NatReview: Rich Lowry – editor on “Dictatorship of Relativism”

Here is a piece by Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review.  My emphaes and comments.

Dictatorship of Relativism
The pope bears important truths about the roots of our experiment in liberty.

By Rich Lowry

When President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI stood together on the White House lawn in a majestic welcoming ceremony, it symbolized the growing rapprochement of American evangelical Protestantism and the Catholic Church.

It was West Texas meets Rome; plain-spoken man of faith meets intellectual of great depth; representative of America’s awesome secular power meets representative of the spiritual power of Christianity. Even so, more united them than separated them, with President Bush approvingly quoting Benedict and the pope delivering — for such a reserved man — a notably warm blessing of America.

The Catholic Church long was suspicious of America as a freewheeling Protestant nation that rejected the state support for religion seen in Europe. Not anymore. The separation of church and state as practiced in America has given religion the space to flourish and the respect necessary for it to inform public discourse. Thus, faith — and the Catholic Church — retains its vitality.

In the wake of the French Revolution, in contrast, many European nations developed what Benedict calls a “conflictual” separation of church and state. A godless state sees its role as chasing the vestiges of Christianity from the public square.  [As WDTPRS has said a zillion times, Benedict is striving to reinvigorate Catholic identity (the ad intra dimension) so that Catholics have something to contribute in the public square.  It is one thing to have a voice.  It is another thing to have a voice and something to say.] As it has succeeded, Europe has been robbed of its civilizational vigor. “Europe seems hollow,” Benedict has said, “as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system.”

If Benedict reflects the Catholic Church’s new attitude toward America, evangelicals in turn have warmed to the church. It’s not the “Whore of Babylon” of yore, but an ally in a deep-seated cultural struggle. As Benedict himself has said of evangelicals, “They have come to see Catholicism as a defender against the pressures of secularization and an upholder of the same ethical values that they themselves profess.”

He might as well have been speaking of President Bush, a man famous for his impatience for pomp and circumstance who went all out — from a 21-gun salute to a four-tiered, lemon-flavored birthday cake — for the pontiff. Bush told Benedict, “In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this ‘dictatorship of relativism.’ ”  [From an American President.  I was pretty proud of him in that moment.]

The phrase is one of Benedict’s signature lines. It was featured in his homily at the 2005 Mass for the papal conclave that so impressed his fellow cardinals before they selected him as pope. [Someone did homework.] Benedict’s point was that if relativists consider any claims of moral truth as inherently oppressive, they feel justified in attempting to muzzle those who make them. In Benedict’s words, they “seek to subordinate all religions to the super-dogma of relativism.”

This tendency is particularly well-advanced in Europe, where the European Union is a relativist superstate hostile to traditional Christian morality. One of Benedict’s missions in his trip here is to provide Americans a common vocabulary for resisting an aggressive secularism. [well said] This accounted for the extraordinary spectacle of a pope on the White House lawn — itself unimaginable a century ago — explaining the fundamentals of American civil religion.

The foundation of our freedoms isn’t a thoroughgoing skepticism, but a profound, “self-evident” moral truth: that we have inalienable rights. “America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator,” Benedict said. The Holy Father quoted the Father of Our Country for the proposition that morality and religion are the “indispensable supports” of our political order.

Of course, Benedict wasn’t at the White House to bless any political agenda. If he appreciates Bush’s pro-life commitment and his fight against AIDS in Africa, he opposes the Iraq War and “cowboy” diplomacy. [But he supports military intervention when require to help people free them from opporession and regain the most fundamental groundwork for true peace.] Nor is all well with the American Catholic Church. Benedict has been insistent in his condemnation of the child-abuse scandal and its handling.

But the pope came bearing important truths about the roots of our experiment in liberty, from which all Americans can benefit.

Well done!   This was very good commentary!

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48 Responses to NatReview: Rich Lowry – editor on “Dictatorship of Relativism”

  1. Brian Day says:

    I find it an interesting contrast between the tone of Mr. Lowry’s piece and that of Mr. Dionne’s piece listed below.

    Mr. Lowry focused on theology/values while Mr. Dionne focused more on political terms/issues.

  2. dad29 says:

    GWB looked as though he were 4 years old and seeing Santa Claus–and I do not mean that as a derogatory remark.

    CLEARLY, he thinks very highly of B-16.

  3. Janice says:

    Yeah, I get it. But where is the “growing rapprochement” between evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism? I know all about the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” group, et al., but one of the things Pope Benedict cautioned against in his description of the effects of American religious tolerance (in responding to a question from a bishop in his meeting with American bishops): “Perhaps America’s brand of secularism poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the Churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator.” And this is a perfect description of evangelical Protestantism.

    Furthermore, when the Pope met with representatives of the various Christian groups, he said: “My dear friends, the power of the kerygma has lost none of its internal dynamism. Yet we must ask ourselves whether its full force has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is “objective”, relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. Scientific discoveries, and their application through human ingenuity, undoubtedly offer new possibilities for the betterment of humankind. This does not mean, however, that the “knowable” is limited to the empirically verifiable, nor religion restricted to the shifting realm of “personal experience. For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes. The result is seen in the continual proliferation of communities which often eschew institutional structures and minimize the importance of doctrinal content for Christian living.” This statement is also descriptive of evangelical Protestantism.

    I agree that Pope Benedict and President Bush showed mutual respect for each other. But it’s a stretch to say that this shows respect coming from evangelical Protestantism. Read any evangelical blogs lately?

  4. Tom says:

    Wow!

    Has the National Review finally renounced its (William F. Buckely’s) infamous article that rejected Catholic Social Teaching?

    The National Review rebuked the Catholic Church in the magazine’s article entitled: Mater, Si, Magistra, No.

  5. Tom says:

    I can’t get over the fact that the article was published in Nationa Review. Wow! How far they’ve come at National Review.

    I am reminded of the following from an address by Archbishop Chaput.

    Mater et Magistra: Who the Church is, and why she teaches with authority

    Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.
    February 23, 2002

    “Very often we treat the Church the same way we treat our flesh and blood mothers. We want the mommy part, but we don’t want the teacher part.

    “When Pope John XXIII’s encyclical first came out, the conservative author William Buckley, who didn’t like the Pope’s economics, wrote a famous column called, “Mater si, Magistra no!” – mother yes, teacher no.

    “That led Louise and Mark Zwick to characterize him in the Houston Catholic Worker as “the inventor of cafeteria Catholicism and the pro-choice stance (at least in economics), who accepted encyclicals he agreed with and rejected others.”

    “I think they’re right.”

  6. Mark says:

    Pope John Paul II spoke of Europe as having “two lungs”, a distinction that in my view continues to hold. Pope Benedict XVI, by stating that “Europe seems hollow”, seems to conflate the two parts of Europe.

  7. Tom says:

    Regarding the National Review and, for that matter, many conservatives (Catholic and otherwise) tend to reject much that pertains to Catholic Social Teaching.

    At best, what I refer to as “National Review types” are shaky when it comes to their acceptance not only of Catholic Social Teaching, but the Church’s right to promote Her Traditional Social Teaching.

    Many conservatives, including Catholics, have made it clear that they have little regard for traditional Papal teachings that pertain to economics, war, labor unions, capitalism…

    Conservatives, including many conservative Catholics, tend to elevate Republicanism above traditional Catholic Social Teaching.

    Speaking generally, I have found, particularly regarding economic issues, that Traditional Catholics, compared to conservatives (Catholics and otherwise), express greater loyalty to traditional Catholic Social Teaching.

    Perhaps National Review is determined to open itself more to traditional Papal teachings that pertain to social issues.

    Does the article in question signal that the days of National Review’s rejection of the Church’s role as Teacher, at least regarding Her Social Teaching, are over?

  8. cordelia says:

    i would think JFK was the inventor of cafeteria catholics.

  9. Iakovos504 says:

    Mark: Pope John Paul II referred to the Church, not Europe, as having two lungs. By that image he meant western Church and the Eastern Church(es), saying that the Church needed to breathe with both lungs.

    As far as Europe is concerned, a priest I met who had spent two years teaching in Russia in the early part of this decade told me that the greatest success and legacy of Communism was the complete secularisation of Russian society. He cited the incredibly low attendance at divine services and also the apathy with which most people viewed relgion as proof of that.

  10. David Kubiak says:

    Am I the only person who thinks that Peggy Noonan wrote the President’s
    welcoming remarks?

  11. Ken says:

    Brian Day — And, to think, Rich Lowry is not (yet?) Catholic, while J.J. Dionne professes to be a practicing one.

  12. Ken says:

    Sorry — E.J. Dionne.

  13. Matthew says:

    Tom, it’s very hard to keep up with your repetitive posts – you seem to have a lot of time on your hands. One way you might make use of it: do some research before you get on the soapbox.

    1) Buckley never wrote a column titled “Mater Si, Magister No”.
    2) National Review never published any such article.
    3) More to the point, neither Buckley, nor any other National Review author wrote to question the teaching authority of the Catholic Church on social issues.

    You comment three times, but don’t offer a single citation (other that Chaput’s egregious misquote) – you offer abundant incorrect assertion, which make a weak foundation for your own editorial comments.

    National Review used to have a sort of glib ‘gossip column’ where anonymous editors would place amusing stories or remarks. Shortly after the publication of the encycical Mater et Magister, there was a single line in that gossip colum: “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles: Mater si, Magistra, no.”

    In the autumn of 1961, NR did indeed treat the encyclical in articles and columns, but never in the manner you describe. A simple Google search would turn up guys like this who looked for the citation in libraries:
    http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/2002_10/ind_000866.html

    Further discussion can be seen here http://terrenceberres.com/2008/02/mater-s-magistra-no.html , with substantative quotes from National Review. The National Review response to the encyclical was spot-on: that the broad principles outlied in Mater et Magister and other Papal social teachings do not actually propose specific economic and political solutions. Catholics may well differ on which practical policies would best diminish poverty and create a more just society.

    Finally, as to your conclusion that the National Review of today is more receptive to Catholic teaching than that of the Buckley era, you have it almost exactly wrong, as anybody could tell you who has kept up with the magazine over the years. When Buckley left and other traditional Catholics like Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn faded from the masthead, the Catholic character of the magazine was much diminished.

  14. Brian Day says:

    Ken,

    I knew that E.J. Dionne professed to be Catholic. It did not know Rich Lowry’s religious affiliation (if any), so I did not bring that aspect up. As a side note, I did do a quick Google search on Rich Lowry and could not find anything.

  15. Athos says:

    It is a joy to see that what Hilaire Belloc called “The Modern Phase” of the attack on Catholic truth is receiving a shellacking from our 81-year old Pontiff, who toddled through his stomping-grounds to show that he is Christ’s Vicar — the 265th since St. Peter himself — and come hell or high water, he will come to bless, to serve, to love, and to spread the Gospel. No wonder the President admires him so. Cheers

  16. Joseph says:

    Seems the Catholic church and social conservatism has a friend in GWB who has placed a couple of Catholics on the bench of the Supreme court, as did his dad, as I recall, (at least one, CT). A solid prolifer, on abortion and stem cells, one would be hard pressed to find a more “Catholic” president than this one,including JFK.

    This disparagement of Evang. Prot. and calling it the “lowest common denominator,” shows not much reflection, and at best, a broad brush approach to understanding where America really is regarding religion. It would seem to me that Evangelicals have held up their end as well as, or perhaps better than some arms of the Catholic church, starting with the heiracrchy. So let us not “go after” evangelicals, especially in the face of a truly grand and gracious gesture of solidarity. And if one does want to critique, do it in the proper context and with some real substantive observations and factoids. Sour grapes ain’t gettin’ it honey.

  17. Mark says:

    Iakovos504:

    I completely agree with you, many references to the “two lungs of Europe” do point in the Catholic-Orthodox direction. On the other hand, here is a quote from a letter Pope Benedict XVI wrote to Archbishop Dziwisz on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Solidarity movement (see vatican.va):

    “I know how dear to the heart of my great Predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II, it was that this act of historical justice take place, and that Europe breathe with her two lungs – the Western and the Eastern. I know how he supported “Solidarnosc” with his authority and, when necessary, also with skillful diplomacy.”

    This seems to point past the abolition of Communism and toward the cultural differences between Western and Eastern Europe. I wonder if the “two lungs” metaphor can be understood in an ecclesiastical and a cultural context?

  18. RBrown says:

    Let me amend my comments on EJ Dionne: Politically, he is not really pro abortion but neither is he anti-abortion. He is trying to find some mushy middle ground.

  19. RBrown says:

    Let me amend my amendation.

    EJ Dionne wants to be a Catholic and a political progressive. He cannot come to terms with the reality that progressivist politics is pro abortion.

  20. Liam says:

    NR will regain credibility when its many apologists for torture publicly repent of their apologetics in that regard.

  21. RBrown says:

    NR will regain credibility when its many apologists for torture publicly repent of their apologetics in that regard.
    Comment by Liam

    Who was defending torture? I found one NR article against it.

  22. Paddy O'Sullivan says:

    Thank you, Liam.
    What’s Fr. Z going to post next, articles from the Weekly Standard?

  23. Augustine says:

    There is no “American Catholic Church,” just as there are no “American Catholics.” Rather, there is the Catholic Church in America, and there are Catholics in America. When one’s identity is American first, one is not a Catholic at all.

  24. TJM says:

    I’m a bit mystified, Father Z, when you stated the Pope is in favor of military intervention when it “frees people from oppression.” If Saddam, the person who operated human shredding machines and rape rooms, paid bounties to suicide bombers families to operate in Israel, etc, wasn’t an oppressor, then who in the name of Almighty God is an oppressor? If Iraq isn’t a just war, then there is no such thing. Tom

  25. RBrown says:

    What’s Fr. Z going to post next, articles from the Weekly Standard?
    Comment by Paddy O’Sullivan

    If they write a good article on BXVI, why not?

  26. Jordanes says:

    I’d read once that the person who made the “Mater Si, Magistra No” quip was Garry Wills, who in those days was a faithful Catholic and a conservative but these days is neither.

  27. Matthew says:

    Jordanes,
    Buckley said in an interview that is was indeed Garry Wills who made the quip, and that he regretted printing it in his column on account of the misunderstanding it’d long stirred up.

    The irony is pretty rich: of leftist Catholics getting wrought over a supposed Buckley comment, saying it demonstrates his rejection of the magisterium, when all along he was quoting a darling of leftist Catholics, Garry Wills. Though to be fair, Wills’ leftist inclinations were only nascent at the time.

    While speaking of Garry Wills.. one of the most entertaining and devastating book reviews I’ve read is this one in First Things a couple of years ago, of Wills’ book “What Jesus Meant”: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=89 . The book review is likely more amusing and informative than the book.

  28. Malta says:

    “In the wake of the French Revolution, in contrast, many European nations developed what Benedict calls a “conflictual” separation of church and state. A godless state sees its role as chasing the vestiges of Christianity from the public square.”

    That is true, but the American Revolution and the French Revolution, basically, coincided in thought and dates. The “conflictual” state that Benedict speaks of applies as much, or more, to America than it does to Europe. In fact, for instance, public schools in Italy still have the Crucifix.

    France, of course, is still reeling big-time from it’s silly “revolution,” which was, basically, an anti-catholic crusade; but I wouldn’t lump all of Europe in that sum.

  29. RBrown says:

    While speaking of Garry Wills.. one of the most entertaining and devastating book reviews I’ve read is this one in First Things a couple of years ago, of Wills’ book “What Jesus Meant”: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=89 . The book review is likely more amusing and informative than the book.
    Comment by Matthew

    I don’t think Wills was ever a conservative.

    For a time he was with the Jesuits (through philosophy) and is a very competent classicist. He also knows modern philosophy pretty well, but seems unfamiliar with ancient or medieval thought.

    When he writes on theology or religion, he seems someone who has reached his level of incompetence. He doesn’t seem to have a clue how to do theology–mostly trying to accommodate Revelation to his own progressive ideology.

  30. Tom says:

    Matthew wrote “Finally, as to your conclusion that the National Review of today is more receptive to Catholic teaching than that of the Buckley era, you have it almost exactly wrong, as anybody could tell you who has kept up with the magazine over the years. When Buckley left and other traditional Catholics like Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn faded from the masthead, the Catholic character of the magazine was much diminished.”

    I concluded that the magazine is more receptive to Catholic Social Teaching? I don’t believe that I reached that conclusion.

  31. Tom says:

    “Tom, it’s very hard to keep up with your repetitive posts – you seem to have a lot of time on your hands.”

    Why does that bother you?

    Pax.

  32. Tom says:

    On August 25, 1961, Time Magazine offered the following report:

    “Unsettled by Pope John XXIII’s recent encyclical Mater et Magistra, William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review turned a cold eye on the problems of God and man at the Vatican.

    After dismissing the encyclical as ”a venture in triviality” in one issue, the magazine returned to the attack with the revelation that “conservative Catholic circles” —- of which Editor Buckley, 35, is the razor-tongued wunder-kind—were muttering “Mater si, Magistra no.”

    “At that, the Jesuit weekly America jumped into the fray, proclaiming that the National Review “owes its Catholic readers and journalistic allies an apology.”

    Unapologetically, Career Iconoclast Buckley brushed off the protest with one word: “Impudent.”

  33. Tom says:

    Matthew wrote: “In the autumn of 1961, NR did indeed treat the encyclical in articles and columns, but never in the manner you describe. A simple Google search would turn up guys like this who looked for the citation in libraries”

    Actually, a simple Google search led to the following:

    America Magazine Web site on February 27, 2008, by Jim Keane, S.J.:

    After Pope John XXIII released his encyclical, Mater et Magistra (“mother and teacher”) in 1961, a dispute broke out between America’s editors and William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley had argued that the encyclical was too critical of American-style capitalism and called it “an exercise in triviality coming at this particular time in history,” adding that the Church might one day be as embarrassed by the encyclical as it was by the Syllabus of Errors.”

  34. Tom says:

    I agree that Mr. Buckley did not write an article entitled “Mater, Si, Magistra, No.”

    The source that I cited (Archbishop Chaput’s remarks) was incorrect.

    My apologies to Mr. Buckley for having relied upon said remarks. I viewed the Archbishop as a solid source to have cited.

    Is it correct that Mr. Buckley argued that the Encyclical in question was “an exercise in triviality coming at this particular time in history,” adding that the Church might one day be as embarrassed by the Encyclical as it was by the Syllabus of Errors?

  35. Tom says:

    Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for having corrected the errors that I posted regarding Mr. William F. Buckley and the Nation Review Mater, Si, Magistra, No issue at hand.

    Pax.

  36. Tom says:

    Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for having corrected the errors that I posted regarding Mr. William F. Buckley, the National Review and the Mater, Si, Magistra, No issue at hand.

    Pax.

  37. mpm says:

    Janice:

    I hear what you are saying. On the other hand, two of my closest
    friends are evangelical Christians — they are Taiwanese, and have
    converted from “paganism” (according to them). I believe that it
    is a stretch to call them “Protestant” in that they are not Christians
    “in protest” against anything! They believe in the objective truth
    of Christ’s message in the Scriptures, as well as what we Catholics
    would call “natural law” ethics.

    Let’s please allow the Holy Spirit to do what he does best! And, BTW,
    they love the writings of Pope Benedict!

  38. RBrown says:

    Is it correct that Mr. Buckley argued that the Encyclical in question was “an exercise in triviality coming at this particular time in history,”
    Comment by Tom —

    That seems to be correct.

    Buckley thought, as did PiusXII, that the Communist threat was most important. JXXIII changed Vatican policy, moving the Church to a more neutral position between the West and the East and mediating a drive to Euro unity. Like a lot of right wingers WFB opposed the change.

    Of course, after JXXIII came Paul VI and his Church of Syncretism, in which Catholic, Protestant, and Marxist differences were obscured.

  39. Iakovos says:

    Mark,

    It seems that Pope Benedict XVI in his address to Archbishop Dziwisz was certainly appyling the “two lungs” metaphor to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, freed from the tyranny of communism. In this sense, then, yes, we could understand the “two lungs” metaphor in a cultural context.

    When you say “ecclesiastical” context, I had understood that to be the late pope’s intention when he used this metaphor in his encyclical, UT UNUM SINT, to refer to the Eastern Churches and the Western Church [sorry for the caps, but I don't know how to use bold or italics in this window]. If you have other ways to understand this image in an ecclesiastical context, I’d be happy to hear them. I think there’s a lot more to be said here and your idea has intrigued me. :-)

  40. David O'Rourke says:

    This has proven to be an interesting thread which makes it clear that by no means are all TLM devotees are stereotype right wingers.

    And, to add further to our consideration we are not far off from the upcoming publication of B16′s next encyclical which is supposed to deal with the Social teaching of the Church.

    The timing could hardly be better. There is no one who’s opinion on these matters I would value more than B16.

  41. RBrown says:

    This has proven to be an interesting thread which makes it clear that by no means are all TLM devotees are stereotype right wingers.
    Comment by David O’Rourke

    I suspect that one day someone will approach me me at the re-cycling center and say, “What are you doing here? I thought you liked Latin liturgy.”

  42. Habemus Papam says:

    TJM: One of the criteria for a just war is that the result is beneficial. Military intervention which frees people from oppression but leaves them subject to other forms of evil (i.e. conflict, terrorism) is not just. Ridding Iraq of Saddam would have to have obvious beneficial results.

  43. Tom Ryan says:

    This is encouraging. Back in college, I thought NR was sympathetic to Catholics and participated in their YOUNG WRITERS CONTEST. Rich got second place and went on to be editor. I received Honorable Mention and went on to other things.

    I know the > article still irks people (see the recent Culture Wars Magazine),but Buckley could never get away from his Catholicism and would argue for the old Mass at times, even though his sister Pricilla would act out all of the new lay roles over at St. Bernard’s in Sharon, CT.

    A lot of people were converted to Catholicism from their association with NR too. Neuhaus, Hart, Johnson, van den Haag etc. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

  44. Michael says:

    “Military intervention which frees people from oppression but leaves them subject to other forms of evil (i.e. conflict, terrorism) is not just”

    Would you mind clarifying the above remark? It seems to rely on the result in order to justify the action. If a nation embarked on a course that led it to a just war (I am speaking entirely in the abstract here) – but then failed (i.e. was defeated), would the failure then render the war unjust?

  45. Mark says:

    Iakovos:

    It seems that we have the same understanding of the “two lungs” metaphor with respect to the Eastern and Western Churches. What caught my attention, is that sometimes this metaphor is being applied in a cultural context. I wonder if this is just loose terminology, or is it an intentional distinction the two popes seem to be making? In the cultural sphere, this metaphor seems to suggest this question: is it desirable for the Church to foster, for the time being, two parallel Catholic cultures, one in Western and one in Eastern Europe? In other words, is this a strategy of not putting all of one’s eggs in one basket?

  46. RBrown says:

    Buckley was always a sympathizer with Latin liturgy. Always. A good part of his prominence and success was due to his embrace of the great monuments of Western culture–Beethoven, Bach, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Latin, etc.

    I think in his early days his political philosophy was more right wing than conservative. Later,

  47. RBrown says:

    Add: Later, he was more of conservative than right wing.