11 January 2010

Article: Is Democracy a Dictatorship of Relativism?

The Duke University Press journal "Common Knowledge" dedicated in 2007 a symposium of articles to the last homily Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger gave before his elevation to the Papacy.

Under the heading "A 'Dictatorship of Relativism'? Symposium in Response to Cardinal Ratzinger's Last Homily", the authors look at various aspects of relativism. Of particular interest may be an article by Jeffrey Stout called "A House Founded on the Sea: Is Democracy a Dictatorship of Relativism?" (13 [2-3], spring-fall 2007: pp. 385-403).


Excerpt: "In his homily of April 18, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger issued a stern warning to his colleagues: 'Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine," seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of [satisfying] one's own ego and desires.' A day later, the cardinals chose the bearer of this message as pope.

"In an essay published originally in German in 1992, Cardinal Ratzinger had already remarked that 'the modern concept of democracy seems indissolubly linked to that of relativism.' A 'consistent relativism,' he declared, entails that 'there is ultimately no other principle governing political activity than the decision of the majority, which occupies the position of "truth" in the life of the state.' If moral truth is reducible to whatever the majority decides, democracy 'is not defined in terms of its contents, but in a purely functional manner.'

"In the 1995 encyclical letter The Gospel of Life, John Paul II himself drew attention to 'the ethical relativism which characterizes much of present-day culture.' Like his eventual successor, he took issue with 'those who consider such relativism an essential condition of democracy, inasmuch as it alone is held to guarantee tolerance, mutual respect between people and acceptance of the decisions of the majority, whereas moral norms considered to be objective and binding are held to lead to authoritarianism and intolerance.' Ethical relativism and democratic culture have, in the Vatican's view, become intertwined."

While I haven't been able to access the full text of this article, I managed to glimpse at the original essay by Ratzinger, "What is Truth? The Significance of Religious and Ethical Values in a Pluralistic Society", in "Values in a Time of Upheaval" (trans. Brian McNeil; Crossroad/St. Ignatius Press, 2006: pp 53-72).


He writes: "The concept of 'truth' has in fact now moved into the zone of antidemocratic intolerance. It is not now a public good, but something private. It may perhaps be the good of specific groups, but it is not the truth of society as a whole."

Of course, being a German who has lived through National Socialism, he believes that democracy truly is still built on arguably universal values such as human rights.

Jeffrey Stout is Professor of Religion at Princeton.

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