Tired, old, impatient Baptist that I am, I have had it. During the period in which Pope John Paul II was passing from the scene and a new Pope was being elected and installed, cable news networks needing to fill the airwaves 24/7, presented us with an endless parade of uniformed Roman Catholic priests and professors whose message assumed roughly the following: There is a body of religious and moral TRUTH that has been uniquely bequeathed to the Roman Catholic Church. The two Popes in focus are reliable witnesses to this TRUTH in the face of all the false moralities, relativism, and misguided values our godless and god infused societies espouse in their chaotic, hazardous, brazen disdain of the papal gardens in which roses of TRUTH flourish and exude the odor of Rome. Surrounding these pretentious theological claims totally lacking in modesty and humility were a host of others that have only tenuous claims to historical truth, e. g., Peter was the first Pope in any meaningful continuity with the present holders of that office. The whole ball of wax was taken for granted sometimes apparently by TV hosts as well as by their Catholics guests. We were suffused in and with Catholic doctrine.
If these high claims produced propositions of shining, convincing excellence or generated powerful enlightenment useful for human uplift, it would be more palatable. But when it results in such abominations as the rejection of condoms in a age where millions of dying of AIDS, condemns responsible same-sex love, keeps women and married men out the priesthood, supports the comical casuistry of marriage annulment, rejects effective means of family planning, and the like, it does make one wonder -- and doubt.
Well, I am here to tell you that some of us do more than doubt. We demur. I will not drag out the whole panoply of Protestant objections to Roman Catholic hubris. I will not go into the ensemble of claims erected on dubious historical premises, some as weak as spider webs, although I am sorely tempted to do so. Here I will focus on the question of truth and who has it. The Apostle Paul says that we walk by faith and not by sight, that in this life we see through a glass darkly (or in a mirror dimly). Religious absolutists and fundamentalists, however, in practice ignore or forget this as it applies to them when they speak confidently on matters on which they think their doctrines come straight from God or universal principles of reason. Please, a little humility, a dab of modesty, about our human perceptions of TRUTH, a little recognition of human fallibilities, from which no person or institution, religious or otherwise, is exempt.
So please, professor, potato peeler, pedophile, priest, or Pope, when you speak about relativism, I beg you at least to define your terms. The word has many meanings. I have analyzed them in detail in another place. The vulgar or unthinking sometimes at least, seem to imply that it means that one person's opinion is as good as anyone else's or that there is no truth only conjecture. No serious person really believes this except, as Richard Rorty said, an occasional willing freshman who will believe anything for a day. If this is not what is meant by relativism, what does it mean? I suggest that a persuasive rendering is that we, including Popes, theologians, and taxi-drivers, can justify our claims to truth about God and ethics only by using the resources and norms available to us in our time and place in history and culture. We have no infallible way of determining whether these resources deliver judgments that correspond (in some meaningful or practical sense) with reality when the deeper matters of religious and morality at at stake. That somebody believes beyond doubt that their sources and methods (Bible, reason, experience, church, Pope, tradition, chicken entrails, messages found under rocks, etc.) give them the truth does not make it so.
In some everyday matters everybody believes there is truth and one and only rendering of it. Assume that you are about to open the bathroom door and that you have to go badly, urgently. Someone says, "There is a ferocious, man-eating tiger in the bathroom." Now who at that moment would conclude that one opinion is as good as another, that truth is relative, subjective, that there are no tests of truth that can reliably justify the claim? Granted that the theoretical proposition that a God, good and powerful, exists or the moral judgment that same-sex love is immoral are not subject to that same kind of adjudication yielding equally valid conclusions, theoretically and practically. Such issues are of a different order about which reasonable, equally moral and competent persons may disagree. I would maintain that some tests are available nevertheless, although they rest on assumptions that are more problematic and relative.
Hence, we need methods of acquiring and testing propositions of fact and judgments of value appropriate to the specific issue in question. I have analyzed this matter in great detail in books and web pages and will not repeat the process here. I will merely state the following: 1. Propositions about religion (God) and morality (right and wrong) are not subject to validation yielding indubitable certainties. Few religious and moral claims persuade everyone, except in maybe some few cases such as that gratuitous cruelty to babies is never justified.
2. Hence, we should limit ourselves to confessing our beliefs about such issues, reciting how we came to have them historically and in life experience, and setting forth the reasons for holding them.
3. We should make such confessions in humility and be tolerant within limits of other views, willing to hear them, and be open to changing our minds upon finding grounds sufficient to justify doing so. However, some things are so abhorrent that we can not tolerate them complacently but must oppose them by means appropriate to the occasion, even to the point of violence in some extreme cases in order to protect the dignity of persons and the just interests of the poor, the innocent, and weak in accordance with love and compassion for the suffering.
4. When absolutists claim they state the TRUTH about God and morality, it amounts to their having convictions invulnerable to doubt and not much more.
Our convictions about God and morality, whether based on divine revelation, human reason, or readings of manure piles, change over time and vary from culture to culture. This does not mean there are no objectively valid views but only that we can not be certain who, if anyone, has them. There is no available infallible guarantor of the truth of our moral and religious convictions. We have beliefs, and that is what we deal with in practice in our everyday lives. The claim that our convictions are true adds nothing to their value or validity. It merely means we believe them to be true. They nevertheless function for us as clues and guides to the universe and our place in it and provide useful means of coping with the joys, terrors, and catastrophes of life and the certainty of death.
The Roman Catholic Church has changed its teachings about many things over time. Pope Benedict XVI himself admitted as much in his writings when he was Josef Ratzinger, university professor. The church no longer teachers that sexual pleasure in marriage is sinful or that women are inferior. The new Pope is not opposed to all change. He just wants it to come from the top where it can be controlled and not from everyday Catholic people. i. e., faithful women who feel a call to Roman Catholic priesthood, parents with all the childrent they can afford, or from secular norms. Once intellects the size of his and of Aristotle taught that natural law justified slavery, the denial of the right of women to vote, and other abominations but not any more. The Roman Catholic Church has changed its mind over time regarding slavery, usury and religious liberty, according to John T. Noonan, Jr. (See his "Development in Moral Doctrine," Theological Studies 54 (December 1993), and The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. We could add capital punishment to this list. This is only to say that church teachings and cultural norms have the marks of humanity, fallibility, and relativity all over them, and some of them change over time. We can only hope that with further reflection and experience our insights can be purified and made more humane and in accordance with dictates of justice and love. But it never ceases to be the case that we see through a glass darkly as we walk by faith and not by perfect sight.