The Vatican issued a document this week, an instrumentum laboris or point of reference, for the October 2014 Synod on the Family. Much of it reads like a regurgitation of the, less than inspiring, 1980 Synod on the Family. Marriage and family life today, it asserts, are in trouble. The key reasons are: “the mass media, our hedonistic culture, relativism, materialism, individualism, and growing secularism.” The old enemies.

The instrumentum laboris acknowledges that large numbers of contemporary Catholics reject the church’s teachings on birth control, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, premarital sex, and invitro fertilization. Is it possible that “the faithful” realize something that church leadership does not see? The “instrumentum,” however, doesn’t answer that question and blames, rather, two inter-related contemporary trends: a rejection of natural law and contemporary relativism.

“The natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy,” the document reports and continues: “in not only the west but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology, and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not ‘scientific.'”

The bigger evil of course is our “culture of relativism,” regularly condemned as the source of all contemporary evils by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and condemned by Pope Francis as “another form of poverty.”

“There is another form of poverty!” Pope Francis told the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, on March 22, 2013. “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism,’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”

And so my reflection this week: Is truth relative? Is Catholic belief relative? Is our understanding of the “natural law” relative? Where have we been and where are we going?

My quick response would be: Truth is not relative; but we are still moving toward the truth. No single person, and no institution, has truth all locked up in a box. (Just like no church has Jesus locked up in a tabernacle box….but that is a reflection for another time.)

What is natural? Are men naturally better equipped for ordained ministry than women? Are black men naturally more endowed with big genitalia, but smaller brains, than white men? That is what I was taught in Catholic high school biology class. Is heterosexuality more natural than homosexuality? Was it natural for Pope Innocent VIII, in 1484 AD, to proclaim: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature….It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

Was it natural….. in conformity to “natural law”……that during the 17th and 18th centuries, three to five thousand boys per year in Italy were castrated so they could continue to sing in papal and other Catholic Church choirs? The church created quite a market for castrated boys by hiring them for its church choirs. Parents, in need of money, took them to barber shops where a professional sideline, with ecclesiastical approval, was removing boy child testicles for church ministry.

The Catholic understanding of natural law has certainly been rather relative. And our belief statements, even from pious papal throats, relative as well.

Words ….even official church dogmatic words…..are never the total truth. They are only statements and understandings and interpretations along the way TOWARD the truth. Are they “relative”? Probably; but I prefer to say they are provisional and subject to modification tomorrow. Each day we learn and grow…or we should learn and grow!

Words point to reality…they do not capture reality.

No words employed by anyone at any time can be totally objective, infallible, or inerrant.

It is a kind of religious fundamentalism then that misleads religious leaders to assert that they alone are the interpreters of God’s will and custodians of infallible truth. What is true and what is natural is anchored in a certain relativism because no one has the total picture.

Dialogue is essential. Openness and mutual respect are essential.This means of course that individuals and institutions must get off their arrogant high horses and acknowledge that they (like you and me I) don’t have all the answers. We are all learners.

Our Catholic faith expression, if it is going to have real relevance for people today and tomorrow, cannot be just a system of solemnly defined dogmatic statements formulated in a limited context of time and space.

I would like to think our Catholic belief is a doorway to transcendence with an open and expanded vision. Let’s make it so.

A good theory of Catholic relativity………..


4 thoughts on “A Theory of Relativity?

  1. As Jesus would tell them: if you were blind, you would be without sin. But “we see,” you say, and so your sin remains.

  2. Popes John Paul IIand Benedict XVI have demonized the words relative and relativity. So instead let’s talk about relation and relationality. Or better that all statements that strive to capture the truth as contextual. And what better demonstrates the contextuality of the church’s expression of truth than Plato’s influence on church teaching. Plato wrote about truth in connection with justice and beauty. Can any action claim to be the justice? Can any work of art claim to be the beauty? If not, then how can an;y statement claim to be the truth. As you said so well, no statement captures the truth. Irt can only approximate the truth. If only the popes would study langjuage analysis along with their Plato.

    1. Thanks Ron. The other word I like is “provisional.” My old friend Ken Untener started me thinking about that. He said so many times we live (think, interpret, formulate) in provisional tents. Like nomads. We stay one place as long as it works. When it no longer works, we pull out the stakes, close-up the tent and pitch it in a new place. And on we go……

      He said this one time in front of the bishop of Kalmazoo at the time. It was in a discussion at a state catechetical conference. The Kalamazoo bishop reprimanded Ken, saying: “But bishop! The Catholic Church already has the entire truth.” Ken responded with a friendly chuckle: “Paul you have been locked up in your tent too long.”


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