The Dictatorship of Relativism
by Cardinal George Pell
Relativism is powerful in Western life, evidenced in many areas from the decline in the study of history and English literature, through to the triumph of subjective values and conscience over moral truth and the downgrading of heterosexual marriage.
One reason for optimism is that no one believes deep down in relativism. People may express their scepticism about truth and morality in lecture rooms or in print, but afterwards, they will go on to sip a cappuccino, pay the mortgage, drive home on the left side of the road, and presumably avoid acts of murder and cannibalism throughout their evening. People, unless insane, do not live as relativists. They care about truth and follow clear cut rules.
Catholics call the universal acceptance of the many basic moral norms “natural law” — the term simply means that whereas some laws apply only to Australians, moral laws apply to everyone who shares a human nature. Some remain sceptical of this — but interestingly, philosophers and thinkers of quite secular temperament now regularly explore the notion of objective morality in their teaching and writing.
Nothing matters more than truth to our country. Differences about important issues such as war, slavery, abortion, euthanasia are different claims to moral truth, not merely competing preferences. Some who have never been deprived of truth can give it up too easily, perhaps using talk of relativism or secularism to camouflage their actual commitment to money, success, possessions, power. But these are ambiguous goods: they can be misused and are rarely distributed fairly.
It is getting to the truth about things and having the integrity to live by that truth that is the ideal we should pass to the next generation. By comparison, relativism is bankrupt: it offers no future because it is not liveable; and where it is a camouflage, what it camouflages is gnerally rotten and often shaped by greed.
Jesus said “I am the Truth” and for this he, and countless good men and women, lived and died. Nobody lives and dies for relativism: people do not sacrifice themselves for a theory which states that such a gesture is merely relative.
The abolition of truth does not ensure a proper tolerance of diversity, but removes the constraints on any passing majority opinion and prevents us from discriminating legally between the tolerable and intolerable. Relativism is a position that explains a self-obsessed, overly materialist, ethics-lite minority — and that, I firmly believe, is not Australia today and not the Australia we want for tomorrow.