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Cardinal Pell on the Dictatorship of Relativism

9/25/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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"A Recipe for Disenfranchisement and Passivity"

CANBERRA, Australia, SEPT. 25, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is the text of an address Cardinal George Pell of Sydney delivered Wednesday at the National Press Club in the Australian capital.

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The Dictatorship of Relativism
Address to the National Press Club

By Cardinal George Pell

Shortly before he entered the conclave in which he was elected Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger preached the homily at the pre-conclave Mass and warned against the rise of "a dictatorship of relativism." It is an evocative phrase which frightened some and provoked confusion in others.

Taking as his text St. Paul's warning to the Ephesians (4:14-16), that "we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine" but "must grow up" in Christ and in love, the cardinal offered the following reflection:

"Every day new sects are born and we see realized what St. Paul says on the deception of men, on the cunning that tends to lead into error (cf. Ephesians 4:14). To have a clear faith according to the creed of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of 'doctrine,' seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the 'I' and its whims as the ultimate measure."

When I heard these words in St. Peter's Square my first instinct was to think that Cardinal Ratzinger obviously did not want to be Pope. I wondered whether he thought a few home truths would not go astray on this final occasion when he was at center stage.

The words were blunt, and provocative, even if he spoke of a dictatorship "being constituted," a dark cloud on the horizon, rather than claiming that the fashionable winds of doctrine were everywhere triumphant.

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. None of this is entirely new: Relativism is an antique theory. The great thinker and father of history Heraclitus [History 3, 38] noted that different cultures differ in their basic beliefs and customs, and at the dawn of our philosophical tradition the Greek philosopher Protagoras challenged the religious and moral wisdom of his day, arguing that each individual's own opinions are the measure of truth [see Plato Theaetetus 151eff].

This theory has so far received no official sanction -- usually because wise men and women have seen that either relativism is the real truth about the universe, in which case relativism is wrong since there is a real truth, or relativism is not the real truth, in which case we should all stop thinking about it. The danger today is that people do not even think this far to see the inconsistencies. Hence Pope Benedict's warning.

One reason for optimism is that no one believes deep down in relativism. People may express their skepticism 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 human nature. Some remain skeptical 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 livable; and where it is a camouflage, what it camouflages is generally 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 ...

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