September 4, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – It would seem that relativism should be the most merciful of rulers. The doctrine that “truths” and moralities have no foundation in unchanging absolutes, but are rather mere conventions constructed out of a vast number of cultures or historical contexts: is this not the perfect incarnation of humble prostration before the indefinite number of notions naming what is “right” and “wrong”? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s revelatory metaphor “dictatorship of relativism” is especially apt because it captures relativism’s paradoxical duplicity: reassuring us of its dialogic, democratic character, it executes and enforces its tenets with violence.
Tocqueville touches something of this paradox when he describes the incredible censoring power of the majority in democratic regimes. Princes, he writes, “materialized violence,” whereas the “democratic republics of today have made violence as entirely intellectual as the human will that it wants to constrain.” When one man governed absolutely, “despotism, to reach the soul, cruelly struck the body, and the soul, escaping from these blows, rose gloriously above it.” In democratic republics, on the other hand, “tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body alone and goes right to the soul.” Instead of threatening dissenters with death, the majority opinion says “You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains with you; but from this day on you are a stranger among us.”
Democracy and Relativism: Estranged Allies or Strange Bedfellows?
Benedict XVI knows we are political animals. Although relativism has won sacrosanct respect for a number of reasons, in a little-known address he delivered as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope Emeritus offers one primary cause: relativism is credited with enshrining modern democratic tolerance, ensuring that whatever knowledge we might obtain can only come through perspectival dialogue. One truth, valid for all, would undermine this purported unity through irresolvable diversity. “Relativism,” he writes, “appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy.” The democratic spirit, Benedict XVI continues, ushers in a world apparently “enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better.” Most proponents of democracy forcefully prefer the marketplace of ideas, and typically affiliate monotheistic precepts with an outdated monarchy. Our political regime must become a polyphonic competition of truth claims, and we can only preserve this precarious “system of freedom” if, writes Benedict, channeling the relativist, we usher all opinions into a “a system of positions that are connected with one another because they are relative as well as being dependent on historical situations open to new development . . . a liberal society would be a relativist society: only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future.”
We face a seemingly intractable problem: ruled by the dictatorship of relativism, democracy may fast become the worst form of government, for if the majority of its citizens are soft or steadfast relativists, the regime will be increasingly swayed by fanaticism. Relativists who believe that our actions are founded on nothing but vague principles ultimately rooted in blind choice cannot “wholeheartedly” act upon those principles. Still more, such a relativist must silence reason, which reminds him that his principles are neither better nor worse than any other; that is to say, when we reason through the implications of relativism, we must either reject it or accept the nothingness it uncovers at the heart of our every conviction and persuasion, our every conclusion and preference.
The Spirit of the Democratic Ethic and the Specter of Relativism
Typically, at least in the United States, those who simultaneously decry relativism and defend liberal democracy present the latter as salvageable for one of two reasons—or both at once. First, the Declaration of Independence seems premised not on the Founder’s preference for a power shift but on a certain understanding of natural law, which is to say a law not subject to the vicissitudes of history and convention—a law that ought to serve as a universal principle for all peoples. In addition to citing the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal,” Jefferson insists that it is man’s “Creator” who endows them “with certain unalienable Rights” among which “are Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Moreover, when appealing to the colonies’ right to a “separate and equal station,” Jefferson announces that this entitlement is given by “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” making his appeal to natural law even more evident.
Those who defend democracy and decry relativism may reasonably argue that although democracy— driven as it is by the principle of majority rule—does not in and of itself contain any principles that prevent relativism, nonetheless the Founders intended the laws to be written with natural rights in mind. In other words, according to these defenders of democracy, the relativism that is rampant in the United States is an offense against the precedents evident in the documents our Founders left us. Even if one assumes this position, he must soberly admit that these precedents have been insufficient protection against the standing army of relativistic citizens and the moral and spiritual ruins they leave in their wake as they march from sea to shining sea.
Others, religious proponents of democracy, point to Tocqueville’s observation that although the positivist form of laws permitted the people to do what they pleased, religion prevented them from conceiving, and forbade them from committing what is rash and unjust. Truth teems from Tocqueville’s observation that religion both moderates the democratic passions and nurtures a certain concrete, even impassioned innocence in the imaginations of souls shaped by democratic regimes. For this reason no one in the U.S. (in Tocqueville's time) dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible. Because of this, Tocqueville tells that religion, “must be regarded as the first of [the American] political institutions.” But Tocqueville’s taxonomy of the theological-political bind then climbs to a provocative claim: “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed”?
Should the accidental presence of religion recede, should relativism reshape those of its populous who claim dual citizenship in the City of God into a relatively humane species ashamed of its “absolutist” history, the dictatorship of relativism will have won the right to govern absolutely. And not even an unevolved ostrich could fail to see that American believers have by and large “progressed” into lives of individualized spirituality marked by radical openness and pastoralizing appeals to contingencies.
Conquering the Benevolent Dictator through Tyrannicide?
Under the dictatorship of relativism, citizens of the City of God are as displaced persons faced with one of three choices. They can seek asylum in “reactionary” bunkers where they can join their co-conspirators who continue to conduct their conversation, conserving capital-T truths in a foreign tongue—in a language the dictator cannot comprehend. Or, by some combination of serpentine shrewdness and dovelike simplicity, these disciples of first things can infiltrate the ranks of relativism’s dictatorship, completing little “inside jobs” when, say, they pass positive laws that accord with natural ones? But these “double-agent” spies for God know yet another option, one rooted in St. Thomas Aquinas’ tentative defense of tyrannicide. According to the Dumb Ox, a regime that is “ordered by an authority” in a manner “opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted: not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants.”
Aquinas goes so far as to insist that one ought to be “praised and rewarded” for being the “one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant.” However, he advances a crucial qualification, indicating that the tyrant’s rule may be disturbed so inordinately that his subjects may suffer still worse from the disturbances of resistance than from the tyrant’s government.
To be clear: I am not speaking of active physical resistance to the human incarnation of relativism’s dictatorial, intellectualized violence. True as it may be that we find relativists reigning at the highest echelons of States, Corporations, and even the human face of the Church, the dictatorship of relativism is a regime far more powerful and pervasive than these particulars; it lacks the locatable center occupied by the tyrant of classical politics. And this is what makes the problem of unseating it so hard; the metaphorical character of relativism’s dictatorship raises difficult questions. If a citizen of the City of God were to reason it just to commit tyrannicide against the dictatorship of relativism, what would he take as the object of his justified violence, given that he is striving to unseat a pervasive ideology rather than a person? By what means can one unseat an ideology? An aggressive shift from dialogue that seeks to prudentially apply first principles to particulars to absolutist assertiveness that drowns out the relativistic blather?
Remember Tocqueville’s contention that while Princes “materialized violence,” the “democratic republics of today have made violence as entirely intellectual as the human will that it wants to constrain.” Let us apply Aquinas’ aforementioned cautions to this intellectualized violence: given that the dictatorship of relativism reigns largely by means of this intellectualized violence, wouldn’t the would-be-tyrannicide reach his end by means of the same sort of intellectual violence? Wouldn’t this metaphorical tyrannicide bloody his own mind beyond recognition, leading him to assume the character of his enemy? Are there other ways of tyrannical resistance?
It is for these sorts of reasons that Aquinas bids us be cautious: by acting against the tyrant, we can “become involved in many perils more grievous than the tyranny itself.” Thomas reminds us that if we do not prevail against the tyrant, then he (in this case the dictatorship of relativism) will rage all the more. Still further, active resistance to the dictatorship of relativism could result in some new tyrant’s ascension—a dictator (if we can imagine) still worse. Is this true also of our actions against the dictatorship of relativism? If so, does this leave us with the unpleasant conclusion that it is better to abide the dictatorship, doing work as “double-agents” and “reactionaries” where we can, refraining from metaphorical tyrannicide?
The Return of the Kingship of Christ
St. Augustine goads us: “Not to resist an error is to approve of it; not to define a truth is to reject it.” It is the Church, however, more than in any political or economic entity that (rightly understood) does—always does, via the Deposit of Faith—and, in its members can and must resist the dictatorship of relativism. True, especially of late, through (among other means) modernist theologies, through a problematic “collegiality” and “synodality,” powerful churchmen are (intentionally or unintentionally) goading the Church toward dangerous, docile subjection to relativism’s reign. And many of the faithful, in ways less visible, freely collaborate or follow suit. Too often prelates and catechists, their own souls formed by relativism’s regime, channel this confusing, compromised chaos of opinions through liturgy and preaching and teaching.
Christ must reign. As Pope St. Pius X writes, this means that “we owe Him, therefore, not only a private cult, but a public and social worship to honor Him.” Restoration of the Kingship of Christ means a concerted rejection and a zealous submission to Christ the King. Submission to Christ the King means absolute rejection of compartmentalization: no more can ensure the relativistic regime that “our private opinions (ie. those dogmatic and doctrinal truths, those truths of Divine Revelation and Sacred Tradition) shall not impinge upon our public life.
Prudence may dictate that muscular resistance to relativism may, in certain situations, result in still greater evils, such as a still more vicious, selective “tolerance.” But prudence allows us to identify occasions that demand our courageous truthfulness. We can only be confident in our own truthfulness if, as subjects of Christ the King, we rejoice in our patrimony, cleaving to the clear and continuous teachings of His Magisterium.
The great difficulty is that, to employ the words of Fr. Felix Sarda Y Salvany, relativism (like liberalism) equivocates “firmness with fanaticism, the uncompromising with the intolerant, consistency with narrowness.” Given this, only a relatively small number of Catholics may be prepared to pay such allegiance. It’s Founder, the cause of longsuffering, the Heart of all courage, will in time reach the ends of the earth. Reorienting ourselves ever more to the Kingship of Christ, we can be confident that the dictatorship of relativism will, in due time, collapse. As one of evil’s most sophisticated manifestations, it contains the causes of its own destruction.
Still, crumble though it will, so long as democracies remain unmoored from religion, relativism will continue to govern with a duplicitous combination of “humility” and violence. We must take our bearings from the “the holy martyrs who,” Aquinas says, “suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants.”