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Posts Tagged ‘relativism’

Is it possible, in these pluralistic times, to claim that Jesus Christ is the unique saviour? Well, of course I think it is. Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, however, gave a wonderful anecdote about how difficult it can be to proclaim this – even to Christians.

ArchbpDiNoia

Archbishop Di Noia is Vice President of the Pontifical Council ‘Ecclesia Dei’ in Rome. He was in London last week to speak to the clergy of Westminster Diocese at our annual summer gathering.

He was reminiscing about when the document Dominus Iesus was published in 2000 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. The US Bishops’ Conference was given an embargoed copy of the text a couple of weeks before, and they gave it to Di Noia to ask what he thought of it, what he thought the public reaction might be (within and outside the Church), and how he thought they should prepare themselves in anticipation. He had some kind of advisory role there at the time.

So he read the document, and his reaction was (I’m quoting from memory): “There’s nothing particular striking or controversial here; nothing that isn’t in the Holy Scriptures or the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. I doubt it will get much attention. No action needed…”

Perhaps he was naive, but he himself admitted that he was completely unprepared for the forcefulness of some of the negative reactions. At the end of the story he quipped, with a smile: “I nearly lost my job”.

You can read the document here. The core is simply a re-statement of mainstream, historic Catholic belief that Jesus Christ is the unique saviour and that the Catholic Church has a unique place in God’s plan of salvation.

Dominus Iesus is a lot more inclusivist than many people think. It leaves open the hugely important questions about how people might be saved without an explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ or an explicit faith in him, and the different ways in which people can be related to the Catholic Church and share in the salvific communion that she mediates in history.

But it refuses to let go of these core beliefs which we receive from the Scriptures and the Tradition. What’s fascinating is to see how much these once uncontroversial beliefs challenge so much of what is taken for granted in the contemporary secular worldview, and how they even give many Catholics pause for thought.

[Scandal, in its original Greek context, does not mean a situation where some moral wrongdoing has taken place, but something that ’causes you to stumble’: that stops you in your tracks, that trips you up, that makes you think, that challenges you, that ‘scandalises’ you in the sense of overturning all of your preconceptions about a given situation.]

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Pope Benedict arrives today. There will be thousands of stories and reports in the press; and the BBC, ITV and Sky – to their credit – have given a huge commitment of airtime to the visit.

It’s worth looking at the official site, where there is also a live webcast of every event in case you can’t find anything on the TV.

Here are few paragraphs to set the scene, politically and historically. First, Eamon Duffy:

The Pope will speak in Westminster Hall from the spot on which St Thomas More was condemned to death for his refusal to renounce the papacy and recognise Henry VIII as head of a purely English national church. The resonances of that heroic defiance are overwhelming, as is the mere fact of the Pope’s presence at the symbolic heart of a nation whose identity for centuries focussed itself round the vigorous repudiation of papal authority. The invitation to speak in Westminster Hall suggests that, five centuries after the Reformation, the Pope is perceived as having something worth hearing to say about the values that shape and bind British civil society.

But many within that society, including many Catholics, are conscious that Benedict’s church has been compromised in the eyes of many by its recent history. Neither Church nor Pope can address society now from some imagined moral high ground. The Pope will need to recognise that fact, both in what he says and how he says it.

On his last day in Britain, Pope Benedict will beatify the great Victorian Catholic writer and thinker, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Like the Pope, Newman believed that the society of his day was cutting itself adrift from the religious values which had given the nation its distinctive moral and religious character. But he also believed that mere denunciation did no good. If Christian values were to survive, they had to commend themselves by their intrinsic attraction, “not by refutation so much as by an antagonist truth”. The young Ratzinger was deeply influenced by the writings of this very English saint: as Pope he could do worse than follow his master’s advice, and make the positive presentation of that “antagonist truth” the keynote of his visit.

And these words from Charles Moore:

I do not know exactly why first Tony Blair, and then Gordon Brown, encouraged the Pope to come here, or why David Cameron, sorting out the ragged fin de regime handling of the visit by the last government, is supporting it so whole-heartedly. I do not know the precise motivations of the Queen in being so warm about this visit and in breaking convention so that, for the first time in her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh himself, rather than a lower representative, will greet the state visitor at the airport. But it might have something to do with a sane recognition that this country should be able to welcome the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a proud island, but we are also part of a wider European civilisation. It is worth having a public conversation about the state of that civilisation with someone who has devoted his life to advancing it.

In short, before answering the Thatcher question, “What does one say to a Pope?”, how about waiting to hear what the Pope will say to us?

Although I am a Catholic by conversion, it was never the papal aspect of things that attracted me. I feel quite Protestant about Pope-mania. But, even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger struck me as a man who was thinking deeply about the cultural problem of modern times. He welcomed the growth of freedom, but he noticed a danger that tended to go with it – a rejection of the very idea of truth. He counselled against the “deadly boredom” of relativism and egotism. His ideal was a man – and he noted such men particularly in England, singling out both More and Newman – “who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognised… is above approval and acceptance.” Benedict thinks constantly about what we now call “the big society” and how it can achieve the common good. “Without truth,” he says in one of his encyclicals, “charity degenerates into sentimentality.” His idea of truth is not hidden: he wants to reason with modern society about it.

It was Newman who famously encapsulated his loyalty both to his faith and to conscience: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first and the Pope afterwards.” Next week, the Pope, as is the custom, will not be attending the state banquet given in his honour. But if he did, he would happily drink that toast. So should this nation.

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On 18 April 2005 the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached to the cardinals who were assembled in Rome to elect the new Pope. He provoked a huge amount of discussion by saying that Western culture is creating ‘a dictatorship of relativism’.

Here is the homily in full; and here is the relevant paragraph:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

I was involved this week in a programme by Edward Stourton about the significance of this provocative term, and the place of religion more generally in contemporary culture and politics. The Analysis programme was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday evening; you can listen to it hear on BBC iPlayer.

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