Members of Mary Richardson Kennedy's family remove the casket holding Kennedy, the estranged wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., at St. Patrick's Church in Bedford, N.Y., Saturday, May 19, 2012. Kennedy was found dead of an apparent suicide this week at her home in Bedford. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is background center, facing camera. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) / Craig Ruttle
I don't know if historians of ideas do such silly things, but if they do ever select a Most Debated, Dissected and Provocative Paragraph of 2005, they would certainly pick this passage from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's homily at the Mass for the Election of a New Pope:
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St. Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true. 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.
Less than 24 hours after delivering these words to the conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. We can assume the cardinals liked what they heard.
And "dictatorship of relativism" surely will be the intellectual sound bite of the year.
Already, it has become the rhetorical emblem of the new Pope's alleged authoritarianism. In his homily "he all but declared a war on modernity, liberalism (meaning modern liberal democracy of all stripes) and freedom of thought and conscience," according to the conservative, Catholic and gay writer, Andrew Sullivan (that kind of combo platter seems to be what Ratzinger is against when he speaks of "syncretism"). "What this says to American Catholics is quite striking; it's not just a disagreement, it's a full-scale assault."
As a non-Catholic (a Jew, for the record), much of this is none of my business. But I can't resist the perhaps mischievous urge to come to Ratzinger's defense to some degree on the big points (not that he's asked…). But clearly one need not be a Neanderthal to be worried about moral relativism. And one need not be a fear-monger or an anachronism to be still worried about the great "ism's" of the 20th century – "Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism…" -- not to mention Islamist radicalism.
Figuring out how to end arguments, how to have clear canons of ethics and judgment when shared moral absolutes still exist for very, very few people remains one of the great projects for philosophers, novelists and, yes, preachers. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his influential book on modern moral cacophony, "After Virtue," wrote simply, "There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture."
We see this with stunning clarity in today's American political culture. Different sides are calcified in belief that the other sides are biased – that is, relative. There seems to be no way to adjudicate conflicts on issues such as stem cell research, gun control and abortion because the values and moral systems of the combatants are simply incommensurable.
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