From the Archives: Rereading Ratzinger

Relativism in Perspective

On January 4, 1997, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that it had excommunicated the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya. Balasuriya, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, had been involved for several years in controversy with the Sri Lankan bishops and the Vatican over his views on a range of issues, including Original Sin, the place of Mary in Christian piety, and the role of Christ in human salvation. He defended his views as appropriate and necessary adaptations in the context of the culture and religion of Sri Lanka--where Buddhism and Hinduism predominate and the Christian minority is tiny. This defense was dismissed by Vatican officials. In turn, the theologian refused to sign a profession of faith which included a promise of complete submission to church authority and an affirmation that the church does not have the power to ordain women. His offer to sign instead the profession of faith composed by Paul VI and his direct appeal to the current pope were also dismissed. He was excommunicated on January 2.

This is a sad and complex controversy. It involves serious theological differences over the truths of the Catholic faith and their communication in a pluralistic religious environment; a cultural clash between Vatican officials and a theologian in postcolonial Asia; and yet another chapter in the argument about dialogue and due process inside the Catholic church. Since the pertinent documents are not yet available, however, the full significance of the confrontation is not clear. But certainly one underlying issue is the concern of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the congregation, that relativism is ruining the church.

In a recent address delivered before the presidents of Latin American doctrinal commissions and before bishops from "mission territories," the cardinal spoke on "Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today" (Origins, October 31, 1996). In Ratzinger's view, too many Catholics are inclined to believe that people of all religions can contribute equally to human advancement; that truth can be known only through multiple limited expressions; that all religions reach the same transcendent goal, though by different paths; and that Christ is but one face of ultimate reality. Tainted by this tolerant attitude, the cardinal observed, Catholics are too ready to presuppose, when they enter upon interreligious dialogue, that other religions deserve equal respect and that Christian faith is not necessarily superior to the faith articulated in other traditions. This dangerous relativism, he believes, has replaced a Marxist-influenced liberation theology as the number-one threat to the faith today.

Ratzinger fills out his critique in two ways. First, he uncovers an alliance between Western theorizing about pluraIism and "Asia's negative theology," particularly India's Hindu heritage, according to which "the divine can never enter unveiled into the world of appearances in which we live." This traditional characterization—"traditional" because for centuries Europeans have had the habit of finding in India whatever they happen to be seeking—portrays Indians and Hindus as denying the reality of the world and being ambiguous about religious truth and tolerant of all religious viewpoints. Contrary to the cardinal's characterization, a century of Indological scholarship shows that the Hindu traditions are often exceedingly precise and developed in their doctrines and truth claims, and that, for the most part, they are quite willing to speak positively about the world, our responsibilities, and divine involvement in human affairs. As the cardinal seems to recognize later in his speech when he briefly explores the Indian emphasis on right practice—more basically a question of ritual than of ethics—India is not a natural or obvious ally of relativism. Indeed, until they are studied closely and carefully, the Hindu traditions are best presumed to be nonaligned in Christian theological debates.

Second, the cardinal names in his talk two contemporary thinkers as indicative of the relativist mindset: the Presbyterian John Hick and the Roman Catholic Paul Knitter. Hick is a British theologian and philosopher of religion who has spent a long, distinguished, and provocative career exploring many Christian theological issues, particularly Christianity's place among the world religions. His Interpretation of Religion (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1989) is a mature summation of his position on pluralism: He says that it is philosophically and theologically necessary to distinguish between reality and our perceptions of it and, accordingly, it is also necessary to expect an enduring plurality of religious viewpoints. 

We will never be free from the contingencies and limitations of human knowing, and must proceed with a certain humility; but it still can be true that God has communicated clearly and directly with the human race, and has become directly involved in our world, in particular ways.

Knitter is a well-known Catholic theologian who has written extensively on religious pluralism and on the religious aspects of human liberation in the global context. Most recently the author of Jesus and the Other Names (Orbis, 1996), he is most famous for No Other Name? (Orbis, 1985). In the latter he argued on several grounds (including intellectual consistency, the sheer fact of religious diversity, and the values implied in a commitment to honest dialogue) that narrow views of religion--only Christ saves, all salvation is channeled through Christ--must give way before the realization that God, not any particular naming of God, is the core of religious faith. What matters most is that all religious persons share a commitment to the just transformation of the world.

The cardinal claims that Knitter and Hick rely too heavily on the Kantian distinction between appearances and an ever-elusive reality, and that they unfairly use modern scriptural exegesis to call into question biblical claims about Israel's God and Jesus. They end up, he says, denying the possibility that God can reveal himself definitively in history, and they wrongly conclude that Christianity is only one among many religions. He marvels that true Christian faith survives today, and not just in "surrogate forms" such as those he sees being offered by Hick and Knitter.

Cardinal Ratzinger's address draws attention to familiar but important questions we all need to keep thinking about. He is, of course, right in suggesting that even in dialogue—where true respect for other religions is non-negotiable, as John Paul II keeps reminding us—we must remain true to our fundamental Christian commitments; a bland, uninformed relativism, were anyone actively to propose it, would serve no good purpose, certainly not in dialogue. Although the cardinal's argument does not advance our understanding of how fidelity is to be balanced with an informed respect for other religions, it does indicate key philosophical, exegetical, and theological pitfalls to be avoided. We will never be free from the contingencies and limitations of human knowing, and must proceed with a certain humility; but it still can be true that God has communicated clearly and directly with the human race, and has become directly involved in our world, in particular ways.

The cardinal's address is based largely on one secondary source; it does not indicate how Hick and Knitter might defend themselves, nor does it invite their response. My guess is that they would in part agree with the cardinal, and in part disagree. Nor is it clear, at this writing, whether worries about relativism are at the heart of the argument between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Balasuriya. But if relativism is the central problem facing Christians today, it would seem prudent that the cardinal sit down with theologians like Balasuriya, Hick, and Knitter, to explore in depth how we should understand and respond to the people of other faiths who live around us and among us and who are increasingly likely to be reading the books and essays we write about them.

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, and director emeritus of the Center for the Study of World Religions.

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