Pope Benedict XVI launched the Year of St. Paul on June 28 during vespers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Thus began a new year with an ecclesial focus on Christianity’s most prolific apostle.
Interestingly, less than a week prior to the commencement of the Pauline Year, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a summary of its most recent survey. In this study, 78% of the 35,000 Americans queried affirmed the existence of “absolute standards of right and wrong.” Nonetheless, only 29% of these said that they relied on guidance from their religion to adjudicate between right and wrong, with the majority (52%) relying upon subjective “practical experience and common sense.”
In other words, it would seem that most Americans believe that there is such a thing as objective truth, but few seem to rely upon an objective means to find it.
Among the Catholics surveyed, 77% claimed that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion,” and 57% of these said that Catholic teaching should “adjust to [fit] new circumstances” and that the Church needs to “adopt modern beliefs and practices.”
As I read the findings of the Pew survey, followed by the Pope’s Pauline homily a few days later, I was struck by how fitting it is that in God’s sovereign timing these two things should coincide. How remarkable that at the beginning of a year dedicated to the great Apostle to the Gentiles — the apostle who spared nothing in his efforts “to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth” (Titus 1:1) — that we should be reminded of the rampant relativism which remains malignantly entrenched in our society.
Ours is a culture antagonistic to (or, at least, inconsistent about) the notion of objective truth. And yet, we have embarked on a year dedicated to a man who sacrificed his life for love of the truth.
Ironic? Perhaps. Coincidental? Hardly. For what better person is there than St. Paul to liberate us from what Pope Benedict has referred to as the “dictatorship of relativism”? After all, was it not St. Paul who exhorted his readers to “guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit” (2 Timothy 1:14)?
The findings of the Pew study remind us that one of the greatest challenges facing the Catholic Church in America is the loss of truth. In some ways this is nothing new. Truth, because it is related to the very being of God himself, has always been under attack. In fact, as students of history and philosophy will be quick to point out, relativism itself is quite old (remember Protagoras and the sophists). There is certainly “nothing new under the sun,” and the enduring presence of relativism in our contemporary culture merely verifies this dictum.
But this begs the question: Why, exactly, is relativism so dangerous? Sure it leaves an open door for people wishing to escape those Church teachings commonly perceived as being less than desirable (e.g. contraception), but what’s the big deal? After all, why can’t I “pick and choose” a few “minor” teachings to sweep under the rug with my subjective broom, while still qualifying for the “good Catholic” award because I adhere to the “really important” Church doctrines?
There’s no real harm in this, is there?
Actually, there is. The fundamental danger with relativism is not that it will permit couples to contracept (among other things). No. The danger is that relativism is intrinsically and necessarily insular. It isolates people. It destroys the relationality and the community we need in order to be fully and happily human. It erects barriers between us and reality, making us victims of ourselves.
In short, relativism isolates and it enslaves.
Now, this point is counterintuitive and may strike some as odd. Doesn’t relativism enable freedom (albeit, sometimes it leads to a warped freedom, but still a real freedom, nonetheless)? Doesn’t it let people discover who they really are, free from oppressive rules and external pressures? Is not community cultivated by relativism because it enables peaceful interaction with those from contradictory perspectives?
Not exactly. Relativism, perhaps more than any other societal mindset, fails to deliver its promised rewards. It cuts its adherents off from everything (and everyone) else. There is no one more alone than a true relativist.
Why? Well, relativism works off the principle that “truth” is a fluid concept that is determined by one’s own subjective preferences, experiences and perspectives. Pope Benedict described relativism as a “dictatorship that does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” In other words, I determine truth for myself. You determine truth for yourself. I create my reality. You create your reality. And never the twain shall meet.
And that’s exactly the problem: never the twain shall meet. Ever. I am completely cut off from all others as long as I view reality through a relativistic lens. It’s, well … just me. What I think. What I want. What I prefer. What I create. It’s me and my world. Period.
I’ll acknowledge the validity of your beliefs — but only for you. I have my subjective bubble. You have your subjective bubble. And because we both deny a common, shared reality that exists whether we like it or not, we are completely cut off from everything else.
Relativism is an isolationistic philosophy. Community for the relativist is merely accidental and facile, even at best.
This is why relativism is so dangerous. It runs contrary to the very foundation of our Catholic identity. Our faith is intrinsically relational. Indeed, the Eucharist is itself referred to as holy Communion, which is nothing less than the center of reality itself. Our Lord didn’t come to leave us as isolated orphans (John 14:18). He came to make us God’s beloved children who share in the loving reality of his truth. The Eternal Son assumed human nature so that we might receive his divine nature and participate in the sacred fellowship of the communio sanctorum (the communion of saints).
This is why relativism is so deadly. Truth unites. Relativism divides. Truth creates community grounded in an objective, shared reality. Relativism erects individuals isolated and enslaved by the very “I” they are seeking to safeguard and liberate.
The Catholic Church is commonly viewed as being an oppressive institution that prevents people from discovering who they really are. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only in such a community that one will be able to find his true identity. Real solidarity — true and authentic communion — is absolutely essential to a happy life.
This is the great challenge that lies before all Catholics as they seek to follow St. Paul’s example and evangelize the world. Tragically, the majority of young people in our contemporary culture have fallen prey to the clutches of this relativistic slavery. There is a very real sense in which people need to be converted to truth before they can be converted to Christ, the truth incarnate.
It is only by preaching the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) that the world will come to recognize the Truth who is Love (1 John 4:16).
May this year of St. Paul help us to recognize the real danger of being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). May it liberate us from a dictatorship far worse than that of ancient pharaoh for a freedom far greater than even that of the Exodus — the freedom of Our Lord himself: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
Christopher Cuddy is a
research associate of the St. Paul
Center for Biblical Theology.