Devolving doctrinal and disciplinary authority to the Bishops’ conferences is a dangerous idea.
In a now famous speech made in the Vatican Basilica on the eve of his election to the papacy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger deplored what he termed a “dictatorship of relativism”. He remarked:
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.
Fighting a “dictatorship of relativism” which affirms that moral or religious truth is not absolute, but relative to situations, persons, or places, had been a constant, if not the dominant theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy.
Moral relativism holds that there is no such thing as a moral or religious truth that is absolutely true, that is, true no matter to whom it is said, when it is said and where. Rather, proponents of relativism hold that propositions of a moral type, such as “Thou shalt not kill”, can be true for some, but false for others.
For the moral relativist:
- Same-sex marriage may be wrong in Africa or the middle East, but right in the West.
- Owning slaves can be right for some cultures, but unacceptable for others
- Polygamy can be right in Muslim countries, but unacceptable everywhere else
- and so on…
Moral relativism constantly tempts those responsible for the common good, whether spiritual or temporal. Taking note of the existence of a great variety of moral and religious beliefs, many leaders are loathe to affirm, much less enforce, a certain moral code or spiritual doctrine, lest they lose the adhesion and cooperation of the people under their charge. Democratic governments, naturally, are most tempted to relativism, since elected representatives need to obtain votes from groups with different and often opposing religious and moral views. These politicians, in order to obtain votes, are likely to affirm that each group’s deeply held moral and religious views are “true for them” and therefore respectable.
As Pope Benedict observed, however, moral relativism is but a step towards individualism — the view that each individual has his or her own moral and spiritual truths–, for, according to him, relativism’s “ultimate goal” consists “solely of one’s ego and desires.”
Moral relativism is thus the beginning of a slippery slope that leads to the individualism and anarchy that blights the West today: If it is good and proper that each culture have its moral and religious truths, then there is no reason why each individual could not have his own, too. But the slope does not end there, for that same individual who has decided that it was good and proper for him to hold his own moral and spiritual truth, could then decide that it is good and proper that the moral and religious truths he holds could change from one day to the next.
Pope Benedict, then, clearly saw that moral and spiritual relativism was a recipe for the practical dissolution of morality and spirituality, which is why he dedicated much of his papacy to fighting it.
How quickly we forget.
A mere 10 short years after Pope Benedict’s momentous speech, German Benedictine abbot Jeremias Schröder, reporting on the general discussions held during the current Ordinary Synod on the Family, said on October 14 of this year that many synod fathers seemed to be espousing the very relativism that Benedict XVI had spent his whole papacy denouncing. He said:
Many of the speeches in the general discussions mentioned the possibility of dealing with questions on the basis of a given cultural context. I would say there were about twenty or so speeches and only two or three were against, claiming that for the sake of the Church’s unity handing over powers would have fatal consequences. … I, for example am German and it seems to me that the remarried divorces issue is very strongly and widely felt in Germany and much less so elsewhere. This is an area where there could be space for original pastoral ideas, also as far as the understanding of homosexuality goes, an issue that really varies from culture to culture. National Episcopal Conferences could be allowed to search for pastoral solutions that are in tune with their specific cultural context. (emphasis added)
This same abbot is also quoted in a German newspaper as saying:
We do not need for every problem a uniform, whole-church solution which was compiled in Rome. The church must maybe come to an agreement about the fact that in different world regions and societies another contact with the complicated subject Family is allowed. An order member from the Middle East said me recently: An acknowledgment of same-sexual life forms by the church would be conceivable, purely hypothetically, possibly in Europe. However, in the Islamic context it would on no account be this. (emphasis added, translation Vox Cantoris)
This talk is also reminiscent of that of another German, Cardinal Reinhart Marx, who affirmed in February of this year that the Church in Germany was “not just a subsidiary of Rome.”
But this is nothing but the “dictatorship of relativism”, condemned throughout Benedict XVI’s papacy, applied to the Church: what is morally and spiritually right or wrong, in practice, must now depend upon which episcopal conference we are talking about.
Truth be told, this tacit condoning of relativism by Synod fathers and Cardinal Marx was foreshadowed by no less than Pope Francis himself who wrote, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, that “a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.” (emphasis added) This observation was followed by the affirmation that “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” These lines are contained in paragraph 32 of his exhortation, which is headed by a call for a “conversion of the papacy”.
This seems to indicate that Pope Francis would be open to the possibility of devolving some of the doctrinal power of the papacy to the individual episcopal conferences. If this means anything, it means giving the episcopal conferences the power to adopt disciplines and even doctrines that are different from those of other conferences. Would then a “converted papacy” be one in which the pope becomes, to use Benedict’s phrase, a “dictator of relativism” enforcing the moral and spiritual relativism that reigns among the episcopal conferences? If so, the “dictatorship of relativism” would hold sway over the whole Church, shattering it into as many pieces as there are episcopal conferences in the world.
The process of dissolution would not end there, however. For as with moral relativism in society at large, spiritual and moral relativism in the church will very likely lead to a radical subjectivism, where individual “catholics”, chaffing under the constraints of their “authoritarian” episcopal conferences, will consider it right and proper to have disciplines and religious truths custom-tailored to their particular situations. Will a future Apostolic exhortation hint at a “conversion of the papacy” devolving even more of the powers of the papacy to these “oppressed” or “excluded” individuals?
Anticipating the debacle that would surely follow should episcopal conferences be endowed with doctrinal and disciplinary power, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, condemned the whole idea as “an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the catholicity of the Church.” Indeed, Catholic literally means universal, as in a universal moral and spiritual code that applies equally to everyone, everywhere, for all time; it is the antithesis of relativism, which states that moral and spiritual truths are true only for some or for a specific time.
Also, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke has recently rejected the view that local bishops or episcopal conferences could have the authority on a pastoral level to deal with moral questions, condemning the proposal as “simply contrary to Catholic Faith and life”, going on to state that “there is no change in these truths, from one place to another or from one time to another.”
Devolving power from the papacy to the episcopal conferences therefore compromises both the catholicity (universality) and unicity (one-ness) of the Church, making it a hodge-podge of “churches” all operating under their own rules and beliefs, and, ultimately, in thrall to the caprices of the individual egos that populate them.
Drawing us away from the temptation to gratify our ego, Cardinal Ratzinger shows us, again by way of his Vatican basilica address, the way out of this mess: he invited us to adopt an “adult faith that refuses to follow the trends of fashion and the latest novelty.” Instead of embracing a dangerous relativism which is nothing more than a mask for a childish faith “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” we should look to Christ. For only through friendship with him can we obtain “a sure criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth” thus escaping the “dictatorship of relativism” that threatens us all.