His Popeness

I don’t reject the Pope. He has already rejected me, as he makes clear when he speaks publicly.

They keep telling me that Pope Benedict is an intelligent person, and I don’t know if that’s true. It may be. He’s definitely educated, that much is verifiable. What he mostly is I think is clever.

On NPR this morning, they talked about how, since before he even became the Grand Poobah of the Catholics, he has been speaking out against what he calls

the dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain …

I’m having a hard time figuring out what the phrase “dictatorship of relativism” is supposed to mean. As near as I can tell, he defines it as “the refusal of the rest of the world to recognize what Catholics all know to be true.”

He’s also raising the question of whether we humans do indeed know anything to be true for an absolute certainty. It seems to me we clearly don’t. Absolute is a pretty high standard, and it’s possible that he doesn’t appreciate that. What may be throwing him off is the idea that knowledge based on evidence, which is the best knowledge we have at any given time, is by nature imperfect, and subject to change as new evidence comes to light. I guess it makes some kind of freaky sense that perfect knowledge, since it’s probably impossible, could only be based on a complete lack of evidence. It isn’t the belief that he’s defending, it’s the certainty. That way, if someone attacks his belief, he can accuse them of being opposed to certainty.

[…] and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires

My translation of this is, “People can reject my beliefs, which are based on nothing verifiable, only out of their own selfishness.”

This is what I mean by clever. In the space of a few words, he has managed to confuse so many issues, and raise so many more questions than he’s pretending to answer, that he’s left you in the middle of a tangle of reasoning with no way out.

And of course, he is also making the biggest mistake of all, by implicitly drawing an equation between acceptable moral standards and the belief in supernatural forces and beings whose existence has never been established—heck, even the possibility of such a thing has never been established.

Naturally, one of Bush’s lazy speechwriters thought it would give the boss some gravitas if he cut-and-pasted that grim phrase “dictatorship of relativism” into the official remarks, as if Bush would have an easier time than the rest of us puzzling out what the words are or aren’t supposed to mean.

To get a clue about the real meaning of “dictatorship of relativism” I had to go scouting for a BBC article from 1995 that started out:

What is relativism?

Shortly before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a withering denunciation of relativism. For those unfamiliar with even the blunter points of philosophy, what was he driving at?

The article goes on to quote Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine:

But philosophers warn against painting a crude black and white contrast between one absolute truth and the rest – bagging together all “relativists”.

“The problem is that it’s not just a contrast to absolutism,” says Baggini.

Relativism, he says, gets “a bad name” from opponents like the church who cast it only as “an anything goes” approach to moral questions. The reality has a much more diverse set of views, he says.

That bad name, he believes, is “perhaps the biggest example of philosophical illiteracy”.

That article drew some further clarifying comments from readers:

The biggest problem that I have with these comments against Relativism is that the speaker is almost always the leader or an official of an organisation claiming to be the “one truth and morality”. They are in effect simply telling the listener to obey them.

Awfully thoughtful of the pope to lay down the law and save all those people the pesky trouble of thinking for themselves.

The belief that there is only one moral truth and that you are following the only one moral truth is the source of all bigotry and hatred, in religion, politics and elsewhere. It allows you to demonise others as evil, refuse to see their point of view and refuse to accept that moral standpoints are based in culture and change alongside it.

The old “us vs. them” ploy. You can’t afford to give your followers time to wonder if the people who disagree with them might have a point. Bang, there goes your authority, your influence, your power.

I actually believe relativism is a positive thing. What exactly is the basis for moral absolutes? How does one know they exist? What morals in themselves are absolute? Moral relativism can be seen in everyday life anyhow. Some think it’s wrong to eat meat. Personally, I don’t believe it is. The Ancient Greeks practiced slavery and believed in was an acceptable institution. Contemporary Europeans do not.

The closest thing to a moral absolute I have ever heard was to frame good and bad this way: Whatever decreases suffering is good. Whatever increases suffering is evil. There you go, simple and elegant. Of course, in very many cases it’s difficult to apply, because the details can quickly become overwhelmingly messy. But a surprising amount of the time this principle can help snap a situation into sharp focus.

The Catholic church relies on revelation as the source of truth. It has been proved wrong before (Galileo) and be may so again. For it to deride people questioning and attempting to find truth via other means sticks in my throat. That said, there does appear to be a great deal of philosophical vacuity in the modern world at the moment. If the church means to correct this by reasoned philosophical discussion then it is laudable.

The Catholics have certainly been ahead of most religions historically in their attitude toward education. They have mostly tried to hold on to their power by moral grounds alone, and not by trying to keep their people as ignorant as possible, which seems to be the Plan A of a lot of institutions these days, religious and secular. The Catholics don’t want to keep their folks stone ignorant. Only just ignorant enough.

I didn’t mean to go on so long about it. Like they say in creative writing class, you don’t write to say what you think, you write to find out what you think. If you read all that, then you’re my hero.

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