Action Alert!

Enslaved by the Dictatorship of Relativism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 17, 2010

I flirted with Absurdophobia as a rallying cry, but clearly the “dictatorship of relativism” is a far more serious contender. Pope Benedict has used this phrase repeatedly, most recently in Scotland, in order to focus attention on what Catholics must resist.

“The evangelization of culture is all the more important in our times,” said Benedict in his homily at the Mass in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park on Thursday, “when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.” He continued:

For this reason I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful, in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum. Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.

It would seem, at first glance, that relativism could not be the source of any sort of dictatorship, but the Pope has repeatedly said otherwise. This is because relativism is untenable as a philosophical outlook, and so it can only be held as a kind of psychological excuse or cover for the failure to seek the truth. The most common reason people fail to seek the truth is that they do not wish to change their lives. They are clinging to choices and even habits which they at least dimly suspect a serious engagement with truth would require them to abandon. To preserve their own comfort, they instinctively try to extinguish those voices which call them to account.

In the last analysis, relativism is an excuse for sin. It is at least highly likely that far more people know this than are actually willing to admit it. But it is certain, at the very least, that those who are attached to sin instinctively recoil against the defense of virtue. Even those who live virtuously are perceived as a negative judgment on themselves. Just when a sinner should be losing his life to save it, he instead lashes out against virtue in a perverse sort of self-defense. Our Lord put the matter succinctly when He explained the way things stood to Nicodemus:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (Jn 3:19-20)

Again, this need not be a conscious decision; it is often merely instinctive. And in defense of this instinctive opposition to the light—just to be as fair as possible—we must admit that there is a limited logic on its side. After all, if you have been taught (or have convinced yourself) that there is no absolute truth—and certainly no absolute morality—you will have a tendency to regard those who argue to the contrary as killjoys and trouble-makers, obnoxious busybodies who create problems where none need to exist. Since no one lives as a consistent relativist, this veneer of reason is very thin, but it can nonetheless be sincere. Thus, even though we may understand the wellsprings of human inclinations in these matters, we need not attribute bad faith or a deliberate commitment to evil to those who appear to embrace the gospel of relativism.

But their relativism will become a dictatorship nonetheless, an insistence that no person and no institution has the right to interfere with the way of life and ideas which “work for me”. Again, to preserve the relativist comfort zone, all the instincts I have mentioned conspire together to eliminate the influence of contrary voices—to shut them up, or to shut them down.

The Pope knows quite a lot about this dictatorship, and he also knows, first, that it is necessary for all of us to resist it and, second, that the best resistance is fearless personal witness to the good. Benedict made this point again when, after encouraging the laity to be examples of faith in both word and deed—that is, in both articulating the case for truth and living it—he next addressed the clergy.

In the same homily, to Scotland’s bishops, he said: “One of your first pastoral duties is to your priests and to their sanctification. As they are alter Christus to the Catholic community, so you are to them. Live to the full the charity that flows from Christ….” Then, to Scotland’s priests, he said: “You are called to holiness and to serve God’s people by modeling your lives on the mystery of the Lord’s cross. Preach the Gospel with a pure heart and a clear conscience. Dedicate yourselves to God alone….”

Finally, in his closing exhortation to youth, the Pope explained the goal of this resistance against the dictatorship of relativism:

There is only one thing that lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society. Put aside what is worthless and learn of your own dignity as children of God.

It may be paradoxical that the dictatorship of relativism is a work of slavery. But then sin is slavery, and this explains very well why people behave so irrationally under its influence. Since only Christ saves, it is also true that only Christ frees. Fidelity to Christ, like all resistance to dictatorship, is not only a work of Faith: It is a work of freedom.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 20, 2010 10:53 AM ET USA

    It certainly is tyranny these days, and the increasingly common incidents of "thought police" among organizations as recently occurred in the NFL is a frightening trend. The wisdom of previous societal and cultural standards of dress and behavior is mocked, and the consequences are disturbing.It is sad to see the blissful ignorance of so many who do not know the beauty of "the light"- the sacramental life of grace Our Lord offers to all through His gift- the Church. Thanks for the commentary.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 18, 2010 7:46 AM ET USA

    Hope you don't mind being quoted on my Facebook page today, Jeff. My entire friend list needs to hear this!