to step back and look at a wider
and one immediately sees that there are other goods which are at least
equally valuable. What about family? What about work — in fields other
than the fine arts? What about solidarity with one’s equals? What about
compassion? What about justice? what about courage? The list could go
But although the goods which Moore does identify by
intuition can come to seem absurdly limited with a little
he has already done the major damage in an earlier step. He has decided
that “goodness” and other ethical notions are “non-natural” — that is,
that they are completely unrelated to any other “natural” or real
in the world. The way has been opened for a major feature of 20th
moral thinking, which has been instrumental in creating moral
The feature is that of the “fact-value distinction”.
Facts and values
Moore claimed that there were truths of ethics,
ethical facts — but they were totally unlike any other facts and
unrelated to them. The next step was for later thinkers to claim that
utterances did not represent facts at all, and therefore could not be
as being genuinely true or false at all.
There are different ways of representing the alleged
distinction. One of the earliest was that of C. Stevenson and the
school, which began to appear in America in the 1930s. These people
that ethical utterances were mere expressions of emotion, like the
of pain or the “Aaah” of pleasure. “Killing people for no reason is
would spell out as something like “Killing people for no reason — boo!”
and “Caring for those in need is good” would spell out as “Caring for
in need — hurray!”. Or, as American young people say these days,
people for no reason — eeew!” and “Caring for those in need — yay!”
This theory will not work. One of the reasons why it
not work is that it is obvious that someone who says “Caring for those
in need is good” is disagreeing with someone like Nietzsche who says
for those in need is bad”. But someone who says “Eeew” at the same time
as someone who says “Yay” is not disagreeing. One has one feeling, the
other has another. If you love beets and they make me feel nauseous,
is no disagreement between us.
This obvious weakness led later upholders of the
distinction to hold that ethical utterances are not mere expression of
emotion, but instead commands uttered to oneself. This was a great
and seemed to provide a structure which makes sense of the fact-value
One can see how this theory, vulgarised and debased,
have contributed to some popular forms of moral relativism. If moral
involve commands given to oneself, then people can easily come to think
that what is important in moral judgements is my personal commitment to
them. Their content, or their agreement with the moral judgements of
Towards a healthy relativism
Oddly enough I think that the way out of this tangle
to go back to the beginning and insert a little relativity at the
in order to avoid relativism at the end.
Moore was looking for a single nature or meaning for
and when he could not find one, decided that goodness was a property
any other. His problem is that he was looking for an absolute meaning
goodness, while in fact goodness is a relative notion.
This requires some explanation. Logicians are
with relative or relational expressions, and also familiar with
which are relative or relational without at first sight appearing to be
so. Take “large” and “small”, for example. These appear to be simple
of physical objects, and perhaps at first glance we can easily think of
things which we can unquestionably call “large” or “small”.
But second thoughts are valuable here. A small
is very much larger than the largest mouse, and vice-versa. Perhaps
is truly large except what has nothing larger than itself. In that case
only the universe is large. Likewise, perhaps nothing is truly small
the smallest sub-atomic particle. Our confidence that we could easily
examples of things that are unquestionably large or small was based on
the fact that we can easily find things that are unquestionably large
small compared to a human being. Size is a relative notion.
And so is goodness. A good doughnut is good on
of certain properties which arise from the nature of doughnuts, a good
mechanical wrench is good on account of properties which arise from the
nature of mechanical wrenches. Being good is being good relative to
nature. Putting a drop of three-in-one oil on part of the mechanical
is good for it, but would be bad for a doughnut.
Making goodness relative in this way ties it in
with the ordinary facts about a thing and about its nature and
There is no need to set out on the road that ends up detaching goodness
from facts and attaching it solely to personal commitments. If we begin
with relativity we need not end up with relativism.
For of course there are different ways in which a
can be considered, and thus different levels at which we can consider
goodness, and what is good for it. We can consider a thing as an
and say that there is nothing good or bad except what is good or bad
that individual. This is what is sometimes called ethical egoism.
Some people may make all goodness relative to their
family, or at least in practical terms submit all other goodnesses to
good of their own family. I do not think this is very common among
people nowadays, though it may be common among simpler people. There
I think, no philosophical label for this error. For considering a
group as the focus of the relative notion of goodness there are names,
and not pretty ones either: tribalism, nationalism, racism. Perhaps I
need to argue against these.
One could invent a name for those who consider that
goods of their own culture are paramount. In fact, the name has already
been invented: “cultural relativism”. Its adherents claim that we
not “impose our culture” on others. However, it is obvious that there
features of other cultures — or of sub-cultures within our own — which
the most liberal cultural relativist is prepared to override.
I wrote recently about how the British
refused to take seriously the claims of Muslims against the
religion of Art. But there are many other examples. Polygamy in Utah,
genital mutilation in East Africa, veiling laws and customs for women
Afghanistan, objections to the use of condoms in South Africa: the
West is very willing to impose its own culture in these matters.
But to take a step up from making good and bad
to a culture: can we not make good and bad relative to the human race?
Can we not try to establish what makes a human being a good human
and encourage that, find out what is good for human beings and develop
What is a good human being?
This is the point at which the true argument starts.
believe that there are qualities which make a human being a good human
being, and conditions which are good for human beings, and that clear
about these qualities and conditions are either true or false. This is
what the cultural relativists deny, and this is the practical point on
which the struggle has to come.
When the matter is put so clearly, then it seems
that the cultural relativists are mistaken. Their own practice of
their culture in some cases proves that they don’t really believe it
The strongest case they could make out is as follows: religious
(for example), particularly Jews, Christians and Muslims, believe that
a very large range of ethical standards are valid for the whole human
We, cultural relativists, believe that only a few ethical standards are
so valid. Everything that is not valid for the whole human race should
be left to each culture to determine.
There is a problem with this, of course, because the
that cultural relativists regard as universal shift every few years. It
is not so long ago that up-to-date thinkers thought that the sexual
of children did no harm except in a few cases, and then usually because
the parents or the authorities made a big deal out of it. Child abuse
within the field of those things which could be acceptable in some
not in others — certainly not universally unacceptable. Now things have
changed. If one is dealing with someone who accepts the Ten
as being universally valid one does not have to worry about their
their minds every few years.
The emergence of dictatorships
But if cultural relativism means that everyone who
part of a culture should be free to accept or reject the standards of
culture, independently of what members of any other culture think about
it, how can there be a “dictatorship” of cultural relativism, as the
has said? Isn’t cultural relativism all about avoiding the imposing of
We can look at an example from the 19th century.
there was agitation for the abolition of slavery in the United States,
Southerners often answered: This is part of our culture (the “peculiar
institution”, they called it): please don’t interfere with our culture
and impose your own. It was the perfect reply of a cultural relativist.
But it was not accepted by the Northern
They usually appealed to religious and universal moral standards, but
could also have said the following:
By continuing to own slaves, and by continuing to
that the law of our country should maintain the owning of slaves, you
imposing your culture on us. You are making us accomplices in your
Do not tell us to respect your culture: your culture is a culture of
and death, and we cannot respect it. Either you will continue to impose
your culture on us, or we will impose our culture on you. Do not use
excuse of cultural relativism. Do not impose on us a dictatorship of
I don’t think anyone whose opinion I could respect
disagree with the abolitionists. But I don’t see how the cultural
could disagree with the slave-owners.
Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the
of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.