Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A moment of truths

On his morning talk show––aptly titled “Morning in America”––former Reagan administration Secretary of Education and morality Tsar Bill Bennett commented that mainstream American society seems to value those who seek the truth, but is wary, if not disdainful, of those who have found it. He cited this irony without comment, but it was not unreasonable to sense that for Bennett this wariness reflects a character flaw in the moral depth of American society.

Moral relativism has always been the target of Bennett’s ire. While he does not wear his own faith on his sleeve, Augustinian precepts that dictate a subordination of the interests of the self to higher values are sprinkled through his commentary. However, a disdain for moral relativism does not lead to an admiration for moral absolutism, and the wariness toward those who profess the Truth may reflect a moral view that certitude of eternal truths is itself a morally ambiguous stance.

Perhaps there is no act on earth as filled with moral nuance as the selection of the pope. The election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II followed the three-week reign and sudden death of John Paul I. Wojtyla’s selection at the time was inspired. Where John Paul I was a warm and beloved father figure, Wojtyla was truly a man suited to lead during that historical moment. A Polish priest who had suffered under Soviet tyranny, as pope, Wojtyla spoke with a moral authority that grew out of his own personal story.

And what of today’s historical moment? As the 115 cardinals entered their conclave in Rome, they had been left with the words of German prelate Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was reputed to control 50 votes as the conclave began. In his homily to his gathered brethren, Ratzinger inveighed against the “dictatorship of relativism” that rested as one of the greatest threats facing the Church, and facing the Collegium as they selected the next leader of the Church.

Ratzinger served for many years as the enforcer of doctrine within the Church. Certainly no one on earth is more likely to be imbued with the certainty of his faith than a man in that position, and no one would expect that the members of the College of Cardinals to be any less certain. As he and the cardinals consider the state of the Church as an international community, the challenges are not insignificant. The American Church has not recovered from the priest abuse scandals that have roiled congregations, and the growth of the Church in the developing continents of Africa and South America needs to be balanced against its traditional European power base where church attendance is declining. Ratzinger has expressed the view that the Church must be prepared to shrink in size, to regroup around its core doctrine, in the face of pressures to dilute the purity of its traditions.

But the larger issues that the Ratzinger will face as pope are the challenges from without. Five years ago, Ratzinger authored the declaration Dominus Iesus, which reaffirmed the sole primacy of the Catholic faith as a source of universal truth and a means to salvation. This declaration was greeted with some consternation by other religious leaders, as it was a step back from earlier Church efforts to reach out to other branches of the monotheistic universe, whether the Protestant or Orthodox Christian communities or beyond, and suggest the legitimacy of other paths to spiritual enlightenment.

Today, a return to religious fundamentalism is becoming the norm rather than the exception, and the days of the mediation of difference have given way to the assertion of doctrinal certitude. For Americans, this evolution is most apparent in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But the assertive urges of religious fundamentalism are not limited to Islamism. For example, in India, the international view of a booming economy and growing middle class masks the increasing power of Hindu fundamentalists, whose power and influence on both the political and educational systems mirrors the Christian conservative efforts in the United States.

In the Ukraine, the Catholic Church in the western part of the country is in a war for hearts, minds and territory with the Russian Orthodox Church. This conflict, which had been long-suppressed during the Soviet era, is a product of the overlay of historical territorial ambiguity and schismatic differences in religious doctrine that date back more than a millennium. As the colonial and Cold War conflicts that defined much of the 20th century fade into memory, they have been replaced by far older disagreements over the nature of faith and of truth.

So, in this historical moment, as Ratzinger’s words still resonate, the new pope and the cardinals must together must weigh the direction of the Church in a world of conflicting truths. Bill Bennett should not be surprised that American’s abjure the embrace of absolute truths, at least in the public square. After all, there are so many of them. But for the leaders of the Catholic Church, the challenge is greater. Institutional pressures no doubt demand the doctrinal cohesion that Ratzinger calls forth. However, it is worth noting that Church doctrine has in fact evolved over the ages, and the truths of one millennium are the quaint artifacts of another. As the cardinals made their choice and the white smoke rose over the Vatican, one must wonder how the stance of the new pope will embrace the challenges that face the world, and not just those of the Church itself.

In this historical moment, as Truth is on the rise, a small bit of relativism might not be such a bad thing.

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