Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, July 9, 2010

For Rick

[An excerpt from Gianni Vattimo's introduction to the symposium I referenced in  an earlier post.  (On Gianni Vattimo, here.)]

Several contributions to this symposium question the definition of relativism that the homily implies. But if Ratzinger’s intention had been precision of philosophical vocabulary, he would surely have achieved it. He was not referring to philosophical relativism so much as to vaguer social phenomena that cluster around the adage “everything’s relative.” His reference was to kinds of liberal tolerance for the other’s “lifestyle” that can easily become interest in, fascination with, or attraction to it, then participation or conversion. His special objection, judging by tone, was less to permanent conversions than to temporary ones — temporary, that is, until something more fascinating, attractive, and fashionable comes along.

It is this vaguer sort of relativism that, in introducing this symposium, I want briefly to address. I have only one question to raise: is relativism, as Ratzinger’s homily depicts it, really so great a risk for civilization, for religion, for social cohesion? I mean, is it as great a risk as other risks with which (qua risk) it is in competition? In particular, I wonder if the laid-back, somewhat noncommittal, to-each-his-own, I’ll-try-anything-once attitude of the pope’s relativists is anything like so dangerous as the enthusiasm that certainty inspires. Take the fervor of the Crusaders (“God wills it”), the zeal of the American “theo-cons” exporting democracy to Iraq, the scientistic certainty with which Hitler organized the extermination of “inferior” races (“for the betterment of humanity”) — none of these was a consequence of any loss of faith in truth or timeless values....

[I]nvectives against relativism may well be inspired by a secret nostalgia for youth, or perhaps I mean adolescence. Oswald Spengler, in his Decline of the West, theorized that civilizations are creative when young (falling in love, producing epic poetry, thirsting for battle). As civilizations age, they lose their surging force and at best grow in girth, declining into imperialism. Perhaps it is not coincidental that both John Paul II and (though a bit less, it seems) Benedict XVI turn their attention so regularly from us prudent and more skeptical elders toward the uncontrollably zealous young.

And so we hear that, only by identifying ourselves fully with, investing ourselves without doubt or reserve in, a system of values, can we live an ethically fulfilled and dignified existence. Hence, or so one hears, the great admiration that even lay people and nonbelievers have rightly professed for John Paul II and his tireless faith in his own mission. But how many of these sincere admirers actually agreed with the content of John Paul’s teachings? In the Holy Year of 2000, after the great gathering of young people (at Tor Vergata University in Rome) to celebrate their faith with Il Papa Wojtyla, mounds of used condoms were reportedly found scattered on the grounds — a most eloquent monument to relativism. “I do not share, wholly or even in part, that which you believe to be true, but I admire you for the strength of your faith”: if that sentiment motivates the young who camp out to cheer Holy Fathers, then their cult — the papal cult of youth, the youthful cult of popes — may be, for all its zeal, in itself an expression of something like relativism.

But another, less contrarian, and more hopeful, interpretation of the monument at Tor Vergata is possible. The “Pope’s boys” (and girls), as the press called them, may have grasped in the teaching of John Paul II his essential appeal to charity, to universal friendship — may have heard in him the Christian voice that will never say amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas. In comparison with charity, there is no truth worth affirming. Jesus invited us to construct an ethics, a Christian practice, on the basis of caritas — an ethics that, as I interpret him, frees us of our last idolatry: the adoration of Truth as our god. We need more, rather than less relativism, to accomplish this unfinished (this scarcely commenced) task. Christians live in multireligious and multicultural societies, and the idea that salvation comes only through the church is not simply uncharitable; it risks our rendering any peaceable (and thus Christian) kind of life with our neighbors impossible. If we genuinely believed what Cardinal Ratzinger told us about truth, about helping others accept the same truths as Catholics do, we would have to obstruct by any means the propagation of false theories (through censorship) and enact laws in contravention of natural human rights (rights that the church now maintains). We would need laws against the free exercise of Protestant and non-Christian practices, against the display of non-Christian religious symbols, against the education of non-Catholic children in non-Catholic schools, against construction of mosques, synagogues, temples, Protestant chapels. It is worth noting that, even when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office, or Inquisition), Joseph Ratzinger never called for such measures, and that, as Pope Benedict XVI, he has expressed recoil from the violent intolerance of religions that ought to know better. Early in his pontificate,Benedict invited his (and every modern pope’s) nemesis, Father Hans Küng, to a private meal and conversation in the Vatican. Given Jesus’ resounding words about charity, love, peacemaking, humility (indeed meekness), and abstention from judging others, may it not be that, in the makeup of any genuine Christian, Joseph Ratzinger not excluded, a relativist component must necessarily abide?

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