What’s more dangerous than a dictatorship of relativism? A dictatorship of positivism.

Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire wave during his election victory speech in Montreal in October 2015. (CNS photo/Jim Young, Reuters)

In his last public homily before ascending the throne of St. Peter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger uttered what is arguably his most famous phrase: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism,” he said, “that does not recognize anything as definitive.” This phrase caught on and became a rallying cry for the church’s public witness in the Benedict moment.

Far be it from me to quibble with a thesis of one of the greatest Christian thinkers of our time, but reading the present issue of America prompted me to revisit this famous homily and question the accuracy of its central claim. In fairness, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was speaking mainly about the postconciliar trajectory of ecclesial thought. But as a way of understanding what is happening in our contemporary politics, I fear it misses the mark, mainly because the situation appears worse than what he describes.

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By “dictatorship of relativism” I take Cardinal Ratzinger to mean a sociopolitical movement that refuses to recognize an ultimate objective reality called “the truth.” Although this is a coherent theoretical concept, the closer we get to the ground the more it seems that the battles being waged in the public square are not so much about whether ultimate truths exist, but which absolute “truths” will govern public affairs. In that sense, Pope Francis’ warnings about the dangers of ideology and “ideological colonization” appear more relevant.

The battles being waged in the public square are not so much about whether ultimate truths exist, but which absolute “truths” will govern public affairs.

On the last page of the present issue, Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada, describes how the government in that country has changed its requirements for groups seeking federal funding in its summer jobs program, insisting that they not oppose “human rights,” including reproductive rights. This is hardly surprising. Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister of Canada, has made it clear that access to abortion is, in his judgment, a fundamental human right. He has even silenced members of his own political party who disagree.

Meanwhile, just south of the Canadian border, in Vermont, Michael O’Loughlin reports that the state’s Catholic schools are prohibited from access to newly available public funds simply because they are religious schools. Professor Rick Garnett of the University of Notre Dame correctly characterizes the conflict: “It’s about whether a generally available and entirely ‘secular’ benefit should be withheld simply as a penalty” for a faith-based school.

Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister of Canada, has made it clear that access to abortion is, in his judgment, a fundamental human right.

The main characters in both of these stories are making truth claims. Mr. Trudeau’s claim is absolute: that it is so objectively obvious that access to abortion is a human right that people who think differently should not be permitted to voice their opinions and should not have access to public funds of any kind if they do so. This is the case, in his judgment, regardless of whether your opinion derives from religious faith or the use of reason alone. We must acknowledge that this is very different from how people thought and spoke about this issue just a few years ago. Then the government was often said to be officially agnostic on the morality of abortion and the competing truth claims involved. Now, Mr. Trudeau says, the government has settled those claims in favor of one party and asserts that the government is therefore justified, not merely in enforcing a minimal standard of abortion access, but in positively promoting access to abortion as a moral good.

And while the case in Vermont might appear to be a straightforward church-state question, it is more nefarious than that. True, many U.S. states prohibit public funds for parochial schools. Such prohibitions were enacted a century ago by Protestant legislators, chiefly to penalize rival Catholic schools. That much is clear from the historical record. But while that fight was at its heart about competing religious conceptions of the one, true God, the present fight in Vermont is about whether religion has any place in public life at all. Now the opponents of faith-based schools are saying, by implication, that there are truths, we hold them, and religion is not only not one of the avenues of approach to those truths, but an enemy of them.

What we have, then, is not a dictatorship of relativism in which there is no such thing as truth, but a far more dangerous dictatorship of positivism, that truth only exists independently of faith and is brought into existence through brute legal force. We are no longer considering, says Cathleen Kaveny, what we owe people who think differently. “Nobody’s asking that, and you reap what you sow.”

The result of this is an ideological uniformity imposed and policed by the state, a situation in which minorities, religious or otherwise, are always the most adversely affected. For as Mr. Trudeau’s father and predecessor as prime minister once said: “A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”

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J Cosgrove
7 months 4 weeks ago

Relativism and Positivism are always power based and that is what is happening now in our ultra liberal world where truth is what the powerful say it is or isn't. Positivism is supposed to be empirically based but how one feels is much more important than what is and decides what empirical data is accepted.

Thus, Relativism and Positivism are essentially the same side of the coin. One says there is no truth. The other says truth is what the strongest says it is. It is only a small step from one to the other. So to distinguish between them is really a distinction without any real difference.

I find it interesting that these ideas of relativism and positivism flow from one side of the political spectrum, the one that America, the magazine, wholly endorses. The side that demands uniformity and conformity and has no tolerance for the other.

But the problem for America, the magazine, is that their politically ideological objectives, however noble sounding, can never be achieved in this world. Hence what is true or obvious must then be denied to maintain their worldly ideology. This eventually conflicts with other ideals based on religion. So what then happens, is that the religion must change to accommodate these inconsistencies. We are witnessing this as we watch the world today.

The problem is the ideas of the left can never succeed. They defy the natural law or how God made us and wants us to act. But in the process of trying to make their ideas come true, the left will cause a lot of misery. 150 million dead in the 20th century from leftist ideologies. How many more dead ahead of us as China or religious fanatics try to rule the world in our current century.

An expression I heard recently sums this up. "The lies they make up to suit their truths."

Aside: the caption for the photo is wrong. It says Cardinal Wuerl when it is Justin Trudeau. Thanks for making the change.

bill halpin
7 months 3 weeks ago

I’d have thought real dictatorship held no error is possible if we’d hold only one view of what is right. The scholarly Joseph Ratzinger and the ex cathedra Pope Benedict should have tea with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau the national leader and Mr. Justin Trudeau the thinker of thoughts deliberatively difficult to absolutize — and discuss the merits of their views ad infinitum, relating relativity and relationality, a colloquy of experiential realism based on actual lived existence in the everyday world of biological and psychological uncertainty longing for a clarity hard-won by means of compassionate conversation and kindly consideration of aporia in human decision making and the tragic facticity of nescience that is part and parcel of minds and hearts attempting to see life through to God and nascent ever-present originity consequent to each and every good-faith choice made with fear and trembling surrounding the unknown with compass in hand seeking true north, love, and a way to move through this moment into an eternity of grace arising from earth under our feet — oh — if only we could grasp what incarnation actually means, if only the narrative of resurrection did not entail death, if only Jesus were to be seen in his hiding place within each and all, if only the incomparable HaShem (Besiyata Dishmaya — with the help of heaven) would sound Itself beautifully as the unfolding Yes manifesting each coming-into-appearance as the Very Presence, the realization of Being Becoming This, if only Christ-reality instantiated our contemplation!

Barry Fitzpatrick
7 months 3 weeks ago

There is inherent danger in discussing both dictatorships here as, to turn a phrase about beauty, "truth is in the eye of the beholder." The demand for uniformity has certainly led to the "intolerance and hate" predicted by Trudeau's father. We need to be more judicious in the way we selectively pick our fights in order to preserve the accuracy of the message and its practical playing out in our lives. For example, Cardinal Dolan just penned a very good piece on the Democrats and their litmus test of being pro-choice, yet he wrote no such article equally as eloquent in going after the Republicans for their life-denying approach to immigration reform. It's OK to pick and choose, but be prepared for the consequent backlash when you come across as favoring one ideology over the other. Stick to the Gospel, please. The Sermon on the Mount would make a great governing vision statement. And leave the intransigence to the small-minded in their carefully enclosed liberal or conservative caves, genuinely interacting with only the stone about them.

Vincent Gaglione
7 months 3 weeks ago

Father Malone poses an interesting question, at what point does public policy impinge on minority rights. I do not know all the specifics of either of the situations that he presents. So, my reaction is limited to an overall viewpoint.

I am opposed here in the USA to the imbedding of anti-abortion policy in law, specifically criminal law. Obviously, Canada has reached the same conclusion as a matter of policy. I certainly disagree with the failure to fund those organizations which might propose and promote alternatives to abortion. However, I do have a problem with those anti-abortion organizations which use willful subterfuge and/or fabrication to deny that public policy. Those of us opposed to abortion have serious moral motivations to use to encourage choosing life. We do not serve our morality or our cause by using unethical and immoral behaviors to accomplish our goals.

As for the school situation in Vermont, I would suggest the same resolution to the issue as exists in NY State. Private and religious schools are entitled to public funds for the associated costs to state regulations which all schools must follow, for example, certain textbooks, health services, busing, etc. I do oppose the funding of private, religious and charter schools for their educational goals. In each instance the general public is being asked to support educational points of view which do not necessarily align with USA civic principles. I use the most common example of that, the alternative schools in the US South created to avoid segregation. Or the favorite of the bigots of our own day, schools that teach Sharia law!

Relativism, positivism, they may be concepts worth arguing about in the abstract. In the public sphere there are ways to move forward to the benefit of people. Some might regard such as a hideous violation of principles but which for most people just provides a way forward through the maze of communal life. Perhaps Canada and Vermont might learn?

Vince Killoran
7 months 2 weeks ago

I agree, and thanks for framing it this way. You might add the issue of whether faith-based adoption agencies should receive government funds when they discriminate against same-sex couples.

Zell Sargeant
7 months 2 weeks ago

If Catholic schools don't have to pay taxes like public schools do, why should they get additional public school benefits? It's a question of fairness.

As for abortion, the Catholic Church has never budged from considering it an unmitigated evil in all cases. This belief has done much damage to people, especially to women. Reproductive Rights are Human Rights. The Catholic Church even opposes birth control. When women cannot control their own biology, much suffering ensues. Yet the fetus is held Sacrosanct in the Catholic Church and Women are not given any say over what happens to their own bodies and lives, let alone the lives of the children they are forced to bear. Only a woman can know if she is able to take on the burdens of pregnancy, childbirth and the rearing of a child or the emotional suffering of giving up a baby to adoption. When abortion is legal, safe and done as early as possible, this gives women a say over their own Reproductive Rights. Forced pregnancy is repugnant and morally wrong. So I completely agree with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. If the Catholic Church wants to make abortion rare, they could start by removing the arcane and absurd prohibiton against birth control, which few Catholics adhere to, anyway. They could provide birth control to poor women and men. They could, but they don't. So really, how committed are they to helping the poor when continued childbirth keeps women locked into poverty?

Michael Barberi
7 months 2 weeks ago

When it comes to socio-political issues, many like to argue their point of view by labeling what is happening in the political sphere as a dictatorship of positivism and/or relativism.

Take the issues of abortion and contraception. At the present time, in most circumstances abortion is legal in the U.S. Personally, one can consider abortion immoral and against the teachings of their religion and never consider such an act regardless of circumstances. However, most Catholics do not agree with the definition of abortion per the magisterium. Most Catholics believe it is moral to terminate a pregnancy that is threatening the life of the mother with certainty (e.g., the infamous Phoenix case). To sit back and allow both the mother and the fetus to die with certainty when saving one life is possible is immoral.

This above example complicates the discussion about the dictatorship of relativism or positivism. The issue of abortion for Catholics is about truth and legitimate theological disagreement. It is not an issue relegated to a 'pick and choose mentality' to suite one's circumstances. Such an accusation or argument misses the point as many Catholics, inclusive of moral theologians and priests, believe that the issue of abortion should consider such exceptional and complex circumstances within the boundaries of the philosophy and theology that underpin Catholic teachings.

Lets consider contraception and the issue about whether a State or Federal Government can impose a law on religious institutions, such as the health coverage for contraception and abortion. In the U.S., this is a Constitutional issue as well as a moral issue. Legally, it is a decision based on the Constitution and the Supreme Court of the U.S. Personally, it is an individual decision. People can disagree about whether abortion should be legally permitted, but in the end it is a legal issue. People can disagree or disagree about abortion and the definition of abortion. But as a law of the land, we must recognized that we live in a pluralistic society where one group's belief about the moral truth may not be relevant when it comes to the Constitution.

Personally I reject abortion on demand and would never make such a decision unless it is to save the life of the mother or in the cases of rape or incest. To shine a spotlight on this issue, consider that many bishops permit the morning after pill to be administered in the cases of rape based on a negative pregnancy test. The contradiction is that this goes against the guidelines of the USCCB where the morning after pill is only permitted in cases of rape upon a negative ovation test. A pregnancy test administered within a week or so of a rape will always be negative. Check out the details on your own.

There are many issues in the socio-political arena that are a reflection of a dictatorship of relativism or positivism, but not necessarily abortion and contraception.

James Haraldson
7 months 2 weeks ago

You are making a false distinction. Positivism occurs when relativism hangs around long enough culturally to create a false consensus. The antidote is not a false tolerance. The antidote is to stand for truth with conviction. In other words, not the way accommodating cowardly Catholics have chosen to do so for the last half century.

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