The conjoining of the names of the present Pontiff, the Pope Emeritus and one of the world’s leading moral philosophers poses an interesting challenge. How might one think to relate them? and why would one seek to do so? Should it be in an effort to use the thoughts of each to illuminate the ideas and words of the others? Should we see them as engaged in related tasks of addressing contemporary culture but bringing different interests, experiences, talents, and charisms to bear?

In general it has not been common in recent times to link the names of Popes with those of contemporary philosophers, certainly not with philosophers who are widely known within the secular academy. John Paul II was himself philosophically minded and had some limited knowledge of secular English-language philosophy but that was quite exceptional, and his successors are neither of them philosophers per se, though each had some training in the subject. Benedict XVI was a university professor and published academic writings but in theology, while Pope Francis, though he pursued higher studies in the same field and held positions within Jesuit academic institutions, has spent most of his life as a pastoral and administrative figure.

If one had to compare the addresses of the two Popes, both as Pontiffs and previously, one might be tempted to do so by saying that Benedict is a dialectician and Francis a rhetorician. That would be misleading, however, in part because of the inappropriately pejorative connotation now commonly attached to the term “rhetoric”; but also because the difference in these respects is a matter of degree. Each offers analysis and argument and each seeks to form their propositions and exhortations in modes intended to engage the heart as well as the mind; even so they can be contrasted in respect of these two aspects of structured reasoned discourse.

Alasdair MacIntytre is unusual among contemporary Anglophone philosophers in being deeply knowledgeable about and expert in the employment of dialectical and rhetorical modes. Much of his work begins with a stated or implicit analysis of language, and of speech acts, of what someone is doing in making an utterance, and of the background of assumptions, expectations, and evaluations that enrich or subvert what is said. His study of Marx, of Freud, and of Nietzsche long ago familiarized him with the practices of immanent critique, exposing the internal tensions and even contradictions in discourses, and of modes of subversion of what is said by disclosing the underlying interests and concerns of speakers. He is unusual also in having published philosophical essays on Papal Encyclicals: Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio, both of which were themselves partly philosophical. But what bearing might this have on the effort to understand the meaning or the significance of the public writings of Pope Benedict or Pope Francis?

Without engaging in detailed analysis I think it is possible to relate the concerns of these three about the character of contemporary normative discourse and to draw relevant conclusions about how one might read them free of certain common classifications, and also consider how their shared concerns might be advanced.

Pope Benedict spoke on several occasions about relativism, most famously perhaps on the eve of the 2005 conclave that elected him Pope. In his homily at the opening of that gathering he said "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one's own ego and desires." This was later quoted back to him by the journalist Peter Seewald in one of the interviews that were subsequently gathered in his book Light of the World, in which Pope Benedict expands on the theme, saying:

It is obvious that the concept of truth has become suspect. Of course it is correct that it has been much abused. Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth. To that extent people are afraid when someone says, "This is the truth", or even "I have the truth." We never have it; at best it has us. No one will dispute that one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. But simply to dismiss it as unattainable is really destructive.

A large proportion of contemporary philosophies, in fact, consist of saying that man is not capable of truth. But viewed in that way, man would not be capable of ethical values, either. Then he would have no standards. Then he would only have to consider how he arranged things reasonably for himself, and then at any rate the opinion of the majority would be the only criterion that counted.

These remarks come in the context of a short conversation and are inevitably rather general but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as rhetorical (in the pejorative sense) or detached from what academic philosophers have actually argued. Even if one sets aside ‘deconstructive hermeneutics’, ‘weak-thought’ and other outgrowths of radical French and German post-phenomenological philosophies, one finds prominent Anglophone philosophers espousing the sort of position Benedict criticizes—and in at least one case doing so in explicit and extended contradiction of him, even citing the same part of the pre-conclave homily. In this regard I would encourage readers to look at the late Richard Rorty’s posthumously-published lecture An Ethics for Today—subtitled (somewhat ironically and, in light of what I am about to quote, provocatively) Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion—in which, having quoted Cardinal Ratzinger, as was, on “[our] building a dictatorship of relativism” Rorty writes as follows:
 [The view put forward by the Church is that] ideals are valid only when grounded in reality…Relativists are those who believe we would be better off without such notions as unconditional moral obligations grounded in the structure of human existence ... Is there such a thing as the structure of human existence, which can serve as a moral reference point? Or, do we human beings have no moral obligations except helping one another satisfy our desires thus achieving the greatest possible amount of happiness ... There is nothing already in existence to which our moral ideals should try to correspond ... The answer to the question ‘are some human desires bad’ is ‘no’, but some desires do get in the way of our project of maximizing the overall satisfaction of desire ... There is no such thing as an intrinsically evil desire [my emphasis].

The opposition between Benedict and Rorty was clear to the latter and he wanted to make it clear to his hearers and readers also. In light of prominent and sustained representations of Pope Francis as a “liberal” in contrast to Benedict as a “conservative” one might, however, wonder where the new Pontiff might stand in relation to relativism. We need not speculate, as he has spoken on the matter explicitly and publicly.

Francis was elected Pope on the 13th of March 2013. Ten days later he addressed the Vatican Diplomatic Core, i.e., the Ambassadors sent to Rome to represent their countries to the Holy See.  He spoke as follows:

Through you, indeed, I encounter your peoples, and thus in a sense I can reach out to every one of your fellow citizens, with their joys, their troubles, their expectations, their desires … As you know, there are various reasons why I chose the name of Francis of Assisi, a familiar figure far beyond the borders of Italy and Europe, even among those who do not profess the Catholic faith. How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure! After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and more just.

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the "tyranny of relativism", which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.

Here we see both the rejection of relativism and the assertion that moral truth is rooted in facts of human nature. Rorty would not be surprised by this, since he had a better understanding of the inescapable assumptions of Catholic moral theology than most journalistic commentators, including Catholic ones. Nor, as might be suggested, were Francis’s remarks the product of his immediate succession to the Papacy and a consequential requirement to quote approvingly from his predecessor: for 8 months later, in his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he returned to the theme writing under the heading of “Cultural Challenges” as follows:
The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change. As the bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom.” We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data—all treated as being of equal importance —and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.

Alasdair MacIntyre published his first book, Marxism: An Interpretation, 60 years ago, but the work for which he is best known, and that has had greatest influence, is After Virtue, first published in 1981. The seeds of it lay in his deep dissatisfaction with the kind of thinking that had dominated academic moral philosophy since his own student days and that had been communicated to those educated in humanities in the leading universities. He had previously been influenced by European critiques of bourgeois thought, but in writing A Short History of Ethics (1966) MacIntyre had also become convinced of the idea that an equally profound and possibly as unbridgeable a gap lay between modern secular ethics and the non-religious ethics of the ancient world, as lay between the former and Christian ethics.

In her great and enduringly interesting essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” published in 1958 in Philosophy (the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy) Anscombe had argued that secular ethics over the previous two hundred years had gone on using essentially religious concepts of duty and obligation that, detached from the idea of Divine commands, no longer made sense, and she suggested that one might try to refound a common morality on the Greek idea of virtue as pertaining to the promotion of the human good. MacIntyre was taken with Anscombe’s analysis of displaced language but carried it further to suggest that the very terminology of virtue was itself homeless and adrift floating alongside the flotsam of other once-integrated ethical systems.

This is not the occasion to chart the subsequent course of MacIntyre's thinking but it is relevant to note first that he subsequently converted to the Catholic faith, and second that he has had a long and sustained debate with “relativism.” Suffice it to say that MacIntyre repudiates the idea not only that any position is as good as any other, an idiocy that Rorty also rejected, but he rejects too that which Rorty embraced, viz., the claims that there is nothing in reality to which our moral ideals should try to correspond, and that there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad desire. MacIntyre shares with Benedict and Francis three central beliefs: first, that contemporary Western culture is at sea when it comes to thinking about the foundations of morality; second, that it is characterised by a pervasive relativism; and third, that this relativism is not only “cognitive” but is also affective and practical.

I want to end this short discussion by suggesting that there is a fourth belief that unites the Popes and the philosopher; and by proposing that if their ideas are to be properly understood among Catholics and carried forward by them in cultural engagement with the secular world then there needs to be a radical change in a common style of Catholic commentary, particularly as that commentary developed in the United States and spread from there across the Anglosphere, and more widely still.

The fourth belief is that to persuade those with whom one is in wholesale disagreement about the nature and content of morality it is not enough simply to state one’s position, or even to argue rationally for it; one has also to expose the confusions and contradictions involved in the thought of the other side. This involves both immanent critique: demonstrating the inadequacy of their concepts even in their own terms and for their chosen purposes; and calling ethical thinkers to account where they are disengaged from the realities of moral life. Demonstrating confusion, contradiction and bad faith is only likely to be properly effective, however, if it is done in a spirit of charity and not intellectual combat: done for the other out of a belief in their underlying human desire to be and to do good.

This brings me finally to what I called “a common style of Catholic commentary”—deliberately allowing for ambiguity as between commentary on Catholic matters and commentary by Catholics. There is a particular aspect of press representation of Catholicism in general, and of Popes in particular, that is problematic quite apart from whether it is critical or favourable; and that is the almost universal practice of speaking of “conservatives” and “liberals,” and less frequently of “traditionalists” and “progressives.” The latter pair tend to be used more by some Catholics themselves, which is worse since they ought to know better. These two pairs of contrasting descriptions are drawn from politics and from cultural classification and are not as such religious categories. Their use is an importation from political news coverage and it derives in recent times from North America.

When a new U.S. President comes into office he surrounds himself with staff who are signed up to his policies and there is a clear-out of those associated with his predecessor. This is always so if the Presidents are of different parties but it happens to some degree even when they are on the same side. American commentators are so used to this and to depicting leaders as more or less conservative or liberal that they thoughtlessly apply this distinction to the issue of the Papacy or other levels of leadership in the Church.  On this basis we have to endure a narrative according to which John Paul II was conservative, Benedict XVI was an arch-conservative, and traditionalist, and Pope Francis is a liberal and progressive. And since the opinion-forming media is itself liberal and progressive, or prides itself on being such, then it thinks it sees in Pope Francis a like-minded leader. This explains the headline accounts of his interviews as announcing policy change and commentary pieces speculating on revisions and perhaps abandonments of old teachings. Such a level of media reporting and reflection is lazy, ignorant, and wishful and it rises to the level of scandal when it is perpetrated by Catholic commentators.

I have shown that the two Popes, like MacIntyre, are concerned by a degradation in moral thought effected by relativism; but equally all three see a need for cultural critique. That critique has no place for and will be inhibited by defining itself in terms of or in relation to “conservatism” or “liberalism,” “traditionalism” or “progressivism.” Indeed the ubiquity of those terms and the insensibility they induce in those who favour them are part of what such a critique needs to combat. It will not be an easy task, but the examples are there to inspire us.