Monday, October 10, 2011

The Dictatorship of Relativism

By Fr. Terry Donahue, CC – October 9, 2011 –

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – Isaiah 25:6-10, Phil 4:12-14,19-20, Mt 22:1-14

Today I’d like to speak with you about what Pope Benedict XVI calls the Dictatorship of Relativism. But first let’s define relativism, and in particular, moral relativism.

What is Moral Relativism?

Some truths are relative. For example, if I say, “Chocolate ice cream is delicious. It’s the best!” that is a statement about my personal tastes, so it is subjective. Taste can vary according to the individual, and I won’t fault someone for liking vanilla better! Subjective truths are based on internal preferences. They can change according to our feelings.

Other truths are absolute. For example, if I say, “2+2=4” and someone else says, “I believe that 2+2=5!” I can say “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Because that’s an objective truth from mathematics. Objective truths are realities in the external world that we discover. We cannot change them according to our internal feelings.

Moral relativism holds that all moral truths (about what is right and wrong) are subjective, like our personal taste in ice cream. A moral relativist believes that there are no universal moral rules that apply to everyone, everywhere.

The opposite of moral relativism is moral absolutism, which holds that there are moral rules which are universally binding on everyone, which are not a matter of personal conviction, but are objective truths that we discover. (Francis J. Beckwith & Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air, 1998, p. 28)

Moral Relativism on Campus

Moral relativism is running rampant in our society, especially in universities, colleges and even high schools. Many university students see relativism as a necessary condition for a free society. “The goal isn’t to correct your mistakes and really be right. The goal is not to think that anyone is right at all.” (Relativism, p. 73)

In their book Relativism, Francis Beckwith & Gregory Koukl offer the following dialogue between a high school teacher and her student Elizabeth (based loosely on a real-life exchange):

“Teacher: Welcome, students. This is the first day of class, and so I want to lay down some ground rules. First, since no one has the truth, you should be open-minded to the opinions of your fellow students. Second… Elizabeth do you have a question?

Elizabeth: Yes, I do. If nobody has the truth, isn’t that a good reason for me not to listen to my fellow students? After all, if nobody has the truth, why should I waste my time listening to other people and their opinions? Only if somebody has the truth does it make sense to be open-minded. Don’t you agree?

Teacher: No, I don’t. Are you claiming to know the truth? Isn’t that a bit arrogant and dogmatic?

Elizabeth: Not at all. Rather I think it’s dogmatic, as well as arrogant, to assert that no single person on earth knows the truth. After all, have you met every person in the world and quizzed them exhaustively? If not, how can you make such a claim? Also, I believe it is actually the opposite of arrogance to say that I will alter my opinions to fit the truth whenever and wherever I find it. And if I happen to think that I have good reason to believe I do know the truth and would like to share it with you, why wouldn’t you listen to me? Why would you automatically discredit my opinion before it is even uttered? I thought we were supposed to listen to everyone’s opinion.

Teacher: This should prove to be an interesting semester.

[The class clown chimed in…] Ain’t that the truth!” (Beckwith & Koukl, Relativism, p. 74)

As Catholics we believe that we have the fullness of the truth, not because we’re so smart and have figured it out for ourselves, but because we have received the truth as a gift from a higher authority, from God, the source of all truth, through Jesus Christ. So our claim to know the truth is not arrogance, but in fact requires humility. It takes humility to submit your life to the truth when you discover it.

The Dictatorship of Relativism – Pope Benedict XVI

Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of relativism in his homily during the Conclave in 2005, at a Mass for the election of a new Pope (just before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI). He said that once relativism is embraced by a large portion of society, it then becomes imposed by the state:

“We are building a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” (Cardinal Ratzinger, Deacon of the College of Cardinals, Homily for Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff, 18 April 2005,

In a dictatorship of relativism, relativism is imposed by the state through force of law. Let’s look at an example of how this is playing out in Canada.

Linda Gibbons and “Bubble-Zone” Laws

Have you heard of “Bubble zone” laws? They are laws in Toronto and Vancouver that make it illegal to protest or speak about abortion within a certain distance of an abortion clinic (50m or 18m depending on the location – for more details see

In August 1994, a civil court ordered a temporary injunction against picketing too close to Toronto abortion clinics. Since then, Linda Gibbons has been arrested over 20 times for staging illegal protests in front of Toronto abortion clinics, and has spent nine of the past 17 years in jail. What exactly was her crime? Here is a description of her most recent arrest in August 2011:

“Ms. Gibbons can be seen holding up a poster of a healthy infant with the words: ‘Why Mom? When I have so much love to give.’ She remained silent while five police officers spoke to her about the court order. Ms. Gibbons was then handcuffed and taken into custody.”

(Charles Lewis, “Activist against abortion back in jail,” National Post, see and

Much of the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement is about “Don’t impose your morality on me.” But now the same people are using the coercive power of the state to enforce their morality upon Linda Gibbons and the rest of Canada. It is proponents of the “tolerant” pro-choice view who locked her up in jail for years for peacefully standing on a public sidewalk and advocating for the life of the unborn. That is the Dictatorship of Relativism.

Morality and the Wedding Feast

In the parable of the Wedding Banquet in today’s Gospel (Mt 22:1-14), the King is clearly not a moral relativist! He judges those who killed his servants as “not worthy” to enter the wedding feast (Mt 22:8). At the end of our lives, we will be held accountable for our actions, based on how we responded to the invitation, to the graces we received from God.

Sincere seekers can enter the Kingdom of God!

Sometimes when Catholics hear a priest like me railing against relativism, they can think “Well, I’m a Catholic. I’m in the exclusive club, so I’m good. All these warnings of Jesus don’t apply to me, do they?” Well, Catholics shouldn’t be too quick to assume that…

In a recent homily given in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI commented on Matthew 21 where Jesus says tax collectors and harlots will enter the Kingdom of God before the Pharisees. Benedict translated Jesus’ statement into the present, saying that agnostics (who don’t know if God exists) but are seeking to find out, “those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of their sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting… the faith touch their hearts.”

(Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at Touristic airport, Freiburg im Breisgau, 25 Sep 2011,

The Kingdom of God is not some exclusive club just for Catholics! The Kingdom is radically inclusive of anyone who is sincerely seeking the truth and willing to submit to it when he finds it.

A Call to Action

1) If you realize that your moral compass has been demagnetized by moral relativism, today can be a wake-up call for you.

- Get answers to your nagging moral questions from authoritative sources, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church instead of just going along with the crowd or doing what “feels” right to you.

- Some of you may need to get right with God. Fall on the mercy of the Saviour by repenting of serious sin and make a good confession.

2) Learn how to recognize arguments from moral relativism in speeches, or even in conversation around the water cooler at work. Don’t let the sloppy reasoning of relativism slide by. Challenge it and expose the weakness of relativist arguments.

3) Teach your children that there are moral absolutes – that some things are really right (such as defending the life of the innocent) and some things are really wrong (such as punishing the innocent precisely because they are innocent).


When Linda Gibbons dies and faces judgment seat of God, she will be vindicated. Because she will finally face a just judge who will not condemn her for speaking out in defense of the innocent, who will not imprison her for years for siding with the helpless unborn being dragged off to die.

On that day, the Just King will deliver all those who have been oppressed, maltreated, abandoned and forgotten.

He will “destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples” (Isaiah 25:7).
He will “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
On that day, they will say with one strong voice: “This is our God. We have waited for him, so that he might save us” (Isaiah 25:9).

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