Facing Relativism. Standing for Morality

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“Religion must affirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not mere decorative frills of personal opinion, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality.” — Bhikku Bodhi

Though Bhikku Bodhi is a Buddhist, this is one of my favorite quotes, because in one simple sentence it accurately describes the intrinsic nature of morality while firmly declaring our mission in a world where relativism continues to gain influence.

Morality is not subjective. It is not the product of evolutionary psychology, nor does it come from anything else in the natural world. Our moral conscious is of divine nature, implanted in us by God alone. Because of free will, we can choose to let God guide that conscious, or we can refuse to acknowledge his presence all together and try to do it ourselves. In this instance, morality becomes warped and relative.

Moral relativity is one of the greatest threats to the structure of our society. It is the doorway for which sin passes through and takes root. It is a deceptive force that promotes itself to be the ideal way for a society to function. It celebrates the desires of the flesh as good and wholesome, and creates a culture of complacency and irresponsibility. Even the most devout Catholic can become subject to its influence, possibly even unknowingly.

It’s easy to think that we can live a good Catholic life from the sidelines, to look at something like abortion and say “I’m not making that choice, but I can’t make it for someone else.” It’s true, we can’t make decisions for other people, nor can we force them to live morally, but does that mean it’s okay to develop a relative attitude? Absolutely not. As followers of Christ, we have more than just a responsibility to ourselves. Part of being a witness to Christ’s message is building the moral foreground for which a society can flourish. A morally relative society cannot sustain itself. It will descend into chaos.

I won’t pretend like it’s easy to battle. Relativism carries a significant amount of appeal while lambasting the opposition as sexist, judgmental, homophobic, and oppressive. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve spent too much time in my life waving the “it’s not my business” flag. In today’s world, it’s difficult to step out of the neutral zone–especially when relativism has a way of using our own religion against us. There seems to be a growing belief that since Christians are supposed to love and not judge, then it’s wrong for us to merely point out immoral behavior in our society, much less attempt to correct it. It also doesn’t help that groups like the heretical Catholics for Choice and the Progressive Christian movement have adopted moral relativity as a Christian value. Yes, we are supposed to act with love and grace and be examples of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and it is especially important that we remain forever aware of our own sinful nature, but none of this is an excuse to turn a blind eye to immorality. Loving does not translate to enabling. Acceptance of a person does not mean accepting their immoral behavior.

Pope Francis has called for the Church to stand for what is right in the face of this “throw away” culture. We have to let go of the fear that keeps us quiet on the sidelines. We cannot be afraid of becoming judged or cast out. Our failure to act only allows relativism to spread, and it will infiltrate every new generation to come. As a unified Church, we have to be the witness, and show people that morality, like God, is real and ever present in our world.

Matthew Tyson

Matthew Tyson

Matthew is a Catholic convert, blogger, and freelance writer living in Alabama with his wife and baby son. After joining the Church in March of 2013, he started the Mackerel Snapper blog as an effort to reach out to other possible converts and help educate non-Catholics about the faith. Outside of writing, Matthew is an avid reader, hockey fan, and devout Whovian. You can follow Matthew on Twitter at @MackSnapMatt, or email him at matthewallentyson@gmail.com

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9 Responses

  1. St. Alphonsus in his “Theologia Moralis” noted however that only the initial level of the natural law is obvious to all men of good will…no stealing, no eating rapaciously, no adultery, no sodomy. There is a relativism diachronically within Catholicism once issues get complex. He noted that saints themselves differed on moral positions once the obvious level was left behind. He was probably thinking of perpetual chattel slavery which Pope Nicholas V endorsed in Romanus Pontifex ( mid fourth large par.) but which position Pope Paul III took issue with and denounced for new natives at least in 1537 in Sublimis Deus. And he was perhaps thinking of the clash between the Franciscans and the Dominicans on usury’s details…a clash that a Council settled in the Franciscans favor later on but prior to St. Alphonsus.
    And the Jesuits clashed against both those orders on the issue of the morality of the ancestral rights in China…and subsequent Popes likewise had alternate views on that.
    Aquinas and Augustine on the issue of lying held to a very strict standard while Jerome did not and noted that Jehu lied to set up the ambush for the Baal worshippers and Jehu was thereafter praised by God. Aquinas countered that Jehu later permitted the golden calf worship at Dan and Bethel so Aquinas used that to refute Jerome. But it was a non sequiter since we accept the early Solomon…(e.g. Wisdom 6-11 minimum) while not dismissing him for later conduct with one thousand women. And Aquinas didn’t deal with the undercover lying of Judith nor Solomon’s therapeutic deception that found a baby’s real mother by a verbal ruse…later to be used by Newman in Seinfeld to determine the real owner of a bicycle fought over by Elaine and Cramer.

  2. While I can understand how you may disagree with Catholics who advocate reproductive choice or other Christians who accept gay marriage I don’t see how those groups could be accused or relativism. They just have different principles than you. Take the example of gay marriage, many Christians hold that marriage equality for gays and non-gays is a principle they embrace while I assume you hold the contrary position. Neither would say either position is morally equavalent, indeed the gay marriage Christians would probably maintain your position is wrong.

    Very few people (outside of Wall Street) are moral relativists. They just hold different principles to be true and while you may disagree with them and they may disagree with you very few say all positions are equal.

    1. Ideologues think that anyone that doesn’t agree is thoughtless, selfish, and lacks values. They don’t even understand themselves.

      1. I think one can still be an ideologue, meaning steadfastness in one’s position, without it being a pejorative. I can think of several issues where I am quite firm in my position and could not imagine compromise.

        One is secular government. I feel state, and its representatives, should be neutral with regards to religious belief or non belief. I’m that way not because I am an atheist now, but because I was raised Catholic in an area that was very anti-Catholic and had to endure anti-Catholic bigotry by public school teachers and principals. Am I an ideologue on that issue? Yes. I understand why people of the dominate religion are comfortable with the state supporting their religion, I just don”t agree with it,

      2. As Catholics (and as all Christians should) we believe that morality is objective, and we believe it to be truth. Our job is to bring people to that truth and teach them (not force, mind you) that there is, in fact, an objective morality.

        Now, a good chunk of the secular world is very much relative when it comes to morality. Take abortion for example. I, as a pro-lifer, stand firm in the idea that abortion is immoral, at all times, always. Every argument I’ve ever heard from a pro-choice advocate will argue “if you don’t think it’s right, that’s fine, but you can’t tell me what to do”.

        True, I can’t, but that attitude alone is relative. The progressive Christians are very guilty of relativism, because on so many moral issues they take the “everything is true” stance, or the “we don’t endorse or condemn X”.

        It’s not just a difference in principle, it’s an entire difference in how we view the moral spectrum.

      3. I have the utmost respect for people who disagree with me on any number of things, up to and including gay marriage, abortion simply is not one of those things. I don’t just THINK that people who approve of abortion are thoughtless, selfish, and lack value, I KNOW it. Either that or they are deluding themselves on some aspect of the facts. Like they believe the lies they are fed by planned parenthood about the inhumanity of the unborn. (“potential” life, “blob of cells” “parasite” etc) and if so they badly need to be correctly informed.

    2. the very idea that people simply hold different principles to be true IS moral relativism. Catholics cannot hold differing opinions on abortion, abortion is murder, murder is against the Catholic faith. Period. The Pope, the Magisterium, the CCC, all agree on this point. No room for equivocation.

      1. No, moral relativism is the idea that holding different principles to be true AND those are equivalent principles is moral relativism. For example, in an issue that The Catholic Church and I agree on, I hold that the second Iraq war was not a just war. Pres. Bush in his opinion and guided by his religion held that is was justified and that those who thought differently were wrong. He was not being a moral relativist (neither was the Catholic Church) as we were both sticking to our principles and not saying the opposing view was equally valid. The opposing view was wrong.

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