I have some Catholic qualifications for criticizing newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI’s stance on moral absolutism: I was baptized and had my first communion, after which I flamed out on Catholicism (around the age of ten) before being confirmed.
At my first communion I had trouble swallowing the wafer. It stuck to the roof of my mouth and I started coughing. I still remember feeling panicky, wondering what sort of mortal sin it would be to spit the body of Jesus onto the church floor. Eventually I got the wafer down, but God had sent me a message that I’ve never forgotten: don’t easily swallow the Catholic faith—or any religious teachings, for that matter.
All I know about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict XVI, is what I’ve learned since his election. But this is enough for me to give his philosophical stance on truth a big “thumbs down.” Previously Ratzinger had served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which used to be called the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition back in the not-so-good old days of the 1500s.
Now, I can’t hold Ratzinger responsible for the Inquisition. Yet the absolutist Catholic dogma that Ratzinger strongly supports was the foundation for all of the Inquisitorial atrocities committed in the name of God.
Ratzinger believes that Christianity is the only true religion, and Catholicism is the only means to salvation within Christianity. He also believes in objective truth (I have no argument with him there), yet holds that Christ is the ultimate and definitive reality for men in the world (I do have an argument with him here).
If Christ is the epitome of objective truth, why can’t everyone recognize this? The truths of science hold sway across the world, among trained scientists at least, because the laws of physical reality are known to be the same for everybody, everywhere, irrespective of their personal beliefs. But religious, moral, and ethical “truths” are as much open to question now as they were in the days of the ancient Greeks.
Except in the minds of fundamentalists such as Ratzinger, who mistake subjective scriptural assertions for objective universal reality. There is no evidence, none at all, for the Church’s claims that it alone has a clear understanding of moral truth—for example, that contraception is wrong, gay marriage is a sin, abortion can’t be justified, and capital punishment is a no-no.
Neither Ratzinger nor any other theologian can point to indisputable facts in the world out there that support a stance of moral absolutism. Nature leaves very few clues, perhaps none at all, about how human beings and other highly evolved animals should act. We know a lot about how people do act, yet the philosophical gulf between “should” and “do” is immense.
Given that there are so many differing opinions about what is right and what is wrong, I’m on the side of pluralism. When there isn’t any convincing proof that one set of moral standards is better than another, it makes sense to let people find their own way down life’s multitudinous choices of ethical paths.
However, Ratzinger considers religious pluralism equivalent to moral relativism. He has come to the false conclusion that if people are left to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, chaos will result. Ratzinger thinks that there is only a single source of objective moral truth, the Catholic Church. If you don’t get your morality from the Holy See, you’re trading in counterfeit goods.
By contrast, wiser theologians understand that pluralism isn’t the same as relativism. Here are some principles of religious pluralism contained in the above-linked article:
“1. The religions of the world affirm an ultimate reality which they conceive of in different ways and which both transcends the material universe and is immanent within it.
2. Whilst in itself ultimate reality is beyond the scope of complete human understanding, in its relation to humanity many claim to have experienced its presence in diverse ways, including great individuals in supreme revelatory moments that have given rise to the world’s religions, including the great world religions.
3. The great world religions, including their different and at times incompatible teachings, are as totalities of scripture, history, tradition, paradigmatic figures, rituals, creeds and forms of spirituality, authentic paths to the supreme good.
4. The world’s religions share many basic values, for example, love, compassion, justice, honesty, treating others as one wishes to be treated oneself.
5. There are however forms of religion, including some based in the great world religions, which are misused for purposes contrary to those values.
6. Each person must follow his/her conscience. Therefore the possibility of conversion is part of the human right to religious freedom.
7. In the present century the traditional assertions of an exclusive possession of absolute truth repel rather than attract many people who seek the wisdom that religions, and other explanations of the ultimate meaning of life, have to offer.
8. Hence, from a pluralist point of view it does not make sense in the contemporary world to try through missionary activities to convert the world to one’s own tradition.
9. Interreligious dialogue, as conversations among people who wish to learn and benefit from one another’s inheritance and insights, should be the normal way for religions — and ideologies — to relate to each other.
10. Within this dialogue a paramount need is for the religions to heal any historic antagonisms between them.”
Now, my Church of the Churchless preference is to make reality my religion, which does away with the need for religious pluralism altogether. One reality, no religion. But so long as religions exist, religious pluralism is certainly much preferable to religious absolutism. When there is no objective evidence that any spiritual path leads more directly to God than any other, it’s best to keep your traveling options open.
John Allen, Jr., who wrote the article listing the 10 statements of pluralistic faith, says that “the list, especially points seven and eight, also helps explain why defenders of conventional Christological and ecclesiological positions find the [pluralistic] model worrisome.”
Yes, it is indeed worrisome to defenders of the Doctrine of the Faith that spiritual seekers might dare to think for themselves and come to the conclusion that the key to unlocking the ineffable mystery of God isn’t the exclusive possession of any religion, and that converting to a religion is like picking up a fresh pair of dice at Las Vegas: the odds are still overwhelming that, in the long run, you’re going to lose.
The wisest course of action is not to gamble. Neither with your money, nor with your soul.
Invest your effort in finding the truth about God the only place where it can be found—within yourself. That’s a bet worth making.