Beyond the Dictatorship of Relativism

Almost everyone who pays attention to religion and public affairs knows of Joseph Ratzinger’s famous homily shortly before he was elected pope denouncing the modern “dictatorship of relativism.” The future Benedict XVI rightly drew the connection between, on the one hand, the alleged tolerance and openness professed by many people opposed to the old faith and morals, and, on the other hand, the highhanded public means by which they now force their views on everyone else.

All quite true and profound. But it’s become quite clear that what now most threatens traditional religious belief and behavior is not exactly relativism. Or openness. Or tolerance. Not by a long shot. It’s a substantial set of alternative beliefs and teachings. And claiming that this new faith is fairness or neutrality simply won’t survive a moment’s thought.

Take the gay marriage measures passed in New York State. The ground had been prepared for this and a whole host of other public policy shifts by claiming, for instance, that for all of us sexuality is fluid and “socially constructed.” A kind of relativism, if you will.

Except, it seems, in the case of gay men and women, who are “born that way,” or the product of a “gay gene.” If you have homoerotic feelings, in this perspective, nature – and perhaps God – have apparently hard-wired you. And that’s what you are. Even gays who are unhappy and want to change their orientation are encouraged to believe that they have only “internalized homophobia.”

This is the kind of simple assertion of nature or biology that we’ve been taught to think of as crude and naïve – even slightly fascist – when used to support heterosexuality as the norm. Or notions like marriage, family, and two opposite-sex parents as ideal for children. No appeal to biology or stubborn fact is allowed in these areas.

The inconsistency here is a clue that we’re not dealing with a scientific or rational truth, but an ideology, indeed a kind of alternative faith. Though there’s no solid scientific evidence for gay genes, and plenty of evidence about the disaster for children and adults that results from our cavalier treatment of marriage, it’s become something of a blind faith and a moral crusade for a certain segment of our population to pretend otherwise.

Cardinal Ratzinger celebrates Mass (2005)

Our social radicals deplore moral crusades in principle when Christians and others are merely standing up for the accumulated wisdom and social practice of every human society in every age, not some groundless experiment in social tolerance. The radicals claim that society ought to be open and neutral, not dominated by divisive public moral rules.

But moral passions do not go away just because we change their objects. If you come to believe that gay marriage is a fundamental human right – as is now happening here and in some international forums – you are saying that anyone who believes differently is morally repugnant and a threat, even prior to actually doing anything, to the kind of civic attitudes all decent people should have. This is why traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. are – absurdly – accused of promoting “hate” as a family value. And though the radicals are careful not to make the point too clear – to avoid political problems – they’ve essentially declared traditional religious morality bigotry.

So we have the equally absurd situation in which the vast majority of the human race is regarded as morally perverse by a small slice of the populace in a few wealthy countries. Meanwhile, the history of the twentieth century is marked by a series of ill-advised social theories that seemed humane and scientific at the time, somehow got control of the levers of power, and littered the landscape with victims of various kinds.

The sexual revolution has already produced an illegitimacy crisis – and a tsunami of problems over the concrete reality of being related – that seemed all but impossible prior to our time. As usual, the poor and marginalized are the ones who suffer most. By any measure, for instance, racism is much reduced from what it was fifty years ago. But illegitimacy is roughly 80 percent among blacks, about five times what it was in 1960.

There’s no mystery here: sexual revolution plus government programs that substituted for fathers produced similar increases, though lower in absolute percentages, for all races with the usual social pathologies and psychological turmoil added. Meanwhile, there’s a mountain of social research that shows living in a stable family and worshipping regularly produce enormous advantages in health and human happiness.

This is the point in the argument where the other team calls a time out and says: look, you heteros have done a demolition job on marriage already. What possible harm can the small percentage of gays who will decide to marry – and those few out of a mere 1-2 percent of the population – do anyway?

There’s a simple answer. Family breakdown is a fact, but a fact that doesn’t deny the crucial role of family in principle. The legalization of gay marriage simply obliterates the most important pre-political union – the intricate web of reproduction, affection, and the education and formation of new generations that has been recognized in every society as something unique and indispensable – by equating it with whatever two, or more, people may claim is marriage.

In the 1970s, President Carter tried to hold a “White House Conference on the Family,” which radicals even then forced him to alter to rename “on Families,” in recognition of the several forms of families. That might have been justified, properly done, but the definition of family adopted in the proceedings applied equally, as one wag observed, “to the traditional family and two winos sharing a boxcar.”

Just wait until we get our first Family Czar. You’ll see things you won’t believe. And they won’t be advanced under the banner of relativism, but of a different and quite militant faith.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.