What's our religious quest about?
Back in about December 2002 I asked a question on the CathNews discussion board which went something like this: "what, precisely, are the core tenets of Catholic belief that one ought to subscribe to in order to claim oneself as a Catholic?"
I still don't fully know the answer to that question although over the intervening years I have come to some better appreciation in my own mind of what I believe are the core tenets of belief that ought to define Catholicism. I suspect there would be many who would disagree with my assessment, even in this community, without having to go further afield and enter some debate with the more fundamentalist elements in Catholicism.
I was reminded of all this again reading John L Allen's column this past week where he was attempting to analyse what was seen as a confusing or conflicting message that Pope Benedict gave when, in the glare of international media attention, he visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and prayed silently in the direction of Mecca with Istanbuls chief Islamic cleric, Imam Mustafa Cagrici.
As Allen reported:
Predictably, some Catholics were scandalized. Fox News commentator Fr. Jonathan Morris, a member of the Legionaries of Christ, wrote the next day that his in-box was 'full of angry letters,'such as one exclaiming, 'Islam is a false religion, Muhammad is a false prophet, and the Quran is anything but sacred. How dare the Pope lend credence to such heresy!'(Morris, by the way, was not necessarily endorsing that view, merely reporting it.)
I don't want to answer Allen's questions, or indeed even explore the analysis which he provides — and it is interesting within it's own right. What I found interesting in Allen's analysis was the thinking that seems implicit in the earlier thinking of then Cardinal Ratzinger as to how he would define, "precisely, the core tenets of faith or belief"?
I honestly suspect that if I were privileged enough to gain half an hour of the Pope's time and sit down in conversation with him, like we do here with one another in Catholica, there'd be plenty of things I'd agree with him about but there would be nuances of understanding where our outlooks would be considerably different. I was not "scandalized", for example, by Pope Benedict's gesture but quite the opposite. On the other hand, I think I do disagree with the take His Holiness has on this term "relativism" or "relativistic" he bandies about.
Two understandings of "relativism" or "relativistic"...
It seems to me there are two usages of this term in society at the moment. Where I would agree with the Pope is that I do think there is an element in society who are attracted to a form of philosophical nihilism and relativism where "anything goes" — your opinion is as good as the next person's opinion and we can believe whatever comes into our heads moment-to-moment as we travel through life. I would agree with him that such a philosophy, in the wider picture of human progress, is ultimately anarchist and destructive and would lead to chaos in the social order and fabric of civilisation.
Where I suspect I disagree with His Holiness is that I honestly do not believe that is the only form of relativism there is in society at the moment nor do I believe it is the dominant attraction from wider culture that is drawing people away from Catholicism or religious belief in general.
There is another form of relativism that I believe has largely been formed, and integrated into contemporary human thinking from the insights of Albert Einstein via relativistic physics. Relativity in this understanding does not propose that because we might not know the answers to something — say all the elements of mystery or "unknowingness" that we now know exist at the quantum level of nature — DOES NOT entitle the scientist, or anyone, to make up any answers. Saying we do not know the answer IS NOT the same thing as saying that any answer will do. It is not proposing that there IS NOT some absolute — or some absolute answer. It is proposing that we cannot know the absolute — or the absolute answer.
Now, of course, even what I have written in the foregoing paragraph is going to be confusing to many people. They might think what does all this matter? Does it help me to know God better? Does it help me live a better life? Does it help me become happier?
Most people might not know much about Albert Einstein — other than that he was famous — or about fundamental physics. I suggest though that in many ways the most ordinary of people have integrated into their lives, very often without knowing it, some of these core concepts that ultimately had their genesis as ideas or insights in what went on in the minds of people like Einstein.
An example from the realm of sexual morality...
Let us take the issue of sexual morality. In recent days Vince introduced into our discussion forum a new observation I'd not seen before where he claimed he'd recently read a statement saying that some American bishops believe as high as 96% of Catholics disagree with the contentious teaching that was proclaimed in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. (I've asked Vince to try and find the reference for that figure. I have heard high figures but not quite that high. But such a figure is not altogether out of the realms of reality. For example one suspects that most of the 85% who have left the Church would disagree with the core issue in HV. There have been published survey figures I have seen indicating that has high as 50% of those still practising within the age band where contraception is an issue simply ignore this aspect of Church teaching. Adding those two figures together one could feasibly come up with 92 or 93%. Given that the proportion left in the Church in the age band where contraception is an issue has fallen dramatically it is not inconceivable to speculate that Vince's figure is correct — and someone in a position of authority may have had a basis for making such an observation.)
I am not here wanting to get side-tracked, as we might in another place, on a discussion about the merits or otherwise of Humanae Vitae. What I think we might agree with in this place is that a heck of a lot of people, whatever the precise figure is, do have a disagreement with the official Catholic line on contraception. Now focus on this: are all these people who disagree "relativists"? Do you think they believe "anything goes"? Do they think there are NO laws that govern sexual behaviour, family planning, procreation and the unitive aspects of the sexual act? I don't think so? The many people I have had conversations with over the years who disagree with Church teaching on this issue do not propose some "libertarian", "anything goes" alternative.
Most people, it seems to me, are conscious of their procreative responsibilities. They do want to have children or they believe society does have a collective responsibility to be producing babies which will propogate our species. The disagreement with the Church is a "relative" argument as to how the procreative responsibilities are married with the unitive aspects and responsibilities of the sexual act. Most people are not proposing that there are NO laws, or "anything goes" kinds of libertarian behaviours. They are searching though as to how one reaches the correct moral judgment for their particular situation relative to the overarching big picture Laws that create either social order (rather than chaos or anarchy) or which might be discerned as the natural Laws fashioned by the Creator of Life within which we have to choose the particular morally correct courses of action and behaviour?
I submit this is a different sort of relativism to that which Pope Benedict is often referring to, and which our friends in that other place so often latch onto as some kind of mantra without actually having a clue as to what they are really talking about.
In this whole complex domain of human sexuality I do believe there are a set of "big picture" laws or absolutes. We do not achieve salvation, or holiness, though by how well, or how regularly, we can remember or recite those big picture laws or absolutes. Our salvation, or holiness, is measured by how intelligently we can navigate through all those big picture laws and absolutes — which are very often in conflict with one another at the macro or micro level — to arrive at the particular morally correct answer for the particular set of parameters than apply in a given situation. That is a "relativistic" process. We have to make relative choices between a range of absolutes to arrive at the very particular moral truth.
I do not believe the major challenge the Catholic Church faces today is one of teaching the faithful what the big picture laws or absolutes are. The principal challenge is one of educating the faithful how to go about navigating between all the big picture laws and absolutes to arrive at the particular moral truth for the myriad of particular choices we have to make if we are to journey intelligently through life in a way that gradually draws us closer to this One God who sits at the alpha and omega point that defines the starting and ending points of existence.
The question I am pondering at the moment is this: is it the big picture laws or absolutes that are more core to Catholic belief, or the Catholic way of thinking, OR should the real emphasis be on the process (the "Way" of Christ) as to how we navigate through all the absolutes and big picture laws to arrive at the myriad of "particular moral truths" that are the real skeleton upon which the fully developed, balanced, mature or grace-filled person builds their spiritual life — and their ultimate salvation?
We welcome your thoughts in response to this commentary in our forum.