Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Religious Relativism at Work

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 28, 2010

I always find it intriguing to monitor the news for indicators of religious relativism. There has been no shortage in the supply over the past few days, affecting Catholicism, Anglicanism and even Islam. Each case is instructive.

The uproar in Quebec over Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s recent statement that abortion is a moral crime that cannot be justified even in cases of rape has been about as revealing as anything can be. The National Assembly of Quebec voted unanimously to express support for free access to abortion. Quebec, of course, was at one time a thoroughly Catholic province in terms of belief, and is still overwhelmingly Catholic in terms of religious identification. The current state of affairs there is a direct result of the religious relativism that began to dominate both the larger culture and the bishops and clergy of Canada in the mid-20th century.

Similarly rooted in relativism is the Anglican Church, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is attempting to apply sanctions to member congregations which deviate to either the left or the right (so to speak) of the so-called worldwide consensus established within the Anglican communion on how best to handle homosexuality. This situation is far different, of course, than the problem cited in the previous paragraph. In Quebec we have a case of relativism corrupting the faith of Catholics despite the firm teachings of the Magisterium of the Church. In the Anglican Communion, we find an attempt to shape ecclesiastical doctrine and policy according to consensus, which is by definition an exercise in relativism.

Somewhat more removed from Church control is the Oberammergau Passion Play, the famous Bavarian portrayal of Christ’s Passion which is by now a huge commercial institution. This year, for the first time, the play is designed to emphasize that Jesus was a reform-minded rabbi who was unalterably opposed to institutions and hierarchy. Thus the new play demonstrates once again the dangers of interpreting Revelation without a guiding authority. Suddenly the Meaning of Life is determined by our own (or, more likely, some elitist director’s) vibes.

Then there’s the Old Catholic Church, which was created when certain Catholics broke from Rome after infallibility was defined at Vatican I. The very existence of the Old Catholics is a tribute to what happens to Christianity when the authority principle is jettisoned, enabling people to feel free to reject what has been determined by popes and ecumenical councils. The Old Catholics are busy ordaining women again, usually with the assistance of Anglicans or Episcopalians, and this month marks the first time this has happened in Italy and, in fact, in Rome.

Now if we turn to Islam, we find a slightly different picture. An Indian Islamic scholar has argued that “useless fatwas” (religious rulings by Muslim leaders), mostly against women, represent an outdated conception of Islam. The problem here is that such rulings are issued based on a religious leader’s understanding of the Qu’ran, and are not necessarily binding, as different leaders and scholars can come up with different interpretations. In fact, Islam lacks either a hierarchy or an authority principle. It has no capacity to preserve its identity based on any supposed revelation, much like Protestantism. Since true religion must, to be credible, make a plausible claim to both revelation and the authority necessary to interpret it consistently, this particular Islamic squabble simply draws attention to a house of cards.

In fact, exceedingly few religions can pass these tests. As such, no matter how fundamentalist they may be for the moment, most religions are doomed to relativism. But it really is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. On the plus side, monitoring the news of religious relativism dramatically increases one’s appreciation for the necessity of a Christ for Revelation and a Magisterium for authority. Moreover, as this appreciation grows, one realizes that the phrase “exceedingly few” to enumerate the world’s credible religions is an exaggeration—unless exceedingly few means one.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: humblesoldier4christ - May. 29, 2010 3:52 PM ET USA

    And one there is, since Jesus never said "I will build 'churches'"; or "I will build 'multi-denominational'". With this, even simpleton pew Catholics must understand the real, deep goal of ecumenism: One flock, one Shepherd. Since there is only one Jesus Who died for our salvation on the Cross, the Mystical Body in her journey of human history will be one flock of remnants, "the rest of her (the Woman's) offspring, those who keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus." [Rev. 12:17]

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 29, 2010 11:15 AM ET USA

    The point about the Old Catholics and the authority principle's abandonment is well-taken. In many cases, those who abandon authority are subject to the untoward fruits of their actions. However, over recent decades, Catholics have been forced to disobey local authorities in order to safeguard their souls. I fear that many among these have been conditioned over the years to become complacent about the "extraordinariness" of their actions. They are casualties of a lamentable crisis.