Politics & Policy

Culture in Crisis

Cardinal Ratzinger has diagnosed relativism's evils, and offers an alternative.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s sermon on relativism at the Mass for the Election of a Supreme Pontiff hit the note most important both in his own life and in the coming life of the Church, in an age calling itself “post-modern” but perhaps more accurately described as the Age of Meaninglessness.

In his most formative years, Ratzinger heard Nazi propaganda shouting that there is no truth, no justice, there is only the will of the people (enunciated by its leader). As its necessary precondition, Nazism depended on the debunking of objective truth and objective morality. Truth had to be derided as irrelevant, and naked will had to be exalted.

To anybody who said: “But that’s false!” the Nazi shouted, “That’s just your opinion, and who are you, compared to Der Fuehrer?”

To anybody who said, “But what you are doing is unjust!” the Nazi shouted louder, “Says you, swine.”

Relativism means this: Power trumps.

Ratzinger experienced another set of loud shouters in the 1968 student revolution at Tubingen University, this time in the name of Marxist rather than Nazi will. Marxism as much as Nazism (though in a different way) depended on the relativization of all previous notions of ethics and morality and truth–”bourgeois” ideas, these were called. People who were called upon by the party to kill in the party’s name had to develop a relativist’s conscience.

In today’s liberal democracies, Ratzinger has observed, the move to atheism is not, as it was in the 19th century, a move toward the objective world of the scientific rationalist. That was the “modern” way, and it is now being rejected, in favor of a new “post-modern” way. The new way is not toward objectivity, but toward subjectivism; not toward truth as its criterion, but toward power. This, Ratzinger fears, is a move back toward the justification of murder in the name of “tolerance” and subjective choice.

Along with that move, he has observed (haven’t we all?), comes a dictatorial impulse, to treat anyone who has a different view as “intolerant.” For instance, those (on the “religious right”) who hold that there are truths worth dying for, and objective goods to be pursued and objective evils to be avoided, are now held to be “intolerant” fundamentalists, guilty of “discrimination.”

In other words, the new dictatorial impulse declares that the only view permissible among reasonable people is the view that all subjective choices are equally valid. It declares, further, that anyone who claims that there are objective truths and objective goods and evils is “intolerant.” Such persons are to be expelled from the community, or at a minimum re-educated. That is to say, all Catholics and others like them must be converted to relativism or else sent into cultural re-training camps.

On the basis of relativism, however, no culture can long defend itself or justify its own values. If everything is relative, even tolerance is only a subjective choice, not an objective mandatory value. Ironically, though, what post-moderns call “tolerance” is actually radically intolerant of any view contrary to its own.

Most of the commentators, however, even those who support him, are misinterpreting Ratzinger’s point. They are getting him wrong.

What Ratzinger defends is not dogmatism against relativism. What he defends is not absolutism against relativism. These are false alternatives.

What Ratzinger attacks as relativism is the regulative principle that all thought is and must remain subjective. What he defends against such relativism is the contrary regulative principle, namely, that each human subject must continue to inquire incessantly, and to bow to the evidence of fact and reason.

The fact that we each see things differently does not imply that there is no truth. It implies, rather, that each of us may have a portion of the truth, and that in this or that matter some of us may hold more (or less) truth than others. Therefore, since each of us has only part of all the truth we seek, we must work hard together to discern in all things wherein lies the truth, and wherein the error.

Ratzinger wishes to defend the imperative of seeking the truth in all things, the imperative to follow the evidence. This imperative applies to daily life, to science, and to faith. The great Jewish and Christian name for God is connected to this imperative–one of the Creator’s names is Truth. Other related names are Light, and Way. Humans are made seekers after truth.

It is no more than a fact that ours is a pluralistic world, in which individuals have virtually an infinite variety of views. For Ratzinger, not only is this individual variety normal and to be praised; it shows the infinite number of ways humans have been made in the image of the infinite God. Each one of us, as it were, mirrors a different aspect of the infinite abundance of God.

But the fact of human “relativity”–that is, the fact that we each see things differently, or that the life-voyage of each of us is unique and inimitable–should not be transformed into an absolute moral principle. The fact of relativity does not logically lead to the principle of moral relativism.

No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless. Except for the fragments of faith (in progress, in compassion, in conscience, in hope) to which it still clings, illegitimately, such a culture teaches every one of its children that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

The culture of relativism invites its own destruction, both by its own internal incoherence and by its defenselessness against cultures of faith.

This is the bleak fate that Cardinal Ratzinger already sees looming before Europe. His fear is that this sickness of the soul will spread.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, moreover, it is not reason that offers a foundation for faith, but the opposite. Historically, it is Jewish and Christian faith in an intelligent and benevolent Creator that gave birth in the West to trust in reason, humanism, science, and progress, and carried the West far beyond the fatalistic limits of ancient Greece and Rome.

To the meaninglessness of relativism, Ratzinger counter poses respect for the distinctive, incommensurable image of God in every single human being, from the most helpless to the seemingly most powerful, together with a sense of our solidarity with one another in the bosom of our Creator. This fundamental vision of the immortal value both of the individual person and the whole human community in solidarity has been the motor-power, the spiritual dynamic overdrive, of an increasingly global (catholic) civilization.

That, at least, is the way he sees it. He is willing to argue out his case with all comers.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.

Michael Novak was a Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat.

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