FOR the Roman Church the boundaries of orthodoxy are critical. Though Rome has never been without its periphery of fringe Catholics, it has always succeeded in keeping this blurred area within manageable limits.
Visibility of its members is important for any institution, and this creates particular linguistic problems for a Church which stresses beliefs rather than ethics as the mark of unity.
The Faith must be formulated in clear, unequivocal language which corresponds to the social distinction between faithful and non-faithful — in other words there must at least be some people who dispute the content of belief.
Historically, the periphery of the Catholic Church may have varied in size in relation to its centre and the private beliefs of Catholics may have diverged considerably from the set of core beliefs formally defining them as a Church distinct from all others.
But, by a combination of clerical control and political sanctions, these divergencies were prevented from undermining the most crucial belief of all: that there was a set of core beliefs — a centre, a periphery and an outside.
Theological homogeneity probably never existed outside the official manuals and the minds of naive prelates, and the content of core beliefs certainly changed in response to the flux of local opinion and political pressures.
But theological pluralism was never an issue. This is the doctrine that regards the mere fact of belief as more important than its content and dissolves all disputes about dogma by appealing to cultural relativism. Thus it effectively abolishes the boundaries of all belief systems.
It is a modern trend, and it constitutes by far the most serious doctrinal threat the Church has ever faced — all the more so in that it appears to follow naturally from other movements of opinion officially sanctioned and encouraged among the laity: religious tolerance and ecumenism. '
It is a measure of the crisis in Roman Catholicism today that theological pluralism is gaining legitimacy even in highly respected theological circles assumed by many to be orthodex. A sign of its diffusion throughout the Church is the concern felt in Rome, and expressed by Pope Paul in his Apostolic Exhortation of December, 1974.
But Pope Paul is haunted by the ghost of Pope John, and his condemnation of theological pluralism stands little chance of competing with that open-hearted carelessness which characterised the pronouncements of his charismatic predecessor.
When they are condemned by Paul, the pluralists turn to John's address at the opening of the Vatican Council and translate his encouragement to seek new literary expressions of belief into a denial that there can be any criterion for judging belief. All beliefs are valid in their own way — except, of course, Pope Paul's belief that they are not. In the religious world of theological pluralism, the boundaries have disappeared and the centre is everywfiere.
Beliefs, like cooking, may be interesting, even stimulating, but they are never true of false. Not that the pluralists would ever make their position so explicit.
It is a consequence of their philosophy that whereas once they agonised like Newman, tormented by doubt, now they see clearly and can assent with equanimity to the Virgin Birth, Infallibility and even the most exotic doctrines that Catholic history can throw at them.
Like Thomas the Apostle, they have had all doubt removed in the blinding light of the revelation — not of Christ but of the philosopher Wittgenstein.
The argument is simple and disarming, and it was put with admirable brevity in an article by Thomas Corbishley, the noted Jesuit and theologian in the Catholic Herald of November 28, We live in a pluralist society. A theology which reflects this state of affairs is desirable, even inevitable.
Whereas the Fathers of the Church who forged the content of belief had a naive and crude picture of the world which coloured their theological formulations, our different world requires a plurality of perspectives: "There is a need for different statements to be made about the same underlying fact."
If theologians try to express the truth of Catholic doctrine in novel ways they are really acting no differently from medieval theologians whose diverging Viewpoints on central doctrinal matters led to passionate disagreement. The message is simple: a different world, a different language, but "the same basic Faith."
It is remarkable that a doctrine like this should be so diffused among Catholics in Europe and the United States, given the radical challenge to orthodoxy lurking under its surface. What is even more extraordinary is that theologians claiming to be orthodox should stake their reputations on a philosophy which is fundamentally antagonistic to traditional theology and not merely a modification of it in the light of changed circumstances.
Even if it is true that we live in a pluralist society, there is no logical reason why that should entail a
pluralist theology. It is certainly true that we live in a capitalist society —should that also determine our theology?
A pluralist society is one in which the tension between recognisably distinct interest groups is managed, not dissolved. If theology must reflect society then it should be pluralist in that sense.
The concern for harmony at all costs, for embracing the world in a single, theological vision, is the core of the pluralist theology — its soft centre that exposes the utter vacuity of the position. What sort of theology is it that claims to solve problems by simply dissolving them?
The point of theological pluralism is that "the same basic Faith" which is alleged to unite Catholics in fact does nothing of the sort. Being emptied of content it unites everyone, from Karl Marx to Pope Paul, Thomas Aquinas to Wittgenstein.
The effect of refusing to discriminate between beliefs is theological atomism, not pluralism. Far from achieving unity, its effect is to destroy the unity which already exists in the simpleminded search for the unity of mankind. We are all one in Christ because it is too difficult to find an appropriate language to sort out our differences.
Language is the Eucharist of the theological pluralists, the source of bewitchment and unity where divisions are magically dissolved by the invocation of cultural relativism and the repetition of the formula "ultimate reality."
"Words like 'begotten', 'came down from Heaven', 'descended into Hell' can be positively misleading," says Corbishley. Yes, indeed they can! And so can words like "ultimate reality" and "theological pluralism."
From the valid premises that truth is manifold and language ambiguous, pluralists jump to the absurd conclusion that all view points are valid and exploit the ambiguity of language to avoid saying anything that could be disputed.
Theological pluralism is a nonsense in any religion. It is all the more remarkable nonsense in a Church which for centuries has kept its boundaries of orthodoxy in relatively sharp focus and now finds itself blurring not just at the edges but even at the centre.
No doubt its exaggerated claims to embody the whole truth and its religious intolerance of other faiths are now taking their toll. But Catholics are not the only pluralists. It is an ecumenical venture.
The search for Christian unity carries within it the seeds of pluralism.If you find difficulty in uniting with other Christians, why not try it with all theists?
And when that doesn't work call in the Marxists, Buddhists, Humanists, Manchester United — anyone as long as they look like a religion — mix them up with a large dollop of linguistic philosophy and half-baked sociology, and before you know it you have solved all theological problems and achieved a unity beyond your wildest dreams.
The problem about unity, in politics as in religion, is not the dissolution of boundaries but which boundaries and what sort of relations with other groups. This involves the recognition of conflict as a reality and conflicting ideas as an element of that reality, not as a mere reflection of life-styles.
Theological pluralists have their own theory about conflict which should disqualify them for ever from seeking unity with Marxists: all conflict is about language, not about class, still less ideas.
It is sometimes claimed that theological pluralism is not as silly as it appears: that what is at issue is a shift in religious consciousness from beliefs to ethics, from the identification of a Christian in terms of his profession of faith to his Christian behaviour as a mark of religious belonging. Leaving aside the questionable attempt to dissociate beliefs from morality, it is not true that a clear ethical identity is envisaged. In ethics as in doctrine, the bewitchment of' language has left the pluralist impotent before the task of saying anything which could be contradicted.
Ethical formulations, like doctrinal, have progressed up the ecumenical ladder to the highest point of generality and vacuity and Christians find themselves enjoined to practise "selffulfilment" as a mark of their identity — not just on Sundays, mind you, but whole-hearted commitment.
This is a far cry from the crude mentality of the old moralists who thought they could distinguish between true statements about God and false, between moral behaviour and immoral, and felt that Catholic distinctiveness as a group had something to do with that.
But then, as Fr Corbishley says, "one theologian's account of ultimate reality is not necessarily truer than another's." Who could dispute that?