by John Goerke
Relativism is “the greatest problem of our time.”- Cardinal Ratzinger
“Sometimes, we spend so much time watching our enemies, we forget to watch our friends.” –M (Casino Royale)
Five weeks ago, during a daily Mass here in Fargo, the priest spent much of his sermon outlining the different moral evils of our day. They are no strangers to us: abortion, gay marriage, loss of religious freedom, etc… But, to conclude the lesson he said, “And the biggest problem of our day is…moral relativism. Say it with me, Moral…Relativism.” The congregation repeated the words and I held my head in my hands, feeling slightly guilty for not praying during Mass.
The priest is not alone. In January of this year, I made my way to the conference of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. This organization is often times the one thing standing between college campuses and total spiritual bankruptcy. They are spread across 83 college campuses in the United States, but by not living on any of them, I can assure you that the influence of FOCUS is wider than they know.
The emcee of the event was a man named Chris Stefanick. He is a charismatic, athletic and engaging speaker who specializes in youth ministry, particularly chastity and apologetics. But his major intellectual work is a book called “Absolute Relativism: The New Dictatorship and What To Do About It”. Chris has taken his cue from the Pope Benedict quote above. The 59-page book is published by Catholic Answers, with a foreword from Cardinal Burke.
Attending the FOCUS conference were 6,000 college students from all over the country. During one of the headlining talks, by business guru Pat Lencioni, ‘Absolute Relativism’ was cited as “one of the books to read, if you only read two books this year.” I have forgotten the other book; I was too busy pondering what sort of miserable year it would be if I could only read two books.
But there was more to be disappointed about at that moment. You see, moral relativism, as I will show, is finished, over, kaput. The challenges that those 6,000 college students will face as they defend their faith in the public square will not be challenges stemming from philosophical or moral relativism, they will arise from other, more dogmatic systems of belief.
Yet, Chris Stefanick, who has done wonderful work all over the country, including at my high school alma mater, has somehow missed the boat on relativism. He falls into the trap of using the ‘r’ word to describe every single attack Christianity or morality has suffered in the modern era. And FOCUS has followed right in step. This past Monday, the featured blog post on their website was: “How to Destroy a Relativist’s Argument” . My purpose here is not to dismiss all the wonderful work FOCUS and Chris are doing. It is rather, as the James Bond quote above suggests, to challenge Chris and his book in a friendly, constructive manner.
The title of the book is misleading. ‘Absolute Relativism’ if taken seriously, would preclude the possibility of communication between people, since language isn’t universal but like everything else, is just a matter of personal preference or expression. It seems Chris knows this, because on page 2 he narrows the field by noting that “most people today are moral and religious relativists.” Three pages later he narrows the field yet again: “because it is impossible for relativism to be consistent, many people end up being ‘selective relativists.’” Five pages in and he has already backed off the title.
Where the book goes from there is to show the logical inconsistencies of a relativist worldview, identify the damage it has caused, and then outline strategies for young Christians (like the 6,000 that gathered in January) to defend their faith and morality in the face of a world of relativism.
But relativism has already died out. The point has been made very well by Helen Rittelmeyer, in an essay for the American Spectator. Culturally speaking relativism has vanished.
“Virtue, authority, and law and order are all in fashion, as the bank accounts of Chris Nolan, J.K. Rowling, and Marvel Comics will attest. There are still plenty of enemies for conservative culture warriors to fight, but relativism is no longer one of them.”
She notes that despite the death of relativism, which I will argue more thoroughly below, many conservatives, including Christians still feel the need to invoke the ‘r’ word at every turn.
“Moral relativism has become the culture war equivalent of racketeering—no indictment is complete without it.”
Relativism of any sort has taken the back burner, not only among those Leftist Catholics in the Church, but also among the church’s outside enemies. I fondly recall a Nietzsche seminar last semester, during which we read some of the syphilitic babbler’s more nilhistic works. Two people very vocally decried Nietzsche’s nihilism and relativism. The first was me, a political conservative and a philosophical traditionalist. The second was Courtney, vice president of the Black Student Union and part time escort at the local abortion mill. We certainly don’t agree with each other, but Courtney and her sympathizers are no more relativists than the Pope. They preach an anti-orthodoxy, but it is none-the-less dogmatic, in fact it is often more so. Concepts like ‘just war’ or ‘greater good arising from evil’ never appear in the new secular left’s vocabulary; there is no room for nuance. Every regulation of abortion, every parental notification for birth control is not seen as a moderate measure of prudence for the sake of the community. They are instead seen as new fronts in the “War on Women”, as if pro-life legislators or faith-based crisis pregnancy centers were practicing tank maneuvers in their spare time. This hyper-paranoia is not indicative of a relativist, who could care less what his opponents thought or did, but rather indicates a far more nefarious problem. The new left is no longer content to hide behind the thin walls of personal preference and opinion, they now are shoring themselves within a system based on principle.
What then is the cost of all this talk about relativism? Well, imagine if one lantern had been hung in the Old North Church instead of two. Imagine the anticipation of the colonists as they hid along the land route, waiting for the British Army. More importantly, imagine how stupid they would have felt once they realized that the British came by sea and took them by surprise. That, in a nutshell, is what is at stake by raising the alarm for relativism.
Those enemies of the church both internal and external are not returning to relativism for their philosophical nourishment; they are going elsewhere. Any future attempts at defending God, Christianity, morality and the public square will have to acknowledge this fact.
The case of Nancy Pelosi is enough to poke holes in the relativism diagnosis. She is rather notorious for skirting the demands of being a Catholic in favor of defending the new ideology of the Democratic Party, on display prominently at the 2012 National Convention. She, like other political Catholics minimizes the teachings of the church, but it is not in favor of relativism, it is in favor of another belief. She recently gave the game away at a press conference, by referring to the issue of late-term abortions as “sacred ground.”
Then there is Kathleen Sebelius, the new prophet of contraception for all and also a very nominal Catholic. I call her a prophet because she took it upon herself to use the graduation of the Class of 2013 as a soapbox moment for the Affordable Care Act (or ObamaCare as it is usually called). Telling every graduating college student how wonderful the government is for providing birth control at no cost is not the act of a relativist. Relativists don’t try to convert people. Even the people who see Sebelius as a hero, those women highlighted by Hana Rosin as taking full advantage of the hookup culture, aren’t even relativists. The have much more in common with absolutists than they are aware of. Indeed, the pursuit of sex at the expense of family or lasting relationships is actually a rather twisted form of monastic life.
Then there are the college students who don’t attend FOCUS conferences. People like Courtney from the Nietzsche seminar, or those students highlighted by Kieran Raval in his recent expose on Georgetown. They are the foot soldiers that believe in the divinity of sexuality.
Finally, attention must be paid to the rising tide of gay marriage in this country. I recall receiving a phone call from Minnesotans United for All Families a few weeks before the state was set to vote on an amendment that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The young lady I spoke to was asking me to vote no on the amendment because there was already a law on the books defining marriage according to the conjugal view.
The night of the vote, Minnesotans United for All Families, who had painted themselves as simply wanting to maintain the status quo, became the main lobbying group in Minnesota for the legalization of same-sex marriage. I don’t need to draw the relationship between legalized same-sex marriage and threats to religious liberty. The point here is that the proponents of same-sex marriage are not relativists, but they are dangers to the future of the church. They are dangers that will have to be answered and countered by the very same students who are being told that relativism is the biggest moral danger of our time.
It may be objected that these people (Pelosi, Sebilius, leftie Catholics and gay marriage proponents) still relativize religion, and settle the issue as though it were a matter of “different strokes for different folks.” But actions speak louder than words, and anytime sometime minimizes religion to personal preference; they have first cut it down to a microscopic size. The relativizers of religion remove from it: public practice, the need to spread the good news, the source of ethical and moral judgments, the answers to life and death, and leave it as a matter of which building one sits in on a Sunday. The choice of church becomes more akin to the choice of a restaurant. Meanwhile, all those other components of religion have been added to a secular ideology, such as politics in the examples above. They are not relativists in any sense of the word. If they were, then I would be too, because while I care deeply about a religion with all the proper components attached, I don’t care one bit whether someone eats at Denny’s or Perkins.
Chris Stefanick makes a point of highlighting cases of intolerance towards Christians as evidence that relativism is alive and kicking. But most examples of intolerance, such as the mounting number of lawsuits against people of faith are not the result of relativism, but rather the result of the upside-down orthodoxy, which takes sexual expressionism, a godless public square, and the sequestering of religious practice to the four walls of a church to be non-negotiable. They are the new “self-evident truths”. They are not relativism. If they were, those persons holding them wouldn’t be in such a big hurry to get everybody to agree. The true relativist really means that what’s true for one person may not be true for another, and what motivation is that for spreading the new gospel?
Often believers are asked, “Where is God? Can you show him to me?” They often reply with some version of the first mover argument in Aquinas, maybe season in a few miracle stories and then tie it all off with the idea that these are big enough hints to make not believing in God pretty silly. But how often do Christians turn the tables? When was the last time someone dared to ask, “Excuse me, but can you should me the right to have sex with whom or whatever you please? Come to that, what is a right? Can you show me one?” Having done this I can assure you that no cogent answer follows. “It’s just a right ok? We all have them!” They prove Alasdair MacIntyre’s assertion beautifully, that belief in abstract rights is akin to “belief in unicorns.” Sadly, the new prophets of upside-down orthodoxy cannot even give hints that their absolutes might be found somewhere in reality. Never the less, they are often more certain of them than young church-going folks are certain of God. But they aren’t often pushed on this issue, because those young church-going folks aren’t being told about it.
They are instead being told that everyone in the 21st century is a relativist. Any opposition to God, Jesus, the Church or morality is because the person raising the issue has a die-hard allegiance to relativism. That is simply not the case. College seniors and grad students who dislike the church often do so for the same reasons as those public figures I highlighted above. Incoming freshman and their underclassmen companions may not have yet considered God or morality in any serious way. To mistake their hesitation or confusion as relativism is to do both the Church and them a great disservice. As I learned after hosting a campus debate on abortion last semester, those who were uncertain were really just absolutists without sufficient knowledge to make a call one way or the other. In the three-hour post debate discussions that ensued in the student center, no one said “I think abortion is ok for me, but maybe not for you.” They instead demanded to know the truth of the matter. They are not relativists; they are allies waiting to be persuaded.
But it may all be objected that both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II spoke about the dangers of relativism. Even Pope Francis recently expressed sympathies with this diagnosis of the problem. So how can I claim to know more than three Popes? I can’t because I am not claiming to know more.
The first point as to why three Popes have decried ‘relativism’ as a problem is that the Pope is not a commentator on the cultural landscape of the United States. His plane of view is much larger than mine, and I assume the picture he is describing has many things in it that I cannot see. Secondly, note the method by which the Popes have decried relativism. Cardinal Ratzinger did so in books and later as Pope in public addresses. But even as Pope, when it came time to write an encyclical, a document carrying much more weight than a public address, he decried the silly modern belief in the utopian future and proposed authentic Christian hope in it’s place. ‘Spe Salvi’ was a response to one of the many new orthodoxies that have taken hold of modern minds, but it was not a response to relativism.
Lastly, it is important to note, as Rittelmeyer did in her essay, that there was a time where relativism was the dominant worldview in the west. That time however has passed. It has passed because not only is relativism impossible to defend rationally, it is impossible to live. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati hit on a truth about the human condition when he wrote: “To live without faith, without a heritage to defend, without battling constantly for truth, is not to live but to ‘get along'; we must never just ‘get along’.” This applies to the Catholic, to the Christian, and even to the new-age believer in the right to gay marriage. They rise to defend their respective positions as being absolutely true for all people at all times. Relativism led to this, but this doesn’t lead to relativism. During the later years of the 20th century, widespread relativism may have opened up the public to new ideologies that were brewing under the surface for many years. But minds as well as mouths must close around something, and now we must see what the enemies of Christianity have chosen as their primary meal.
These enemies are often within the Church herself. They are found both as politicians using the Catholic faith as a stepping stool in gaining office, and as rogue congregations who, having embraced relativism for a time, now pledge their souls to a new creed of progress and acceptance, while still using the props from authentic Catholicism. The “Catholic” Church on the butt end of this recent Catholic Meme should give any Christian pause, because according to their mission statement ,they aren’t committed to Christ, but to “the equality of our members.”
So sound the alarm and hang the extra lantern, because the British didn’t come by land and the threats to Christianity aren’t coming by relativism. Relativism had its moment, but it fizzled out. The new orthodoxies need to be taken for what they are, new absolutes, and then engaged and challenged as such. This can’t happen if the next generation of Catholic students is being taught that relativism is still the “greatest problem of our time.” This may be the reason why so many rogue Catholics go unchallenged by their fellow believers, because they don’t fit the projected model of an enemy of the faith. It is time to start teaching young Christians about the actual opponents of the Church, and their new absolute philosophies. The future of apologetics and courageous witness for Christ is bright, if people who are as talented and influential as Chris Stefanick begin to face the task at hand.