A few weeks ago in Jerusalem, he spoke about it in secret when he was trying to set up a conspiracy with the Grand Mufti. Word leaked out. I heard about it through the grapevine. My personal grapevine is Northeast Public Radio. Here’s what they told me:
The Pope spoke of a theme dear to him, which is a grand alliance of the three monotheistic religions: the Christians, plus the Muslims, plus the Jews. Against what he sees as the march of secularism in the West.
That’s me. A marching secularist.
A lot of people will say that I shouldn’t take it personally. That he didn’t mean it personally. That he doesn’t even know who I am. But that’s how state and religious terrorists do it. They never mention anyone “personally.” They never even know anyone “personally.” Then boom! Jets out of the sky! Bombs! Missiles! Hijacked planes! Secret policemen! Regular policeman, with guns, clubs, Tasers, and prisons.
Some people will say, “Ah, come on, he’s the pope. Nobody listens to the pope. Calm down, Larry, you have nothing to fear!”
To which I say, “Hah! Have you no sense of history? How quickly you forget. 9/11. That president who thought he was on a crusade.” As to the future, Monty Python said it best: “Nobody expects [the next] Spanish Inquisition.”
Why? Why is the pope out to get me? Why is he trying to organize a vast international conspiracy? Benedict spoke of moral relativism and the offenses it spawns against the dignity of the human person. Moral relativism? From a guy who was a member of Hitler Youth. And now he claims to be the divine successor to the Prince of Peace. The Catholic Church’s relationship to Hitler and the Holocaust was an exemplary exercise in moral relativism. Do we stand up to this guy because he’s a monster? Or do we go along to get along? For the greater good of the survival of our institution.
The “moral relativism” that has the pope quivering beneath his yarmulke goes like this:
There is a wide variety of moralities around the world. That supposes that each one is a cultural construct. There is no way to say one is better than the others. Therefore they are all arbitrary. If that’s true, nothing is demanded, nothing is forbidden. Anybody can do anything they want.
Yikes! We’ll screw with wild abandon!
That’s what it really boils down to. The pope is not selling the Vatican treasures to feed the poor, demanding war crimes trials for Bush and Cheney, asking for higher taxes on Exxon and Chevron. It’s about marital monogamy, no contraception, and no abortion (make sure there’s a serious penalty phase for sex).
Nonetheless, let us look at the philosophical issues.
The version of moral relativism in question comes from modern anthropology. Anthropology was preceded by ethnology. Ethnology assumed that Western Civilization was the peak of human development. It often included a version of social evolution that presumed other—lesser—societies were in some less evolved stage on their way to learning to become like us.
Our political philosophy still believes exactly that. Other systems and cultures are stuck in some backward place. With time, and the removal of obstacles (like Saddam Hussein), they will move forward to political enlightenment and become just like us. Then everything will be perfect.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Franz Boas said that different societies were differently evolved. That Native Americans, for example, were not just hanging about in the forests waiting for Europeans to show up and teach them how to move forward. They had gone their own way. There was no inherent or logical or developmental hierarchy involved. Call it different but equal.
The things that people in these different cultures believed—including their moral standards—were a product of their culture. Different but equal. On one level, this is a great insight. Refreshing, liberating, respectful, and humane.
It is also fundamentally flawed. Morality is a set of rules that allows people to live in groups. Indeed, all species that live in groups have “morality”: rules that include obligations and limits on behavior, group supervision of individuals, and enforcement of the rules.
What is different about humans is that within our own species we are able to come up with quite a variety of ways to live in groups. There are certain fundamentals—child care, elder care, obligations to the group, hierarchy, property rights, limits on sexual access, a prohibition on rape (within the group), no unauthorized killing (murder). But beyond that, the rules develop to fit the specifics of the group and their environment.
Religion has many functions. One of them is binding the group together. We can easily imagine a society that is unstable and feels under threat. In such societies religious adherence can be very important. If the priestly class has political power, they can impose or demand severe punishment for anyone who questions their theology. Imprisonment, exile, confiscation of money and property, taking away children, torture, execution, burning at the stake.
Like the Catholic Church used to do. When it could. It called them holy duties. Now they speak out against such things. Because they can’t do them themselves. Goddamn moral relativists!
Anyone with any knowledge of history should be aware that the moral history of Christianity is a history of moral relativism. Once for the divine right of kings, in favor of democracy today. For slavery, against slavery.
The idea of an absolute and absolutely correct morality rests on the revealed word of God, which is to say, the Bible. I don’t like to attack the Bible. It’s like kicking a cripple. It’s a mass of contradictions and incoherence. Religious leaders pick and choose. They treat what they’re not interested in as if it doesn’t exist, and use what sells at the moment. When even the bizarre rantings of Revelations don’t support their positions, they make them up. Like the idea that sex should be within a one man/one woman marriage. (Biblical marriages are one man and however many women are appropriate and there are several instances of God-endorsed extramarital sex.) Or that God is adamantly against abortion (though He forgot to mention it, ever).
Many good things are said by religious figures. Many good things are done in the name of religion. But in moments like these we are reminded that religion is based on a form of lunacy and that religious leaders frequently, casually, thoughtlessly, take lunatic positions, like trying to form a worldwide conspiracy against me. We must organize a defense. Form a group committed to counterlunacy. We’ll call it the Illuminati.