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.
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.”