Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Dictatorship of Relativism

Relativism contains a dogmatism of its own: this position is so sure of itself that it must be imposed even on those who disagree with it… if the majority, as in the case of Pilate, is always right, then what truly is right must be trampled upon…
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 62

Reflection – When I excerpt a brief passage like this from Joseph Ratzinger, I have to make it clear from the outset that he doesn’t just throw these observations out there in a void. This statement about relativism is part of a lengthy and well-thought-out analysis. The book it is from is one I highly recommend: short, to the point, and deeply relevant to our times.

Our times… you know, I really prefer not to discuss controversies and the affairs of the day on this blog. I don’t actually enjoy those kinds of conversations. I would rather talk about prayer or maybe philosophical analysis of this or that point. I really don’t like discussing the world and its problems—to be honest, I find the state of Canadian society incredibly sad and painful. I am a loyal Canadian who loves his country, and I am at a loss about what to do about what I see.

But events this week here in Ontario have been almost a picture perfect illustration of the dictatorship of relativism Ratzinger has described above and in many other places in his writings. So, a word is in order.
For those who are not from Ontario, a brief synopsis: last year, a gay teenager in Ottawa committed suicide after being bullied in his high school. This prompted the Ontario provincial government to pass an anti-bullying law whose purported aim was to eliminate bullying in schools.

One section of the law called for high schools to form clubs called GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) where self-identifed ‘gay’ students could bond together with sympathetic straight students to promote a gay-friendly environment in the school.

Now, Ontario has a publicly funded Catholic school system, alongside its ‘public’ (aka secular) system (it’s a long story why this is the case). Since GSAs are, besides being anti-bullying, essentially advocacy groups for the acceptance of homosexual orientation and activity as equivalent to heterosexual, the Catholic Church and the school board objected to this part of the legislation. We made a counter-proposal to establish clubs that would tackle the anti-bullying agenda from a Catholic point of view, promoting respect for every human being and an ethos of compassion and acceptance of the other, without the ideological overlay of GSAs.

This counter-proposal was met with derision and scorn, and the Ontario government passed the law this week. As one of the more anti-Catholic newspapers in Toronto trumpeted in its banner headline: “McGuinty [the premier] tells Catholic Church He’s in Charge!” There have been newspaper columns appearing in Canadian papers in recent weeks containing anti-Catholic and anti-clerical bigotry reminiscent of the German kulturkampf and the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a strange time to be a Catholic in Ontario, in other words.

Anyhow, sorry for the ‘brief’ synopsis (that’s as brief as I could get it). Leaving aside the fact that students are bullied for all sorts of reasons, sexual orientation not even cracking the top five, according to a Toronto study, and leaving aside the wisdom of GSAs which impel students as young as 13 to identify themselves according to their emerging and (as we all remember) somewhat chaotic sexuality, and leaving aside the very probably question of whether this self-identification will actually encourage bullying and bigotry—leaving aside all this, there is a deeper question.

Namely, is there room in Ontario for more than one perspective? Is there room in a pluralistic society for more than one way of tackling a problem? Is there room in a (supposedly) tolerant society for different approaches to an issue?

According to the Ontario government, apparently not. The dictatorship of relativism has now arrived in Ontario, from being a de facto situation to a de jure one. The government of Ontario has, to be perfectly clear, passed a law that Catholic schools, paid for by Catholic taxpayers who want their children to receive a Catholic education, cannot present a consistent Catholic view of reality to their students.

Relativism ‘is so sure of itself that it must be imposed even on those who disagree with it’ – that’s what is happening in this neck of the woods, folks. So to my largely American readership and others, pray for us Catholics in Ontario. It’s a very strange time for us, very confusing. We don’t appear to be welcome here anymore, at least according to the elected government.

And for my Ontario readers, what are we to do? I wish I knew. Sorry to be of so little help. We certainly need to pray. We certainly need to be as clear as we can about the facts of the matter – the rhetoric is a bit muddled right now. You who are parents have a special duty to help your children make sense of all this—I realize it’s a heavy burden on you in particular. Maybe this blog post is of some help to you.

Above all, we need to persevere in presenting Catholic teaching in the most loving, clear way we can: the infinite value and beauty of each human person, the reality of human brokenness and disorder which affects all of us, the hope of healing and restoration in Christ, and the call to be part of this restoration by loving one another as Christ loved us.

This is the heart of Catholic teaching. That homosexual acts are one species among many of human disorder, that human sexuality is a gift to be expressed in marriage of man and woman ordered towards procreation in loving union, that all are called to chastity according to their state of life—all these are vital truths that we cannot deny without denying Christ, but they are secondary to the heart of the matter, which is the mercy and love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

There is no hatred here, not for anyone. Just love, just mercy, and just a desire to express the truth as we understand it, because we believe the truth will set us—all of us—free. And a hope that in a society committed to freedom, we will continue to be allowed to present our vision of the truth in the public square. Object to us if you please, argue with us by all means, but do not silence us, for that is unworthy of the freedom and tolerance we claim for Canadian society.


  1. The Ontario government is not practicing relativism (that all points of view have validity) rather it is stressing its view that the bullying of school children for any reason is unacceptable. That special emphasis is placed upon the bullying of gay students was done because homosexuality is society's last "socially acceptable" prejudice.

    While no one (I hope) would advocate bullying homosexuals, homosexuality is the only one of the conditions for bullying where a substantial number of the population think the activity that elicits the bullying is of "grave depravity". No one thinks people of a different race, or who are overweight, or who are disabled are "objectively disordered".

    People, and they are almost without exception are entitled under Freedom of Religion to this opinion but at the same time the government of Ontario, in defending the rights of students, are asserting their right, indeed responsibility, to intervene as they see fit in government of Ontario schools.

    Its worth noting that private religious schools are not subject to this legislation, only the schools owned and paid for by the government of Ontario.

    1. Yes, but the Catholic schools tried to broker a compromise to address the issue of bullying, one that seemed to me to be quite reasonable and parse out the complex issue of religious freedom and respect for all people. The government refused to even consider it - this does not bode well, in my view.
      The government of Ontario has no money of its own. All its revenue comes from the taxpayers of Ontario, who willingly support a Catholic system with their tax dollars, and freely choose which system they want their children educated in. The government should be the servant of the citizens - all the citizens - including those millions who want a Catholic system of education in this province.

    2. The schools tried to reach a compromise with the government but ultimately the government decides as these are public schools. Religious freedom is an important issue and because of that religions are exempted from many human rights that are applied outside of the religious institutions. The dispute, as far as I can see, came down to nomenclature, the Catholic bishops objected to the word gay in the title of the groups.

      If this was a racism support group and the Catholic bishops did not want to use the word racist (for some reason) in the name of the group, no one would care, because the Catholic Church is not racist. Bust because it's gay and the Catholic Church teaches that the homosexual orientation is objectively disordered, requiring the use of the word gay in the name of a club (if the students want it), in a club that the Catholic bishops really don't want, is one way the government has of saying this is important and we are not going to put up with any bullying or indeed discrimination against gays in public schools.

      Note : Money for public Catholic schools comes from all citizens of Ontario from the government's general revenue. The designation on the tax form is for determining who you vote for.

  2. how about homeschooling or homeschool co-ops or independent schools like Maryvale?

    If the Americans can do iy, why not us?

    We would need the support of parishes, KofC, CWL etc etc

    1. That's a fine solution and I know many who are doing it. Not everyone can, though - families where both parents work, or single-parent families, or where they just don't have the resources to homeschool or afford private schools...
      I suspect in the end we will see more of this kind of thing. God bless you.

    2. Why not just accept the decision and allow the word gay? Ity doesn't mean that gay actions are acceptable (in Catholic teaching) only the students who identify themselves as gay are accepted and respected. Catholic schools are still allowed to teach that homosexual acts are a sin and represent grave depravity. They just have to show their love and toleration for those students who think they have a homosexual orientation. What could be more catholic (in the sense of universal) than that?

    3. Well, (I do respect your good efforts at dialogue here, by the way!), but why can the Ontario government not respect the rights of Catholic bishops and school trustees to handle the issue of bullying as they see fit? Why must the government micro-manage this issue? Is there some pattern of homosexuals being excluded from Church life in Canada? Not in my experience, which is considerable.

    4. Why do they not trust the Catholic bishops? Two reasons, residential schools and the decades long cover-up of priest sexual abuse of children by bishops. I'm not one to blame all priests because of those crimes but the more I read, I'm close to blaming all bishops. I'm afraid the Catholic bishops in covering-up ("for the good of the Church") have created such an attitude in many people.

    5. I see. The residential schools were a government funded program, you know - government of Canada policy. Yes the churches (not just RC, but all of them) ran the schools, but much of the worst things that happened there were to do with a fatally flawed government policy. So I guess we cannot trust the government to protect children either. Do you have any idea of the sexual abuse statistics for public schools, and how the exact same patterns still occur there - teachers moved around, etc.? The numbers actually dwarf those to do with the clergy and the Church. So I guess we cannot trust the schools either... except (somehow!) we never read about sexual abuse by teachers in the media. Funny, that.
      The sexual abuse scandal is completely irrelevant to this subject. There are Catholic schools in Ontario, and the government has declared the right to decide what the word 'Catholic' means over and above the Catholic bishops of Ontario. That is the central issue here.

  3. Ummm

    Two things come to mind...
    1. When I was younger perhaps more idealistic...I withheld my taxes for two years. I wrote the IRS a letter and told them I was consciously objecting, refusing to pay for war. Jesus said love people, don't hurt them. Father Joe objected: then you are refusing to pay for roads and schools and police. But I was firm. But, they just fined me a whole bunch (more than I owed) and then garnished my paycheck until my account was clear. In the end I tipped the IRS, I guess.
    What I have learned over the years is that the USA is pluralistic country, and we are steeped in relativism. I can't change that. Condemning it, helps no one. I have to learn to live within it as respectfully as I can.
    I negiotiate, I compromise. Sometimes it kills me. I hope that death makes room somehow for Jesus.
    Because , my faith , weak as it is, is in Jesus and my salvation is in him
    2) Promoting the narrow teaching on natural law which says that homosexuality is disordered is harmful to persons whom God created homosexual, if you believe it was God who created them. "Everyone is a genious. But if ou judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believeing it was stupid." A. Einstein.
    Mandatory marriage disctrimination lectures are taking place in Minnesota Catholic high schools...effectively teaching these students that only some of them will be worthy of marriage when they grow up. Who are the gays to love?
    3. By not talking about the gay lifestyle from Catholic perspective you will miss the opportunity to offer quidance and perspectice to a broad range of ersons who struggle with questions of sexuality morality. How, can we help addres sthe problems of the hood up culture for example...if we can't see over the threat to the integrity of catholic moral teaching? Who is going to bless these relationships? Heterosexuals fornicate and the church still forgives them....

    I hope you are still praying for me

    1. God bless you, Catherine.
      1) The issue here is not that we live in a pluralistic society. I mean, of course we do!It's an Ontario-specific issue of Catholic schools being told that the government knows what the word 'Catholic' means better than the bishops, or I suppose that we have no right in Ontario to present the Catholic faith in a Catholic school environment. It is complex because of the history of public funding in the Catholic schools (which I fully admit is an anomolous situation), but that's the bottom line.
      2) Everyone is disordered. Now I fully and (in fact) passionately maintain that the Church has really failed to present the whole picture of human life, sexuality, and salvation in Christ. Specifically, we have failed to teach people that we are all sinners, broken, disordered, but that Christ loves us all and comes to us to heal and save us. Since we decided in the 1960s or so that this was a 'downer', we stopped teaching about sin, so of course homosexuals feel singled out. The answer is not to change our teaching, but to teach our full teaching.
      The question of 'God creating people homosexual' is a complex one - I wouldn't put it that way. He creates us all; all of us experience a certain brokenness in our being that seems built in to us. I have always had a fiery temper and a tendency towards indolence, for example - did God 'create me irritable and lazy'? He created us, and loves us... but I think we have to be careful ascribing every bit of our characters and proclivities to God's unimpeded creative will.
      There is no such thing as being 'worthy of marriage' - this is where I start to fear we cannot really dialogue. We use words so differently! The Church holds that marriage simply is a certain type of relationship that by its nature is between two people of the opposite sex. It's like saying I am unworthy of becoming pregant - two men being 'unworthy' of marriage just seems nonsensical to me. And please, Catherine, don't equate marriage and sex with love. I have never had sex or been married, nor will I, but my life has been full of love. We need to watch our use of language so carefully here - of course gays will become angry, depressed, suicidal if we tell them 'you will never have love in your life'. And that kind of language is not coming from the Church.
      3 I am confused here - surely what the Catholic church wants in Ontario is precisely to talk about these matters from a Catholic perpective? That's exactly what we're asking, and being summarily denied.

      Yes, I am still praying for you - pray for me, too, please!

    2. Father Denis,
      Thank you for blessing me and for praying for me. And yes, I pray for you too. Thank you for taking the time to blog about this, it is painful for me. People sometimes remark about how deep this goes in me... especially because I am not lesbian. But my friends are, my patients are. in the adoption community there are same sex parents...and I love them. Plus, my own heart has been broken about a million times...and peopel have stood by me. This hurts me, that my gay and lesbians friends do not feel welcome in my church...and I know they would not welcome this teaching the the school their child attends...
      Most folks agree, catholic or not, that people should be able to create protective union for themselves. I know a family who has ceated a corporation for themselves that sort of resembles a marriage to protect their rights and those of their children in a way that it is understood by both federal and state laws.
      Some say the churches- not just catholic- should get out of the marriage business altogether and just let the state legalize the union-they do that in some countries in Europe.
      This kills me. I am Catholic in my soul and I want for my church to welcome and bless these unions.
      Yes, I know the catholic position. OKay to to homosexual- not okay to act on it. Acting on it is a choice. Well, yes, of course. Loving is always a choice. If as you a homosexuality is a certain preference- and for some I think it is- then you have made our case. But if down the road science proves hoosexuaity is rooted in genectics or at least gestational biology- and for some I thinkl it is - well then- it's a game changer isn't it?
      I know not very much about marriage and les about theology. I only wroite about this stuff because it bothers me so much..because it hurts people I love and care for.
      So, then where is the place of same sex unions in the church if not marriage?
      Why would my diocese contribute $650,000 to a polictical campaign to change the way marriage is currently defined in our law? Why in a time of finacial hardship for so many would my church consider that huge donation for legislation aimed against the gay community a priority? I don't understand.
      I am sorry if I offended you with the word worthy...but I did mean it in just that way. I was thinking of a particular exchange I had with a priest in confession... and just so you know he did tell me he was speaking for the whole church.
      I am sorry. It is so hard for me to talk like this and yet I feel I must.
      Please keep praying for me.

    3. It's a deeply painful thing - the whole serious disjunction between the Church's teaching and the whole culture of North America. I don't see any easy resolution - the Church believes our moral teachings are from God - it would be apostasy for us to change them! And the whole political climate has become so aggressive and angry... and much of that aggression and anger is from the gay rights activists, you know.
      At the same time, the pain of so many people has to be met. It is tough, tough, tough, and all I can do (personally) is to try to love and wash the feet of each person who comes to me, gay or straight, Catholic or whatever, and meet them where they are. That's what I try to do. It's a mess - a very painful, bloody mess. Let us pray for God's way to prevail.

  4. Fr. Denis. Can you clarify what, in your opinion, the pope means by relativism. Does he truly think some people think all moral viewpoints are equivalent? Does he think atheistic morality is inherently relativistic because of no divine laws? Or does he use that term to express contempt for those whose position differs from his?

    My guess is the 2nd as he's very down on atheists (in Britain he even tried to link us to the 2nd world war) but I'd like to hear your opinion.

    1. The Pope hardly invented the term 'relativism', and what he means by it is what anyone trained in philosophy and theology means by it.
      Not to go all wikipedia on you, but here is their article:
      To be clear, the Pope is usually referring to what is called 'meta-ethical' relativism in his writings. If you really want to look into his thought, the book cited above, Values in a Time of Upheaval, is mostly about just that. If you want to engage the Church's teaching on the matter, the encyclical Veritatis Splendor is probably your best 'one-stop shop' for that.
      I would hesitate to read the Pope's mind on the point, and I can't lay my hands on a precise citation, but I think he would argue that atheists are not necessarily relativists (although many are), but that atheism fails to provide a compelling case for a binding moral law. Like I say, I can't provide a quote from him to support that, but I have immersed myself in his writings, and I think that's it.
      Peace to you.

  5. I certainly didn't think the Pope invented relativism and I actually have a few credits in Philosophy picked up on my way years ago while getting a couple of degrees in Physics. My question, and I hope you didn't treat it as a "gotcha" question, was to satisfy my curiosity as non believers like myself are always being called relativist and in my opinion, nothing could be further than the truth (so to speak) for me and most atheists I know. They are also very rarely utilitarians, and do have some principles (usually human rights) that they will not compromise.

    But if the pope is referring to meta-analysis, then I'm afraid understanding may be difficult if not impossible. Meta-physics (to me) is suspect and arbitrary, meta-analysis in science is fraught with abuse and metacriticism in the humanities is a waste of good minds (bias alert). Meta relativism could be susceptible to similar abuses.

    Also atheists should not be the one providing a compelling case for a binding moral law, society should be, believers and not. That is the basis of our secular Charter of rights and our legal code. One can't completely dictate morality in a secular society but there is a surprising consensus among people of many backgrounds on many basic issues. So I think one can argue that society is becoming less relativistic rather than more.


  6. Final word on this topic by me. I was puzzled by your byline about the dictatorship of the relativists because except for some of the post modern critics in literature, I can't think of anyone who's a relativist so I looked up a list of relativists on Wikipedia and the first name I saw was John Moffat. I know him I thought. I've gone to lectures by him with his views on relativity... Then I looked over the list and saw quite a few physicists I knew by name and realized they included a lot of experts on relativity as relativists. Einstein almost called hos theory the Theory of Invariance as it postulated the speed of light and the laws of physics were invariant throughout the universe. I wonder if he had we'd not be discussing the dictatorship of the invariant.

  7. Rationalist,
    I have not studied advanced physics or philosophy...and I know I cannot approach your intellectual prowess..nor Fr Denis....
    But There is something I want to saw... I believe that deep in each one of us there is some immutable truth...and that truth varies little really... it is part of our truest self, the best, most good, most loving. Laws, societal mores, science..they can help us know this truth in ourselves and one another... But still compared to this truth, all else is relative. I guess that is what I thought relativism meant....


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