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Deacon-structing Relativism

Deacon Pedro

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Almost three months ago I ended this column by mentioning that someone had sent me a comment about another post. I had said something about the permanency of doctrine and that person was challenging (I think) my use of the word doctrine. Perhaps (I surmise) I should have used the word “dogma.” At any rate, since then, I have had several conversations with many people who know more about this sort of thing than I do and it’s made me want to deacon-struct doctrine. What does it mean? What do Church people mean when they use the word doctrine? But, before I do, I need your help. What do you mean when you say “doctrine”? What do you think that word refers to? Does doctrine refer merely to Catholic “teaching” or is it specific teaching? What’s the difference between doctrine and dogma? Help me out. What do you think? I want to hear from all of you – whether you are an expert or not, but, especially I want to hear from some of you who know more about this than I do. I’ll write the column once I’ve heard from enough of you. Write to me at [email protected].
Not entirely unrelated is the topic for today. Recently I posted an article on assisted suicide on my Facebook page. Now, I am not ignorant about the issues related to euthanasia and assisted suicide – my first major documentary, Turning the Tide is about those two topics.  I also just finished working on a 5-part series with the Archbishop of Edmonton, Richard Smith called Every Life Matters and have just finished a series of five Catholic Focus programs on these topics (first one airs next Wednesday. See below for other air dates). But I also have many personal friends who do not share my worldview on these and other issues. Needless to say, there were many comments on my wall.
And this is what always happens when I post anything about abortion, euthanasia or sex education. These seem to be the polarizing issues. But they are not polarizing because (as someone posted on my wall) the “f@#$% Catholic Church keeps trying to impose its views on everyone,” but because they are emotionally charged. Everyone who is passionate about these issues is probably so because they are emotionally connected to the issue: they know someone who’s suffered greatly at the end of life; they themselves had an abortion or paid for one; they or someone they know was molested by a priest. Not usually do they disagree with the logic of the arguments; they just don’t see any logic because they are so emotionally involved.
This makes it very hard for those of us who feel we must explain what the Church teaches on these topics. We have to share the Truth and at the same time we have to do so gently and with compassion. I’ve said many times before that I think that every Christian has to be able to have these conversations – we have to be able to explain our beliefs – and when having these conversations we have to stay logical and sometimes it’s best to stick to ideas. Personal stories are good, but ideas are always clear.
Which leads me to this determination: There is one fundamental reason why the Church and the secular world disagree on most of these issues: It’s called relativism.
Relativism is very easy. It refers to the idea that Truth is not absolute. The Church and those who follow Church teaching (and we could say who have a biblical or Christian world-view, although I am sure there are many Christians who sadly, have a relativistic view of the world) would say that Truth is absolute. That means that if something is Truth, it is Truth for everyone. It is universal. It is not subjective.
On the other hand, those who subscribe to a relativistic point of view believe that truth is relative; it is not absolute. In other words, what’s true for me is true for me and what’s true for you is true for you.
What’s interesting is that many of these “relativists” would agree that some truth is absolute; mathematical truth, for example. Two plus two is always four. That’s absolute. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with it or whether I've subjectively experienced it or not, two plus two is always four. We generally accept many scientific truths as absolute, but when it comes to moral law, that’s where people fall into relativism. (These relativists are also pretty “absolute” about the fact that their “truth” is absolute and that their relativistic view of the world is absolute; which is a contradiction.)
But relativism doesn’t make any sense. If something is Truth, then it has to be Truth for everyone. I don’t need to subjectively experience that Truth in order to know that it is Truth. Truth is always objective. (That’s why the question that people have been asking for centuries, whether a tree makes a noise if it falls in the forest and no one hears it, makes no sense; of course it makes a noise!)
And so, when we look at issues like euthanasia, abortion or human sexuality for example, the Church accepts a certain absolute Truth: That all human beings are sacred, valuable persons with inherent dignity and that this sacredness, value and dignity begin at conception. A human being is not a person only if the law says it has the rights of a person or can be called a person. A human person has value and dignity that is inherent; its value is not utilitarian; it's not based on what you can or cannot do. It doesn’t matter whether you are short, fat, under-developed, male, female, same-gender-attracted, aboriginal, Asian, young or old, African American, unemployed, disabled, homeless, distracted, confused, alone, ignorant or uneducated, psychotic, angry, or even criminally deranged; it doesn’t matter if you have committed horrible, horrible crimes or if you are lying in a coma; you have value and dignity because you are a human being. Because you are a human being, you  and your life are sacred.
This dignity and value is not determined arbitrarily or subjectively by someone or some authority; it is not relative to how you feel about it or to what someone may or may not think is what makes a human person valuable or not; it is absolute. You don’t have to agree with it or understand it; it is Truth.
How do we know that this notion (that every life is sacred and has inherent value and dignity) is Truth and therefore absolute (ie. a Truth that applies to every human person)? We know because if it wasn’t, who determines what’s Truth and what isn’t? Are certain behaviours accepted as morally good according to the culture or social norms of a particular time? Is that how 50 years ago same-sex marriage would have been considered wrong, but today it is considered to be good in some places? Is that how 23 years ago the Supreme Court could determine that Medically Assisted Dying is not good, but today they can determine that it is? Is that why some people keep saying, “keep up with the times”? Does that mean that helping a little old lady crossing the street one day may not be considered a good thing? The danger, of course, is that it's always the powerful and the strong who will decide for the weak and vulnerable.
Absolute Truth says that if something is morally good, it is always morally good, no matter the times or the culture. If something is morally bad, it is always bad, no matter where or when.
Even though relativism is not part of our Christian world-view and definitely not part of our Catholic Teaching, relativistic ideas creep into our thinking all the time. It’s important, as Christians, for us to have a clear sense of what is absolute and what isn’t. Moral Truth is absolute.
No wonder we have basic problems communicating what we believe when it comes to emotionally charged topics such as euthanasia, assisted suicide, abortion, Marriage and gender issues.
I hope you can watch our series, Every Life Matters on euthanasia and assisted suicide (you can now watch them all online), and also that you tune in for the next five Wednesdays for a series of Catholic Focus episodes that I did on end of life issues. The first one is on all the legal aspects with lawyer Kate Faught and it airs on Wednesday, May 11 at 7:05pm ET.
The rest are:
Catholic Focus: End of Life Issues - Human Life Matters with disability-rights-advocate Mark Pickup.
May 18, 2016 | 7:05PM / 8:05PM PT
Catholic Focus: End of Life Issues - What Does the Church Say? with Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton.
May 25, 2016 | 7:05PM / 8:05PM PT
Catholic Focus: End of Life Issues - Ending the Pain with Lisa Daniels who suffers from debilitating, chronic pain and her doctor Robert Hauptman.
June 1, 2016 | 7:05PM / 8:05PM PT
Catholic Focus: End of Life Issues - Quality of Life with Chuck and Jeri Marple who have a daughter with cerebral palsy.
June 8, 2016 | 7:05PM / 8:05PM PT
I also hope that, whether you can attend the National March for Life on May 12, or not, you celebrate life, all human life, this week. (And why stop there? We should be celebrating, defending and protecting life all the time!)
Write to me and tell me what you think. And remember to tell me what your thoughts are on those two words, “doctrine” and “dogma”. I would say that “doctrine” cannot change because it is absolute; it deals with faith or morals. Perhaps I should be using the word “dogma” to mean that. Not sure. What do you think?

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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