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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 06 Feb 2002

Methods of the Inquisition QUESTION from Robert J. O'Brien October 25, 2000 Dear Mrs. Fortin,
I was wondering if you could clarify part of an answer you made regarding the Inquisition. You said to Linda C., in the question on Church History (9/25/99),
If what your friend says [about the Church] does have some basis in fact (like the fact that torture was used), just say that it is true, but that it's natural for people to have committed what we think is wrong today because our moral sense evolves and every generation discovers new ideals; and that it's unfair to judge the Middle Ages by twentieth century standards. This sounds very much like the cultural relativism so popular in our society today. I had thought that the ability of the Church to speak infallibly through the Pope and the Magisterium was supposed to keep us free from thinking that certain actions are ok at one point in time and not ok at another.
I apologize for bringing this up so long after you wrote it, but I only just started reading the forum here. I found your answer troubling, because it seemed like common sense at first but then realized it conflicted (or seemed to conflict) with what I believe. On the whole, I enjoy and agree with your writing. It is clear, calm and thorough--all too often rare in an arena like this.
Thank you, Robert
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on October 27, 2000 Dear Robert,
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain what moral relativism really is. Because it's more than what you say it is. It has a deeper philosophical implication.
The concept of relativism rests on the idea that there are no eternal truths, or that they cannot be known. Therefore, morality must be based on subjective ideas that can change from one culture to another, or one age to another. They believe that morality is determined SOLELY by the agent (that is, the person making the decision) and should be dictated according to the situation. It has nothing to do with universal ideas, but with personal values and judgments.
For example, the Church teaches that lying, in every single instance, is wrong. The universal idea behind this is that Truth cannot be contradicted. We must always communicate according to what corresponds to reality as we understand it.
The relativist will not focus on universal ideas, but instead on the consequences, and how people feel. He will ask: will there be any detectable harm to the person lied to? Is there a chance the person will find out? How will he feel? There might be an accounting of positive consequences and negative consequences based entirely on the agent's sentiments.
My comments were nothing of the kind. I admit that there are universal truths. However, I understand that the Church on earth progressively develops a greater understanding of morality.
The progressive understanding of morality does not in any mean that we reject moral principles that we held before. Another big difference between relativists and the Church is that the former will discard rules that don't work for them. When the Church acknowledges a moral principle as consistent with Revelation, she does not discard because it is inconvenient. Take the Church's doctrine on contraception. The Church has consistently preached against it. Yet there are those who would do away with it because, they say, that teaching does not correspond to modern reality. This is an example of moral relativism.
But we don't have a full grasp of Truth as individual Catholics. We progress in our understanding. That's why earlier periods appear more immoral in many areas (though not all!). Just consider the situation of women two hundred years ago. Women were legally considered minors in many instances. They had fewer rights than they do today. They were often under their husband's tutelage. A woman couldn't vote, couldn't hold office, couldn't attend university and was considered unfit for most professions.
We wouldn't dream of saying it was okay for women to have lived in such a society. Yet, we cannot say that the men who upheld the moral standards of their age were necessarily guilty of sexism (although they demonstrated sexist behaviour). There were, after all, practical arguments against some feminist demands, like in the case women's suffrage, for example. Most women were not well educated, even in the higher classes. Their interests were steered away from traditional masculine pursuits that relate to politics: business, law, etc. Although there had always been well educated women in Western civilization, they were definitely a minority. It was considered unfeminine for a woman to be too intelligent (and in many ways it still is, believe me). So when some people objected that women were not ready to vote, they may have had a valid point. I know that in Quebec, where female suffrage was granted in 1940, women consciously chose to vote for the same candidate their husband chose because they didn't know enough to make a decision about who to vote for.
We have come to a greater awareness of the dignity of women. Not that it was entirely absent before, as some people like to pretend, but that there was still more to learn. There will always be more to learn. We must humbly accept that our descendants will, in many ways, know better than we do.
We can't assume then that because people in the past do not live up to our standards of morality, that they are necessarily guilty of sin. In God's eyes, you cannot be condemned if you are ignorant. If a person is ignorant of the fact that using torture is wrong, or that treating women as inferior is wrong, he cannot be considered guilty. That does not mean what he does is right.
We can never be guilty of sin for doing what we think is right. But we can still do evil, even without knowing it. People who lie thinking it's okay to do so for a greater purpose, commit an evil, but they do not incur guilt for it.
We should not abandon our pursuit for Truth simply because it will lessen our guilt-- it won't, because cultivated ignorance is a sin. A true Christian is committed to the Truth and doing what God wills. So we should always strive for greater Wisdom and conform our behaviour to it.
I hope that helps you better understand my point.
God Bless, Suzanne
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