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Truth and Tolerance

By Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
Archbishop of Oklahoma City
January 27, 2013

In a homily delivered in the presence of the College of Cardinals prior to the 2005 conclave which elected him as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of the threats which the new pope, whoever he might be, would have to confront.  Among the many challenges the Church faces at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Cardinal Ratzinger observed, is what he called “the dictatorship of relativism”. 

Relativism is the philosophical principle that denies any objective truth, that is, any truth that is true for everyone.  Its corollary denies that there are universally valid moral norms.  There are only subjective opinions: “What is true for you is not necessarily true for me.” Given these principles we can easily envision the train wreck that is waiting just around the bend!

In fact, the human mind is ordered so that we naturally seek truth and are capable of grasping truth once we discover it. 

In one form or another, relativism has been around for a long time.  Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate that he had come to bear witness to the truth.  Pilate could only respond, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:37-38). Relativism is an assault on the very foundations of human society and discourse.  If there is no objective truth, what happens to honesty and integrity?  What is to be the principle and foundation governing our human relations and human action?  Sadly, it is raw power that usually fills this vacuum.

By referring to the contemporary form of this philosophical error as the “dictatorship of relativism”, Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) underlined its power and aggressive nature. 

Relativism is a danger in both religious and secular cultures.  When divorced from truth, the truth that can be grasped not only by faith but also through reason, religion runs the risk of being hijacked by various forms of extremism and fundamentalism.  An irrational religious faith and fervor can quickly turn to violence in pursuit of its goals, as the world has witnessed all too often, even in our own day.

But this relativist principle is also at the heart of secular culture in countries like our own.  Indeed it is often adopted with a quasi-religious fervor.  In the secular form of relativism, tolerance has trumped truth.  Lacking a foundation in truth, tolerance of each person’s subjective opinions and behaviors becomes the ultimate norm and principle of moral conduct.  Nowadays it is perhaps the ultimate insult to accuse someone of being intolerant.  And it would be very intolerant (so the argument goes) to say that same sex unions, human cloning, abortion, pornography, exploitation of the vulnerable or any other affront to natural law or religious truth is wrong!  Indeed we do owe respect to each person and ought to tolerate their right to hold their own ideas and opinions.  But that does not absolve us from the duty to evaluate and the truth of those opinions and moral quality of the actions that flow from them.

Commenting on secular culture which has largely adopted a relativist creed, Pope Benedict XVI said, “In such a society the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and ‘authoritarian’ to speak of truth.”  I can envision a time in the not too distant future when it will be considered “hate speech” to publicly uphold and defend the Church’s teaching on marriage.  Ironically, the so-called tolerance which secular relativism embraces as its only absolute value becomes highly intolerant toward any assertion based on faith that the truth can be known with certainty.

Tolerance is indeed a virtue. Divorced from the truth, however, blind ideological tolerance becomes one of the most aggressively intolerant and corrosive forces in society.