The impending impeachment hearings of the president give rise to opinions about private morality that reflect just how far down the road of moral relativism we have gone. The object of popular opinion seems to be to talk about moral wrongs so that no one is uncomfortable. The thinking goes that the American people should not be burdened with this trouble for one more minute than necessary and the president's actions were not that serious anyway, so let us move on.
The growth of moral relativism is not just an American phenomenon. In sophisticated international circles, tolerance is de rigueur. People who make distinctions between “good” and “better,” or “true” and “false,” are troublesome in matters of faith and politics, and maybe even “bigots” — because they insist they know truth.
One of the first headlines I read during a recent trip to London was “Bishops decree that non-Catholics can no longer receive Eucharist.” I thought that sounded correct, but why a decree? It seems it is common practice at Catholic Masses in England for non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive Communion, Prime Minister Tony Blair being the most notable example. Basil Cardinal Hume said that this practice must stop, as it was giving the impression that one need not believe all that the Church teaches to receive the Eucharist, and that the Church no longer placed a priority on unity of belief. This casual attitude also contributed to disrespect for the sacrament. Letters to the editor from Catholics and Protestants alike bewailed the cardinal's meanness and lack of tolerance. The lax practice was acceptable; the return to correct teaching was not.
I observed another example of cultural relativism during a conversation at a dinner party with a Christian man about how churches could begin to renew themselves — especially the Anglican Church, where so few people attend. To his way of thinking, Christianity's problem is specificity, asking one to believe many precise truths and doctrines about God and man. The Church teaches people to conform to a specific way of life, which he found constraining. As an alternative, he proposed, Islam is tolerant of many teachers, including Christ. (He did not mention Islamic fundamentalist fatwas, the practice of killing those with whom you disagree.) This way, one can wander from one wise man to another, collecting a grab bag of beliefs. My dinner partner considered this a “freeing experience.”
When people lose the sense of the truth of religion or morality, they have lost the essential element at the heart of both.
This man is a relativist and does not know it. He has accepted the attitude that freedom means “do not burden me with too many distinctions,” just let me choose what I will believe. This smorgasbord approach puts emphasis on the one doing the choosing, rather than on the truths of religion and their connection with life. For this man, the less defined the religious position, the better it was. Vagueness, to him, gives wiggle room, and allows for a spirit of freedom, more than a religion where truths and duties are clearly spelled out.
His attitude, a feeling that the duties and distinctions of religion are a burden, is not uncommon. When people lose the sense of the truth of religion or morality, they have lost the essential element at the heart of both. Both culture and religion suffer from losing their sense of direction, which is founded in the objective order of truth. Cultural standards are no longer guided by truth, but by whatever the dominant culture will buy, and religion comes under the sway of culture instead of transforming it. The Pope's new encyclical on Faith and Reason sheds light on this modern affliction.
Of course there was no escaping discussion of President Clinton's troubles — the epitome of cultural relativism. British opinion ran the gamut from his actions are not impeachable, to speculating that, if he were a European head of state, he would be gone by now. Les Hinton, head of News International, expressed admiration for our governmental system, which has the resilience to go through a protracted moral debate. No European nation could sustain such a debate, he said; their political process would not allow it. I made a mental note to remember this remark in the dark days of the hearings in December and January. It may be that American resilience will give the lie to the polls and, at the end of the process, reach a conclusion that will discomfit the relativists.
Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.