MaltaToday: Absolutely Ratzinger
NEWS ANALYSIS | Sunday, 20 January 2008

Absolutely Ratzinger

Does the earth revolve around the Sun, or vice-versa? Echoes of this ancient controversy can still be felt in the ongoing friction between Pope Benedict VXI and La Sapienza university in Rome, and also in Malta’s own bio-ethical dilemmas. RAPHAEL VASSALLO reports from the front line of the War in Heaven

Barely a week has gone by, and already the uprising of students and professors against Pope Benedict XVI – who had to cancel a public lecture at La Sapienza university because of a colourful and vociferous protest, under banners such as “No Pope” and “Science is Secular” – has been derailed along purely political lines.
In a spirit of bravado reminiscent of 1968, a small faction of academics (some 69 put of over 4,000) openly revolted against their rector’s decision to invite the Pope to inaugurate the new academic year. With the Italian parliament closing ranks in defence of the Pontiff, the polemic now centres firmly on a question of basic rights: did the Pope have the “right” to deliver a lecture at a secular university? Did his detractors have the “right” to voice their opposition? And was the Vatican’s decision to cancel the lecture justified, given the circumstances?
It is tempting to put a lid on the issue by simply answering these questions one by one (My answers, for what they are worth, would be “yes”, “yes” and “yes” respectively). But this would only overlook the deeper underlying significance of an episode which has raised questions as old as civilisation itself. Should scientific discipline be subservient to religious authority? Should its methodology be constrained by Church laws? Is there a danger that science, left to its own devices, will produce atrocities on the scale of the Holocaust? And conversely: couldn’t it also explode those certainties upon which so much of the Catholic faith is built, with far-reaching implications for religion as a whole?
Pope Benedict himself certainly seems to think so. In his encyclical, “Spe Salvi” (on Christian hope), he wrote: “Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it.”
Science may well retort that “redemption” was never one of its goals to begin with, and that “hope” does not even fall within its own jurisdiction. But the more lasting objection concerns the issue of whether any religion should have the authority to shackle science in its quest for truth.

The ghost of Galileo
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the landmark case remains that of Galileo Galilei, who in 1633 was forced by Pope Urban VIII to recant his support for Copernican heliocentricity. (In fact, among the La Sapienza insurgents’ objections was that Joseph Ratzinger had himself defended the Church’s treatment of Galileo.)
Even in its day, the issue had less to with cosmology than with politics: Galileo’s rejection of geo-centricity was deemed heretical, not just because it contradicted Holy Scripture, but also because it indirectly challenged the entire power structure upon which the Church’s absolute authority hinged.
For a thousand years, scholars had cited the Ptolemaic system as a workable model for God’s plan. Just as the earth sat unmoving at the precise centre of the universe, so too should kings and popes enjoy undisputed authority atop their respective pyramidal hierarchies. Suddenly, however, the earth was no longer at the centre of existence, nor even was it stationary. Johannes Kepler’s subsequent discoveries (i.e., that planets do not orbit the Sun in perfect circles, as previously believed) effectively shattered the Ptolemaic system once and for all, paving the way for a philosophical, cultural and ultimately political revolution that would spell an end to the temporal power wielded by religious authorities until the Enlightenment.
These distant intellectual battles may seem to belong to another, more feudal age; but in actual fact the Catholic Church took until 1984 to finally acknowledge that Galileo had been right all along. And today’s dichotomy between doctrinal absolutism and moral relativism, in which Pope Benedict XVI has positioned himself as leading protagonist, is little more than a spiritual successor to the same, age-old controversy.

Ratzinger versus relativism
Moral relativism may date back to 19th century philosophers such as Hume and Spinoza, but its scientific underpinning is arguably provided by 20th century figures such as Albert Einstein, whose work in the field of quantum mechanics – the study of subatomic particles and their properties – propelled him to conclude that there are in fact different sets of laws for different, parallel realities.
Einstein realised that Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, while providing a perfect account of the behaviour of falling apples or orbiting planets, were perfectly useless to explain the movements and properties of neutrons, protons and electrons. His subsequent General Theory of Relativity pushed the frontiers of pan-dimensionality in a way which is far too complex to be examined here: suffice it to say that Einstein’s conclusions flung wide open the doors of speculation regarding notions such as Ultimate Truth. For if particles travelling at the speed of light also defy all known laws of physics, what does this tell us of the “absolutism” of such laws to begin with?
Applied to ethical and philosophical considerations, the overall implications are very upsetting to the quintessentially absolutist world inhabited by the Catholic Church and its demagogues. Like Galileo’s heliocentricity, moral relativism directly challenges the accepted tenets of Right and Wrong, echoing Hamlet’s “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” to conclude that there is no single source of truth… with fatal consequences for the mediaeval view, so costly to Galileo, Giordano Bruno and others, that Scripture is infallible.
This challenge was in fact the substance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s last public address before being appointed Pope: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he told the Conclave. “The church needs to withstand the tides of trends and the latest novelties.... We must become mature in this adult faith, we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith.”
The word “dictatorship” was immediately interpreted as a declaration of war on moral relativism, and also an open invitation for conflict in the realisation of Ratzinger’s self-confessed vocation to forge an “exclusive Church”. The fact that the German Cardinal was chosen for the Papacy precisely on the strength of this argument, suggests that the Catholic Church is still locked on its endless collision course with science.

Absolutely Axiaq
At a glance, these lofty issues may appear far removed from everyday life in Malta. And yet, some of our recent controversies are little more than echoes of this grand battle of ideas.
Perhaps the best example concerns the parliamentary committee on bio-ethics, which in 2005 submitted a report purporting to establish the precise origins of the human person for a law regulating (among other things) in vitro fertilisation.
One of the committee members is Dr Michael Axiaq: Nationalist MP and a member of the ultra-Catholic organisation Opus Dei. Axiaq has since written numerous articles on the subject of bio-ethics, including one in which he elaborated an argument Pope Benedict would no doubt approve: namely, that “good morals” make for “good science”.
He went on to observe (in answer to criticism of his appointment) that “unless one is willing to grant ‘moral anarchy’ and allow everyone to decide for themselves what they will or will not do, some one’s morality is imposed on someone else’s all the time. The issue, then, is not whether a morality should be imposed, but whether the one being imposed is the correct one…”
The notion of a “correct morality” is very much the stuff of absolutism, and moral relativists will argue that such logic can also be used to justify the most heinous crimes committed by the most totalitarian regimes. And herein lies the intrinsic problem with doctrinal absolutism: it simply brooks no suggestion whatsoever that it might be wrong. Consequently, those gripped in its delusion will attempt force their views on morality upon all others by any available means, regardless of the people’s right to differ: a line of reasoning no different from that used by Osama Bin Laden to justify terrorism and mass-murder.
Unsurprisingly, it fell to Prof. Kenneth Wain – lecturer of ethics in the University of Malta’s philosophy department – to point out the immediate flaw: “(Axiaq’s) is not the mentality of the chairman of a Bioethics Committee in a pluralistic democracy, nor the mentality of the Catholic, but of the fundamentalist of whatever hue, Opus Dei or otherwise.”

Malta: absent as usual
The above exchange does more than simply expose philosophical differences on bio-ethical issues. It also exposes a darker and more sinister side to Malta, where apathy and acquiescence has allowed politicians-cum-absolutists to turn the entire country into their own personal and exclusive playground.
For Michael Axiaq was also attempting to justify his government’s proposal to amend the Constitution of Malta so that one view of the origins of the human person – the Catholic view, of course – will take precedence over all others, even though the international scientific community itself is divided on the selfsame issue. This poses a grave challenge to the country’s democratic and intellectual credentials, as it not only suggests that “some opinions are more equal than others”; it also flies in the face of what lessons there were to be learnt from the Galileo saga 375 years ago. Worse still, it suggests that science in this country is in fact redundant, as the State can simply impose its own view of morality on the entire population, no matter how unscientific, snug in the knowledge that its own views are somehow shared by God.
And yet, very few people in Malta appear to have understood the far-reaching implications of such a dangerous precedent. Unlike the academics of La Sapienza, who this week fought to preserve the intellectual autonomy of their science faculty, it seems that Malta’s intelligentsia (with very few exceptions) has already pre-emptively lain down its arms in the face of the inevitable.
As Galileo would no doubt have put it: “Eppur si muove…”


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