Relativism as a defense of tolerance and religious freedom

After having lived through and witnessed totalitarian oppression and the fall of the Soviet Union, Pope John Paul II strongly affirms the value of political democracy. Democracy “ensures the participation of citizens” and holds the governed accountable, and formalizes peaceful means of transition (Centesimus annus §46). Precisely because human freedom and dignity are protected in the democratic form of government, he points out the fatal mistake that is being made to defend democracy on spurious grounds – “Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” (CA §46). People convinced of the truth are deemed unreliable, or worse, fanatical. But John Paul cautions that without a true standard, ideas can be easily manipulated and lead to totalitarian rule. He agrees that fanaticism is unbecoming for a democratic citizen, but this danger stems from an ideological cast of mind, in fact an unwillingness to face the truth, not from a conviction concerning the truth of human dignity.

In writing the Gospel of Life, John Paul calls this attempt to use relativism a “sinister” approach that opens up justification for the killing of the weak. Behind the attacks on life and the changing of a crime to a right, lies a cultural crisis “which generates skepticism in relation to the very foundation of knowledge and ethics, and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, and the meaning of his rights and duties” (EV §11). And indeed we often hear as a justification of liberal abortion law the notion that no one can know when life begins, or that there are so many different opinions about it, none can be correct, or some more correct than others. All opinion is private opinion and cannot stand forth as true. We have despaired of reason itself.

Relativism is seen to be a way to bolster tolerance, peace, and civility. Readily admitting that crimes are committed in the name of truth, John Paul says that  “equally grave crimes and radical denials of freedom have also been committed and are still being committed in the name of ‘ethical relativism’” (EV §70). AT the German American conference some excellent papers were delivered on the intolerance of tolerance. Relativism is no guarantee of tolerance. The true basis for tolerance is precisely the dignity of the person, a truth that we must embrace. Jacques Maritain points out that the mistaken appeal to relativism as a defense of toleration fails to distinguish the subject or person who deserves our respect and the opinion they hold, which may be in error. Democracy “stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes.” It is a true crisis of democracy if it cannot give an account of or defend the values it seeks to live and promote.

The appeal to relativism ultimately neglects the very sign of human dignity, the presence of moral conscience. St. Thomas More is a witness to the “inalienable dignity of conscience.” And conscience is the basis for religious freedom, as we have explained in previous blogs. Pope John Paul II points to the great passage of Gaudium et spes on conscience: “the intimate center and sanctuary of a person, in which he or she is alone with God” (§16). But conscience thrives on truth, only makes sense on the basis of the power to seek truth and to live by truth. In fact, we say of Thomas More that he bore witness to the “primacy of truth over power.” Relativism would subvert the very basis for human dignity and the rationale for democracy..

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