Moral Relativism in the Catholic Church

Back in March, I wrote a post about how the Catholic church isn’t a democracy and therefore has no obligation to change its teachings in line with popular opinion. One theist commenter enthusiastically chimed in to agree and to insist that this was exactly the point:

From my own perspective, the constancy (and internal consistency) of Church teaching is an enormously reassuring thing. How am I supposed to trust a religious tradition which claims to teach about right and wrong but is willing to change its teachings with the winds of popular opinion?

…To say that a religious tradition ought to change what is permitted is to say that it ought to change what is permissible, at which point it can no longer be trusted as a truth-telling thing.

…If there are such things as objectively true answers to these questions, a tradition which changes its teachings as to those answers can’t be regarded as having even the capacity to be a truth-telling thing. If a tradition is willing to change its answers to these questions, how is one to know when it’s telling truths and when it’s telling falsehoods?

For the sake of argument, I’m willing to agree with this. If a religious tradition was founded and directed by an omniscient and infallible god who desired to communicate with human beings, then we could expect that that religion would never change its doctrines, nor have any need to, since such a being would never be wrong and would never encounter any obstacle that prevented him communicating with perfect clarity and effectiveness.

Except that that’s not what we find in the real world. The Catholic church, for example, has changed its moral teachings – its ideas about what is right and wrong, what is permissible and impermissible – many times in major, significant ways. Here are a few of the most important:

• In 1252, Pope Innocent IV issued the bull Ad extirpanda, which authorized the torture of heretics and the forfeiture of their property. As the infamous Law 25 of this bull said:

The head of state or ruler must force all the heretics whom he has in custody, provided he does so without killing them or breaking their arms or legs, as actual robbers and murderers of souls and thieves of the sacraments of God and Christian faith, to confess their errors and accuse other heretics whom they know, and specify their motives, and those whom they have seduced, and those who have lodged them and defended them…

So, the Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to arrest people believed to be heretics, to torture them until they confessed and accused others of the same crime, and then to seize their property. Does it still teach this?

• In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Dum diversas, followed by Romanus Pontifex in 1455. Both these documents authorized King Afonso V of Portugal to conquer Saracens (i.e., Muslims) and pagans, as well as all other “enemies of Christ” wherever they could be found, and to “reduce their persons into perpetual slavery”. As one writer put it, these documents “usher[ed] in the West African slave trade“. (See also these Catholic commenters incredulously debating whether this was for real.)

So, the Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to enslave people for being non-Christians, take their land, and consign them to lifelong servitude. Does it still teach this?

• In 1864, Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors, a list of propositions condemned as falsehoods by the church. Among the statements which were listed as errors include the following:

Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.

The Church has not the power of using force, nor has she any temporal power, direct or indirect.

In the case of conflicting laws enacted by the two powers [i.e., civil and religious], the civil law prevails.

The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.

In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.

If all these statements are errors, this document must be urging the contrary conclusions: that the church should not be separated from the state, that it should have the right of using force, that Catholicism should be the only legally permitted religion and that all other beliefs should be forbidden and suppressed by law. Does the church still teach any of these things?

The commenter who started this discussion promised to reply to these points once he’d had the time to do some research. Nearly six months later, no reply has been forthcoming. Perhaps he found these arguments more difficult to answer than he’d originally thought.

A little more recently, there was another Catholic commenter making the same point:

Of course no teachings have been changed. I expect nothing less of the media to completely misunderstand everything, but the rest of us would have to be complete idiots to think the Church has changed its teachings. Catholicism is a religion of absolutes: it doesn’t change with the whims of the culture, or hide under the banner of “progressivism.” Think about it, Catholics believe the Church is the fullness of truth. 2000 years ago morality was the same as it is today, and the same as it will be 2000 years from now.

When I brought up these same three documents, it occasioned some entirely predictable backpedaling:

The Church delineates between moral issues of the day, which must be taken on a case by case basis and sweeping declarations that are intrinsic to our nature, such as two guys having sex. In your three examples above, none of them are ex cathedra statements about universal morality.

This answer is even more hilarious. What he’s arguing, basically, is that the church has changed its mind about minor things, like whether heretics should be tortured or burned at the stake, whether the church should censor the printing of books, whether people should be sold into perpetual slavery, whether societies should be ruled by kings and priests – but not about the important stuff, like whether a same-sex couple should be able to file federal taxes jointly.

Ironically, when they engage in philosophical gyrations like these, these Catholic apologists are implicitly defending moral relativism, the idea that the ethical standards of right and wrong change with time and place. They can’t bear to admit that these past popes were mistaken – that torture, slavery and theocracy are wrong, always have been wrong and always will be wrong – because that would ruin their assertion that the church is a timeless, changeless truth-telling thing. But at the same time, they can’t bear to defend these obviously immoral practices either. They’re stuck in a dilemma of their own making, like a person trying to keep one foot on each side of a widening chasm, unable to commit to either side but also unable to remain where they are.

It seems to me that what these apologists are really longing for is relief from the burden of independent thought and judgment. They don’t trust their own moral facility; they want an authority whom they can completely rely on to tell them what’s allowed and what’s forbidden. But clinging to dogma offers no certainty except the certainty of error, because there is no omniscient source of morality. There’s only us human beings, fallible but capable of self-correction, ignorant but getting better, figuring things out by trial and error because there is no alternative.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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