The Ongoing Dictatorship of Relativism


June 9, 2015

On March 22, 2013, Pope Francis addressed the Diplomatic Corps with a warning against the “tyranny of relativism.” He then explained his selection of the name Francis as in part stemming from St. Francis’ battle for peace, a peace which Pope Francis underscored was impossible without Truth. The necessary struggle for truth not only remains part of the context for Francis’ choice of name, but also for his papacy. In his remarks, Francis explicitly linked his concerns with those of his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whom he named.

In the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily of April 18, 2005, during the Mass immediately preceding the papal conclave in which he was elected Pope taking the name Benedict, Ratzinger spoke of the danger of the “dictatorship of relativism” to which Pope Francis alluded, and which Benedict would repeat throughout his pontificate. Ratzinger’s words, as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as pope, are as relevant today as they were in 2005. This is particularly the case for contemporary moral debates.

Regardless of the issue, but especially on matters connected to that most intimate of realms, sexuality, relativism of varying shades is ubiquitous. What’s good for you is good for you, and what’s good for me is good for me. And don’t impose your particular tastes on me. What I do and prefer is none of your business, unless I make it your business, in which case my tastes should be affirmed, even if you don’t share them. Like ordering different dishes at the same fine restaurant, our moral choices in at least some realms are, well, not moral choices at all.

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In fact, they don’t pertain to morality, but are merely preferences, opinions, feelings, desires, and the like. So long as no one gets hurt, no harm is done. In fact, on such matters, the only real occasion for harm arises from the deeply hurtful outcry that such a matter of taste, once acted upon, can be moral (or immoral) at all. Or, so the thinking goes. Jesus’ famous line, “do not judge,” is thus so often misinterpreted and redeployed as a defensive trope when such matters arise.

Considering current debates about marriage, most readers will likely have such in mind when reading this essay. I’ve been purposely ambiguous thus far because I think my point fits a vast array of situations and debates, and was in fact inspired by something else, but of course related. In the social media world I ran across a rather heated thread concerning contraception, and the comments there actually inspired this piece. On all of these intimate matters, individuals are understandably sensitive.

But what I’ve noticed is that in so many of the media (social and otherwise) venues emotional appeals, declarations, and diatribes masquerade as reasoned argument. That is, individuals, whether they are scholars, political analysts, or official interviewers, not only substitute rational discourse with expressions of emotion, but they appear to identify such emotional outbursts (in a few cases actual tantrums) with reasoned debate. In some cases, where their interlocutors persist in attempting to respond calmly and with reasoned argument, such attempts at rational dialogue only elicit ferocious verbal attacks, in what might be viewed as emotional defenses transformed into emotional weapons of extermination.

In all such cases I am reminded of how Herod’s niece and stepdaughter replied when he swore an oath to grant her whatever she desired, up to half his kingdom, so thoroughly had he been seduced by her dance. Asking her mother what she should request, her mother supplied the answer. The gift was to be the severed head of John the Baptist on a plate. This request should help drive home for us the sense of violation (almost certainly deepened by guilt) that individuals feel when confronted with moral probes in perhaps the most intimate realm of their lives.

Few indeed are like King David, when confronted—“You are the man”—about his adultery and complicity in murder to cover up his sin, thus compounding his sin. His response was to cry, “Have mercy on me God….” John the Baptist had rebuked Herod for having taken his brother’s wife as his own. Now we have the wife’s response, which amounts to, “how dare you accuse me of adultery.” There is no sustained argument, no attempt to exercise reason. The violation too intimate, the guilt too acute. Off with his head!

Returning to the social media thread which inspired this post, one response stood out for me, partly because the individual—we’ll call him Harry—was an intellectual, but it reminded me of Herod and Herodias, even if not as grisly. Harry interjected into the reasoned debate something along the lines of, “Are you telling me that my wife and I…?!” There was more to it than that, but not a whole lot more. Harry painted a beautiful picture of his loving relationship with his wife, and then ended with a question which may have been rhetorical, but if answered only allowed for a “yes” or “no.” If answered “no, by no means,” then the argument was conceded. If answered, “yes,” which was the logic of the debate on the opposing side, up to that point, then it would be transformed automatically into a clear personal attack, an ad hominem of the most painful sort.

You see, the way Harry phrased his question was such that he made it abundantly clear he was personally hurt. His question basically shut down the entire thread’s conversation. No one addressed him any further. In such instances arguments are not addressed, but rather the interlocutors are distracted by emotional appeals instead of arguing. The conversation is shut down. Indeed, we are in a world apparently ruled by emotivists, whom Alasdair MacIntyre described so well in After Virtue. I think Pope Francis and his predecessors model for us a way of dialogue that points the way forward. Only thus can we be freed from this tyranny.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” was painted by Caravaggio in 1607-10.


  • Jeff Morrow

    Jeff Morrow, a husband and father of five children, is associate professor and chair of undergraduate theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University and is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author of Three Skeptics and the Bible (Pickwick, 2016). Initially a Jewish convert to evangelical Protestantism, he entered the Catholic Church in 1999.

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