Nothing like a papist visit to bring out the Henry the Eighth in some of us. John, the pope is no less nervy slamming relativism than you are for implying the purity of scientific knowledge, as if it is not regularly abused, manipulated, and even manufactured to advance political and ideological agendas (global warming, stem cell are only the latest examples). If it was 1954 and you were studying agrarian science in the U.S. and in Peking, you’d have learned two completely different sets of “truths” – one of which fed much of the world, the other of which starved millions. The “science” of eugenics led to mass murders of “useless eaters” and soon thereafter the Final Solution. Et al.
About truth and relativity — our late founder wrote this in 1962 to the editors of the newsletter of Young Conservative Club of Walt Whitman High School (in The Bronx – 46 years later I wonder what the gang colors were!):
In the passage you quote from Up From Liberalism I intended, indeed, to refer to the religious truth that is our central heritage and to the moral philosophy and human insight that derive from it. Sometimes this position is referred to (in a phrase going back, I believe, to the days of the Roman Empire) as “the morality of the last days”—by which is meant the world-view of men who know that death is close. But, in the long view, we all stand sentenced to death, and whether it comes in 1995 or tomorrow makes no difference. That is why the morality of the last days always applies to what is “finally important in human experience.” All our techniques of social welfare, all our science, all our comfort, all our liberty, all our democracy and foreign aid and grandiloquent orations—all that means nothing to me and nothing to you in the moment when we go. At that moment we must put our souls in order, and the way to do that was lighted for us by Jesus, and since then we have had need of no other light. That is what is finally important; it has not changed; and it will not change. It is truth, which shall ever abide in the future. And if it is “reactionary” to hold a truth that will be valid for all future time, then words have lost their meaning, and men their reason.
As a member of the “Pope’s church,” I can assure you all things we sinners touch and / or define change, always, as we struggle as a community (as members of the Body of Christ, as comrades with the Communion of Saints) to both seek and to reveal Christ, the Truth. And while we do not know it, the Truth, we are nonetheless called to testify to it. That is quite a mandate, with failure guaranteed.
Still, as my brother in Roman Catholicism, Mr. Buckley, makes clear above: so what? So the Church errs in some matters. So teachings change. So traditions change. So, ultimately, what? When the time comes, the One Truth that is supreme is all that matters. Friday abstinence, the Pythagorean Theorem, Darwinism, the boiling blood of St. Januarius (coming this Saturday at the Cathedral of San Gennaro in Naples) – all of this evaporates in meaning and relevance when one engages Christ’s presence. So says WFB. I agree.
By the way, today’s Patron Saint is Anselm. A paisan (from northern Italy) who ended up in England (appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093), he is a Doctor of the Church, famous for the ontological proof of God’s existence. He opposed the Crusades. There’s something in that for everyone from Derbyshire to Fowler.