May 13, 2005


Relativism and conscience

The day before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI , Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke out against what he called a new “dictatorship of relativism” that has pervaded society. It was interesting to see the secular media try to define relativism, none very accurately.

Basically, relativism is the belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth is relative. What is true for you might not be true for me. We see the results of such a philosophy in our society’s embrace of tolerance.

Harvey Cox taught Harvard University undergraduates a course in “Jesus as a moral teacher” for about 20 years. In his book When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox says that, in his discussions with his students, he soon learned that the virtue his students valued most was tolerance. They loathed being looked upon as judgmental.

They were, he said, “benevolent but uncomfortable relativists.” However, he wrote, “I was glad they were coming to realize that a nation with 250 million separate moral codes is an impossibility, and a world with 6 billion individuals each doing his or her own thing would become unlivable.”

Pope Benedict probably had long discussions about the falsity of relativism with his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, while our present pope was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years. John Paul condemned relativism often, including in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) that he issued in 1993 just after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The third sentence of that encyclical said, “People are constantly tempted by Satan to exchange ‘the truth about God for a lie’ (Rom 1:25), giving themselves over to relativism and skepticism.”

The encyclical called everyone to “act in accordance with the judgment of conscience.” However, it said—as John Paul also had said in his encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem (“Lord and Giver of Life”)—“Conscience does not establish the law; it bears witness to the authority of the natural law” and, “In order to have a ‘good conscience’ one must seek the truth and make one’s judgments accordingly” (# 60).

The catechism, by the way, devotes 27 paragraphs (1776-1802) to the conscience, including the formation of conscience, which, it says, “is a lifelong task.”

Unfortunately, too many people today have a mistaken idea of the role of conscience. It has come to mean the freedom to act as one thinks best, each person choosing his or her own ideas of morality: “If it feels good to me, it must be OK.” This is almost synonymous with relativism.

Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote often about the role of conscience. For him, conscience meant much more than a person’s preference or the right to reject a teaching of the Church. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he wrote, “Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from him who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives.”

A well-formed conscience is difficult to achieve. If we find ourselves at odds with the Church over some matter, our obligation is not to reject the teaching, but rather to form our conscience in conformity with the Church as the most reliable authority on matters of faith and morals.

In the May issue of First Things, Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia, asks, “Why would anyone try to oppose conscience to objective truth?” Part of the answer, he says, lies in a distorted attitude toward tolerance. Tolerance, as Harvey Cox said, has come to mean “never judging.” But, Cardinal Pell wrote, “Believers in tolerance themselves usually acknowledge unspoken limits. Tolerance rarely means refraining from judging racists, or sexists, or pedophiles, or political cheats—naturally enough: these are morally wrong and should be judged so. In effect, the only things we must be tolerant of are people’s sexual choices, or perhaps their choices about such life issues as abortion or euthanasia.”

We feel sure that Pope Benedict will write and speak more about the evils of relativism and the ill-formed consciences that result from this ­philosophy.

— John F. Fink

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