A Primer On Relativism For Catholics

Have you ever talked with someone who said, “Well that’s your opinion” to every point you tried to make? Have you ever felt there was something wrong when someone said, “All religions are equally true” but didn’t know exactly what? Or finally, has anyone ever told you, “There is no absolute truth, everyone makes their own truth”?

These ideas are accepted on a grand scale today without question and, like most ideas accepted without question, reveal a sort of laziness of the intellect that is quite dangerous. Irrational ideas need coercion to survive, because the human intelligence longs for truth and revolts against ideas and worldviews that contradict reality.

The sad truth is we’ve all been manipulated. We’ve been soaked in baths of poisonous ideologies our whole lives. We’ve been read false narratives of how the world works since childhood. It’s not really our fault. We were born into them. We inherited them, in many cases, from our parents as well as our ambient culture. And like Neo in the movie The Matrix, we wander about with a feeling something is not quite right with the way the world is being presented to us, but can’t quite put our finger on why it’s wrong. I would like to focus for a moment on one of the most pervasive, as well as pernicious, of these false narratives: the ideology of Relativism.

What is Relativism?

Modern Relativism is a sort of ideological hodge-podge of many different old philosophical theories, centered around the notion that there is, in reality, no absolute truth, no one set of truths that applies to all men, everywhere, at all times. Advocates of the relativist ideology claim, especially in the realm of ethics and morals, that what is morally right or wrong for one may not be for another. This can be true in a limited sense. For example, stealing may be wrong in most situations, but it is not wrong to steal a loaf of bread from a rich man to feed your starving family. Relativism grabs on to exceptions such as these and applies them universally. In other words, it claims that because there are exceptions, that means there really no universal code of morality, no “Natural Law” written in human nature by a creator. In fact, they say, “Man” really does not exist. We have no nature, we create our own selves, our own “nature”.

In essence, Relativism is a kind of false humility. It denies that there is even an objective “real world”, or at least denies that we are capable of knowing it. Who do we think we are, they say, to claim that we can say something is true for everybody? The Relativist “elephant in the room” is of course not talked about: When you say there is no absolute truth, you are asserting as an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.

The Implications of Relativism

Let’s face it, the truth is often hard to face. It sometimes makes us feel bad; people will often do just about anything to avoid facing the truth, because they realize if they accept it, they might have to change their lives in accordance with that truth. I have an old friend who recently revealed she had not baptized her last two children. “I don’t want to pass my ‘Catholic Guilt’ on to my children” she said. Instead of facing the hard truth of her life, that perhaps she had in fact done bad things that her guilt was coaxing her to ask forgiveness for, she apparently preferred to make an incredible, irrational leap of intellectual pride, in effect saying, “The truth of the Catholic Faith makes me feel bad. Therefore, it is not true.” Lies, even when you lie to yourself, always engender more lies, in a sort of Pinocchio-like downward spiral of diminishing returns; the more you fabricate a false reality by lying, the more lies you have to construct, until the whole flimsy construction inevitably comes crashing down.

When someone says everyone has their own truth, that there is no objective, absolute truth that applies to everyone, what exactly do they mean? Do they really understand the implications of what they’re saying? The very fact that they are making such a broad statement, obviously applying it to everyone, strongly suggests that deep down they really do not even believe their own claim. Whats more, no one who says these sort of things actually lives it out in their own life. If you stole their car out of their driveway, and when they objected you replied, “Actually, it’s my car”, they most certainly would not answer, “Oh, I suppose you’re right, since your truth is just as good as mine.” No, our human nature demands that the claim correspond to reality, which is the very definition of “truth”. I bought the car, you didn’t. Even those fully committed to the idea that truth is different for everyone would hesitate to let the hard-won fruit of their labor be driven out of their driveway by a stranger.

Relativism seems like an attractive idea: if everything is relative, if there is no objective truth for everyone, if everyone creates their own reality, then there is really no good and no evil, and I can live literally however I please, do whatever pleases me. I can avoid the hard choices that make me feel bad, and settle into the warm, fluffy mattress of pleasure and good feelings. Good is then judged not by the way things are, but only by what makes me feel good, and evil is judged by what makes me feel bad. Herein lies the sneaky tyranny of Relativism, the “dictatorship of Relativism” that Pope Benedict XVI warned us about. You see, Relativists(those who subscribe to this way of thinking) only think truth is relative when it comes to other people’s views. Their own truths, on the contrary, are paradoxically held to be absolute, unquestionable, and if need be, enforceable. If there is no absolute truth, then there is no Absolute Truth either. In other words, the principle of my actions is at that point no longer a rational God whose reasonableness I must conform to (morally and intellectually). The principle of my actions instead becomes my own petty whims and changing passions, to which everyone else needs to conform. It becomes every human being’s full-time job to make sure I never feel bad. My feelings become my god. Therefore anyone who dares oppose my almighty feelings by presenting me with an inconvenient truth that contradicts my emotion-based opinions will be dealt with ruthlessly.

This phenomenon is very clearly seen in the worldwide melee over “gender identity”. It quickly became obvious that when the attractive power of objective truth, especially the truth about God, is cast aside, all that remains is the strongman power of the rich, the powerful, and the influential. The unchanging biological truth of Man’s nature, taken for granted by everyone for all of human history, is steamrolled over, replaced by whatever faddish opinions the most powerful happen to hold at any given moment. Any dissent must immediately be crushed, lest the light of truth reveal that the Emperor, in fact, is not wearing any clothes. Those who disagree are branded as irrational bigots and “phobics” of every kind, until fear of becoming a social outcast causes them to surrender. Yet even those who cave in to the threats of the Relativist juggernaut are not safe; you must be light on your feet if you are going to toe the Relativist line. What is held to be the supreme evil one day may become the supreme civil right the next. One does not have to look far to find examples of what happened when one person or elite group tried to make an entire culture or country bow down to their erroneous conceptions of human nature: the Nazism of Adolf Hitler, the Communism of Lenin and Stalin, and the contraceptive ideology of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, just to name but a few.

How do we protect our minds from the Relativist ideology?

I have briefly presented the dangers of Relativism. Here are a few ways we can protect our minds from being tossed about like a rudderless boat on the stormy seas of a Relativist world:

Think. Don’t just accept an idea because it sounds good or because everyone is saying it. Check the source. Constantly check whether an idea presented to you is in accord with what the Church teaches. When you feel strongly about something, ask yourself, “Where did I get this idea?” Those who told it to you may have not had your best interests at heart. As my old novice master Fr. Didier used to say, “If one day you find you have strong opinions about something you know nothing about, it’s a sure sign you’ve been manipulated by someone. Better find out who.”

Educate yourself. Relativism thrives on ignorance. Unplug from the media that constantly tries to shove Relativist dogma down our throats. Read books about the Faith. Inform yourself before forming an opinion. Study philosophy, if you can, it will help you learn to discern reality from ideology. Even a little philosophy can help you easily see through the Relativist smokescreen.

Believe and follow the official teachings of the Catholic Church—all of them! Not only does the Church have 2000 years of wisdom behind her, she also has the Holy Spirit Himself to guide her “in all truth”, as Christ foretold. Don’t pick and choose the teachings you like, and ignore the ones you don’t. A “cafeteria Catholic”, that is to say, a Catholic Relativist. Pray for the courage to not be afraid of facing a hard truth that may force you to change your life. Jesus is the Truth. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “Christ takes nothing away from what makes us truly human, and gives everything!”

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