Definitely Not a Political Theorist

November 2007

Then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his book Values in a Time of Upheaval (Crossroad Publishing Co., in conjunction with Ignatius Press, 2006; originally published in 2004) plays the political theorist. This book is not part of the Church's Magisterium.

We have commented on Cardinal Ratzinger's phrase the "dictatorship of relativism" many times. And we'll do so again. A "dictatorship of relativism" doesn't compute. There can be a dictatorship of absolutism. There can be an anarchy of relativism, a democracy of relativism, a liberty of relativism. The destruction of Christian morality in the West is not the result of any dictator. It's the result of a "democracy, liberty, and freedom of relativism." Most democratic people support moral relativism or acquiesce to it.

Or as Donald DeMarco said in the National Catholic Register (Aug. 6-12, 2006), Cardinal Ratzinger "has given some popular currency to the phrase 'the dictatorship of relativism.' The true relativist...would have nothing to dictate to anyone." Touché.

In Cardinal Ratzinger's Values in a Time of Upheaval, he muddies up his phrase; indeed, he reverses his position. He says, "the modern concept of democracy seems indissolubly linked to that of relativism." Well, well! But then he backtracks: "This means that a basic element of truth, namely, ethical truth, is indispensable to democracy." But then he backtracks again: "We do not want the state to impose one particular idea of the good on us.... Truth is controversial, and the attempt to impose on all persons what one part of the citizenry holds to be true looks like enslavement of people's consciences." And he says this on the same page!


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New Oxford Notes: November 2007

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When coining the phrase "dictatorship of relativism" the Pope was simply making use of a common rhetorical device known as the "oxymoron" -- an expression that purposefully combines two contradictory terms in order to make an important point. Some other examples include: "deafening silence" or speaking of abortion as "legal murder." All thinking people intuitively understand the meaning of these terms despite the (purposeful) contradictions, "the dictatorship of relativism" included.

The Pope's purposeful use of an oxymoron is not a sign of sloppy thinking; it merely demonstrates that Ratzinger understands the canons of rhetoric -- as did writers like Chesterton and Oscar Wilde -- and is making use of them.

Unfortunately, many orthodox Catholics (like Evangelicals and fundies) do not or cannot understand many rhetorical devices common to argumentative language -- also including satire, paradox, and irony. Nor are they able to understand humor. That's unfortunate.
Posted by: charing cross
November 05, 2007 05:55 PM EST
Charingcross: Excellent post! I agree with you wholeheartedly.

The NOR editors have an issue with the concept of the "dictatorship of relativism." This is a shame because they are missing a key point, and misleading their readers in the process. They really do a disservice to the Church here. From time to time I feel like yelling at them "GET BEHIND THE POPE AND HELP AS OPPOSED TO HINDER!!!"

The "dictatorship of relativism" looks something like this: Imagine being a Christian student in a classroom. You profess in front of your classmates belief in an absolute: Jesus Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life and NO ONE comes to the father except through Him.

Your teacher promptly cuts you off, and sends you to the head master for making other students feel uncomfortable. You are disciplined and made to take courses on sensitivity as a condition for remaining at the school. You are thus being persecuted and subjected to reeducation. This doesn't resemble a dictatorship? What if you are poor and the school doing the persecuting is a government school that you are stuck in with no way out?

The above scenario is not at all unlikely. Why? The only absolute the relativist believes in is that "there is no absolute." Once someone crosses that line and expresses belief in an absolute, the die hard relativist has no problem persecuting the the absolutist. This potential persecution can make the young absolutist feel like he is living in a dictatorship in that he may well be persecuted for sharing the truth. This is just one example of how the "dictatorship of relativism" may function.

The philosophical reasoning behind relativism is impossible. The statement: "The only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth" is self negating. However, the relativist doesn't see it that way. He makes his action fit his belief. Anyone therefore who claims that absolute truth exists is a threat to the relativist's system. Relativism is increasingly the dominant philosophy in our schools and colleges. The end result is dictatorial environment in our places of learning where students of faith are periodically persecuted. Absolute statements fly in the face of everything the relativist holds dear. The situation will likely only get worse for those brave enough to profess orthodox Christianity.

The NOR needs to wake up on this one. They are asleep at the switch. The Pope is correct: and I would add probably smarter than the entire editorial team of the NOR put together. The dictatorship of relativism is real and dangerous.
Posted by: eakter
November 12, 2007 10:10 PM EST
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