Relativism Threatens Democracy, Warns Holy See

Ethical Pluralism Seen as Sanctioning the Decay of Reason

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 16, 2003 ( The Holy See in a new document warns that «cultural relativism,» which denies the existence of absolute truths, threatens to undercut contemporary democracies.

The «Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,» written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with papal approval, was published today.

The document states that a «kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defense of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law.»

«Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy,» the note says.

As a result, it adds, «lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.»

At the same time, those who advocate relativism ask Catholics and those with other convictions «not to base their contribution to society and political life — through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy — on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good,» the document says.

«The history of the 20th century demonstrates that those citizens were right who recognized the falsehood of relativism, and with it, the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of man, the common good and the State,» it explains.

«Such relativism, of course, has nothing to do with the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good,» the text indicates.

«Political freedom is not — and cannot be — based upon the relativistic idea that all conceptions of the human person’s good have the same value and truth, but rather, on the fact that politics are concerned with very concrete realizations of the true human and social good in given historical, geographic, economic, technological and cultural contexts.»

«It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions — and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one — to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person,» the note emphasizes. «It is, however, the Church’s right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters when this is required by faith or the moral law.»

«If Christians must ‘recognize the legitimacy of differing points of view about the organization of worldly affairs,’ they are also called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism. Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society,» the document stresses.

«The democratic structures on which the modern State is based would be quite fragile were its foundation not the centrality of the human person. It is respect for the person that makes democratic participation possible,» the note adds.

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