Column: The Pope and the atheist

My column tomorrow (that is, half an hour from now). Published May 20, 2008

If everything is opinion, is discourse still possible?

The Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, addressing a conference in Lugano, Switzerland last weekend on “Truth in Science, Humanities and Religion,” phrased the problem in familiar terms. “Suppose I voice an honest and heartfelt opinion about anything, from mathematics to aesthetics. The conversation-stopping remark ‘That’s just your opinion’ is not only beside the point, but more importantly dehumanizing. It signals that your words do not deserve to be taken seriously, but only taken as symptoms, like signs of a disease.”

Perhaps this explains why, in the so-called blogosphere where opinion is the coin of the realm, there is so much incivility. The diseased are conversing, through a fog of symptoms. (I confess I have been sometimes snide myself, in my own blog.) But the dehumanizing tendency is present in other media too, and indeed even or especially in our un-mediated experiences. Perhaps out of an excess of good will, of fellow-feeling, we often act as though one opinion is as good as any other.

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Blackburn was taking part in an “international symposium” convened by the International Balzan Foundation—something many of us wouldn’t have heard about had John Allen not reported from Lugano.

I’ve written about John Allen before, the National Catholic Reporter mainstay and a peerless guide to Vatican news. (Two quick notes. One, Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi had occasion to acknowledge Allen’s preeminence, when he chose Allen to ask the first question during Pope Benedict XVI’s news conference en route to the United States. The transcript is available on the NCR website. And two, it was the Pope’s decision to highlight the sexual abuse issue on his US visit—questions from journalists had been submitted beforehand, so Allen’s raising of the issue was not only expected but part of the plan.)

Allen frames the Lugano conference as a response to a “papal challenge.” His report begins: “Ever since his famous warning about a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ shortly before his election three years ago, Pope Benedict XVI has been trying to kick-start a global conversation about truth.”
The conceit in Allen’s report is that high-profile thinkers, even a happy atheist like Blackburn, have turned up in Lugano to rev up the engine of conversation. His report includes an interview with Blackburn, who after some initial hemming-and-hawing admits that: “There is a way of educating people in the West, which I don’t approve of, and which allows a certain corrosiveness, a certain extreme skepticism about values, to become part of the discourse. It’s the ‘whatever’ of the British teenager, who just shrugs his shoulders and turns his back on everything the older generation stands for.” (Read the rest of the provocative interview at

* * *

It is important to remember that the attack on the dictatorship of relativism was in the context of a homily; the pope-to-be was talking to fellow cardinals about the meaning of scripture. In particular, he spoke about maturing in the faith.

“More precisely, in accordance with the Greek text, we should speak of the ‘measure of the fullness of Christ’ that we are called to attain if we are to be true adults in the faith. We must not remain children in faith, in the condition of minors. And what does it mean to be children in faith? St Paul answers: it means being ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (Eph 4: 14). This description is very timely!”

“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 …. 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.”

That the Pope’s representatives took part in a symposium on truth with the likes of Blackburn is an encouraging sign. To be sure, I think Cardinal Ratzinger in April 2005 was talking about a religious truth, in the sense that religion is fundamentally about what it means to be human. But his words became a catchphrase because relativism has become almost absolute.

Blackburn, in an interview with the BBC shortly after the Ratzinger speech, defined relativism simply enough: “Different opinions, no one authority, and as many ‘truths’ as there are people or societies or cultures advancing different ways of doing things.”

It is easy to see the Church’s problem with relativism: the role of authority. But I think it isn’t only organizations that must come to terms with the diminished scope for a still-necessary  authority.

Individuals, too, rely on authority. Or at least on validation, today’s substitute for authority. We believe certain newspapers, we read certain blogs, we watch certain shows, because people we know have validated our choice.

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Happy news: Inquirer Books’ latest title will come off the press late next week. The Best of MarketingRx for Entrepreneurs is a selection of eminently practical “prescriptions” from Dr. Ned Roberto and Ardy Roberto’s popular Business Friday column, MarketingRx. Spread the word.

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