Pope Francis and the Dictatorship of Relativism

The central focus of Pope Francis’ papacy has been the poor. Over and over again, his words and his actions show that he wants a poor Church for the poor. His focus is sometimes contrasted with Pope Benedict’s focus on “the dictatorship of relativism” and the collapse of the Church in Europe.

Of course, Pope Benedict also displayed a profound commitment to social justice and the poor. What might be more overlooked is that Francis has not ignored the dangers of relativism. In both Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si, which is addressed to all of the people in the world, Pope Francis sees relativism behind a great deal of injustice:

In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay. (Laudato Si, 122)

Francis is encouraging many people who embrace relativism—whether overtly or covertly, theoretically or practically—to work for social justice and to care for creation. Many already have a partial commitment to these values, even if their motivations are based on an incoherent set of values. Pope Francis wants these people to collaborate in contributing to the common good no matter what, but he also wants to be clear that a firm commitment to social justice and the poor is rooted in a rejection of relativism. He writes:

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. (Laudato Si, 123)

If there are no objective truths, there is no such thing as social justice. It is impossible to say with real authority that anything is unjust—human trafficking, debilitating poverty, the degradation of the environment, slavery, abortion, genocide, and anything else. You can work against these things without accepting the idea of objective morality (out of an emotional reaction or by trying to create your own personal morality), but to do so is to flee from reason and purpose while undermining the necessarily communal project of achieving the common good. Still, this is better than an embrace of nihilism that more logically flows from a rejection of the transcendent. But it is inevitable that there will be inconsistencies that allow the throwaway culture and the dehumanization of others to flourish. Without a firm foundation in truth, a comprehensive commitment to the common good and its realization are both unlikely.

Therefore, if we value social justice and ending poverty is a top priority, we must reject relativism. This is obviously a challenge for many secular folks, but rejecting practical relativism is a real challenge for Christians, who frequently mix genuine morality with self-interest or favor cultural preferences over difficult moral demands. Pope Francis is clear: if we want to end the throwaway culture, we need to turn away from relativism in all its forms.