Monday, July 14, 2008

Thoughts on Relativism

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt writes a column in The Catholic Spirit entitled, “In God’s Good Time.” Each month the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal take his public statements as an opportunity to discuss his views with him and our readers.

Following is our July 2008 installment of “Dialoguing with the Bishop.”


Dear Archbishop Nienstedt:

We have noticed that you and Pope Benedict XVI frequently caution us against the evils of relativism and individualism which, you say, are disastrously characteristic of US culture. Would you please tell us what you mean?

Of course, relativism and individualism can be carried to extremes, as can their opposites, absolutism and communalism. Maybe by adding an “-ism” you mean to lump these notions with other extreme ideas. If we were extreme cognitive relativists, we would accept anything anyone said as true for them. Or if it is moral relativism you are talking about, at the extreme we would accept everyone’s judgment of their own behavior as morally good. There is surely enough contention about right and wrong, true and false, among US citizens to allay the fear of too much tolerance of each other's beliefs or actions.

As for the extreme of individualism, that would mean we see ourselves as entirely independent and self-sufficient. All we need to disabuse ourselves of that idea is for an electrical grid to go down or the price of gas to inch higher. We are probably more dependent on our various communal systems than the people of many other nations of the world. There aren’t many Thoreaus carving out independent existences in the wilderness.

If you are not talking about the extremes, perhaps you are talking about an emphasis on one pole of the duality rather than an emphasis on the other pole. In the US, we might emphasize individual liberty while the Vatican emphasizes communal unity. In the US, we stand on principle for freedom of thought and speech as well as for having good reasons to restrict people’s liberty. At the other pole, the Vatican emphasizes conformity in thought and speech and uniformity in action. You could be warning us not to let the emphasis in the US go to extremes. We could respectfully return the warning.

Both questions, how humans know truth and how societies should be organized, are philosophical questions with at least twenty-five centuries of debate on record. We are not competent to survey the fields, but we are pretty sure that we humans haven’t arrived at absolute truth about either question to date.

You may not be talking about the philosophical notions of relativism or individualism at all. Rather, in cautioning against them, you are conveying this positive pastoral message to us:

Do not worry about how to live. You can be certain that in following the Roman Catholic hierarchy you are on the path of truth and goodness. Jesus has said that His Spirit is with us in our institutionalized tradition so that we will not err in doctrine or in moral teaching. Adhere to the teachings of the Roman Catechism and commit fully to life in a Roman Catholic parish. Be so committed to and immersed in a Catholic way of thinking that you subordinate your individuality to the community. In this way you will model the Christian gospel of love and evangelize the world you interact with. This is the way of holiness.”

Do we get the message that you want to convey?

This vision has an appeal, and we believe you are trying to protect and lead us. We also believe with you that individuals, families, and whole communities can live happy, holy lives believing that the Spirit guides them through the Roman Catholic institution. For many people, that lifestyle may appear to be the only way to live a holy life. In the maelstrom of cultural, ideological, political, and religious differences in our own nation, let alone in the whole world, it is not easy for an individual to know the truth and to choose the good at each step of the path. Conforming one’s judgment of truth and goodness to the judgment of the Church leaders seems a secure choice.

But for many of us, another way of being holy, Christian, Catholics in the world at large is also possible. It is both individualistic and communal, and it recognizes that our knowledge is relative to our time in history.

In this vision, the individual cannot abdicate the responsibility to make judgments for himself or herself. This responsibility goes with the inalienable freedom of spirit rooted in the Gospel message.

But we do not believe we stand alone as individuals. We have multiple communities within which to test our thinking and judging. We have our primary relationships, family and friends, to develop a sound self and draw us out of our egotism. We have in our Roman Catholic tradition, a Eucharistic community to keep the memory of who we are as Christians alive among us. It is not just the parish we belong to, and not just the current bishop and pope, but the whole community of believers from the early Church onward. Our thinking and judging is guided by that tradition.

We learn from the Christian churches that do not report to Rome as well as from the other religions of the world. We have our own secular liberal democratic tradition to learn from with its core values of liberty and equality. We have neighbors who have been formed in other cultures. In this age of global communication, when people can Google any question to thinkers ancient and contemporary, we are connected to deep and broad communities of inquiry.

Since each of us has been formed differently by our interactions with all these traditions, wherever two or three of us are gathered we are a community of individuals with a rich experience who can help each other develop in all our human dimensions. Our faith is that we are as individuals empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in communication with the world as co-creators of the Kingdom of God.

We have no empirical evidence, but we suspect that most contemporary US Catholics form their convictions and make their moral judgments in reliance on what they have learned from broader communities than just the Catholic Church. Can we be sure that we have absolute truth? No. Depending on how much responsibility we take for inquiring, we can only get as close as humans have currently come to it. It is relative truth, relative to our time, our cultural programming, and our finite minds.

The formation of our consciences in this multiplicity of communities leads us to question some truths held by the Roman Catholic Church. We think this is an advantage for the growth of the institution. An inbred conformity does not lead to growth and renewal. This judgment may be presumptuous of us, but in reading your column in the June 19th issue of The Catholic Spirit about going to Rome to receive the pallium, we think we see into the mind of a man whose interior life has been formed entirely by his life in the Church and its culture. We have no doubt that you are a conscientious, kind, and holy man. Because your lifestyle of immersion in Catholic culture has worked for you, you may think it is the best way for all Catholics.

We ask you, as the archdiocesan leader, to recognize other cultural ways of being Catholic. We and others like us whose interior lives have been formed through interactions with the pluralism of the US culture in the twenty-first century have the same goal of holiness as you.

The pallium symbolizes unity, you say. From our point of view, unless unity is actually experienced among members of the Archdiocese, no piece of cloth can symbolize it. To accept your leadership and work together, we need your acknowledgment that our progressive Catholicism is a benefit to the Church. It would serve our Church’s mission as a sacrament of true unity in Christ to respect each other and work together.


The Editorial Team of The Progressive Catholic Voice

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
Interesting Times Ahead
Monitoring Nienstedt
An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt
Nienstedt’s “Trauma of His Own”
300+ People Vigil at the Cathedral in Solidarity with LGBT Catholics
Why We Gathered
NCR’s Coverage of December 2 “Vigil for Solidarity”
Local Media Coverage of December 2 Vigil Falls Short
Far from Innocuous
My Advent Prayer for the Church
The Talk of the Archdiocese
Thoughts on Archbishop Nienstedt

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