During the pre-conclave Mass, just before he was elected Pope, Benedict XVI addressed the conclave of cardinals on the subject of relativism. He talked about how the world was “moving towards a dictatorship of relativism.”
This is supreme irony, for the man who many think of as a “dictator” is himself fervently opposed to any form of dictatorship. In his book Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated: “Relativism, in certain aspects, has become the real religion of modern man.” It approaches, he went on to say, “The most profound difficulty of our day.” These austere words cannot be taken lightly, for Benedict XVI is a most careful thinker and not given to exaggeration.
On June 6, 2005, Pope Benedict told a group of educators, “Today, a particular insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her ‘ego.’”
If people do not believe in truth, they will end up submitting to tyranny. The absolutization of the relative is, in the end, totalitarianism.
Benedict’s initial encyclical on love, Deus Caritas Est, was generally well received. But even in this document, he pointed out that the God of love is also the God of truth. What good is it, we may well ask, if we are warmed by love and yet left in the dark without the light of truth? Relativism, which despairs of achieving truth, does not offer light. It is the dark path of dictatorship.
We need truth for two important reasons: 1) Because love presupposes truth. We cannot love without truth, the truth of what we love. Love is not blind. It depends on illuminating knowledge. 2) Because truth makes us free. In the absence of truth, we see nothing more than shadows. We are prisoners in Plato’s “cave.” As such, we are vulnerable to the power and seduction of the tyrant. We need truth to be educated for freedom and the capacity to be moral persons and responsible citizens.
We like love but are fearful of truth. With truth comes rules, restrictions and restraints. We think that truth compromises our freedom.
G.K. Chesterton was being characteristically insightful when he said, in What’s Wrong With the World: “Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”
Benedict XVI, during World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, had the following to say about relativism: “It [relativism] does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true.”
Ethicist and philosopher Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
About This Series
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of what a Pope is. On the rock of Peter our Church is built. To him and his successors — Christ’s vicars — have been entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Christ prayed for him that his faith might not fail, that he might strengthen his brethren.
The untold story right now in the media is how much God has worked through Pope Benedict XVI in his first five years as Pope. That’s why we began to commission short essays to honor him for his anniversary just a few weeks ago.
As the media tries in vain to pin the lion’s share of the blame for the developing abuse scandal on him, those essays are now taking on a meaning and depth we couldn’t have imagined. We’re fortunate to have this man leading us, and these tributes tell why.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.
— The Editors