November 3, 2005


Disputed Questions. A Catholic Philosopher Argues for Relativism: It's Dario Antiseri. He explains his theses in the official magazine of the Catholic University of Milan. And he is criticizing, at bottom, Benedict XVI's positions on relativism, nihilism, and the natural law (Sandro Magister, 11/03/05, Chiesa)

One Catholic philosopher has disputed one of the main points of Joseph Ratzinger's thought: the one dealing with the natural law and relativism.

The philosopher is Dario Antiseri, a professor of social sciences methodology at the Free International University of Social Studies in Rome.

Antiseri is a Catholic, and an obedient Catholic. Together with Giovanni Reale – a leading specialist on Greek thought and the custodian of Karol Wojtyla's philosophical writings – he wrote the manual of the history of philosophy most widely used in Italian high schools, a manual that has been translated into various languages. His bibliography is extensive. He has introduced the thought of Popper, Hayek, and the Vienna school into Italy. His writings are read and appreciated in the United States, where he is in the company of Catholic thinkers like Michael Novak, Robert Sirico, and Richard J. Neuhaus. In past years he has debated the same themes with cardinal Camillo Ruini, in a back-and-forth exchange that was afterward collected in a book.

Antiseri has presented his criticism in the latest edition of "Vita e Pensiero [Life and Thought]," the official magazine of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan.

In the article – reproduced below – Antiseri comes to the defense of the relativism that Ratzinger has condemned as "a dictatorship that recognizes nothing as definitive," in a memorable passage from the homily he delivered at St. Peter's on the morning of April 18, a few hours before the cardinals entered the conclave.

That's not all. In this same article, Antiseri even defends nihilism as "the regaining of room for the sacred."

And on the contrary, he rejects the idea that any incontrovertible rational foundation can be found for those rights "written in the very nature of the human person, and thus ultimately traced back to the Creator," of which Benedict XVI wrote in one of his recent messages, sent to a conference on "Freedom and Secularism" held from October 15-16 in Norcia, the birthplace of Saint Benedict.

The idea that we can't know anything definitively, especially the moral law, is obviously attractive to people, because it excuses every sin we commit. But it can't be squared with faith in God generally and certainly not with Catholicism in particular.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 3, 2005 10:23 AM

But don't conservatives necessarily "reject[] the idea that any incontrovertible rational foundation can be found for those rights" granted to us by G-d. Isn't it the opposite idea, that rights must have a rational basis, that led to the corollary that man's nature can be changed through a rational process and wasn't that corollary responsible for much of the misery of the 20th century, the most miserable of all centuries.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 3, 2005 11:21 AM


No, the problem arises only when people use Reason to contovert the basis in God.

Posted by: oj at November 3, 2005 11:39 AM

If I were he, I would be smuggling my red stappler home. Taking on the boss like that is a career limiting move.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 3, 2005 11:42 AM

Robert: Somehow I doubt that Prof. Antiseri actually views the Pope as his boss. In fact, I doubt that the Pope actually IS his boss, considering how "Catholic" Universities in this country are usually organized.

Anytime someone is described as a Catholic with descriptors such as "obedient" or "devout", watch for the heresy about to follow...

Posted by: b at November 3, 2005 12:27 PM

There is an incontrovertible rational foundation for our rights?

Posted by: David Cohen at November 3, 2005 12:30 PM

It's controvertible rationally, everything is. But for the same reason you can derive a rational basis for saying that our rights are given us by God.

The point of the exercise isn't to justify faith, but reason.

Posted by: oj at November 3, 2005 12:36 PM

As David points out, it's not obvious the guy's wrong, though he probably is. And it's not a career-limiting move, but a career-enhancing one; the Pope himself enjoys an intellectual debate, and wants to get things right and be corrected if he's made a mistake.

That said, I think this theologian's critique is conducted at a level of abstraction far removed from the pastoral level of the pope's usage. I doubt there's much of a contradiction.

Posted by: pj at November 3, 2005 12:57 PM