The Dictatorship of Relativism
During the White House Welcoming Ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI on April 16, President Bush referred briefly to a phrase that has come to be regarded as a central concern of Benedict's pontificate:
"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,' and embrace a culture of justice and truth."
Of course, Pope Benedict does not regard "relativism" as merely the inability to "distinguish between simple right and wrong," but as the inability to recognize that there is such a thing as truth—and that conforming our lives to the truth matters. Modern Americans, of course, all know that what they believe—whatever it might be—is correct, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise. "I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree," they say, though of course what they really mean is "I'm right; you're wrong; but it's hardly worth arguing about."
Truth is nice, after all, but it's not as if it's important.
It's no wonder, then, that Americans express such surprise when someone acts as if truth actually matters—as if, in the words of Richard M. Weaver, "ideas have consequences." If someone believes something that's untrue, but it doesn't affect my life, what's the harm?
Last Friday, the Catholic News Service broke the story that
In an effort to block posthumous rebaptisms by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Catholic dioceses throughout the world have been directed by the Vatican not to give information in parish registers to the Mormons' Genealogical Society of Utah.
The directive, handed down on April 5 by the Congregation for the Clergy, stated that
This dicastery is bringing this matter to the attention of the various conferences of bishops. The congregation requests that the conference notifies each diocesan bishop in order to ensure that such a detrimental practice is not permitted in his territory, due to the confidentiality of the faithful and so as not to cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When the news was released, to put it bluntly, all hell broke loose. The Mormon doctrine of baptism for the dead has made the Mormon church perhaps the chief institutional supporter of genealogical research in the world. The Congregation for the Clergy wasn't reacting to individual researchers looking up individual records of their ancestors, but to the Mormon practice of copying parish register wholesale and incorporating the information into their database.
Mormons in good standing are encouraged to receive baptism by proxy for non-Mormon ancestors who have died, and the practice has expanded over the years to include anyone descended from a common ancestor. All orthodox Christians believe that baptism is only for the living, and while Saint Paul refers briefly to baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29 (in the context of arguing for the truth of the Resurrection), all of the historical instances of baptism for the dead that are attested were performed by heretical groups (such as the Marcionites and the Gnostics).
But, the modern American says, what's the big deal? After all, the Catholic Church doesn't believe that Mormon baptism of the living, much less of the dead, is valid, so no harm, no foul, right? And besides, the Mormon doctrine has such useful results—namely, the Mormon genealogical database, which all are free to use. This just proves that the Catholic Church is mean-spirited. Perhaps all those nasty things people said about Pope Benedict before he came to the United States and seemed all friendly and cuddly were true after all.
And yet, there is this point: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preaches a doctrine that has been condemned by the Christian Church since apostolic times, a doctrine that has been associated only with heretical groups. The Catholic Church preaches that baptism is only for the living, yet many parishes were allowing Mormons to copy their parish records, knowing that the purpose in doing so was to facilitate Mormon baptism for the dead.
In other words, the action undermined the Catholic teaching. Ideas do have consequences, after all. If Faith Fitzpatrick knows that Father Mulroney is letting Joe Smith photocopy the parish records so that he can rebaptize all of her ancestors, she may not necessarily come to doubt the Christian teaching on baptism, but she might well begin to think that it is relatively unimportant.
The Catholic Church is taking a lot of heat for this decision, but it was the correct one to make. Whatever benefits might have been gained from the Mormon practice, they were all incidental to the promulgation of a false doctrine. Sometimes, standing up for the truth is most important precisely when it seems least important.