In a recent article in Il Foglio, Vatican expert Paolo Rodari examined similarities between the soon-to-be-beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI. Separated by their homeland, their upbringing, and more than a century, both men nevertheless fought against a similar enemy. While there are certainly differences between the two, at least “one major element unites their thought,” says Rodari – “their aversion to a relativistic society.”
Upon his appointment as cardinal in 1879, Cardinal Newman said, “Religious liberalism is the doctrine according to which there doesn’t exist any positive truth in the religious field, but that any creed is as good as any other; and this is the doctrine that, day after day, is acquiring consistency and vigor.”
Speaking more than a century later upon his election as pope in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI echoed Cardinal Newman’s concern and spoke out against the “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
Almost a decade earlier, then-Cardinal Ratzinger observed that the rush to relativism is particularly prevalent in democratic countries. There’s something inherently democratic about relativism that makes it especially appealing and sensible, he argued: “In the area of politics, this concept is considerably right. There is no one correct political opinion. What is relative – the building up of liberally ordained coexistence between people – cannot be something absolute.
However, there are limits to the utility and appropriateness of democratic relativism:
…with total relativism everything in the political area cannot be achieved either. There are injustices that will never turn into just things (such as, for example, killing an innocent person, denying an individual or groups the right to their dignity or to life corresponding to that dignity) while, on the other hand, there are just things that can never be unjust. Therefore, although a certain right to relativism in the social and political area should not be denied, the problem is raised at the moment of setting its limits.
So what about Americans? Few would argue that we’re not influenced by the dictatorship of relativism. And, following Pope Benedict XVI’s logic, we’re in even more danger given our passion for democracy. Are we really relativists? According to our polling released early this year, we are – or at least we claim to be.
In fact, 56 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “morals are relative; that is, there is no definite right and wrong for everybody.” Looking at the youngest generation, Millennials – ages 18-29 – appeared to be even more relativistic. 64 percent agreed that morals were relative.
Even Catholics aren’t immune to the “dictatorship of relativism.” According to our polling, they’re even more likely to identify as relativists. 63 percent of American Catholics say they’re relative, as do an astounding 82 percent of Catholic Millennials.
Ironically, however, we Americans are pretty lack-luster relativists. When we asked Americans whether a series of 16 actions were “morally acceptable,” “morally wrong,” or “not a moral issue,” a majority of Americans made a moral judgment for every single issue. Not once did a majority of Americans – self-identified relativists or not – declare that a particular action was not a moral issue.
On six issues (cheating, marital infidelity, business decision motivated by greed, abortion, euthanasia, and same sex marriage), less than 1 in 4 Americans acted as good relativists should. In fact, for 14 of the 16 actions, a majority of at least 60 percent said the action was either “morally acceptable,” or “morally wrong.” There were only two issues for which a near majority of Americans withheld judgment: Economic development at the expense of the environment (43 percent), and gambling (48 percent).
Even Millennials made strong moral judgments. Three-quarters of them made a judgment on euthanasia (52 percent saying it was wrong, and 23 percent believing it’s acceptable), and 78 percent made a judgment on abortion (20 percent believe it’s morally acceptable, while 58 percent say it’s wrong).
So while relativism is undoubtedly attractive and pervasive in our modern culture, its impact on individuals is perhaps ironically – even humorously – relative. That is not to say that it has had no impact on individuals, or that its pervasive impact on the culture is meaningless. The “dictatorship of relativism” is exactly that, and as such – like all dictatorships – it is sinister. And we can only expect that as the dictatorship extends itself even further into all corners of American and Western culture, its foot soldiers will fall in line and become true believers.
Thankfully, as Paolo Rodari reminds us, we have the inspiration and guidance of Cardinal Newman, Pope Benedict XVI, and those who will follow in their footsteps, who, like them, will have a deep “aversion to relativism,” and will work to overthrow its dictatorship once and for all.
-Matthew St. John