Will the Next Pope Oppose the “Dictatorship of Relativism” as Fiercely as Benedict?

One of the most central insights of Pope Benedict’s pontificate was summed up in his phrase “the dictatorship of relativism.” In his now famous conversation with the German journalist Peter Seewald (the same one on which he said that popes can abdicate), he said this, in explanation: “In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished; this is a real threat we face. The danger is that reason—so-called Western reason—claims that it has now really recognized what is right and thus makes a claim to totality that is inimical to freedom. I believe that we must very emphatically delineate this danger. No one is forced to be a Christian. But no one should be forced to live according to the ‘new religion’ as though it alone were definitive and obligatory for all mankind.”

Later, he said this: “the reality is in fact such that certain forms of behavior and thinking are being presented as the only reasonable ones and, therefore, as the only appropriately human ones. Christianity finds itself exposed now to an intolerant pressure that at first ridicules it—as belonging to a perverse, false way of thinking—and then tries to deprive it of breathing space in the name of an ostensible rationality.”

There can be little doubt that this secularist dictatorship is being rolled out in the UK today, notably in the education system, where in certain key areas, certain forms of behaviour must be presented as being valid and acceptable whether or not teachers believe they are. Only a few days before Pope Benedict’s bombshell, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury spoke out about the implications for religious liberty of the vote last Tuesday on the same sex “marriage” bill now being pushed (probably irresistibly) through the Commons by the “Conservative” Prime Minister, David Cameron. Bishop Davies last week told married couples gathered from all over his diocese to celebrate landmark anniversaries at an annual Mass of Thanksgiving for Marriage that it was possible to “see the absurdity of changing the identity of marriage in the name of a false understanding of equality by the desire to even strike out the cherished names of ‘mother’ and ‘father’.”

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That was a predictable enough criticism. But he also repeated a warning he has given before: having said that recognizing the truth of marriage was not “an injustice to be remedied” he went on to predict that soon it could even become an offense to repeat “the beautiful teaching of Christ” that marriage is the lasting union of one man and one woman which forms the foundation of the family.

He is hardly alone, though I didn’t notice even Catholic MPs sounding the same warning in last week’s commons debate (I hope to be corrected; I did nod off once or twice). Many others have made the same prediction. Last month, no fewer than 1,000 Catholic bishops and priests signed a letter to the Telegraph:

SIR – After centuries of persecution, Catholics have, in recent times, been able to be members of the professions and participate fully in the life of this country.

Legislation for same-sex marriage, should it be enacted, will have many legal consequences, severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship.

It is meaningless to argue that Catholics and others may still teach their beliefs about marriage in schools and other arenas if they are also expected to uphold the opposite view at the same time.

This is not, of course, the only unfolding secularist threat to religious liberty in the Western world: such challenges take different legal forms depending on where you are, and there are analogous threats all over Europe; even in the US (supposedly more religious than we less churchgoing Europeans are), the government is mounting an anti-Christian, and more specifically an anti-Catholic, threat to religious freedom, which has spawned legal disputes all over the country.

The Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance, and the Obama administration says an insurance plan must pay for basic preventive care, including contraceptives. Earlier this month the Obama administration proposed a compromise for some nonprofit religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and colleges, that would allow them to avoid paying directly for such insurance. But the administration refused to consider a similar exemption for private, for-profit employers. The Catholic bishops say this exemption should apply to any employer who has a conscientious objection to providing contraception (this includes abortifacient drugs).

The Holy Father’s influence can be seen very clearly in the American Bishops’ struggle against their authoritarian government. Over a year ago, during an ad limina visit of American bishops to Rome, with the Obama regime’s health provision legislation on mind, he said this to them:

[I]t is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion… concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

We are not alone in this country. But there is one sense in which the threat to Catholics inn the UK is even more serious. There is a threat to the education system which is more serious here, where the detailed content of most education is state controlled to a degree inconceivable in the US. If the State insists that children are taught, even in Catholic schools, that the view that marriage can be between those of the same sex has the same validity as the Catholic view that it can only be between a man and a woman, then a teacher who refuses to teach this will be breaking the law. And then what?

It’s high time for Catholics to mount a sustained and convincing fight on this issue. But we need leadership. So where, apart from Bishops Davies and Egan (“the usual suspects”, they are already being called) are our bishops? Where? I know some of them signed that Telegraph letter: but we need more than that.

And now another question imperatively presents itself. Will the new pope give the same clear teaching on this issue as we have had from the present Holy Father? We all face an uncertain future; there is a lot to pray about.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared February 15, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. The image above is of Pope Benedict receiving a copy of “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times” from German journalist Peter Seewald at the Vatican in November, 2010. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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