Moral Relativism and the Catholic Church
The selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope prompted a renewed attack on moral relativism. The BBC reported that Ratzinger "delivered a withering denunciation of relativism" shortly before he was elected. Cardinal Ratzinger, now known as Benedict XVI, draws a contrast between the conviction of the faithful and that of secular society, "Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism ... while relativism--letting ourselves be carried away by any wind of doctrine--is made to appear the only attitude acceptable in today's times." This attitude toward relativism is nothing new for the church; Pope John Paul II often "attacked what he considered moral relativism inside and outside the church."
Although the church's animosity toward relativism has achieved a great deal of press coverage, there has been reluctance by the media to state the obvious: the Catholic Church has engaged in moral relativism repeatedly throughout its history.
Many varieties of moral relativism exist, each sharing the fundamental premise that moral judgments do not represent objective, absolute, or universal truths. However, despite assertions from critics, moral relativism does not equate to "anything goes." For most, relativism is simply the recognition that humans have created their own ethical systems, and that these moral precepts are subject to continued refinement and modification. This concept, of an imperfect and continually evolving morality, stands in stark contrast to the church's beloved moral absolutism, the belief that moral truth is eternal, unchanging and absolute. Moral truths come from God; therefore, they cannot change with the times and yield to evolving secular values.
Considering the image of rigid absolutism the Catholic Church likes to project, one would expect the moral behavior and attitudes of the church to have been consistent though time. If, in fact, the Catholic Church functions as the "custodian of moral truth," as Patrick Buchanan suggested, then one would expect the church's moral attitudes and behaviors to appear as shining beacons of stability through time. Societal norms would appear to have gradually eroded away from the impeccable ethical standards provided by the steadfast Christian institution.
Does history support this vision of Catholic moral rectitude and stability? On the contrary, the history of the church has been one of contradiction, inconsistency, violence, brutality, hypocrisy, intolerance, and lust for power. In fact, one could argue that the church's most important contribution to the values of modern society was to serve as the bad example which inspired the Enlightenment.
Consider the Crusades. In 1095, Pope Urban II set the first Crusade in motion with a motivational speech that spawned enthusiastic cries of "God wills it" from the crowd. The butchery and bloodshed that followed is nearly unimaginable. Raymond of Aguilers, who chronicled the event, described with disturbing detail the massacre of Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem: "Wonderful things were to be seen. Numbers of the Saracens [Muslims] were beheaded ... Others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; others were tortured for several days, then burned with flames. In the streets were seen piles of heads and hands and feet. It was a just and marvelous judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers."
Even on the subject of freedom of religion, a fundamental human right that is nearly universally accepted by the modern western world, the church's history has been abysmal. In 1215, the church's Fourth Lateran Council issued a declaration "condemning all heretics under whatever names they may be known," and compelled the secular authorities to "exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the church."
Many such "heretics" were mercilessly tortured and murdered during the Inquisition. Although the church has softened its attitude toward non-Catholic beliefs in more recent times, the distrust and dislike of intellectual and religious freedom continued. As recently as 1888, Pope Leo XIII declared, "it is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, or of worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man. For, if nature had really granted them, it would be lawful to refuse obedience to God."
Less than one hundred years later, Pope John Paul II, noting the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration On Religious Freedom," wrote, "violation or restriction of religious freedom have caused suffering and bitterness, moral and material hardship, and that even today there are millions of people enduring these evils." Within a very short period of time, traditional Catholic attitudes toward freedom of worship and conscience had changed so dramatically that a modern church leader characterized views held by an earlier pontiff as "evil."
In an April 2005 Los Angeles Times opinion column, author and Catholic priest Charles E. Curran described additional examples of changing moral attitudes. "History shows that the Catholic Church has changed its moral teachings over the years on a number of issues (without admitting its previous position had been wrong). A very sorry page in Catholic history, for example, is the fact that for over 1,800 years the popes and the church did not condemn slavery. And until the 17th century, popes, in the strongest terms, condemned loans with interest as violating God's law."
Somehow, even faced with obvious and dramatic reversals on issues of ethics and morality, the modern church refuses to admit that they have treated morality as a mutable concept.
Interestingly, the authors of the Catholic Encyclopedia weren't above invoking the reviled moral relativism when it served their interests. In reference to the church's brutal crusade against Albigensianism (or Catharism) during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Catholic Encyclopedia offers this conspicuously relativistic defense: "The death penalty was, indeed, inflicted too freely on the Albigenses, but it must be remembered that the penal code of the time was considerably more rigorous than ours." This explanation suggests that it is important to consider the social mores of the time or culture when making moral judgments. The church was simply behaving in ways considered acceptable for that period.
The defense offered for the murderous and inhumane treatment of "heretics" is equally relativistic, "they offend the feelings of later ages in which there is less regard for the purity of faith; but they did not antagonize the feelings of their own time, when heresy was looked on as more malignant than treason." There are additional examples in which relativism is called upon to mitigate moral culpability, including a defense of the Inquisition as merely employing the "usual" punishments of the time. Evidently, it can be perfectly acceptable to judge the morality of behavior by the changing standards of the ages, at least when necessary to explain away past church atrocities.
Clearly, the moral beliefs and behavior of the church have been progressively shaped by the changing attitudes of the culture within which it exists.
Perhaps this fact explains why the church is so fearful of modern secular morality; it's only a matter of time before evolving societal norms compel the church change yet again. How, for example, can the church continue to oppose all contraceptives when the burgeoning human population places unsustainable demands on our planet's fragile ecosystem and dilutes overall quality of life? How can the church defend a moral calculus that elevates its own dogmatic views on the sinful nature of human sexuality above the value of human life? In the face of an ongoing HIV/Aids pandemic, which is estimated to have killed more than 20 million people, the church continues to vehemently disapprove of the use of condoms despite their scientifically proven effectiveness in preventing transmission of the HIV virus. In fact, according to a BBC report, church officials have gone so far as to spread misinformation on condoms, arguing that there are "tiny holes in them through which HIV can pass," and some church officials allegedly put forth the outrageous contention that "condoms are laced with HIV/Aids." Evidently, honesty and respect for the truth is not one of the church's moral absolutes.
As in previous ages, evolving secular morality leaves the church grasping to maintain control and remain relevant. In an increasingly complicated and morally ambiguous world, traditionalists instinctively rely upon moral absolutism to respond to complex ethical challenges. The election of hardliner Ratzinger as pope may be an indication that this reaction continues. CBS news observed that, "It was Ratzinger's job as head of the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith--the old Office of the Inquisition--that led to him being labeled by some as 'God's Rottweiler.'"
If the church maintains its stubborn opposition to moral modernization, history may well record this time as yet another embarrassing era in the church's history. Calls for moral absolutism will only slow the increasing sexual and social freedom of women, the recognition of equality for homosexuals, and the advancement of science. Eventually, if history is any guide, the church will be forced to reinvent itself once more and embrace modern moral judgments regarding these issues. At which point, no doubt, the church will pretend it never believed anything different, and insist that its current moral beliefs are absolute and represent the unchanging truth as given by god.
 "What is relativism?" BBC News, April 20 2005.
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