Benedict's warnings show there is no smoke without fire
The general reaction of young people to the news that Pope Benedict XVI was retiring reminded me of something that happened when I was a young teacher. At that time the school and convent were two wings of one building, so occasionally some of the more elderly nuns would wander into the staff room for a chat.
One was in the early stages of dementia, and I often had friendly exchanges with her that sadly showed how her memory and intellect were failing. I met her as I left the school one day, and she said in the kind of conversational tone normally reserved for comments about the weather: “The convent is on fire, you know.”
“That’s nice, Sister,” I replied, and went on my way.
Something prompted me to look back, only to witness a large plume of smoke clearly visible above the convent kitchen. I dashed back in, the fire alarm was sounded and soon the fire brigade had the situation under control.
The next day I met her again. In the same tone she announced: “I told you so.” The analogy is admittedly imperfect but the same kind of “That’s nice, dear” response was apparent in many young people’s responses to Benedict’s historic resignation.
But in this instance it is not the convent that is in danger but the culture young people are inheriting. The actions and thoughts of this elderly gentleman seem irrelevant to the younger generation, aside from a deeply committed minority. It is hard to blame them: the picture painted of Benedict is painfully narrow.
Very few, for example, would be aware of his insistence on far-reaching reform of economic structures, so that they serve and respect people rather than just markets.
In his first address of this year he argued that to emerge from the present economic crisis we need people, groups and institutions that “will promote life by fostering human creativity”, thereby creating the opportunity for a new economic model.
“The predominant model of recent decades called for seeking maximum profit and consumption, on the basis of an individualistic and selfish mindset, aimed at considering individuals solely in terms of their ability to meet the demands of competitiveness,” he added.
Young people are also largely unaware of his concern for the environment. Benedict was the pope who put solar panels on the Vatican, and tried to make the city state carbon neutral. He spoke about the looming crisis of food security, and the deep impact environmental destruction has on the poor, especially in the developing world.
Neither the message of environmental sustainability nor a deep-rooted critique of market capitalism is particularly popular. In Ireland, return to the markets is feverishly pursued as a goal in itself, with no regard to the damage being done to social solidarity, much less sustainability.
Perhaps least popular of all is his insistence that moral relativism, the idea that there is no objective truth, is a dead end that destroys community. He said about relativism that it “leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires”. While promising freedom, it instead becomes a prison in which everyone is isolated and cut off.
Moral relativism reduces morality to a matter of opinion. And opinions are often impervious to reason, or even to communication with others.
Yet as the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger perceptively remarked: “In recent years I find myself noting how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance.”
In other words, everyone’s opinion is valid – until it comes into conflict with any new orthodoxy. Being judgmental is the new thought crime, and tolerance is no longer enough – a person must show active approval. But because relativism is a lazy option, there is no attempt to justify the new dogmatism – it is self-evident that certain opinions are outside the Pale.
I think many people believed dismantling the influence of religion, and in particular Christianity, would usher in a new era of progress. Instead what we get is apathy occasionally shaken into savage disapproval when someone demonstrates views out of step with the elite consensus.
Young people have been conditioned to see the freedom to pursue the satisfaction of their immediate desires as the best route to happiness, and are left puzzled and literally clueless when instead it just leads to heartbreak.
Partly due to the church’s failures, and to a withdrawal from reason in favour of emotivism, young people will not even know that thoughtful people such as Benedict have not only accurately analysed the modern condition but also offered a challenging and sustainable alternative.
Just like the sister, the warnings that he has given are absolutely accurate, and to be ignored at our peril.