First published April 28, 2005, in Between the Lines.
Although some people would describe me as a fallen Catholic, they’re wrong: I didn’t fall; I leapt. Still, after John Paul II’s death, I followed the papal candidates with an enthusiasm normally reserved for American Idol contestants. Eagerly I scrutinized their biographies on interactive websites, trying to guess who would be picked.
“Do you think it will be Ratzinger?” my friends asked.
“No way,” I answered. “Too divisive.”
“Habemus papam,” came the announcement (which is Latin for, “He’s changing into something white — hang on”). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI.
I knew Ratzinger’s name well. Back in the late 1980s when I was a philosophy and theology student at St. John’s University (NY), I studied his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” There Ratzinger described homosexuality as “an objective disorder” towards “an intrinsic moral evil.” Incidentally, at the time I was a candidate for the priesthood and had recently come out of the closet as a gay man.
The letter was not without its “pastoral” moments. Ratzinger (as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces Church orthodoxy) wrote that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”
But he followed this admirable admonition with a more equivocal one: “But…when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”
In other words, when gays demand civil rights, we should expect people to beat them up. While Ratzinger’s wording was more nuanced than many critics admit, it is hard not to detect a “blame the victim” element in it. Similar blame-shifting appeared in some of his comments on the priestly sex-abuse scandal.
But what worries me even more about Ratzinger/Benedict is the false dilemma he erects between fundamentalism and relativism. In a homily before the papal conclave, the soon-to-be pope stated:
“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
Relativism is the view that truth is dependent on, or relative to, a person’s or culture’s perspective. Contra Ratzinger/Benedict, it need not have “as its highest goal one’s own ego,” since not everyone’s perspective is egoistic.
Granted, relativism often results in moral wishy-washiness (to use the technical philosophical term). Relativists believe that any moral view is ultimately as good as any other. And that belief is not only false, it’s pernicious, since it demotes moral commitments into matters of mere personal taste.
But the proper alternative to relativism is not fundamentalism, which closes itself off from the world and brooks no dissent. The proper alternative is a healthy — and thus humble — regard for truth.
Can truth tolerate dissent? Absolutely. Pope Benedict (along with the rest of us) would do well to recall the words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill on this point. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:
“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Mill understood that we should embrace diversity of opinion, not because there is no objective truth, but because history shows us to be imperfect in its pursuit. We should welcome other perspectives, not because we necessarily lack confidence in our own, but because a confident perspective need not fear dialogue.
Upon his election as pope, Benedict described himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” It is hard to recognize humility in a man who insists that anyone who rejects his particular religious worldview must therefore endorse relativism and egoism. It is still harder to recognize it in someone who now claims to speak directly for God.