Ever since he coined the term “the dictatorship of relativism” shortly before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, the phrase has continued to haunt me. At first glance it sounds like an oxymoron: How can a relativist seek to impose a dictatorship? Aren’t dictators called absolutists for a reason? If we define a relativist as someone who says that ethical norms vary from one community to the next and from one period of history to the next, how can a relativist forbid the moral norms that another community chooses to live by? But, of course, that happens all the time, as when Catholic Charities in California is ordered by a court to provide contraceptive costs in the medical insurance plans for their employees. Personally, I think David Bentley Hart is right, who once told me in conversation that there are no relativists, except maybe a few sophomores in a dorm on the campus of Arizona State University.
To be sure, there is a pluralism of cultures, ideologies, and religions currently crowding the marketplace and clamoring for public attention, so that any attempt to enforce uniformity by some absolutist imposition would quickly backfire. So in response to that dilemma, people fall back, faute de mieux, on the portmanteau word relativism to express their hopes that we can all “live and let live.” You know, the kind of plea for tolerance made famous by Rodney King during race riots in 1992, which were touched off by the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers for beating King after his arrest for speeding: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”
But such pleas for tolerance don’t last long in the heat of political battle, not to mention during a riot. Catholics in Europe may not experience outright persecution, but they cannot enter political life in the upper echelons of the trans-European bureaucracy while simultaneously subscribing to Church teaching on homosexuality, birth control, even women’s ordination, on which the European Parliament once weighed in with a resolution condemning the Church’s “gender bias.” No relativism there!
So now we have the absurdity of schools in England being prohibited from serving hot-cross buns lest they offend non-Christians, or of a church in Scotland forced to hire an atheist lest it run afoul of anti-discrimination laws, and so on. It reminds me of a witty remark once made by the moral theologian Janet Smith on the relativizing moral theologians in her guild who go under the banner of a school of thought called “proportionalism.” She said she’s never met a proportionalist who could come up with a circumstance in which it might be proportionately justified to discriminate against women or even to occupy a handicapped parking space at a shopping mall when one is able-bodied and just wants to pop in to pick up some clothes at the cleaners!
All this is sheer madness, of course, and has made multiculturalism incoherent in every way. So let me conclude with another mordant line from E.M. Cioran: “The day I read the list of nearly all the Sanskrit words that designate the absolute, I realized that I had taken the wrong path, the wrong country, the wrong idiom.”
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