Relativism is pervasive and widespread. So much so, that it affects people on a subliminal level, noted Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
5 June 2014
Pope Benedict XVI often warned of the dangers of relativism in contemporary western society. So widespread is its negative influence, he noted, that it affects people on a subliminal level. People often unconsciously ascribe to relativism without fully understanding what it is or even knowing the meaning of the word because it has become the “normal” way to think and act. Consequently, few people remain untouched by this insidious enemy of the truth that is hard at work undercutting the fabric of society.
Termed by Benedict XVI as the “dictatorship of relativism” in order to emphasize the way in which some politicians, educators, and others in leadership roles force relativistic views and policies on others, relativism has leeched its way into numerous aspects of society, especially those involving abstract thought and moral concepts. Examples include religion, human sexuality, the institution of marriage, the sanctity and dignity of human life, artificial birth control, and euthanasia, to name a few.
Relativism undermines the purpose of the human intellect, which is to seek, find and know the truth, most especially the ultimate Truth: God. Consequently, it is not only an affront to human dignity but also damages individuals and society, and labors to prevent people from attaining their destiny in eternal communion with God. At the foundation of relativism is the notion that it matters little what one believes, so long as it works for you. It’s the conviction against all convictions; the claim that absolute truth is nonsense, which is itself a truth claim—albeit a false and ridiculous one.
At the foundation of relativism is the notion that it matters little what one believes, so long as it works for you. It’s the conviction against all convictions; the claim that absolute truth is nonsense, which is itself a truth claim—albeit a false and ridiculous one.
While relativism is poisonous for a number of reasons, it is important to point out that it undermines the very purpose of the human intellect, which is to seek, find, know and embrace the truth, most especially the ultimate Truth: God. To be human is to long for the truth. The human person is created for eternal communion with God; he is, then, created to love the truth because his Creator is Truth Itself. Each person’s origin, life, destiny, and end is inseparably bound up in the ancient and ever-beautiful Truth who established and ordered the universe, the Truth who we call God. To deny the importance of the truth is to deny the wisdom, goodness and unsurpassable magnificence of the Creator.
It’s like the pot saying to the Potter: “I despise you.” It’s also like the pot saying of itself: “I despise you too.”
To treat the truth as plastic, something pliable that can be shaped and discarded at whim is an affront to human dignity. Created in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Christ and destined to eternal communion with the Father—these constitute our dignity as human persons. But relativism seeks to relegate this dignity, the meaning, order, and beauty of the human person to a fantasy, circus-like realm where little or nothing remains meaningful and important because the truth about the human person is no longer sacred. Such a place is a place where human reason is cast to the wind; a chaotic place where no one is safe. In the wake of bending the truth to suit every ill-conceived ideology is not simply a few minor difficulties here and there but found such horrors as the intentional destruction of human life itself in the name of convenience.
Relativism is a deadly poison. One man insists he has absolute power over the weak; another insists such an idea is evil; relativism insists there can be no correct answer to the question, every man is entitled to his opinion, everyone is right and nobody is wrong. Meanwhile, the weak go on losing. Social institutions and structures go on crumbling.
Given its importance, to be a diligent student of the truth is integral to living an authentic and fruitful human life. It is impossible to overemphasize the crucial necessity of becoming a “truth seeker,” for to seek the truth and fall in love with it is to fall in love with God. Loving God is incompatible with thumbing one’s nose at the truth.
Nevertheless, the advance of relativism continues. While a number of social ills are feeding into its growth, the influence of Satan must not be overlooked. Think for a moment about the diabolical cleverness of the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44), the most cunning of creatures (Gen 3:1). Satan is an ancient and highly intelligent student of human nature, as we learn from the Book of Genesis, whose favorite tactic is to seduce his enemy, humankind, by way of making something objectively bad—terrifying even—appear appealing, reasonable, desirable, even pleasurable. When we read the story of Adam and Eve situated in the Edenic Paradise, we find that Satan, represented by the symbol of the serpent, urged Eve to deny her creatureliness.
The devil enticed Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit by promising her that she would become a god without God, saying, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Tragically, Eve found this idea pleasing and saw the tree as “desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Gen 3:6).
After that, humanity suffered the effects of this first, original sin. One of those effects is a darkened intellect. Since then, it is more difficult to acquire and know the truth, which is a perfect environment in which relativism can flourish. Satan remains at work this moment, laboring to convince humankind that truth is insignificant, that man has the power to manufacture truth, that God is unneeded, that we ought to eat the forbidden fruit and deny our creatureliness over and over again.
Of course there are plenty of other reasons for relativism’s popularity. They are humanity’s alone, and have little or nothing to do with the diabolical influences of Satan. Because human nature is wounded by original sin, it is easy to sin. Humankind is attached to its stubbornness, egotism, pride, and opinions and habits and so forth. People can be indifferent to what is of paramount importance. Consequently, next year’s vacation is often allotted more attention than the wonderful journey of discovering what is really true.
Relativistic notions are now presented as the “sensible way to think.” Take for example the subject of homosexual sex-acts. Before beginning, I want to cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which informs Christians that homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (No. 2358). The dignity of every human person is to be honored and protected without exception. Nevertheless, persons who experience homosexual tendencies, which in itself is not a sin, are called to a life of chastity and holiness as is every human person.
Now, we often hear these types of comments: “What’s the big deal with what two consenting adults do in private?” Or, “Who can deny two people the right to express their love?”
What makes these types of ideas insidious is their apparent reasonableness, as if any kind and considerate person who respects others would most certainly agree with them. They are based on an appeal to sexual freedom which, today, is thought of as not only the “sensible way to think” but an absolute human “right.” There is the notion that, when it comes to sex and “love” between consenting adults, nobody can say what is right or wrong, moral or immoral. To do so is considered discriminatory, judgmental, harsh, bigoted.
But there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil. And opposing evil is called charity, not bigotry. Further, what we believe matters because we are created in the image and likeness of God who is Truth. Therefore we are children of the Truth. The manner in which we utilize our intellect must reflect God, not oppose him. Stated another way, we are creatures and God gets to say what reality is, what truth is, not us. Nevertheless, insisting that unbridled sexual freedom is a “good” thing or a “right” or “no big deal” is destructive to individuals and society.
For example, viewing homosexual sex acts as “normal” or “good” causes people’s views on the institution of marriage to erode over time. This is an inevitable byproduct of misunderstanding or rejecting the design and purpose of human sexuality. Once the idea takes hold that the purpose of human sexuality is strictly for pleasure, sex becomes a means of self-gratification and thus is used as one pleases. It is reduced to a selfish act, which removes it from the ordered context of marriage, self-giving love and the generation of new life as God intended it.
Sex is, then, pushed outside of the context of marriage and family and children, which means marriage becomes something thought to be unnecessary, restrictive, and burdensome. It gets in the way of sex. Also, if sex is purely for pleasure, and pregnancy is perceived as unpleasurable, then children are seen as foreign to the sexual union of man and woman as if sex and children can’t go together. Pleasure becomes the god; the generation of new life becomes the demon; artificial birth control becomes the savior.
Some, with these disparaged views on sex, seek to redefine marriage to be nothing more than a social arrangement, which opens the door to radical, damaging possibilities with far reaching consequences.
Relativists will pose this question: “What’s the big deal?” That is, why is marriage so important? It is important because the marital union of one man and one woman is the God-authored institution through which children are born and families, which are the “original cell of social life” (CCC 2207), are built and nourished. The “authority, stability, and life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society” (Ibid.).
Marriage is not only needed, it is integral to the future health of humanity. No marriage between man and woman equals no stable atmosphere in which children are born and families are raised and nourished. The result is the collapse of society. This is indeed what we are witnessing in the U.S.
Relativizing homosexual sex-acts is but one example of the dangers of relativism. There are, of course, many others. I used that as an example in order to show how relativizing one moral concept tends to distort understanding in other critical areas. The point is, adherence to relativism is inflicting serious harm.
What is the solution? Although the question is complex, we must first begin with Jesus Christ. In opening our hearts to Jesus and entering into a dynamic, self-giving relationship with him, we are changed, transformed by his Spirit. We notice that truth becomes something important to us, something by which we desire to live. We become a people of God who live the language of truth.
People will say, of course, that citing Jesus as the solution is a simplistic one. However, it is not. The Second Vatican Council noted that “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). When we reflect on the fact that God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man, we gain insight into how the Word made flesh is himself the definitive answer to every pressing human question.
“Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5), said Jesus. In giving ourselves over to Jesus and his teaching, we become intentional disciples of the truth. Strengthened by Christ, we then have the ability to fight diligently and effectively against relativism. It is in and through and with Christ that we not only change the world but live a fully human life as children of the Truth.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.