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Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Wanted: a backbone

Here's a tricky challenge. You are leader of a liberal political party. An important part of your job is to champion liberal and pluralist values, advance them politically and defend them against enemies.

Elsewhere in the world, a new head of state is elected, who is diametrically opposed to your views. His previous job, which he did for 24 years, was chief 'enforcer' in the organisation formerly known as the Inquisition. He is described in the
Guardian as an "iron-willed enemy of liberalism", while the editor of the Catholic weekly Tablet, writing in the Independent, confesses that this new leader has

... cracked down on liberation theology in Latin America; rejected any idea of gay marriage; countered feminists in the Church, put limits on dissent, and of course, in tandem with his rejection of secularisation, been hostile to pluralism.
In case you were still in any doubt, shortly before his election, this new head of state delivers a keynote speech in which he goes out of his way to declare that liberalism is both a great danger and a passing fancy.

What is the most appropriate response?

If you are Charles Kennedy, you produce this
masterpiece of evasion:

"His appointment comes at a defining moment for Catholicism and in maintaining the momentum of the Catholic church he will face the awesome task of reconciling its internal spectrum of opinion and fostering its external relations with the other great faiths of the world."
Meanwhile, in a press statement issued yesterday, Jim Wallace (Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats) offers this incisive criticism:

"On behalf of all Scottish Liberal Democrats, I congratulate Benedict XVI on his election as Pontiff.

"The prayers of Scots of all faiths will be with Pope Benedict as he embarks on his new mission."
Both these statements leave one wondering why they even bothered.

One doesn't need to resort to the Sun to find any criticism (today's front page
headline: "From Hitler Youth to ... Papa Ratzi"; although on page three, a topless Louise, 19, from Manchester, "warmly welcomes" the new pontiff).

For a more intelligent and liberal response, one must look elsewhere. Philosopher
Julian Baggini, writing in today's Guardian, dealt with the new pope's intolerance in no uncertain terms.

During his last few hours as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI delivered what was, in effect, his election pitch, speaking out against the "anything goes" mentality that marked modern times. Absolute moral values had to be defended, he argued, against the "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires".

We have known for a long time that orthodox religion has a preference for black-and-white certainties, but this crude dichotomy between the absolute moral truths of the church and the so-called laissez-faire relativism of the modern secular world is crassly simplistic.
Baggini reminds us that Plato saw through such arguments some time ago.

The idea that moral laws derive their authority from God's authorship of them was dismissed convincingly by Plato more than two millennia ago. His question, updated for our monotheistic times, is: does God command what is good because it is good; or is what God commands good because he commands it? If he commands what is good because it is good, then things are already good or bad irrespective of what he desires and we don't need God to establish morality after all. But if what God commands is good only because God commands it, that would mean that anything could be good or bad, and we're just lucky that God doesn't command us to kill and torture. Ironically, start with the idea that you need God for ethics and you end up either proving you don't, or with the ultimate form of relativism: the idea that God could make it so that "anything goes".

The black-and-white choice Ratzinger offers us is, therefore, a bogus one. The absolute moral certainty he claims the church offers is hollow, and the valueless relativism he claims is the only alternative a caricature of non-absolutist ethics.
Liberalism is a principled, not a relativist, alternative to moral absolutism. It recognises that we must take responsibility for ethics instead of accepting commands from on high. The source of our morality is essentially an ability to empathise with others, not a set of abstract rules.

Liberals need to argue this case vigorously, otherwise the doctrinal enemies of liberalism will assume a monopoly of virtue. The Enlightenment supposedly took place more than 200 years ago but we're not out of the woods yet.

The European Young Liberals have taken a stance on the new pope which appears to be arousing some interest:


For me, politicians should stay out of religions are much as the opposite is true - but in this case, Ratzinger is seems to spend much of his time trying to influence the political debate and hence I think these interventions are valid.

Le doctor Rieux
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