Relativist denies relativism by appealing to relativism

Last week I wrote a lengthy post, “The Emptiness and Deceit of Cave-in ‘Catholicism'”, which took Notre Dame professor of philosophy, Gary Gutting, to task for his New York Times essay, “Birth Control, Bishops and Religious Authority” (Feb. 15, 2012). At the end, I linked to some Ignatius Insight essays, including one, “Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church, by Dr. William E. May.

Now the Cardinal Newman Society (who first brought Gutting’s piece to my attention), reports that Dr. May has responded:

Professor William E. May of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America pointed out recently that the consensus of a majority of Catholics hardly settles the issue, “because our Lord himself has given the authority to speak in his name only to a designated body. This was, and is, Saint Peter the Apostle and their successors – the Pope, and the bishops throughout the world who are in union with the Holy Father.”

May, a moral theologian who has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of essays, explained that Gutting’s skepticism toward the idea of religious authority was incompatible with the Catholic Church.

According to the report, May made it clear that only the Pope and the bishops in union with him “have the authority to speak, in the name of Jesus Christ, the truths that are necessary for our salvation.”

May called attention to the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on both contraception and authority. Its document “Gaudium et Spes” taught that Catholics “may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.”

And in its document on the Church “Lumen Gentium,” Vatican II taught that Catholics owe “religious submission of mind and will … to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff,” even when these teachings fall outside the specific bounds of papal infallibility.

“Unfortunately,” May remarked, “Gutting doesn’t know the history of the Church or the nature of its ecclesiology – as taught by the Second Vatican Council.”

The Society also reports that Gutting insists his position is not relativistic in nature and that he rejects a relativistic approach, believing as he does (he claims) in objective truth (“…I do reject the relativist view that there is no objectively correct view”). He says, 

“As to birth control,” the Notre Dame professor wrote, “Catholics who understand the bishops’ authority along the lines of the passage from ‘Lumen Gentium‘ should reject the practice of birth control; those who don’t understand it that way need not.”

Which just happens to be a perfect expression of relativism, which is not the belief that no small “t” truth exists, but the belief there is no capital “T” Truth, final and objective and complete in itself. William D. Gairdner (who is not, I’m fairly certain, a Catholic) writes in The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008) that relativism “argues that there is no God’s-eye view, or truth, or foundation for anything, that no claim, or truth statement, or belief, as the jargon goes, is ‘privileged.” That is, ultimately privileged, because the Catholic who rejects the authority of the bishop does so based on his understanding of truth. But the bishop and the dissenting Catholic cannot both be right; yet Gutting wants it to be so, regardless of the obvious contradiction at hand. But, as Gairdner demonstrates, trying to have it both ways and seeking to ignore things such as the law of non-contradiction are par for the relativistic course: “But under the sway of relativism, there is no longer any expectation that an individual ought to hold consistent, connected beliefs, and this suggests that the core philosophy of modernity rests on a moral and intellectual laxity.” 

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.