Public Reason and the Truth of Christianity according to Benedict XIV
Bishop Crepaldi Examines the Teachings of Benedict XVI

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 10, 2007 ( 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.

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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 relativism

Public reason is not possible in a culture that is dominated by the "dictatorship of relativism,"[1] 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.[2] Hence, relativism rests upon blind faith. This is unquestionably contradictory because the words "dogma" and "relativism" are incompatible.

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."[3]

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.[4] 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[5] 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 observable fact.

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.[6] 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."[7] 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 religious relativism

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 irrational forces.

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.[8]

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"[9] -- 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.[10] 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.[11] 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 became religion."[12]

We believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word, with Reason and not Unreason.[13] 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 earth.[14]

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 it."[15]

The common good and the truth of religions

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,[16] 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 relationships.[17]

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,[18] this is exactly what he meant: Does it truly love the truth it has inside itself?

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 religion.

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."[19] Now, from where does the state, which is secular, derive these obligations to the true religion?

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."[20]


[1] "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.

[2] 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.
[3] 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.

[4] "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).
[5] 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 Benedict," cit.).

[6] 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.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, "Ragione e fede. Scambio reciproco per un'etica comune," [Faith and Reason. Mutual Exchange for a Common Ethics] cit., pp. 79-80.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, "The God of Faith and the God of the Philosophers" in "Introduction to Christianity," Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990, pp. 93-104.

[9] Benedict XVI, Lecture at the University of Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity" cit., pp. 77-93: "The Biblical Belief in God." Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990.
[11] 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.

[12] 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
[13] "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).

[14] "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).

[15] 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.

[16] "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).
[17] Joseph Ratzinger, "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions" cit., p. 76. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004.

[18] 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, 2006, p.86.
[19] Second Vatican Council, Declaration on religious freedom "Dignitatis humanae," Dec. 7, 1965, No. 1.

[20] 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
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 theme: war.

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 Pope.

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 Pope?

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 arbitration.

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 the Internet.

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 “immediate cease-fire.”

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 violence.”

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 ignored.”

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


8 Keys to Reading Joseph Ratzinger's Work
Suggested by Archbishop Forte

ROME, JUNE 25, 2006 ( 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.

Abandoning ourselves

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 archbishop.

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 itself”.

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 Christianity.

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. And he 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 Christianity.”

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. Muslims, Jews and Christians were invited by a foundation for inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue to create among them a pole for cultural dialogue.

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, or cultures.

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 our identity.”

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 rationality.

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 “do-goodism”

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 reciprocity.

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 Saudi Arabia.

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:


"Deus Caritas Est" and C.S. Lewis' "Four Loves"
Interview With Andrea Monda

ROME, MARCH 6, 2006 ( 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 writer?

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 "philia."

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 within us."

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 dwelling place.
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 God.


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 recalled that
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 sane passage.

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 same homily:

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 2005)

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 thinking.

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 Georgetown University.

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 ( 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 marginalized."

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 authentic freedom.

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 essential.

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).

Moral foundations

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 nation."

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 all."

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 recognized."


The dictatorship of moral relativism

Written by Christopher Martin
Friday, 29 July 2005

The Pope has warned of the emergence of a dictatorship of moral relativism. But how can having no fixed principles be a dangerous principle?


Pope Benedict, in the homily he gave as Cardinal Ratzinger before the beginning of the conclave which elected him warned us of the danger of a dictatorship of moral relativism. What exactly does this mean?

The question is more complex than it seems, and the answer 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 he 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 and 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 the central notion of ethical judgement. He concluded, however, that the nature of goodness could not be defined. One could not give an account of goodness in terms of its relationship to any other properties.

This view he took in part because the other properties which may make one thing good may precisely be the properties which make another thing bad. If the properties which make a good doughnut to be a good doughnut are softness, sweetness, sponginess and freshness, one cannot conclude that the properties which make a good mechanical wrench to be a good mechanical wrench are also softness, sweetness, sponginess and freshness. Thus Moore, at great length.

Since Moore could not find any way to relate goodness to other properties in a regular way, he concluded that it was a special kind of property, a “non-natural” one, which could only be directly grasped by intuition. His own intuition was that nothing in the world was of such 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 Moore’s literary claque, this theory would never have had any serious effect. It is true that friendship and the contemplation of works of art can come to seem supremely important and supremely valuable, if one focuses on them alone. But all one has to do is to step back and look at a wider context, 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 on almost indefinitely.

But although the goods which Moore does identify by his intuition can come to seem absurdly limited with a little consideration, 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 properties in the world. The way has been opened for a major feature of 20th century moral thinking, which has been instrumental in creating moral relativism. The feature is that of the “fact-value distinction”.

Facts and values

Moore claimed that there were truths of ethics, genuine ethical facts — but they were totally unlike any other facts and totally unrelated to them. The next step was for later thinkers to claim that ethical utterances did not represent facts at all, and therefore could not be recognised as being genuinely true or false at all.

There are different ways of representing the alleged fact-value distinction. One of the earliest was that of C. Stevenson and the emotivist school, which began to appear in America in the 1930s. These people held that ethical utterances were mere expressions of emotion, like the “Ouch” of pain or the “Aaah” of pleasure. “Killing people for no reason is bad” 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 those in need — hurray!”. Or, as American young people say these days, “Killing people for no reason — eeew!” and “Caring for those in need — yay!”

This theory will not work. One of the reasons why it will 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 “Caring 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, there is no disagreement between us.

This obvious weakness led later upholders of the fact-value distinction to hold that ethical utterances are not mere expression of emotion, but instead commands uttered to oneself. This was a great improvement and seemed to provide a structure which makes sense of the fact-value distinction.

One can see how this theory, vulgarised and debased, could have contributed to some popular forms of moral relativism. If moral judgements 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 others, is irrelevant.

Towards a healthy relativism

Oddly enough I think that the way out of this tangle is to go back to the beginning and insert a little relativity at the beginning, in order to avoid relativism at the end.

Moore was looking for a single nature or meaning for “goodness”, and when he could not find one, decided that goodness was a property unlike any other. His problem is that he was looking for an absolute meaning for goodness, while in fact goodness is a relative notion.

This requires some explanation. Logicians are familiar with relative or relational expressions, and also familiar with expression which are relative or relational without at first sight appearing to be so. Take “large” and “small”, for example. These appear to be simple descriptions 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 elephant is very much larger than the largest mouse, and vice-versa. Perhaps nothing is truly large except what has nothing larger than itself. In that case only the universe is large. Likewise, perhaps nothing is truly small except the smallest sub-atomic particle. Our confidence that we could easily find examples of things that are unquestionably large or small was based on the fact that we can easily find things that are unquestionably large or small compared to a human being. Size is a relative notion.

And so is goodness. A good doughnut is good on account 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 one’s nature. Putting a drop of three-in-one oil on part of the mechanical wrench is good for it, but would be bad for a doughnut.

Making goodness relative in this way ties it in again with the ordinary facts about a thing and about its nature and situation. 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 thing can be considered, and thus different levels at which we can consider its goodness, and what is good for it. We can consider a thing as an individual, and say that there is nothing good or bad except what is good or bad for that individual. This is what is sometimes called ethical egoism.

Some people may make all goodness relative to their own family, or at least in practical terms submit all other goodnesses to the good of their own family. I do not think this is very common among sophisticated people nowadays, though it may be common among simpler people. There is, I think, no philosophical label for this error. For considering a larger group as the focus of the relative notion of goodness there are names, and not pretty ones either: tribalism, nationalism, racism. Perhaps I don’t need to argue against these.

One could invent a name for those who consider that the goods of their own culture are paramount. In fact, the name has already been invented: “cultural relativism”. Its adherents claim that we should not “impose our culture” on others. However, it is obvious that there are 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 intelligentsia refused to take seriously the claims of Muslims against the intellectuals’ religion of Art. But there are many other examples. Polygamy in Utah, female genital mutilation in East Africa, veiling laws and customs for women in Afghanistan, objections to the use of condoms in South Africa: the liberal West is very willing to impose its own culture in these matters.

But to take a step up from making good and bad relative 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 being, and encourage that, find out what is good for human beings and develop those conditions?

What is a good human being?

This is the point at which the true argument starts. I 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 statements 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 obvious that the cultural relativists are mistaken. Their own practice of imposing their culture in some cases proves that they don’t really believe it themselves. The strongest case they could make out is as follows: religious believers (for example), particularly Jews, Christians and Muslims, believe that a very large range of ethical standards are valid for the whole human race. 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 standards 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 abuse 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 lay within the field of those things which could be acceptable in some cultures, not in others — certainly not universally unacceptable. Now things have changed. If one is dealing with someone who accepts the Ten Commandments as being universally valid one does not have to worry about their changing their minds every few years.

The emergence of dictatorships

But if cultural relativism means that everyone who forms part of a culture should be free to accept or reject the standards of that culture, independently of what members of any other culture think about it, how can there be a “dictatorship” of cultural relativism, as the Pope has said? Isn’t cultural relativism all about avoiding the imposing of a culture?

We can look at an example from the 19th century. When 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 abolitionists. They usually appealed to religious and universal moral standards, but they could also have said the following:

By continuing to own slaves, and by continuing to insist that the law of our country should maintain the owning of slaves, you are imposing your culture on us. You are making us accomplices in your crimes. Do not tell us to respect your culture: your culture is a culture of crime 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 the excuse of cultural relativism. Do not impose on us a dictatorship of moral relativism.”

I don’t think anyone whose opinion I could respect could disagree with the abolitionists. But I don’t see how the cultural relativists could disagree with the slave-owners.

Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.