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Two World Youth Days

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, September 29, 2005

To the media, World Youth Day was “a Catholic Woodstock.” But to the new Pope it was a teaching moment.

2005 had two World Youth Days. The first, in April, was spontaneous. The young predominated among the millions in Rome for the funeral of John Paul II. The event, including the homily by the future Pope, was seen, in person or on television, by more people than any other funeral in history. Four days later, at the Mass inaugurating his pontificate, Benedict XVI looked to the future: “[T]he Church is alive. And the Church is young. She … shows … the way towards the future.”

In August, Benedict went to the World Youth Day in Cologne to show young people “how beautiful it is to be Christian.” The event exceeded expectations, with more than a million at the closing Mass. The Pope made the most of it, confirming that relativism, among other issues, would be a major concern of his papacy.

At the Mass before the conclave that elected him, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” He described “relativism” as “letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.'” In Cologne, Benedict developed the point. “[F]reedom,” he said, “is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but … about living by the measure of truth and goodness, so that we … can become true and good.” He explained that objective, non-relative “measure” in the context of the Greek and Latin origins of the word, “adoration.” Adoration of Christ in the Eucharist leads to “submission, the recognition of God as our true measure … [That] submission liberates us deep within.”

Papal discussion of relativism is nothing new. John Paul II, in 1991, denied that “agnosticism and skeptical relativism” are the foundation of democracy. Rather, without an “ultimate truth to guide … political activity … ideas … can be manipulated” as a means to power. A relativist democracy “easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” That makes sense. If there is no acknowledged moral truth, political life becomes a power struggle among interests, with no real limits to what the law can do. Similarly, in 1999, then-Cardinal Ratzinger identified as one of the “crises of law” the determination of what is just by the shifting consensus of the majority.

Relativism is a problem of special note in the academic world. More than a few professors are absolutely sure that they can’t be sure of anything. But relativism itself is absurd. If you say that all things are relative, you must admit that your statement, too, is relative. The jurisprudence of a relativist society will be legal positivism in which any law, whether Dred Scott, Auschwitz, or whatever, will be considered valid if it is enacted by the prescribed procedure. A law cannot be criticized as unjust because nobody can know what is unjust. As Hans Kelsen, the 20th century’s leading legal positivist, put it, “justice is an irrational ideal.”

The answer to relativism, however, is not in the false absolutes of ideology. Instead, Benedict XVI urges a “true revolution” in contrast to the ideological revolutions of the twentieth century which “assumed total responsibility for … the world in order to change it … [A] human and partial point of view was … taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is … totalitarianism. It … takes away [man’s] dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to … our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom [and] what is … good and true.”

Carrying on the truth-affirming mission of John Paul, Benedict gently but firmly laid it on the line to the young people in Cologne. Without God, he said at the closing Mass, there is frustration and “dissatisfaction with everyone and everything. People tend to exclaim: ‘This cannot be what life is about!'” One result is “a kind of new explosion of religion.” But Benedict cautioned against letting religion become “a consumer product. … [R]eligion constructed on a ‘do-it-yourself’ basis … may be comfortable, but at times of crisis we are left to ourselves.” The answer is in Scripture and the teaching Church.

So what is Benedict all about? He really believes in objective moral Truth. Imagine that. And he capitalizes it because that Truth is a person. Like John Paul, he tells it like it is, especially to the young. At his inaugural Mass, he said, “I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”

Surprising numbers of young people seem to be listening to this man. Even at Notre Dame.

Professor Emeritus Charles E. Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at plawecki@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.