Tag Archives: relativism

American dogma in dangerous decline

Dogma has a bad name these days, and that’s bad for the Church and for America.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (DCA) spoke for growing numbers of Americans when, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2017, she criticized Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic faith: “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”

The premise is that those who hold dogmas grounded in religion are intolerant and bigoted, and should keep their religious ideas out of public life. That’s an idea both ironic and dangerous. American democracy was founded on dogmas grounded in religion. As our common assent to them diminishes, the duty of Catholics to live publicly as Catholics is increasingly threatened.

Dogmas are principles laid down by an authority as absolute truth. Some are “revealed” truths. While they are subject to reasoning, they are ultimately accepted by faith, by trust in the authority that reveals them. For example, Christians accept, on the authority of the Bible, that Jesus is God.

But Feinstein was not concerned about Barrett’s understanding of revealed dogma. She was targeting the Catholic understanding of moral truths, which for centuries have been accepted by the authority of Scripture and the authority of natural reason. For example, the Ten Commandments teach dogmas that it is always wrong intentionally to kill innocents, or to commit adultery, or to seek sexual gratification outside marriage — an institution defined by Jesus (Mt 19:4-6), and until recently by most societies, as the union of one man and one woman.

Of course, few dogmas have garnered universal assent, let alone been practiced universally by fallible human beings. But religious and non-religious people alike have generally believed that objective truths exist whether or not we apprehend them. Because they are true, we seek to discover and understand them, and to live by them.

Much has changed in recent decades. We are today witnessing the hardening of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism” — the conviction that there are no absolute truths, that all knowledge and moral principles are the product of history and environment, or that they are constructed by the state, or by each person for himself.

That ‘relativism is itself an absolute truth’ claim is no longer an amusing irony. It has become a coercive barrier to traditional morality in American public life, a driver of judicial decisions and legislation that codify sexual freedom while silencing dissenters.

Recall, for example, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s relativist dictum justifying the abortion license: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This claim provides a constitutional basis for the killing of innocents and underlies the establishment of homosexual acts, same-sex “marriage,” and choosing one’s gender as constitutionally protected rights.

The Equality Act, passed this summer in the House, would make sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes under the Civil Rights Act, brand those with traditional moral views as bigots, and open the door to financially ruinous lawsuits against Catholic and other religious institutions. Under this law, no one could claim religious freedom as a defense.

But our founders embraced a radical religious truth claim: “all men are created equal, [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….” The first of those rights, codified in the First Amendment, was religious freedom.

Call it the American dogma, the transcendent source of our equality and freedom. If we Catholics are to merit this gift, we must exercise it, in private and in public, as free and equal citizens of this great land.

THOMAS FARR is president of the Religious Freedom Institute, a D.C.-based non-profit that advances religious freedom for all as a source of human dignity, social and political flourishing, and international security. He was founding director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (1999-2003) and of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center (2011-18). He was an associate professor of the Practice of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service from 2007- 2018. He is a member of the Northern Virginia Chapter.

Truth exists whether we like it or not

Repeatedly I hear someone being interviewed on radio or television answer the interviewer’s question with the exclamation, “Absolutely!” I find that quite amazing at a time when so many claim there is no absolute truth—only opinions about what is true, relative to one’s point of view. It’s a misconception called relativism. Can relativism be true? Many might shout, “Absolutely!” I would like to answer instead, “Absolutely not!”

Why is that? Well, first of all, claiming that there is no objective truth means you are insisting in your claim that what you say is objectively true—which cannot be true by its own verdict. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain said it rightly, “The sole philosophy open to those who doubt the possibility of truth is absolute silence— even mental.”

Second, if it’s true that the world is round, someone’s opposing opinion will not make it flat. Truth is truth, even if you do not accept it; and untruth is untruth, even if you claim it. If relativism were true, then there would no longer be any facts. And yet, almost everyone swears by the facts. Policy makers want facts, police reports are based on facts, courts require facts, science is in search of facts.

To cross a river, for instance, we need a bridge built by engineers with the right knowledge, not with mere beliefs, opinions, or convictions; and to get into heaven, we need faith based on the right knowledge, not on mere sentiments. G. K. Chesterton once firmly asserted “that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it.”

Taken to its extreme, relativism would entail that something like gravity may be true for you, but not for me. Relativism promotes a sort of democratic ideal in matters of truth and knowledge. This viewpoint is certainly not new. Pontius Pilate expressed it with his legendary question, “What is truth?”

Yet, in the past, relativism was never really popular, but nowadays it is receiving lots of traction. One of the reasons for this is the misconception that the human mind is presumably nothing more than a machinery of neurons. Therefore, we have no way of really knowing what we think we know. There is no way anymore to distinguish fact from fiction, realities from illusions, opinions from truths, and beliefs from make-beliefs.

Relativism has managed to infiltrate many areas of our lives. It even has penetrated the domain of religion. The modern conception is that religion is a highly private issue. Some go as far as wondering if religion has anything to do with truth. Of course it does. Even in religion, we deal with facts and truth issues. Jesus’ resurrection is either true or false. Jesus coming again to judge the living and the dead is either true or false. More in general, the existence of God is a factual matter — God either exists or not. Believing that God does not exist doesn’t make Him disappear, as little as believing that the earth is flat would make the earth flat. God’s existence is not dependent on our belief in Him.

How do we learn truths like these? Just like we do in science by reading or listening to what others have discovered before us, so we do in religion by reading or listening to what the Bible and the Church reveal to us. Obviously that calls for good instruction about the truth—in the family, in our schools, and from the pulpit. The term for this is evangelization. It begins at home, but cannot and should not end there.

GERARD M. VERSCHUUREN is a human geneticist who writes on faith and reason, science and religion. His most recent book is Forty Anti-Catholic Lies: A Myth-Busting Apologist Sets the Record Straight (Sophia Institute Press).

Who Am I To Judge?

Edward Sri
Ignatius Press, 2016
190 pages, paperback $16.95

In an age in which preference has replaced morality, many people find it difficult to speak the truth. They’re afraid of the reactions they will receive if they say something is right or wrong. Using engaging stories and personal experience, Sri helps readers understand the classical view of morality, and he equips us to engage relativism, appealing to both the head and the heart.

Subtitled Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love, the book teaches how Catholic morality is all about love, why making a judgment is not judging a person’s soul, and why, in the words of Pope Francis, “relativism wounds people.”

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