A dozen years ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger coined a memorable phrase. On April 18, 2005, preaching at a Mass just before the conclave of cardinals who’d gathered to choose a successor to the recently deceased Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s doctrine chief warned of the spread of a worldwide “dictatorship of relativism.”
The next day Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. He took the name Benedict XVI. Many others have spoken of the dictatorship of relativism since then. That points to an obvious question: What is relativism?
There are various kinds of relativism, and by no means are all of them bad. For example, there’s a relativism of size: 7 feet tall is very tall for a human being, very short for a giraffe. And a relativism of time: 30 minutes with a toothache are very long, but 30 minutes enjoying music can seem very short.
Cardinal Ratzinger wasn’t referring to relativism like that. He meant moral relativism — the sort that’s expressed by people who, faced with deciding whether a particular action is right or wrong, avoid giving a straight answer by saying something like, “It all depends on what you believe,” or, “If you think it’s right, it’s right for you.”
Relativism in culture
As a general theory of morality, relativism operates on the assumption that no kind of action, no matter how heinous it may be, is always and everywhere wrong. At most, a consistent relativist can only say, “I can’t imagine circumstances in which I’d do that myself, but for somebody else ... it all depends.”
Moral relativism comes in two versions — cultural relativism and individual relativism, sometimes called “subjectivism.”
Cultural relativism is an offshoot of the anthropology of earlier times. Finding that some group or other had approved and practiced something like cannibalism or ritual prostitution, a cultural relativist of the old school could only say that if the people of a culture thought what they were doing was right, then it was right for them.
But would this apply to the Nazis and their program for the extermination of Jews? From the perspective of cultural relativism, it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t.
Be that as it may, contemporary anthropology now undermines cultural relativism. In every culture in every time and place, it seems, certain basic human goods have been recognized and cherished. These are goods like knowledge, friendship, play, religion, health and life.
Obviously, different cultures have expressed their recognition of these goods in different ways. But the human goods have been recognized just the same. Confronted with that fact, the case for cultural relativism evaporates, although the confused thinking it encourages lingers on.
Relativism has a large part in culture war disputes over things like abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. It’s widely believed to provide the necessary basis for the practice of tolerance in a pluralistic society.
Where individual relativism is concerned, this mode of moral reasoning also is dominant today in the popular culture of America and other secularized Western countries. In its view, moral judgments are expressions of personal feeling — “I feel good about it” — rather than judgments of objective truth.
Based on in-depth interviews, sociologist Alan Wolfe concluded that in this relativistic worldview, the Ten Commandments were subordinated to an all-encompassing 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not judge.” To judge somebody else’s choice as wrong is arrogant. (That, too, is a moral judgment of course. But who said relativists were consistent?)
This is what Cardinal Ratzinger had in mind in warning that firm convictions today are frequently dismissed as “fundamentalism,” while many people consider relativism “the only attitude that can cope with modern times.”
A lot of people unquestionably have adopted relativistic thinking today. But relativism itself is hardly new. You find it, for instance, in “The Prince,” the how-to-do-it handbook in which 16th-century Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli counseled rulers: “It is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious and upright, and also to be so; but the mind should remain so balanced that were it needful not to be so, you should be able and know how to change to the contrary.”
Relativism makes it impossible to criticize any practice on moral grounds, since no way of acting is intrinsically wrong. If a terrorist believes it’s right to kill innocent people, then it’s right for him. Similarly, if some people think it’s right to kill unborn babies by abortion, who can say it’s wrong for them?
In the end, moral reasoning grounded in respect for human goods is the only answer to thinking like that.
Seek the truth
The Catholic Church takes a dim view of relativism, insisting that people should form their consciences in light of objective moral truth — truth that they have a duty to seek and accept. The first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans sketches the argument for natural law morality. Over the centuries, the Church has repeated and developed its doctrine on conscience and morality at length.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its section on conscience says, “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience” (No. 1798).
Today, relativism is a serious problem in regard to the law.
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), John Paul II faulted the relativism underlying laws that violate human life. “When a parliamentary or social majority decrees that it is legal ... to kill unborn human life,” he wrote, “is it not really making a ‘tyrannical’ decision with regard to the weakest and most defenseless of human beings?” (No. 70).
Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”), his 1993 encyclical on moral principles, provided a comprehensive treatment of this subject. Here John Paul strongly upheld the view that some actions are intrinsically wrong and can never be rightly chosen, regardless of the intentions or circumstances of someone choosing them.
In doing so, he also cautioned explicitly against “an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism,” adding: “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (No. 101).
At a time when the dictatorship of relativism often seems to be calling the shots, this is something that needs to be taken seriously by leaders and people in the United States and the rest of the world.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.