How the President (and the press) misinterpreted the Pope

By W. Nicholas Knisely

Pope Benedict has just finished his first visit (as Pope) to the United States. It’s not surprising that many of his statements tended to confuse the people covering the event. The Pope, a former theology professor, shares a trait with the present Archbishop of Canterbury; he speaks in paragraphs, not in sound bites. (And he won’t simplify concepts so that they are easily digestible by the evening newsreaders.) But it wasn’t something that the Pope said, it was something that our President claimed the Pope had said that sent me off on a week’s worth of research and thinking. During a television interview on the eve of the visit, the President expressed his gratitude for the Pope’s teaching that “there’s right and wrong in life, that moral relativism has a danger of un-dermining the capacity to have more hopeful and free societies.” The President’s statement elicited a flurry of articles and online conversations about how relativism might actually achieve the destruction of society. But the problem is, near as I can tell, the President got the Pope’s thinking just about dead wrong.

I was particularly interested in the question of the proper role of relativism because of my training prior to studying for the priesthood. Part of my studies were spent in theoretical physics (in a small branch of general relativity theory actually) and I’ve been teaching a course on the philosophy of physics for the past six years or so. As part of all that I’ve been digging into the philosophical underpinnings of both classical and quantum physics and trying to see how we might connect the work being done there with the way we as a Church talk about God (literally: Theology).

One of the most important breakthroughs in classical physics in the past century came about as a result of Albert Einstein’s willingness to take the philosophical ideas of Ernst Mach seriously. Mach argued, in effect, that “reality” was ultimately determined by a person’s own observations. Einstein used the idea to construct his postulate of relativity which states that one reference frame’s observation is equally true as another’s even if they contradict, because the laws of physics must be the same for all. There are a couple of shelves worth of books involved in unpacking the statement, but the upshot is that no one observer can really claim priority over another one, even if they contradict each other. In effect, each person’s experience of the world around them is equally valid to another’s. While this was not a universally accepted idea in physics until the second half of the twentieth century (Hitler and Stalin claimed the idea that there was no absolute truth in Science to be preposterous and a result of deviant and Jewish thinking) the concept was repeatedly confirmed in experiment after experiment and is now broadly accepted in the physical sciences.

But a deeper question remains. Given that relativity is experimentally verified in the physical world, how should it be used in the realm of ideas? Do we want to argue that because relativity is a characteristic of physical reality, that it must also be a characteristic of morality? Should it be a fundamental characteristic of theology as well? (If that’s true, then much of the scholasticism of Reformation and Counterreformation theology is automatically overturned.) Benedict, back when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, tried to answer these questions. There’s a lovely summary of his thinking available online titled “Relativism, The Central Problem for Faith Today” that walks us through his objections. Apparently the President’s people based the President’s remarks on the title of the essay and not the actual text.

Pope Benedict’s critique of relativism shows that he’s not simply rejecting relativity in a sort of modern versus post-modern reactionary way as the President’s words seem to imply. What the Pope does instead is to look carefully at how various theologians have used relativistic and subjectivist philosophical systems. His critique centers on the observation that the move to reject the very existence of absolutes takes us to a place we don’t want to go. (It essentially forces us to reject any special quality to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.) But Benedict recognizes the possibility that while ultimate truth exists, it is unknowable by human beings except in approximation.

Painting with a very broad brush, in technical terms the Pope is arguing that Positivism cannot be proven and is even poisonous to theology, and he’s willing at least to enter-tain the principles of PostPositivism (and some of its specific children) as a way of continuing a conversation between science, theology and philosophy. I don’t have space in this essay to unpack fully the meaning of each of the terms above, but a little googling and an afternoon’s worth of reading and all will become moderately clear.

The Pope thus is landing in the same place where most scientists are these days, in post-positivism. Post-positivists admit the impossibility of being able to make statements of fact in an absolutely true way, but still attempt to express truth in a way that is “good enough” for a given purpose. These good-enough expressions come with the caveat that they might be different (pluriform) in different contexts. Post-positivism instead cautions that all attempts to describe truth are ultimately limited and incomplete, but that the attempt should be made. It is not the same as the idea of philosophical relativity which says that there is no unique truth at all, and all claims to truth are equally valid. It’s an important distinction because the implications of a fully relativistic world view take us down roads we know from experience we should not travel.

But keep in mind that while Benedict cautions against the implications of relativism, he doesn’t attempt to solve the problem the way the President’s quote would implies. He does not embrace absolutism as a corrective to the dangers of relativism. Here is Benedict’s key point on the subject in the essay I reference above: “I am of the opinion that neo-Scholastic rationalism failed which, with reason totally in-dependent from the faith, tried to reconstruct the pre-ambula fidei with pure rational cer-tainty.” Benedict goes on to argue that truth can only be approached by means of a path that uses faith and philosophy in a respectful dialogue and that attempting to rely on one or the other is to make a fundamental mistake.

Why does this matter? Look how badly the majority of people have understood the point that the Pope was making. In effect they are force-fitting what he did say into a structure of modernity that they want him to support even while he is explicitly rejecting it. Why do they do this? The idea that there are no fully knowable moral absolutes is not easily accepted by most people. If science and philosophy won’t give us the absolutes we desire then we turn to religion for them, as is what seems to have happened here. The problem is that the absolutes are not readily available in religion either, at least according to Benedict.

This missing of the point is just another example of how desperately people want neat and easy answers to complex and difficult questions. The President’s people got the Pope wrong. They did so because they wanted to be able to say that we are right and others are wrong. (The press got the Pope wrong because they apparently relied on the President’s writers to do their work for them.) But it’s not just the President’s speech writers who chase after the mirage of absolutes. We all want to know for certain what God wants us to do. The problem is that what we want and what the universe gives us are often different. To quote Westley in “The Princess Bride”, we must all “get used to disappointment.” Instead we need to recognize that the best we do is to muddle through, trying to do the best we can and trusting desperately in God’s mercy revealed to us in Jesus. Somehow I think free societies will manage to survive as well.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.

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  1. Derek Olsen

    Good stuff, Dean Knisely. I think you’ve done a great job of sketching out where the pope’s thinking fits in terms of modern philosophy. I still unclear on how how this plays out where the rubber hits the road. That is, while B16 will grant that there are no fully knowable moral absolutes, as Supreme Pontiff it is his job to give moral and theological direction to his people…and he does so often in terms more stark and certain than I’d agree with.

    What’s the intermediary step or set of steps where he and we tend to part ways? To say it another way, If there are no *fully knowable* moral absolutes, how does he—and how do we—select the ones that will inform our personal and common life together?

  2. Nicholas Knisely

    That’s of course the fundamental question Derek. And I think answering it is the task of the Church in our generation.

    I left a great deal out of the paper… but one of the points that I would have made if I was writing for a different sort of audience is that post-positivists are different than relativists (or subjectivists) in that while they agree you can never no the absolute truth, a post-positivist (of whom there are multiple varieties) do believe that it is possible to say that one thing is “more true” than another thing. In other words whilst one can not absolutely describe God, it is possible to say that God is “not this”.

    Which sounds an awful lot to me like St. Augustine’s description of the Creed. Inside the fence is truth. Outside is not. But the fence describes a region of truth not a single point.

    I think the upshot of reasoning as a post-positivist is that it forces us to do our theology with a great deal more humility. We try as faithfully as we can to avoid error, but we must recognize that we could, in spite of our best efforts, still be wrong.

    I’m particularly reminded of Martin Luther’s famous (full) quote, which paraphrased says something to the order of try your best to do the right. But if you can not determine the right, and can only see sinful alternatives, then “sin boldly”, while trusting even more boldly in the grace of God.

  3. Derek Olsen

    There we go—that’s the key piece. So post-positivists will differ from relativists in that the latter will say that since we cannot know moral absolutes we can do as we please whereas a post-postivist would say that we cannot access moral absolutes but can have a sense of where they are and what they are not.

  4. Somewhere, this past week, I heard or read the claim that religion figures in public discourse in America only as it is useful in the continuing culture wars. If that’s true, and I think it is, it was inevitable that the pres and the press would get Benedict wrong.

    About relativism, Stanley Fish has a couple of recent and good blogs making the point that truth claims are not epistemological arguments, nor do they necessarily relate to epistemological arguments. Particular truth claims relate to the specific bodies of evidence that support them, according to Dr. Fish. I think he is right. See


    I think Benedict’s visit was an interesting part of his apparent effort to reinvent himself as Pope. But I think Americans would do well to pay attention to his affirmation of the authority of the church, and by extension of course, the priesthood.

  5. Nicholas Knisely

    Derek: “Yes!” That’s it exactly. But I’m also for stressing the “tentativeness” of pointing toward the realm of where the absolutes probably exist, especially when one is standing near the boundary between certainty and uncertainty.

    All of which seems very Anglican to me; and is the reason I love this church of ours.

  6. Derek Olsen

    In light of this train of thought I was struck by a line from the Morning Office: “Prove [i.e., test] all things; hold fast that which is good.” Even though this appears within a string of imperatives, St Paul reminds us that we must weigh *all things* against the Gospel and hold what seems to cleave most closely to to what God has done for us in Christ. Imperatives alone can’t cut it…

  7. A wonderful and illuminating piece!

    Perhaps the way the press and the president missed the point is more indicative of our tendency in this culture to polemicize viewpoints. Wasn’t it the President himself who said a few years back, “I don’t do nuance. . .” ?

    At any rate, I’m grateful for these insights deeper into Benedict’s thinking and approach.

    I am very much an advocate of Derek’s outline of testing truth. In other writings of Paul and in the language of the gospels, we are called to discern the merit of moral actions by their fruits, less than through legalistic formularies.

  8. Derek Olsen

    Although–to play devil’s advocate–this morning we also had Lev 19 which delivers another string of moral imperatives. Each is punctuated by “I am the Lord.” Just the assertion–nothing more. Th implication as I read it is that these are ways of conduct that flow from the character of God rather than because they’re good ideas (though they are…) To exercise moral discernment is to do so in light of who we know God to be or, in the language of the dean’s fine article, muddling in the direction of what appears to be an absolute even though we lack the certainty we might prefer.

  9. Coincidentally, I was just this second reading Leviticus 19 as I made a Bible Browser link for an article that will be running tomorrow on Daily Episcopalian. I can’t say that I think all of the ideas contained therein are good ones, as it does seem to justify slavery.

  10. Derek Olsen

    True enough, Jim; I just had the portion for this morning which did not mention slavery…

  11. Derek Olsen

    …But to address what’s implicit in your comment, Jim, that’s wehre the “proving” comes in. When we read something in Scripture that rubs us the wrong way or offends modern sensibilities we need to sit with it for a while, and compare it to the preeminent revelation of God, the Word made flesh.

  12. Rev. Jarrett

    Dean Knisely, I found your article to be very insightful, and enlightening; giving me more to think aobut in understanding the ‘truths’ of our day. Plus, reading it alongside Jesus’ words of “I am the way the truth and the life”, made me ponder Jesus’ statement even deeper and finding freedom to incorporate other meanings to His words.

    Thank you,

    Rondesia Jarrett

  13. Nicholas Knisely

    Re: Testing the Truth… I think that’s big bonus that comes from what Benedict is talking about.

    The essay by Benedict linked in my article goes on to say that contra Barth, Faith in of itself is not enough, and reason in of itself is not enough. The best answer we can ever give is to use our faith to help us judge our reason, and our reason to guide our faith.

    But that all presupposes that there exists a Truth that can be at least asymptotically approached. A relativist or a subjectivist can’t make that claim.

  14. garydasein

    Bracketing out truth claims, I see a religious leader who teaches that Christianity is the only true religion and that his brand is the only true church. All others are defective. Others who use the word “church” are not even churches, according to his definition, which says only Rome is a church. I also see a leader who opposes due process and equal protection before the law for same-sex couples, LGBTs, and women–both within his religion game and in civil society.

    Ultimately, he seems to claim that one must speak a rhetoric of authoritarianism in order to oppose authoritarianism. I won’t mention the pathetic way he claims his family was forced to collaborate with the Nazis and that everybody, just everybody, had to go along with the Nazis. What moral leadership!

    A little bit of faith and a little bit of reason does not save him from an outdated and ethically dangerous realist view of religion which says religion must somehow mirror reality.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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