Blessed John Henry Newman: A Charter for Liberalism

Liberalism in religion was, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, the thing that he consistently fought against throughout his life. By Liberalism he meant the preference of our own private judgements over the mind of the Church, and the alteration of revealed truth to suit our own desires and/or the spirit of the age. His opposition to Liberalism is often misunderstood or simply ignored given that he was, in the classical sense of the word, a true liberal – he believed in taking a generous approach to the opinions of others, in the open discussion of ideas, and in charitable engagement with contemporary culture. And yet, he was also (again in the classical sense) a true conservative, believing in the importance of tradition, in the rightness of appeal to authority in settling disputes, and that the jettisoning of tried and tested truths in favour of new ideas based solely on their novelty was both imprudent and destructive.

It was this careful balance between his generosity of spirit and openness to debate on the one side, and his insistence on the need to adhere to and learn from tradition (especially revealed truth) and authority on the other, that gave Newman so many problems after his conversion – at a time when the kind of Liberalism abhorred by Newman (i.e.; the germ of what would later become known as Modernism) was being fortified against by retreat into an overly protective dogmatism zealous to increase papal powers beyond what Sacred Tradition could actually support, Newman was rejected by both parties. He was too ‘liberal’ for the Ultramontane party, and too ‘conservative’ for the Liberalist party. Nevertheless, out of his personal trials good would come, as the party spirit that was condemned by Saint Paul was exposed more clearly, and a more nuanced position would grow out of it – amongst other things, the idea of doctrinal development was given a surer and more robust definition.

Nevertheless, such things took time, and for Blessed John Henry, it was often a struggle (in remembering this, his testimony to the fact that he never once regretted his conversion and, despite his trials, always felt that he had found his home in the Church, have even more force). At any rate, when he wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he added an extensive note explaining exactly what it was that he meant by Liberalism in order to further settle some of the ferment surrounding it and his position on such matters, and in this note, which is in great part a reflection on his personal experience of theological Liberalism in action (the concrete always being of supreme importance to Newman), he provides a succinct and potent description of what the term does and doesn’t mean:

Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (2004), p.254, Penguin Classics.

                Newman clearly draws a line in the sand here – liberty of thought and the free discussion of ideas are not only acceptable but goods in and of themselves; however, there are certain basic principles that cannot be subjected to critique or question, because they are the things which form the base from which we do all our other questioning. This latter thing, which Newman refers to as ‘false liberty of thought’ (presumably because whilst giving the illusion of freedom it actually, by removing the base from which thought is conducted, undermines the whole process of genuinely creative and critical reflection) is what he calls Liberalism. In matters of religion, the basic principles which thus cannot be questioned are the truths of Revelation – for once we start to question these, immediately we lose our identity with respect to the religion in question.

For any system of thought to maintain coherence and identity, the fundamentals must be set apart and not subjected to critique – otherwise we become caught adrift, and are no longer genuinely enjoying freedom of thought, but are rather beholden to a conceptual chaos. Saint John Paul II, in the opening sections of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, makes a similar point to Newman, but broadens its application to all philosophy – i.e.; to all critical thinking:

Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel that they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools. Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orthos logo, recta ratio.

Fides et Ratio, 4.

                This is of course exactly the sort of position that is now so often deliberately undermined (not usually by argument but rather according to the claim that it is ‘outdated’ to appeal to certain foundational, objective principles) and is at least partly why philosophy today has become to a large extent a matter of toying with words – something cut off from lived human experience and thus largely unable to engage with real life problems. Utilitarianism and relativism are, quite frankly, not fit for purpose – they do not aid or enrich people’s lives at a level which can effect long-term, meaningful change because they are cut off from that core body of insight that Saint John Paul speaks of. Just as there is Liberalism in religion, philosophical relativism represents a Liberalism in thought more generally, and it is this (with its destructive consequences for culture) that Pope Benedict XVI worked so hard to counter during his career.

Blessed John Henry Newman though was principally concerned with theological Liberalism, and at the end of his appendix to the Apologia he presents a list of propositions which he had drawn up during his days at Oxford as an Anglican – propositions which could be said to represent a kind of charter for Liberalism, and which he summarily rejected. He lists eighteen in total, but I shall only share the first ten, as the remaining eight are concerned more with the rights of civil powers and the relationship between Church and State:

1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.

                Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.


  1. No one can believe what he does not understand.

                Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in religion.


  1. No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.

                Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.


  1. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.

                Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.


  1. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.

                Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.


  1. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.

                Therefore, e.g. Political Economy may reverse our Lord’s declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.


  1. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilisation, and the exigencies of the times.

Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.


  1. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.

                Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the “corn of wheat” which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish.


  1. There is a right of Private Judgement: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.

                Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.


  1. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.

                Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua, pp.259-260.

                Again, it is important to remember the depth of Newman’s commitment to conscience, and to the open engagement with culture, so that when he mentions scientific conclusions in no. 6, he is not being ‘anti-science’ and when he discusses freedom of conscience in nos. 9 and 10, he is not suggesting we stop thinking for ourselves. What he is concerned with is that we recognise the proper priority of the fundamentals of Revelation, so that we order our conclusions regarding scientific discovery (which is always to some extent provisional and subject to further evaluation) to what is already known via Revelation and allow our consciences to be formed by that teaching in a way that recognises its prior authority and does not place the self above it.

Making a couple of adjustments here and there to allow for examples more relevant to our age though, it seems to me that the points laid out here by Newman are, in essence, consistent with what we see in the theological Liberalism of today. Whilst typing out the propositions, I was struck by how many of their assumptions are still operative in the thought of many influential clergy and laity, across denominational boundaries. Thus Newman’s ‘charter’ for Liberalism is still something we would do well to pay attention to, summarising as it does some of the main expressions of the spirit of Liberalism within Christianity. The ‘mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it’ and the ‘false liberty of thought’ which both precedes and succeeds this mistake are still very much in evidence, and the spirit that so concerned Blessed John Henry Newman is one we must continue to fight against.

Impoliteness and the Loss of Beauty

As an addendum to my post of yesterday, which looked at the way in which Beauty, Goodness and Truth are inextricably linked to one another, I would like to consider today the implications this may have for the decrease in common courtesy we find in contemporary society – a decrease in courtesy of both word and deed, where the holding open of doors and giving up of seats has declined just as much as the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in everyday conversation. I would not want to assert that these things have disappeared completely from our common life of course, nor attempt to invoke a mythical era where everybody was nice to each other and spoke well of one another – all I contend here is that, relatively speaking, courtesy seems to be rarer.

The way in which this might be linked to relativism, and the way in which the three Transcendentals mutually inform and enrich one another, can be seen via a closer examination of those relationships. As I suggested in my previous post, a consideration of the Beautiful can and does often lead one to a realisation or deeper appreciation of the True and/or the Good. With respect to beautiful ideas, their symmetry, harmony or grace can lead us to reflect upon why it is that such things appeal to us, and so whether or not they might themselves have their roots in something stable and abiding – that if an idea may be beautiful and this beauty possesses us in some objective way, whether the truths they claim to represent might not also have a similar character.

Similarly, as the life of a saint may seem beautiful and compelling to us because of its integrity and purity of intention, this can lead us to consider whether the things that they strive for might have a reality to them which we otherwise choose to ignore – i.e.; we are led to consider whether the Good might not be so relative after all, but something authentic, objective and alive. Furthermore, in the arts we are often presented with visions that speak to us of both Goodness and Truth, and that present them to us with such clarity and harmony, that embed the Good and the True so deeply within the vision, that we cannot avoid their claims – the Beauty of the thing is so insistent and compelling precisely because of the way in which Goodness and Truth constitute its very essence.

Now, if this is true, and the three Transcendentals are as deeply interlinked as I believe they are, then it would follow that denial or suppression of one of them will inevitably lead to a diminishment of the others. Thus, in a relativistic age, where the existence of objective truth is denied, the idea that moral values have an objective foundation will find less acceptance. What is less clear though is that this will (and indeed has) in turn lead to a denial of the Beautiful – to saying that we cannot possibly say what is or isn’t beautiful and/or to re-branding things that would previously have been seen as unsightly or distasteful as examples of beauty.

Moreover, this denial of Beauty will itself feed back into the triad, and will lead our behaviour to become less beautiful – we create an ugly environment for ourselves (sometimes by calling it beautiful, sometimes just on the basis that utility rules and there is no such thing as beauty anyhow) and our morals also become ugly; we cite differences of opinion in artistic matters as an indication that all those opinions are equally valid (or equally not), and end up doing the same with our behaviour. We have created a culture that claims a supermarket to be just as beautiful as Chartres Cathedral, and are surprised when people see shoving someone out of the way to be just as acceptable as saying excuse me.

I admit that these ideas are more intuitive than based on any systematic thinking out of the relationships that I’ve outlined above, but it does seem to me that such relationships do exist, and that a society or culture which encourages the demolition and remoulding of the Beautiful must also inevitably be one that has to face a growing amount of ugly behaviour. Similarly, such a society, in encouraging the idea that all morality is relative, an idea which will always lead to a decrease in decency and charity, will always produce an atmosphere in which it is not only easier to develop bad habits (or one could say, to reject beautiful values) but also easier to reject beautiful things.

Thankfully, whilst relativism still enjoys a great deal of popularity in the West, and therefore does affect the way people think, behave, and view the world to a great extent, the natural capacity of human beings to appreciate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty has not and will not be completely quashed. Although perhaps a majority would now pay lip service to the idea that aesthetics is just a matter of taste, it would be difficult to find many people who genuinely think that the glass boxes of modern architecture are as beautiful as Sainte-Chappelle, or that the Niteroi Contemporary Art museum in Rio de Janeiro is anything other than (ahem) ‘interesting’ to look at.

Similarly, no matter how much people decry the claims made for objective morality, they also know very well what sort of behaviour they would and would not like to abound in their communities, and know that this is not just a matter of personal preference – they know, deep down, that some things are right and some things are wrong. And this perhaps cuts to the heart of the matter – our age, which is also characterised by a distinctly materialist kind of rationalism, is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that a.) There are some things we just know, that we intuit and take as properly basic for the rest of the way we think and live, and that b.) We also recognise that these things must be grounded in something that transcends the particularities and contingencies of community and culture.

Having been conditioned to believe that all that ‘really’ exists is what we can know through our five senses, and that pure naked reason will help us make sense of that data, we are loathe to admit the existence of things that are axiomatic but non-sensory. Even more so, that the nature of these things must necessarily be transcendental as well as non-material is an affront to all we have been led to believe; it is thus understandable that we embrace relativism as a bulwark against the objective claims of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. And yet, these things continue to impress themselves upon us, and ultimately we cannot give a coherent account of reality without them. That we continue to feel their force, and that they continue to make nonsense of the relativist version of things, is a hopeful thing indeed. Ideology will always lose out to reality, and the more we defer to the latter, the more beautiful our behaviour will become.

The Beauty of Orthodoxy

Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8)

In our relativistic age, when it is difficult to convince people of truth claims and hard to persuade people committed to a libertarian, individualistic worldview that there exists such a thing as the Good (especially when it becomes apparent that this is something to which they are obligated to conform their lives to by adapting their behaviour), another type of evangelisation has often been suggested – namely the use of Beauty, in that it lowers people’s defences and draws them in to the Faith by purely attractive means, without any of the claims that Truth and Goodness make on the individual will.

The case has been made (and made well), by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Hans Urs von Balthasar in particular, that by using the Beautiful to alter people’s horizons and soften their hearts, they will then become much more receptive to ideas about morality and truth. This seems to me an eminently sensible approach: the relativism of our age is not just endemic, but is often hostile to any alternative views (a hostility that is almost a necessity in maintaining the relativist position, as to allow the veracity of any other viewpoint would undermine its whole case, veracity being the very thing it denies), and a good deal of the time people just do not want to listen. Beauty however makes no claims and asks no overt questions – it simply presents itself before us; it just is.

More specifically, beauty is thought best to be presented through either the lives of the saints or the many works of art that the Catholic Faith has inspired and patronised over the centuries. However, I think that paradoxically, a case could also be made for the beauty of doctrinal orthodoxy to be used in the same way. This seems at first slightly counterintuitive, as doctrinal orthodoxy is the pre-eminent case of those objective truth-claims that the relativist is so keen to avoid. However, if we direct people to the elegance of the whole doctrinal system – how the ideas fit together, how they balance one another and create a complex but harmonious whole – and ask the relativist to consider that elegance without concern as to whether it is actually true or not, this may have just as much attractive power as the saint, the sculpture, or the motet.

As we are naturally attracted to beautiful things and beautiful lives, we are also inclined to beautiful ideas, and despite the foundational position that the relativist holds – namely that there is no such thing as objective truth – this is not necessarily inconsistent with the natural capacity we all have to admire the way ideas are constructed and how they relate to one another in a system; the relativist may not believe that any of it is true, but he or she can still admire the splendour of the thing, and Christian orthodoxy is indeed a most resplendent thing – romantic, precipitous and painstakingly well-proportioned:

The idea of a birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious…

…A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

This is the romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.

Orthodoxy (1999), pp.145-146, Hodder & Stoughton.

            The need to stipulate precisely what is and what is not the case regarding (e.g.) the two natures of the Person of Christ, the way the sacraments mediate His grace, the way in which our Redemption has been achieved; the meticulous balancing act that has to take place to avoid any one of a number of easy compromises that would lead to a substandard and detrimental vision of God and mankind, has created a staggering achievement of elegance and art, what Chesterton describes as ‘having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic’ (ibid). Orthodoxy is beautiful, and thus has an intrinsic attraction regardless of whether one believes in the truths that it enshrines.

As Chesterton goes on to explain though, recognition of the real depth of romance and beauty that orthodoxy presents can ultimately only arrive via a change of perspective within the subject, and this can itself only come about by the humble recognition that the Church has been endowed with an authority that we must defer to – that it ‘has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing’ (ibid, p.234); that the Church is a trustworthy source that consistently teaches what, even though it sometimes may not be popular, resonates with what we know from honest appraisal of our experience and the deepest intuitions of our inner being, and so warrants our fidelity to it:

I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven…

…With all this human experience, allied with the Christian authority, I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate. But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates, I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach. Celibacy is one flower in my father’s garden, of which I have not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.

ibid, pp.230, 233-234.

            Though someone may, as it were, admire Christian orthodoxy from a distance and find it to be a beautiful thing, inevitably the admirer will have to ask why it is that it could hold such attractive power if truth not be true – that its patterns of interlocking ideas and fine distinctions can have a hold on the imagination will give many (though not all) pause for thought as to why, if there be no such thing as truth, balance and distinction in a system of thought should be of any conceivable interest, let alone be beautiful. Also, as Chesterton makes clear, part of the reason orthodoxy is beautiful is because it is a living system – it does not just have the elegance of a mathematical formula, but also the glow and verve of vitality about it.

Recognition of this will also then lead the relativist to ask (if they have come this far along the road) what the source of this vitality is, and what foundation roots the diversity of life that these doctrines allow to thrive. The answer to this is not just truth of course, but truth that binds, that has an objective authority and makes objective claims on the individual: ‘accept me, or reject me, but do not pretend that I do not exist,’ it says. Just as the lives of the saints lead one to ask what it is that motivates them to live their lives thus, and as sacred art begs the question as to what could have inspired such rapturous visions, the beauty of orthodoxy compels one to engage with what it has to say, and by what authority it says these things.

As Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians, it is good for us to ‘think about these things’ – and if we present orthodoxy as one amongst the many things in life that can be admired purely for its loveliness, it may well make it easier for some to admire it for the truths that it preserves as well, when they would otherwise not be open to them.

Christianity and the State: A Replaying of History

The early Christians found themselves in conflict with the governing Roman state because they would not offer sacrifices to the imperial cult, which was seen as an expression of treason. The reason that the Christians would not offer these sacrifices is because they saw the claims of the imperial cult as arrogating to themselves honour and powers that are due to God alone – i.e.; they believed that regardless of the earthly powers of the state (which, as is evidenced in Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, they accepted as legitimate powers, and government as something instituted by God) that these powers were limited in scope, and that the state must itself be subject to God and His moral law.

The Roman Empire, as all cultures prior to the advent of Christianity had done, united the religious and the political – the state was itself sacral, containing within itself the source of the sacred and acting as its guarantor. Thus the Romans tolerated many different kinds of private religions, but only on the basis that they would recognise the state cult as their basis and as the supreme sacral structure. Christianity, in its central acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord, and its elevation of God’s kingship from the purely national context it had in Judaism to a universalising concept, called this arrangement into question by affirming that the state is not itself sacred but something subject to the sacred, sitting under the judgement of God and depending upon Him for its validity.

Thus, in a way, Christianity created secularism – it identified the secular sphere as something separate from the religious. It did this however in a context of God’s priority over the secular arena – that, unlike the practice of the Romans and others, which identified earthly government as the ultimate source of authority and value, this new separation would come about precisely because this was not the case, but that the state derived its authority from a higher source and all must be judged according to that higher standard, including the state itself. As Christians grew in number and the Faith grew in influence, this idea would also become more prevalent, and become foundational for Western political thought.

It seems now however, that we have returned in many ways to the earlier situation. For one, Christians are again in a minority, but the similarity is also evidenced in the requirement to do things that are contrary to central Christian beliefs. No state cult exists in theory, and no offerings are expected to be made, but it is increasingly the case that a criterion of citizenship in modern Western civilisation is adherence to certain ‘values’ which run directly contrary to the traditional morality understood and believed in by our ancestors (and done so until very recently). The real difference between our relationship with the state and that of the early Christians’ with the Romans though, is that we are asked to subscribe to doctrines that have no objective basis.

The Roman state saw itself as the ultimate authority, but it did also see that authority as somehow validated by its identity with the sacred, and it therefore aligned itself with traditional ideas about morality that had emerged from religious and philosophical reflection over centuries – i.e.; its laws and concept of virtue were far from arbitrary. Rome may have become decadent, but it still recognised the malpractices which existed within its imperial bounds as decadent – it still judged things according to an agreed objective standard, even if it saw its political body as being to some extent identical with that standard. Our age however, in its embrace of relativism, has robbed us of any such standard to appeal to.

Whereas the Romans saw the sacred and the profane as one, we have inherited the Christian idea of separating them, but have also arbitrarily placed the state above God, reducing all religious belief to the level of private hobby but gutting the state of any moral content – the state is no longer itself subject to a higher standard, and is no longer itself guarantor of any standards. Thus modern day Christians are required to ‘sacrifice’ to the altar of laws developed according to the whims of leaders, which themselves emerge from ideologies that have no more foundation than the fact that they happen to be currently in favour. If one does not subscribe to the doctrines of equality and diversity (or ‘homogeneity and license’ as it could more accurately be described) then social exclusion and possible legal consequence will often follow.

Our own experience cannot of course be compared to that of the early Christians in one other important respect, in that we are not liable to be fed to any lions any time soon. However, the fundamental relationship between Christians and the state does seem to have taken a disturbing turn for the worse, in that it places the former in a position wherein deeply held convictions about the nature of reality and of morality must be compromised if one is to be seen as a loyal citizen. Whilst the positive difference is that we do not face death if we refuse to compromise these beliefs, the negative difference is that we are subject to a state which has no objective guarantee or guidance for its position, and is thus itself subject to the changing whims of leaders and of fashionable opinion. If that opinion changes to something yet more disagreeable than exists at present, then there will be no standard, either within the state or above it, to prevent it from dominating public life.

Shades of Grey: The Cardinal Mistake of Relativism

Contemporary discourse in the West, both public and private (though I would wager more so in the former sphere) is incorrigibly relativistic. This is the case particularly with respect to moral discourse, but a spirit of relativism seems to underpin almost all of our debate. Instead of speaking about what is true or right, we increasingly talk of how things seem, how something makes us feel, and (most frustratingly of all), in response to genuine truth-claims made, we hear ‘that’s just your opinion.’ To say this is of course nothing new, and neither is what will follow in this post – however, what I am about to address is something that I think warrants further examination, given that it underlies a great deal of relativistic thinking.

When relativists are taken to task over the inconsistency of their beliefs, a common response is to point out that shades of grey exist in almost all the things we talk about, and that the existence of these ambiguities (whether it be in terms of the language employed or the alteration of meanings in changed contexts) somehow proves the case of relativism. The argument is broadly thus – we all interpret words and concepts differently, and consequently attribute different meanings to them, therefore this wide range of interpretations seen in everyday experience means there is no agreed meaning to be had at all, and everything is relative, a mere matter of taste or opinion. Consider the following, taken from an online commentary thread:

Put it this way – you don’t know what I mean by “love,” do you? Or all this would be easy and pointless. You don’t know what X means by love – you can only know what he tells you, and that won’t do. Words are “fuzzy.” It is clearly impossible to put concepts like “love,” “good,” or “bad,” into adequate words, and even if you try, you can never be sure the other person is grasping what you are trying to get at. I don’t know what you mean by “love,” – can’t, and never will. I’d have thought all this was obvious. Anyway, it is relative, whether you like it or not. It is measured in degrees, not necessarily specified.

The above example may seem rather extreme, but this sort of argument is unfortunately quite common. The existence of differences of opinion is very often treated, amongst relativists, as ‘evidence’ that opinion is all there is, that objective truths do not exist, and words can basically mean anything we like. The problem with this line of reasoning is that its conclusion denies the premise that in fact creates the so-called evidence in the first place – the reason that there are shades of grey in our discourse is because there is such a thing as black and white. If this were not so, there would be no dilemma, nothing to argue about – we presuppose that there is such a thing as the good in order to be able to have any moral discourse at all, and that there is such a thing as meaning, in order to have any discussion whatsoever.

The relativist is thus making the double-error of mistaking particular ethical positions for objective morality in general (or different philosophies of life for objective truth in general), and of mistaking the resulting differences that occur within discourses between people with different moral and philosophical commitments for proof that the differences are all we have. The truth however is that people who argue for the existence of objective truth and morals are not claiming for the absolute veracity of their position (though of course that may well be claimed as well) but that such a thing as Goodness or Truth really exists. The undeniable fact that words are often ‘fuzzy’ and that people sometimes mean different things whilst using the same terminology only testifies to the fact that subjects are subjective.

It tells us very little about what is the case objectively though, and moreover, we unconsciously assume that there are such things as objective values, whether we like to admit it or not. We do not exist in a moral or ideological vacuum, but take certain things as presuppositions for the way we talk about reality. A case in point is the question of what is good, or the right thing to do – we may differ about what particular things are good or not, but if we genuinely did not believe there was such a thing as Good (and by implication Bad) then we could not even begin the discussion. If words like ‘good’, ‘justice’ and ‘love’ really had no meaning at all, we simply could not talk to one another.

It is because we assume a shared platform of meaning that we are able to communicate with one another – to suggest otherwise, and to say that occasional misunderstandings, differences of opinion and the multivalency of words is evidence of a lack of shared meaning and negation of objective values is patently nonsense, and in the most literal sense of that word – there would be no sense to what we do or say if this contention were found to be true. Here also we hit upon another problem with the relativist position of course, for if its claims were found to be true, then relativism wouldn’t be – the relativist has to accept at least one thing as being objectively true, and that is that relativism is a true theory; but this is of course a contradiction.

All I’ve written above can be summarised by the colour analogy already mentioned – we cannot have grey if there is not such a thing as black and white. We presuppose the existence of an objective world of values in order to discourse meaningfully, and outside of this presupposed sphere we can say nothing – any attempt to do so is simply to take one aspect of that world and arbitrarily select it to the neglect of the rest. In his celebrated treatise The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis considers the attempts to do this, and shows clearly the impossibility of such a manoeuvre, which underpins all ethical systems that deny an objective moral realm (which he refers to as ‘the Tao’ for the sake of brevity and convenience):

All the practical principles behind the Innovator’s case for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao. But they are nowhere else. Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premises…

…The Innovator attacks traditional values (the Tao) in defence of what he at first supposes to be (in some special sense) “rational” or “biological” values. But as we have seen, all the values which he uses for attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. If the Tao falls, his own conceptions of value fall with it. Not one of them can claim any authority other than that of the Tao. Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it…

…This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected…

…If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.

The Abolition of Man (1986), pp.27-30, Fount Paperbacks.

            Thus we see that relativism is not only a self-contradictory position, but also, strictly speaking, an impossible one. It must be recognised that the terms of engagement for any sort of discourse, moral or otherwise, presuppose the existence of certain concepts and ideals which are objectively true or false, regardless of our feelings about them. If we decide to select one of these ideals or values and use it to form the basis of an attack on objective values in general (which we cannot but help doing, as we have no other resources for making criticisms of any real force) then we are not being consistent, and in fact are doing violence to reality.

Speaking of doing violence to reality, in his treatise Lewis also goes on to point out another, darker, consequence of the wholesale adoption of relativism by a society or culture. For it is not only the case that this way of thinking is parasitic and incoherent, but if we, as a society, decide that there is no such thing as objective truth, right and wrong, and everything really is opinion, then the only means left for deciding whose opinion is to be listened to is by way of power.

Whoever has the most power or influence will dictate what is in the best interests of the rest of us, and seeing that their position simply is opinion and nothing more, the only way of validating its position as the ‘right’ opinion (given that now, no such thing as right and wrong exists, and no appeal can be made to a transcendent, objective source of value) is to silence all other opinions. This can be done with violence, as was the case in Stalinist Russia or it can be done by a soft despotism, as we are increasingly seeing in the West today – opinions which do not fit the currently accepted view of things are forced out of public life by legislation and cultural stigmatism. The dictatorship of relativism Pope Benedict spoke of is not a far-off prophecy; it is happening already. To remedy this situation (at least in part), we need to remind our relativist friends which two colours are required to make the shades of grey they are so fond of.

Pope Benedict XVI: The Church as Refuge and Cure

In a series of interviews with journalist Peter Seewald*, which was published in book form as The Salt of the Earth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) covered a range of topics – the essence of faith, the nature of the Church, its current troubles and the challenges it faces in the future, and some of his personal history and influences. In the opening section, where he discusses the essence of the Catholic Faith, there are several passages which serve as timely reminders that the Church is not an institution that exists solely to continue its existence for its own sake, but is the true source of abundant life and authentic freedom.

In making these suggestions – not systematically, as these are private interviews, and so the answers are spontaneous, albeit, as always with Pope Benedict, thoughtful and substantive – he proposes that the Church offers something to the modern world that is a real alternative to the thin and increasingly stale vision of modernity. The ‘ship’ of the Church can act as a place of refuge from a world that is becoming progressively soaked in a vision of man and the universe that actually undermines our liberty and diminishes our humanity. Asked by Seewald if it is still worth getting on board this ship, he replies:

Yes, I firmly believe that it is. It is a well-tried, yet youthful ship. The very diagnosis of the present makes it all the more clear that we need it. Just try to imagine for a moment the current parallelogram of forces without this ship; you’ll see what a collapse there would be if it were absent, what a precipitous fall in spiritual energy.

One can also see, in fact, that the decline in the Church and of Christianity that we have lived through in the last thirty or forty years is partially to blame for the spiritual breakdowns, the disorientation, the demoralisation that we are witnessing. In that respect, I would say that if the ship didn’t already exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It corresponds to such deep human needs, it is so deeply anchored in what man is and needs and is meant to be, that there is also a guarantee in man that the ship won’t simply sink, because man will never, as I believe, lose his essential powers.

Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium (1997), pp.16-17, Ignatius Press.

            What are these ‘deep human needs’ that Pope Benedict refers to, and which modernity has gradually wrung out of us? Primarily, I think he is talking about the innate tendency we have to recognise a transcendent horizon to our lives, the intuition we have that there is something more to our existence than the purely mundane satisfactions that we experience. Man’s ‘essential powers’ are, as beings made in the Image of God, to be able to appreciate Beauty, to apprehend the Good, and to use our reason to discern the nature of the Truth; furthermore, we are capable of giving and receiving Love. All these things have been subtly but thoroughly either explained away, marginalised, or diluted in their significance by the secular agenda of modern life.

The Church, contrariwise, affirms the reality of all these things, and the reality of our need for them, and so offers us a place where we can have these basic tendencies and intuitions not only ratified, but brought to their full fruition. The failure of those who have driven a secular vision (which, in its attempt to value man over and against God, actually diminishes man and is ultimately profoundly anti-human) to recognise the failings of their agenda, has led to situation of deep demoralisation and despair, such as Benedict describes. The Church offers a different vision of man and the world – one which celebrates all that is most noble in us, and helps us to strive to even greater heights in its celebration of faith, hope, and love.

Pope Benedict also describes briefly the importance of recognising that being a part of the Church is not just being a member of an institution – which the Church undoubtedly is – but being a member of a communion; being in relationship with all those others who are ‘in’ Christ, and being taken up into a new way of living that can reshape one’s horizons:

The fascinating thing is this great living history into which we enter. Looked at in purely human terms, it is something extraordinary. That an institution with so many weaknesses and failures is nonetheless preserved in its continuity and that I, living within this great communion, can know that I am in communion with all the living and the dead; and that I also find in it a certainty about the essence of my life – namely, God who has turned to me – on which I can found my life, with which I can live and die…

…It affects the whole structure of my life; it affects me in the core of my being. If I do my best to construct my life without or against God, then it’s obviously going to turn out differently than if I direct it toward God. It is a decision that encompasses the whole direction of my own existence as such: how I look at the world, how I myself want to be and will be. It is not one of the many casual decisions in the market of available possibilities. Here, on the contrary, the whole plan of my life is at issue.

ibid, pp.20-21.

            Life lived in the Church, life lived as a Christian in all its fullness, is about a fundamental change of orientation, an altering of one’s perspective and goals in life, which should make a real difference in ‘how I look at the world, how I myself want to be and will be’. Notice also how Pope Benedict responds in terms of directing one’s life either towards or against God. This is not to say that there are not many people of good will out there, who have promptings towards God and/or are more prone to a religious way of thinking about the world than not, but when we speak of Christ, the fullness of God’s being revealed, ultimately we are either for Him or against Him, and if for Him, then we must go all the way with Him – it is only this way our lives will be changed and reinvigorated.

Further on in this section of the interviews, Seewald raises the issue that many see faith as being not only hard work, but something that removes joy from life, something that makes us dull or sad people. In response to this, Pope Benedict answers that:

I would put it the other way around: faith gives joy. When God is not there, the world becomes desolate, and everything becomes boring, and everything is completely unsatisfactory. It’s easy to see today how a world empty of God is also increasingly consuming itself, how it has become a wholly joyless world. The great joy comes from the fact that there is great love, and that is the essential message of faith. You are unswervingly loved…

…The ease of unbelief is nonetheless relative. It exists in the sense that it is easy to throw off the bonds of faith and to say, I am not going to exert myself; this is burdensome; I’m leaving that aside. This first stage is what you might call the easy part of unbelief. But to live with this is not at all so easy. To live without faith means, then, to find oneself first in some sort of nihilistic state and then, nonetheless, to search for reference points. Living a life of unbelief has its complications…

…To believe means that we become like angels, they say. We can fly, because we no longer weigh so heavy in our own estimation. To become a believer means to become light, to escape our own gravity, which drags us down, and thus to enter the weightlessness of faith.

ibid, pp.27-28.

            Explicit mention is also made of Sartre and Camus, as examples of thinkers who had faced up to the emptiness of life lived without God, and the consequences of embracing a vision of radical autonomy. These men were, along with Nietzsche before them, prophets in their own way – they saw that we cannot have our cake and eat it, so to speak, and that when we reject God, we are rejecting the source of all value, all meaning, and ultimately, all hope. As Pope Benedict says, with characteristic understatement, living a life of unbelief ‘has its complications.’ Our problem today is that we have embraced the godless vision of Sartre et al, but rather than face up to its implications, have instead suppressed that knowledge of all we have lost in our rejection of God. It is this suppressed knowledge which is at the root of our anxiety and malaise.

The reduction in vitality that accompanies this malaise has also spread beyond the individual level into the community, where we find a breakdown of fellowship and shared commitments; a lack of energy to cooperate in the subconscious recognition that there is no shared goal, and so no reason to work together on the large scale. The relativism that has been a natural consequence of our corporate godlessness has also left us with no shared consensus on moral and social issues, which also makes it very hard to build genuine community. Pope Benedict touches on this in discussing the reduction of available knowledge to the empirical sciences during his Regensburg Lecture, made not long after he had ascended to the papacy:

…if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and then must be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter…

…Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

from Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 12th September 2006.

            The subtraction of the Faith from public life, and from the roots of our society, has contributed greatly to a decline in the quality and effectiveness of moral dialogue, the truncating of the human person, and our ability to create properly functioning communities (as opposed to collections of individuals who happen to live nearby one another). These things have not disappeared entirely of course, but it seems clear that our loss has been great, and we are feeling the effects of this more strongly every day. Pope Benedict, in his official capacities as Cardinal, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope, and as a theologian of great insight and multifaceted learning, proposes an enriching alternative.

To some, especially as many today are enamoured of the doctrine that what is old is of no use, and what is new is by default always an improvement, the idea that we return to the Catholic Faith is incomprehensible. But, as time goes on, and we realise that what we have lost as a culture is greatly tied to what we have rejected, the alternative of the Church should present itself more and more as an option worth considering. If we want to enrich and energise our culture again, to affirm what is good in it and transfigure what is ordinary; if we want to not only celebrate our capacity for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but allow it to flourish, then there is only one foundation worth building on – Jesus Christ – and only one place to find Him in His fullness – the Church that He founded.


*Seewald conducted two more interviews with Pope Benedict – one in 2002 (God and the World), and another in 2010 (The Light of the World: The Pope, The Church, and the Signs of the Times), the latter of which was conducted as Pope. Peter Seewald, who, after a Catholic upbringing, had drifted into Communism and atheistic leaning Agnosticism, returned to the Faith as a result of the first two of these three interviews.

Secularisation: The Seven Deadly ‘isms’

There have been many threats to the Church over the course of its history, both from within (e.g.; the various heresies that have beset it and also provided an opportunity to refine its doctrinal definitions) and without (e.g.; the rampaging armies of Islam that conquered much of eastern Christendom in successive centuries). However, heresy and military conquest, unwelcome as they are, have the singular benefit of being highly noticeable – it is hard not to recognise when someone is flagrantly misrepresenting an article of the faith, or when a foreign culture is trying to impose its values on your civilisation with the strong arm and the sword.

In our age though, the major threat to the Catholic faith, I would argue, is secularism, or more precisely its spirit, which is that much more dangerous because of its unassuming nature. Its corrosive power acts by way of a gradual seeping of its principles into the cultural consciousness, so that all of us have at least some of its assumptions as part of our intellectual make-up. It is this insidiousness of the secular project that has allowed the Church, to a rather worrying degree in some areas, to uncritically allow in various movements and ways of thinking that question, if not directly undermine many tenets of the Faith. Amongst many elements of secularism, I have isolated seven assumptions that undergird it and act as its basic architectural principles. The first three I believe to be the most fundamental, as they are most evidently seared into the minds of all who live in this age. The first of these I believe to be the most deeply ingrained.

1. Materialism

The fountainhead of secular thinking, materialism, or naturalism, the idea that only the material exists and there can a priori be no such thing as a spiritual realm, is endemic in our modern, Western, post-Enlightenment culture. One meets it in discussions about the existence of God, wherein after long debate it is revealed that your counterpart almost literally cannot imagine God to be something other than one more thing in the material world, or in attitudes expressed regarding whether or not to go ahead with a morally dubious, but enjoyable act (e.g.; ‘You only live once’ or ‘Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we die’). It is an utterly basic assumption experienced to some degree by everyone, even believers, who have to reassure themselves that the spiritual realm, already believed to be real for good reasons, is definitely there, and have to fight against the nagging materialist pressures exerted by the spirit of the age. Materialism is simply part of the air we breathe, and all the other ‘isms’ flow from it in some way.

2. Anti-dolorism

Although this is verging on being a made-up word, I did a bit of research and found it to have some precedent! By anti-dolorism I mean the avoidance of pain or suffering. This, you may well argue, is surely a good and sensible thing to do, and up to a point I would agree with you. However, seen in the light of a materialist worldview, where there is no transcendent horizon, and all that happens in this world is all that matters, prevention of suffering becomes a paramount, and can be used as an emotional leverage to justify unethical actions. Euthanasia is of course the prime example of this, as are embryonic stem-cell research and abortion. Objective (and therefore extra-mundane) moral injunctions are routinely bypassed in our secular culture, and the justification is more often than not that it will in some way end or decrease suffering, so (according to the secularist) that makes it okay. This attitude has much resonance with Utilitarianism, which I shall mention later.

3. Progressivism

This is the idea that it is justifiable to make far-reaching changes to society, sometimes at the deepest level, in the name of ‘progress’ towards some indefinable goal. This goal, though never clearly stated, is unconsciously assumed to be a state where human beings are freed from all pain and suffering, and will exist in some kind of godless paradise where everyone enjoys unlimited personal liberty and happiness. How this is to be achieved, what ‘happiness’ actually means for one and all of humankind, and how various different (sometimes antithetical) progressivisms are to be reconciled, is also never made clear, but this assumption is also fundamental to all modern secular thought, and is used to justify changes that seem to be irreparably changing our culture at all levels. The lack of any real secular teleology is a moot point, as this, like all the seven ‘isms’ outlined here, are unquestioned and unexamined assumptions.

The three doctrines above, I have argued, are most fundamental to the secular project, and indeed to some extent inform one another as well. They are basic in the sense that they form part of the rivets and grooves of our minds, and often form unexamined steps in our thought processes – we have to constantly check ourselves against their effects on our thinking. The following four can be seen to be implicated by the above, and are almost consequences of them, rather than defined doctrines in themselves. The first of them however, Relativism, follows most clearly, and, I would argue, is the ‘form’ of the others.

4. Relativism

This, the idea that there is no objective truth in morals or reason, or anything else for that matter, is so apparent in our age, that you may wonder why it hasn’t been placed with the former three above. It is, I would say, similar to lust in the Seven Deadly Sins, insofar as it is the most easily recognisable of the bunch, but also, in some respects, the most easily exposed and so most easy to address. This is not to say that it is not harmful, on the contrary, I see it in operation every day at every level of society, undermining the attempt to communicate truth to people and acting as implicit justification for all sorts of damaging behaviour. However, it does not, to me, seem to go quite as unquestioned, and is, at least in theory, something people can recognise as self-contradictory, at least in theory (though I have encountered many who claim there is ‘no such thing’ as objective truth one minute, and then go on to shout ‘but that’s just plain wrong’ the next!)

5. Individualism

If it is agreed that what’s true, or right, for me, may not be true or right for you, then it is a short step to the assertion of naked autonomy as a prime human right. Indeed, in secular discussions these days, one is hard pushed to find anything asserted as capital-T true, except the right of the individual to do whatsoever they may please. The (one would think) obvious fact that this is a recipe for chaos does not seem to pose much of a problem for the secular project, for, it seems to me, two reasons – firstly, like all the other ‘isms’ it is mostly unquestioned, and secondly, to admit the existence of something (or Someone) that might limit this individual freedom, would ruin each individual’s party. Everyone has something he or she doesn’t want to give up.

6. Utilitarianism

As mentioned above, this is a consequence of their being no guiding principle for ethics other than the avoidance of pain, and what is considered conducive to ‘progress’. Each moral decision one makes is decided not according to an objective moral reality, but what is for the ‘greater good’ or in other words, what makes most people happy. Of course, what makes the greater number of people in a society may well make a small number miserable (c.f.; slavery, the Final Solution), but without adherence to an objective morality, and riding on the coattails of a dwindling selection of precepts remaining from Christian culture, this is really the best that secularism has to offer. Like the other doctrines considered here, Utilitarianism is not a coherent philosophy, but it forms the warp and woof of most moral decision making in our culture. One could also include Consequentialism and Situation Ethics in this category, in the sense that they are guided by no real objective directive or ultimate goal.

7. Tolerationism

Tolerance – so often invoked as the shining cornerstone of the secular project, it is in reality a by-word for indifference, fed by a relativist, individualist, utilitarian mindset. Secularists pride themselves on the tolerance of secular society, and it is indeed a good sell, as (if one tactfully overlooks the blood soaked horrors of the twentieth century, all conducted as part of enforced secular projects) much ideological evil has been done in the past. However, tolerance implies having an actual point of view, which disagrees with someone else’s point of view, so that one may tolerate that opposing opinion. Secular society though, is as I have mentioned, unconsciously but deeply relativist, and in principle believes in nothing, except itself. So the real up-shot of this is that everything is tolerated (or rather nothing matters, as noone is really right or wrong) except the person who happens to have a real opinion, and who believes in objective truth. This leads then to a kind of soft despotism wherein those who continue to hold to an objective moral code or belief-system are gradually marginalised and their voices quietly removed from public debate. In fact, not very tolerant (given the real meaning of the word) at all, one might say.

I have briefly summarised above what I consider to be the defining and guiding principles of secularism, notable for their insidiousness and their prevalence in the thought-habits of…well, all of us, to some extent. I believe that secularism is a great threat to the Church today, and has already infected it at most of its levels (incidentally if you want to see what a religious society fully corroded by secularism looks like, take a glance at the Church of England, or even worse the Scottish and American Episcopal churches). But, the good news is that there is a truth, whether our culture recognises it or not, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The Catholic Church has received, and preserves, the teaching that man is not just an accidental conglomeration of atoms, but a composite of body and soul made in the image of God, and infinitely valuable in His sight; also that man lives with a transcendent horizon before him, an ultimate goal to judge all things by and work towards, so that he can truly know things to be ‘progressive’ when they are in line with the will of God, and that pain and suffering, whilst hard to bear, are no excuse for breaking the moral law – indeed that ‘this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (2 Corinthians 4:17).

The Church also knows human beings are bound to one another; that no man is an island, and that we all must judge with prudence what is best for all, not just for us – this is supremely the case within the Church itself, where the relation of one baptised person to another, mediated by the Holy Spirit, is closer than to our own blood relatives. Finally, tolerance, and kindness, are indeed good things, but the Church knows that love is greater still, and that if we really love our neighbour, we will want to care for them and love them in the light of Truth, and not act as if we were indifferent to it – we must do all we can to bring them to it, for the one who is the Truth is also the Way, and the Life.