Cardinal Pell on the Dictatorship of Relativism

«A Recipe for Disenfranchisement and Passivity»

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CANBERRA, Australia, SEPT. 23, 2005 ( 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 do not sacrifice themselves for a theory which states that such a gesture is merely relative.

The abolition of truth does not ensure a proper tolerance of diversity, but removes the constraints on any passing majority opinion and prevents us from discriminating legally between the tolerable and intolerable. Relativism is a position that explains a self-obsessed, overly materialist, ethics-lite minority — and that, I firmly believe, is not Australia today and not the Australia we want for tomorrow.


Recently some newspapers have given considerable coverage to demonstrating how relativism’s intrusion into the classroom as postmodernism or «critical literacy» affect education at both secondary and university level. In some schools the study of English texts as English language has been abandoned altogether for the lower secondary grades and replaced with a blancmange of English, social studies and comparative religion called «Integrated Studies.»

While parents wonder why their children have never heard of the Romantic poets, Yeats or the Great War poets and never plowed through a Brontë, Orwell or Dickens novel, their children are engaged in analyzing a variety of «texts» including films, magazines, advertisements and even road signs as part of critical literacy. The trend has apparently gone furthest in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, and I am aware that N.S.W. Board of Studies syllabuses prescribe these authors.

Of course there are always rationalizations for why school syllabuses are manipulated in this way. The official Web site of the Tasmanian school syllabus explains that the objectives of critical literacy are to enable students to «deconstruct the structures and features of texts,» to overcome the assumption that «texts [are] timeless, universal or unbiased,» to understand the «unequal positions of power» that texts often present, and in this way to «work for social equity and change.» It is all meant to be very «empowering.»

Examining how relativism in the form of school-based postmodernism proposes to make students into «agents of social change» makes it apparent very quickly that there is another agenda at work underneath it all. Generally accepted understandings of family, sexuality, maleness, femaleness, parenthood, and culture are treated as «dominant discourses» that impose and legitimize injustice and intolerance.

These dominant discourses are then undermined by a disproportionate focus on «texts» which normalize moral and social disorder. Too much time is given to narratives about sad and dysfunctional individuals and shattered families. While no one is arguing that children, especially senior secondary school students, should be brought up only on fairy tales with happy endings, this narrow focus and the rejection of those principles which build and maintain society’s social capital mean that students are not forced to confront and learn from the great English-language classics but are allowed to sink towards the sordid and the dismal rather than strive towards the good and the beautiful.

Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, writing shortly after Pope Benedict’
s homily, described relativism as «nothing more or less than the deconstruction of all objectivity in our perceptions of reality. Accordingly, there is no real, objective and historical truth, only those notions which each special proponent offers as his own idea of truth.» My generation has had the benefit of learning from the tradition and thus we can critique it. To give youngsters all-critique-and-no-foundation leaves them rudderless.

School syllabuses or university courses in which great works of literature and the study of history are dismissed as «elitist» or relevant only to «the dominant ethnic and social group» dismantle the sense of an objective reality in young people, by denying any philosophic foundation for adhering to humanist values. Although the stated purpose may be to make students «sensitive» to the experiences and stories of others, the effort is often counterproductive. If it is impossible to get a handle on the true range of human endeavor because nobility, faith, heroism and compassion become deceptions, facades for the exercise of power, then students are forced back into their own small personal worlds, good, bad or different.

Looked at in this way an education in relativism seems more like a recipe for disenfranchisement and passivity than empowerment. If you want people to move the world it actually helps if you put some ground under their feet. This is one of the things that Christianity does. As Pope Benedict said elsewhere in his pre-conclave homily, «A faith profoundly rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. This friendship opens us to all that is good and gives us the measure to discern between what is true and what is false, between deceit and truth.» Having a «measure to discern between what is true and what is false, between deceit and truth,» is the source of empowerment, and the lasting basis for concern and compassion for others.

One of the most important reasons for persisting with the difficult search for truth, is that wishes are a poor substitute for reality. Australians want our country to be a fair and decent society. Wishing will not make this happen. It takes clear thinking. We actually need a clear and well-founded notion of fairness and decency and need to work consistently towards them.

Some argue that a public consensus on issues is sufficient and that ideas of right and wrong and truth are superfluous to this. The problem with consensus, even communitywide consensus, it that it is malleable, manipulable and subject to strange changes over time. It is amazing what we can get used to, given enough time and given enough confusion about identity, experience, values and tolerance. Deeds that were formerly crimes have in some places become constitutional rights in little more than a generation, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

People sometimes look to the law as a way out of the labyrinth. Questions of right and wrong are to be resolved through the decisions of courts. However these changing legal rulings are either the product of social consensus or social engineering, running ahead of society, by senior judges. An explicit relativism provides no basis to evaluate these developments.

Religious principles

A society like Australia, despite many among the elite understanding themselves as secular, has been living off Christian principles for nearly two centuries. This has tempted some to take for granted values like human rights, social justice, a fair go, and kindness towards the battlers.

But values like this do not occur spontaneously. Very few societies in history have been founded on all of them, and some, e.g. Roman, have even regarded compassion and humility as weaknesses. Humane values have to be nurtured, explained, defended, and above all given a foundation in reality. The 20th century, the most cruel in history, has given us abundant evidence for this proposition. An interesting analysis of this evidence has been provided by the moral philosopher Jonathan Glover in his book «Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.» In addition to examining the great catastrophes that took place, Glover also considers what held back some people from cooperating in atrocities and encouraged resistance in the face of evil.

Glover is an atheist and an opponent of many Christian positions, e.g. supporter of infanticide, but he is concerned with «the fading of the moral law.» I attended a course of his lectures at Oxford more than 25 years ago and he told me proudly more recently that a few bishops, more Anglicans than Catholics, had been his pupils. While drawing attention to «the evils of religious intolerance, religious persecution and religious wars,» he also argues that «it is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment.» He worries that the decline of religion will mean the decline of this source of resistance, and that in the absence of God our moral code will be that of the society we live in: meaning that we become hostages to tribalism, inherited prejudice and the winds of fashion (p. 405).

An unprincipled and intolerant secularism?

There is considerable evidence that atheism is dying in the Western world (cf. Alistair McGrath’s «The Twilight of Atheism,» 2004) and that popular secularism is heavily infected with superstition, but if intellectual secularism does have a creed it is relativism. With the demise of Communism secularism only survives by attacking Christianity, has no independent platform of value and objectivity but lives (in the Western world) on a post-Christian overdraft.

Many think that Australia is now a secular society (some Catholics and many secularists like to talk like this) but in the 2001 census 68% declared themselves Christian and only 15.48% declared themselves without religion, a decline of 1.45% from 1996. While the percentages of believers and unbelievers among our academics and journalists might be the reverse of that obtaining in the general population, there remains a good case for claiming that Australia is still a Christian country (tolerant of every religion and no religion), whose major social, political and legal institutions cannot be fully understood without it.

Daily we hear of human rights, obligations to the needy, ideals of virtue, principles of equity and compassion that are certainly not relative and often not secular. In fact under relativism, human rights are not just watered down but literally incoherent. Obligations to the needy become negotiable, virtue is flexible so that «might can be right» and «greed can beat need.» Equity and compassion are fine for those who freely choose them, but simply options, not imperatives. If relativism were ever officially endorsed, moral life and public life would be changed forever.

Many people never think seriously about religion at all, hence secularism wins by stealth and default. But we should ponder the effects of an increase in the secular-relativist bite into Christianity: previous moral norms we all accept (on lying and promise breaking, assault and abuse, cheating and rorting [taking unfair advantage], even freedom and equality) would be vulnerable to revision: conscience would become personal preference – a polite term for «doing it my way,» and clear thinking and past wisdom would be repudiated and ridiculed.

Could this really happen in Australia? It might seem hard to believe we would ever reject the most fundamental moral values; but it was hard only 50 years ago to believe we would abort 100,000 babies a year, contemplate men marrying men, killing the sick, experimenting on human embryos. … Under relativism there is no antidote to Nazism, racism, Communism, fundamentalism: for relativism, whatever is socially supported thereby deserves social support.

Relativism follows from secularism because part of secularism’s original argument was that the renunciation of the claim to religious truth is a fundamental condition for peace. In an essay in hi
s book «Truth and Tolerance,» the then Cardinal Ratzinger refers to the work of Egyptologist Jan Assmann, who claims that it was Moses who introduced the notion of truth into religion, and insisted on rejecting false gods. Hitherto religions had been pure or impure, sacred or profane, and people could have a number of religious enthusiasms. But Moses’ destruction of the Golden Calf set an unfortunate precedent for monotheistic intolerance.

The secular ambition today is to return to ancient Egypt, to remove again the distinction between God and the world, to tolerate undemanding forms of spirituality, perhaps a return to pantheism, a vague nature worship, where there is no need to be concerned with truth and falsehood, much less any notion of individual judgment after death by the one true God. With this reversion there would be no more need for the notions of sin and redemption. According to Assmann’s theory, sin only came into the world with Moses. But if there is no true and false religion, it is much more difficult to distinguish good from evil. Relativism is meant to serve as the operational principle that delivers tolerance, mutual respect, and a basis for civic peace, in contrast to the way religion causes war and dissension. Those who defend secularism and relativism continue to offer this rationale, but secularism and relativism can be dictatorial, intolerant of principled opposition.

In 2001, when the Anglican archbishop of Sydney suggested that Christians should do more to evangelize Australian society, the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial condemning this idea as arrogant, dangerous and a recipe for bloodshed. Observing that «in Australia, one’s religion is largely a private matter,» the editorial concluded — with only a small hint of menace — that «it should remain that way.» This editorial captured the secularist attitude to traditional religion very well: It is acceptable, perhaps even a good thing, to have some of it around for the sake of «diversity» but it can only be tolerated on the condition that it is privatized. The privatization of belief is usually justified by referring to the importance of maintaining the public domain and public policy as «neutral» areas. But privatization does not favor neutrality. It is a way of silencing your opponents, because barring God from the public square is not neutral. Believers have equal rights in a democracy!

There have been other manifestations of secularist intolerance throughout the Western world in recent years: the witch trial of Rocco Buttiglione conducted by the European Parliament because of his Christian understanding of homosexual activity; the conviction of critics of same-sex marriage for publicizing their views under human rights legislation in Canada; and the penalties handed out to Christian ministers in Victoria for allegedly vilifying Islam.

There were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in any other century, most of them under atheist tyrants like Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. To what extent these were principled killers, ruthlessly following their ideologies, or relativists who worshipped power is a moot point.

A weaker Christianity

Obviously it would be an ambition of Pope Benedict that Catholics and indeed all Christians would be sturdy opponents of the dictatorship of relativism. This is not always the case.

In 1993 Pope John Paul II wrote his beautiful and controversial encyclical on «The Splendor of Truth.» There he spoke of a genuine crisis in the Catholic understanding of morality; not only dissent on particular points but differences which contested the very basis of Christian moral thinking, that there are moral truths.

Put very crudely, but with basic accuracy, there is a conviction even among some church-going Catholics that the Second Vatican Council taught that they can now choose to identify conscience with their personal opinions, and disagree with Church teaching especially on matters of sexuality and life. Somewhat strangely those who assert this claim rarely urge people to follow their consciences in matters of public morality, such as social justice. No one seems to be free to follow his conscience when confronted with racism.

The crisis is more publicly apparent in other Christian denominations, e.g. in the tragic divisions in the Anglican Churches over the ordination of homosexually active bishops, but the root causes are similar. A fundamental division between liberal and traditional Christians is where to draw the line between immutable tradition or Revelation and what can be changed and updated according to modern understandings.

In moral matters this often involves two contrasting views of conscience; the Christian concept, where conscience seeks to discover and do what God commands and a secular view of conscience as personal autonomy, each person’s right to define right and wrong for himself.

Sometimes Christians move unknowingly from one concept of conscience to the other, easy victims to the fashionable relativism.

Pastorally there can be a radical confusion which is much welcomed, because it can conceal, even from those involved, the fact that they are disagreeing with the teaching of the Church, and sometimes with Christ’s own teaching.

Recently I heard of a discussion between two Christian politicians (I am not sure both were Catholics) on how they would vote on destructive human embryo experimentation. One proposed to vote for it and the other to oppose, and the supporter of the legislation justified his position by claiming he had asked advice from a priest who told him to follow his conscience. At best the priest ducked the issue; at worst he disguised his dissent by advocating what his listener preferred.

Simple-minded relativism is alive and well within the Christian communities. In its radically liberal forms it is poisonous of both faith and morals, while at a pastoral level such fudging of the issues offers nothing to people young or old who are looking for truth and principles.


The first St. Benedict was born at Nursia, Italy, in A.D. 480. He withdrew from the world to Subiaco, where Nero had a villa centuries earlier with its own artificial lake, and then moved to found a monastery at Monte Cassino. His rule became the basis of the Benedictine Order, whose monasteries across Europe preserved faith and learning through what is sometimes called the Dark Ages.

Pope Benedict is clear headed, long sighted, a realist rather than a pessimist. He does not seem to share those surges of optimism which touched Pope John Paul II once in while. It is significant that he took the name Benedict as he begins to lead the Church in a Europe with a declining population, many signs of metaphysical boredom, and a culture of relativism which lacks clarity and self confidence. There is also a crisis of faith in many parts of this continent.

Pope Benedict knows this well, just as he knows that a vibrant Christianity can still transform even post-industrial societies with its love and faith, its principles and communities of service.

Australia is still a young society. With our energy and optimism we are not fertile ground for the dictatorship of relativism, but are rich in spiritual and especially moral potential. This could be one reason why Pope Benedict nominated Sydney to host the World Youth Day in 2008.

George Cardinal Pell
Archbishop of Sydney

[Text adapted slightly]

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