In recent weeks I have received numerous requests from readers asking for clarification on one of the principal themes emerging from the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI -- the struggle against moral relativism.
Shortly before he was elected Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger preached the homily at the pre-conclave Mass, warning against the rise of "a dictatorship of relativism." This phrase frightened some and provoked confusion in others. (Keep in mind that Pope John Paul II had also warned of the dangers of a society without ideals and a keen sense of history.)
Since the topic of relativism is of interest not only to the Catholic Church but to every religion, society and culture, I will try to explain what this means.
The renowned theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, writing shortly after Pope Benedict's homily, described relativism as "nothing more or less than the deconstruction of all objectivity in our perceptions of reality. Accordingly, there is no real, objective and historical truth, only those notions which each special proponent offers as his own idea of truth."
How often have we heard people say today, "I have my truth and you have your truth." There is no longer any objective, universal truth.
Relativism is powerful in Western life, evidenced in many areas from the decline in the study of history and literature, through to the triumph of subjective values and the downgrading of marriage and family life.
Scientific advances have given us the power to alter even our own genetic code, and we now view the world and ourselves not as a gift from God, but as a product of our own making.
Today more than ever, the world needs the aid of a morality that influences the public sphere, to help us cope with the grave risks and challenges facing society and humanity.
When morality is lacking, our power is transformed into a destructive force. We now have the capacity to clone humans, use people as organ banks for others, and make military weapons of mass destruction. And the prevailing philosophy of rationalism and positivism rejects attempts to put any limits on our liberty to do what our technical capacity permits us to do.
A dictatorship of relativism recognizes nothing as absolute. Believers who try to uphold the values of their faith are often labeled as fundamentalists.
Differences about important issues such as war, slavery, abortion, euthanasia are different claims to moral truth, not merely competing preferences. Some who have never been deprived of truth can give it up too easily, perhaps using talk of relativism or secularism to camouflage their actual commitment to money, success, possessions, power.
But these are ambiguous goods: They can be misused and are rarely distributed fairly.
For Christians, Jesus said, "I am the Truth," and for this he, and countless good men and women throughout the ages have lived and died. Nobody lives and dies for relativism.
Pope Benedict's words last April have nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, but with being honest and hopeful about the future of Christianity, the Catholic Church and society in general. The Pope is a courageous shepherd and truthful, world leader who is not afraid to address the real questions and challenges of our time.