Pope Benedict On...
The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI:
An assault upon relativism
The materialist humanists are winning — or have, perhaps, already won — the battle for possession of the moral conscience of the modern western world. The issues involved should have been brought into focus by public debate over the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, but in reality all the debate has done is to demonstrate how little understanding there is, how insensitive the modern world has become to attitudes to human life that posit the existence of external standards of judgment or of non-material values. The materialist humanists are winning — or have, perhaps, already won — the battle for possession of the moral conscience of the modern western world. The issues involved should have been brought into focus by public debate over the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, but in reality all the debate has done is to demonstrate how little understanding there is, how insensitive the modern world has become to attitudes to human life that posit the existence of external standards of judgment or of non-material values.
The Catholic Church is now conventionally referred to as a kind of obscurantist block to enlightenment and progressive advance; the Anglicans in general seem silent on the major issues, either out of internal incoherence or a disinclination to become enveloped in controversy — and actually acquiesce in the various projects of the secular humanists through the governmental ‘ethical’ committees to which they have access. Modern morality is utilitarian: the highest good that can be imagined is calculated according to what men and women, and ‘expert opinion’, most judge conducive to material welfare and security. It is emphatically the ends which justify the means. Into this darkening world, in which pleasure has replaced serious purpose as the goal of social being, it seems to be the papacy which persists in referring, still, to truly transcendent values. So, as it happens, does non-westernised Islam — and it is therefore no surprise that the present Pope places a priority on seeking to open the way to exploration of common beliefs between Catholic Christianity and Islamic religious culture.
Professor Rowland’s study of Benedict XVI’s thought, drawn from his addresses and writings, is an important, notably intelligent and stimulating introduction. It is not as ‘accessible’ as Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, declares in his foreword, for the simple reason that non-theologians will find this quite a tough read, especially when it comes to exposition of differing interpretations of Aquinas. There are few concessions to the modern penchant for instant comprehension. The study is at its most accessible, however, in showing the continuities and differences between John Paul II and Benedict. Both men recognise the extent of moral and spiritual decline — the individualising of religion, the material welfare priorities, the false ‘spirituality’ derived by representing private emotional sensation as the substance of faith, the replacement of objective moral law by self-gratification, the pagan indulgence of sexual practice as an end in itself.
Reading this account of Ratzinger’s assault upon the relativism of the modern world is like recognising the materials of a new Syllabus of Errors, and like the 19th-century original it is likely that his penetrating insights will be dismissed by modern commentators (many of them, unhappily, inside the Christian churches) as simply a measure of what it is like to be left behind in the march of intellect. There will be no meeting of minds. This is nowhere more lucidly demonstrated than in what he has to say about human sexuality. Traditional Christian teaching had always upheld the dignity and meaning of sexual commission, but the instruction children are given today is all about avoiding unwanted pregnancies. It is humans who are demeaned in the process, and when individuals treat sexuality as merely an occasion for pleasure, men and women themselves become less and less acquainted with higher purpose — ‘the increasingly vacuous entertainments of leisure-time society’.
Ratzinger exhorts liberal élites to recognise that the rule of law must itself be based on solid foundations, not on the will of the people’. Modern society, however, is moving at a frightening speed in the opposite direction. Electronic technology has enabled a push-button instant populism which is at its most scaring in the area of moral perception. The people want welfare and security, and politicians assist them in defining those ends without recourse to serious moral purpose.