It’s ten years now since JP2’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. It is a great analysis of what B16 calls ‘the dictatorship of relativism’. Part of the encyclical analyzes the underlying assumptions in our relativistic society which contribute to the relativism of our day.
Light from Fides et Ratio
The four types of thought which Pope John Paul discusses are: eclecticism, historicism, scientism and pragmatism.
Eclecticism is the tendency to gather ideas, concepts, moral principles and methods of thought from a wide range of different cultures or ideologies exclusive of their cultural, religious or philosophical concepts. So modern people pick n mix their ideas, taking a smidgen from New Age kookiness, a smattering of self help wisdom, something from the Bible, an idea from a motivational speaker, a quote from a cute poster and something from the Catholic Church. This eclectic approach is classical cafeteria culture. What it does is cheapens each idea and pollutes it with others. It also makes a cohesive and unified philosophy impossible. Most importantly, it relativizes all the ideas by treating them equally and granting each one the same truth value.
Historicism relativizes the truth by assuming that all truths originate in, and are limited by their historical context. What was true at one time is not necessarily true in another. Therefore there is no such thing as absolute truth. This heresy of thought assumes that progress is always going on and that it is always positive. “Each and every day in each and every day we are getting better and better.”
Scientism assumes that the only truth that can be known is that which is proven by the scientific method. Therefore theological, philosophical and moral verities are consigned to the realm of fantasy. Because moral and spiritual truths cannot be proved scientifically they do not exist, and must not be given any credence.
Pragmatism has two aspects: personal pragmatism and political pragmatism. This is essentially utilitarianism. “What works is what is good.” Personal pragmatism is what works for me. Political pragmatism reduces the quest for truth to a majority vote. This is the adolescent whine, “But everyone else is doing it!!” In formal terms groups actually vote on moral principles and believe they have discovered the truth. Therefore, if the majority want abortion, it must be right.
I would add another to the list: Sentimentalism. This is the belief that my own feelings on a particular issue is the deciding factor.
I’m outlining this because it is clear that the Anglican Church, in its debate on women bishops, (and in the majority of its thinking for that matter) it totally given to the relativistic spirit of the age. See if you can pick up which of the ‘isms’ above are speaking in these arguments for women’s ordination:
“Suzy is such a good priest! Such a good pastor! It would be so unkind not to allow her to be a bishop. She would be such a good bishop. So intelligent. So spiritual!” — That would be sentimentalism and pragmatism speaking
“We know so much more about women’s roles now than they did in the early church. Women can do the job just as well as a man. It’s only fair that the women get a chance too, and besides this is what the majority in our society and our church demand.” — I can hear political pragmatism, historicism and personal pragmatism.
“It’s stupid to think that men and women are essentially different when it comes to this sort of job. Psychologists teach us that women are especially suited for the job, and it is only the remains of patriarchal society that are holding us back. Besides, other religions and other denominations have women priests. The Zen masters say, ‘All equal when all is ended and all is ended when all is equal.'” Historicism, eclecticism and scientism.
What was remarkably lacking were arguments from Scripture, theology and tradition. Did anyone even speak of the Pope’s decision on women’s ordination? Did anyone refer to the Eastern Orthodox dismissal of such an innovation?
I know most of my readers are Catholics, and maybe are tiring of all the Anglicanism on the blog at the moment, but these points are vital for Catholics to understand too because they are the assumptions of the society in which we live. The same sort of specious arguments are used in Catholic discussions on all the hot button topics of the day.
We need to understand the philosophical foundations of our society and be able to spot these specious arguments when they arise and turn away from the relativistic approach to the sources of true authority in the church.