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Relativism and the Rights of Man

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 11, 2007

At the same time the Council of Europe was condemning creationism as a threat to human rights, Pope Benedict was warning against moral relativism for the very same reason. An innocent bystander might be tempted to believe that Catholics are no better than secularists when it comes to attempting to stamp out alien ideas.

As always, however, one must consider the arguments (assuming there are any). The Pope’s argument is that what’s left of Western civilization is shooting itself in the proverbial foot by abandoning natural law in favor of roll-your-own ideas about right and wrong. This is because natural law is not a matter of faith, but a form of moral reasoning “accessible to all rational creatures.” As such, it provides the common ground necessary to a well-ordered, just society.

Without the natural law, there is no objective means of resolving public debates. Legislation becomes “not the search for good but the search for power.” In last week's private address to the International Theological Commission, Benedict noted that ethical relativism is often promoted on the assumption that it guarantees tolerance and mutual respect. To the contrary, he argued, relativism has placed the bonds of society at grave risk: “the fundamental essentials are at stake: human dignity, human life, the institution of the family and the equity of the social order—in other words, the fundamental rights of man.”

This is a far cry from the logic of the Council of Europe and other secularist organizations and ideologues who attempt to dismiss contrary ideas simply by name-calling. Such ideas are always outdated, unscientific, medieval, authoritarian, intolerant, homophobic, puritanical, provincial, or insensitive. And the case is always self-evident; a simple assertion is enough to sweep aside all discussion; dialogue is in short supply. When John Paul II was pope, his ideas were dismissed because one couldn’t really expect someone from the backwaters of Poland to understand the subtleties of modern thought. Now that Benedict is pope, well, it is hard to take a neo-fascist seriously.

Of course, in order for a true discussion to take place, all parties need to be willing to be governed by something other than their passions. But if everything is relative, what else is left?

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