The Danger of Relativism and the Grace of Tolerance
As speculation swirls around who will be the next CEO of Catholicism, Inc., Vatican experts have been explaining to lay people the strengths and weaknesses of the papal hopefuls. One of the leading candidates, Joseph Ratzinger, who the press reports enjoys the support of 40% of his fellow cardinals, has been described as a “hard-liner,” a staunch opponent of liberalizing the Church with dangerous innovations like sexual equality, birth control, and “moral relativism.”
More than accepting/damning homosexuality or allowing/disallowing abortion in the case of rape and incest, this last concept is the most schismatic issue facing the makers of dogma. Put simply, doctrinaire conservatives like Ratzinger believe that it’s wrong for Catholics to accept that there are other, equally blessed ways of getting to heaven besides theirs. In other words, to acknowledge that there is legitimacy, merit, and holiness in the world’s other religions goes against Church teachings. Indeed, there are some Catholic leaders who think that the late John Paul II in his haste to make amends for Catholic brutality against other religions –chief among them Islam — was too accommodating of divergent religious viewpoints. Catholic conservatives like Ratzinger say that the Church ought to insist that it is the One True Way and stop being a bunch of mealy-mouthed equivocators, the kind of unconvincing salespeople that lose customers to more charismatic Mullahs.
This kind of religious insistence has been going on for centuries, of course, and it’s probably done more harm to the world and caused more deaths than anything in history besides the bubonic plague. The Jews say they’re the Chosen People. The Hindus believe everyone else is a blaspheming heretic. And we all know what orthodox Muslims think about non-believers. (Never mind that someone has got to be mistaken. One of the linchpins of religious faith is unwavering certainty, even when there’s no evidence to warrant anything but uncertainty.) All the world’s religions, when read literally, say that their flock is better than the lost souls who haven’t joined the club.
Yet where is our collective sense of outrage at this hateful outlook? Imagine if the Premiere of China, whose population is equal to the number of converts to Catholicism and Islam, declared that anyone with dark skin was inferior to light-skinned Asians. Imagine if the President of the United States declared that those who practiced Socialism were destined for Hell. Imagine if the leader of a great European country like, say, Germany, declared that Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals were the root of all evil and demanded their extermination.
When religious people claim to be defending the teachings of their lord, however, the world stands by dumbly and excuses their claims of moral superiority as solemn proselytizing, as though dangerous prejudice should be given a free pass because Jesus/Allah/Elohenu/Vishnu endorses it.
Despite what orthodox bigots would have their followers believe, there’s no danger in “relativism.” A large dose of tolerance, in fact, might be the perfect antidote to our world’s virulent case of religious fever.