In his homily to the 2005 conclave that would soon choose him as the successor of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned those attending, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
This is a warning that Pope Benedict has not tired of repeating during his pontificate.
Relativism is a poison. It attacks our most human capacity, the capacity to seek and know the truth, including the moral truth. A dictatorship of relativism imposes by real cultural force (and even by political force) a no-standard standard, a command that all must imbibe this poison.
At first blush, it would seem contradictory to have relativism united to dictatorship. Isn’t relativism just a healthy dose of humility, a way to cool the intellectual or religious hot-head who insists, “I, only I, have the truth”?
The proof of the pudding of relativism is in the eating. How has it fared?
“In recent years I find myself noting,” Cardinal Ratzinger said in his Without Roots, “how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance. Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It presents itself as the only way to think and speak — if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. … I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.”
That last point is key. While appearing to be the very essence of neutrality and equity — “all views are equal and equally valid” — it actually undermines both the freedom of thought and the freedom of religion. As to the latter, it does so (ironically) as a new religion itself, “a new ‘denomination’ that places restrictions on religious convictions and seeks to subordinate all religions to the super-dogma of relativism.”
As Cardinal Ratzinger noted in his Truth and Tolerance, “relativism … in certain respects has become the real religion of modern man.” It has become, especially in Europe, but now increasingly in America, the religion that stands at the heart of modern secular civilization in the way that Christianity defined the heart of Christendom.
It is the religion, Pope Benedict insists, which the Church must combat in the third millennium for the sake of civilization itself. A civilization built upon dogmatic relativism is one that ensures its own destruction. It is also a civilization in which Christianity — challenging dogmatic relativism with the proclamation that Jesus Christ himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life — must be persecuted.
What is the ultimate source of this dogmatic relativism? I’ll explore Pope Benedict’s thoughts in my next blog post.
Part one of Ben Wiker’s series on the pontificate of Benedict XVI can be found here.