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Sam RochaFebruary 09, 2021
Supporters of President Donald Trump join in prayer outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 6, 2021, where U.S. Congress will meet in joint session to certify the Electoral College vote for President-elect Joe Biden. (CNS photo/Mike Theiler, Reuters)

Roman Catholics in the United States who frequently use the expressions “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism” increasingly inhabit—and have helped to build—a world that these slogans describe. A real and present “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism” now reside within the groups that made these papal quotes into mantras and for whom those expressions carry the most meaning and significance.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II promulgated his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“Gospel of Life”), in which he forcefully opposed “the culture of death.” A decade later, in his final homily before being elected as John Paul II’s successor, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed his own cultural critique in this way: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

The expression “dictatorship of relativism,” like the earlier “culture of death,” quickly became popular. Over time, the two began to function as a rhetorical shorthand together. In many ways, this was a merited union, as John Paul II also critiqued relativism by name in his encyclical and throughout his pontificate, even before Ratzinger expressed it in a more pointed way.

Catholics in the United States who frequently use the expressions “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism” increasingly inhabit—and have helped to build—a world that these slogans describe. 

The dual impact of these pithy, three-word English expressions on Catholicism in the United States over the past 15 years has been remarkable. It is of course true that, within the context of their primary sources and notable authors, these expressions have surely had thoughtful interpreters and reasonable critics and remain fruitful sources to study in detail to this day and into the future.

Without dismissing these salutary treatments, however, we also must admit that a decontextualized sense of these terms has become intensely popular in certain circles of the church in the United States. They function as pejorative pillars that allow the “Catholic culture warrior” to declare an enemy with some appeal to papal authority.

To speak of the “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism” is to invoke a recognizable formula that neatly sums up a particular sense of Catholic countercultural identity that has increasingly allied itself socially and politically with evangelical Protestants and the Republican Party. In this usage, this combined mantra has become a truism at best and a slogan at worst, even beyond its Catholic usage. Worse still, it has become a performative contradiction and scandal that makes a mockery of the Gospel.

In its final days, the Trump administration went on a killing spree, executing federal prisoners at an unprecedented rate; the number of Americans killed by Covid-19 broke 400,000; and five people died in a violent failed insurrection at the Capitol. Add to this the ongoing refugee crisis, the existential threats of climate change, the rise of populist authoritarianism around the world and the struggle against anti-Black racism in America, and it is not hard to see that the culture of death is alive and well.

Those who are most prone to support capital punishment and refuse Covid-19 safety protocols, who explain away and excuse violent insurrection, are precisely the ones who have decried the “culture of death.”

But those who are most prone to support capital punishment and refuse Covid-19 safety protocols, who explain away and excuse violent insurrection, reject refugees and migrants, and deny the reality of climate change and racial injustice, are precisely the ones who have decried the “culture of death.” The tragedy and the farce of this situation is perhaps only rivaled—or sharpened—by the graphic and horrific images of Blue Lives Matter flags flying in the same place where a Trump-supporting police officer was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. A culture of death, indeed. Lord have mercy.

In the same way, there are numerous well-documented conspiracy theories that range from empty accusations of infiltration in the Catholic Church, which have even allied themselves with the political conspiratorial language of “the Deep State,” to false and unverified secular and New Age theories like “Plandemic,” “QAnon” and “the Kraken.” These conspiracy theories are often the epistemological engine driving the threats to life listed above.

Add to this the general phenomenon of “fake news” and “alternative facts”—not to mention the cavalier attitude to aggressively racist ethnostate fantasies, hate groups and anti-Semitic tropes galore—and it is equally plain to see that the self-proclaimed enemies of the “dictatorship of relativism” have become among the most wildly relativistic people we have ever seen, dwelling in tiny, often anonymous media silos driven by grifting egomaniacs who are often in conflict with one another.

Again, it is a tragic farce of monumental proportions. Recently, we have seen a member of the U.S. House of Representatives refuse to take responsibility for suggesting much of this very nonsense.

We can observe the same absurdity in a reversal of the two expressions. Those who profess to oppose a “culture of death” have not only shown themselves fully capable of supporting a killing spree and casting cynical doubt about existential threats to life; they have also contributed to a profound death of culture, including their own Catholic culture. Their paranoid and nostalgic romanticism for a Catholic tradition that is largely a product of their own making eschews everything save their increasingly narrow and kitsch-approved sources, sowing division and pain into their immediate families and wider church.

Many of those who most loudly bemoan the “dictatorship of relativism” have not only been immune to factual evidence and prone to conspiracy theories; they are also not particularly averse to dictators.

Similarly, many of those who most loudly bemoan the “dictatorship of relativism” have not only been immune to factual evidence and prone to conspiracy theories and nuttery; they are also not particularly averse to dictators. We can see this in the rise of knee-jerk critiques of liberalism, flirting with illiberalism and scoffing at democracy. We see this even more graphically in forms of Christian nationalism, Catholic integralism and admiration for fascist 20th-century dictators like Franco and Salazar. These same people seem unable to recognize, or are simply unconcerned with, the global rise of populist authoritarianism that Pope Francis warns about in his recent encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti.”

All of this shows that the supposed opponents of the “dictatorship of relativism” are not only willing relativists; they are also quite conformable with dictatorial ideologies and even real political autocrats—even as they are skeptical to downright hostile toward their pope.

I wish these reversals were nothing but impersonal sociological commentary. They are not. I was raised and educated deep within a U.S. Catholic subculture where these performative contradictions can be found today. In many ways, I owe to that formation the credit for my ability to recognize this painful and embarrassing situation we find ourselves in.

I know the concern these Catholics have for women and infants in their staunch and signature opposition to legal elective abortion, but I also see their opposition to real possible solutions like universal maternal and natal care and parental leave as their decades-long promises continue to assure us that the next election or Supreme Court appointment will make all the difference. They have turned abortion from a reality into an issue and are resolutely against considering realistic and actionable social options.

Again, I learned how to think, reason and argue from these Catholics; I know of their love of ideas and the intellectual virtues. But I have seen these principles descend into sophistry and outright irrationality. The issue is not mere hypocrisy or inconsistency; it now verges on a kind of insanity.

These Catholics in America are now an active and integral part of its “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism.” They are wounded and in need of healing and forgiveness, but they must first be called to repent and believe.

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