Dictatorship of relativism the greatest challenge

By  Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB
  • May 2, 2008

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from an address by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, coadjutor archbishop of Vancouver, to the Ontario Catholic School Supervisory Officers annual general meeting April 17.

According to the Holy Father, a major challenge to the church of the 21st century and one which presents “a particularly insidious obstacle in the task of educating” is the massive presence of relativism in society and in schools. Indeed, relativism has become a sort of dogma, and “it is considered dangerous and ‘authoritarian’ to speak of truth, and the end result is doubt about the goodness of life — is it good to be a person? is it good to be alive?” This “dictatorship of relativism,” as expressed by Benedict XVI, manifests society’s profound crisis of truth, a crisis which inevitably influences teachers, parents and students.

Relativism, even when implicit, cripples every endeavour to foster the genuine education of children. Ontario’s Catholic schools, like those in other postmodern societies, undoubtedly breathe the air of contemporary Canadian society. In all but the scientific realm cultural and moral relativism reigns. Addressing a group of Ontario bishops during their ad limina visit to Rome in the fall of 2006,  Pope Benedict lamented the negative consequences of relativism in schooling:

“A particularly insidious obstacle to education today, which your own reports attest, is the marked presence in society of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires.  Within such a relativistic horizon an eclipse of the sublime goals of life occurs with a lowering of the standards of excellence, a timidity before the category of the good, and a relentless but senseless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom.”

Whereas for centuries the search for and communication of truth was extolled as the goal of all education, unfortunately, we can no longer take this pursuit for granted. The prevailing cultural climate makes people suspicious, if not hostile, to any claim to know or teach the truth. This indifference to truth and the acceptance of an easy-going relativism undercut every attempt to present the church’s teaching as definitive. 

Moreover, such doctrinaire doubt undermines our ability to answer the fundamental questions which even young children ask: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why do bad things happen? What is there after this life? Some teachers, even in Catholic schools, are tempted to let these questions go unanswered.  Nonetheless, “in the education of the new generations, the question of the truth can certainly not be avoided” (Pope to the Ecclesial Convention of the diocese of Rome, June 5, 2006).

The practical fallout of this climate of relativism is that very few young Catholics believe in the truth of Catholicism. The majority thinks that it is acceptable to pick and choose beliefs and that morals are relative. In face of this considerable muddle about the notion of truth, educational leaders in the school system are called to recommit themselves to a simple proposition: the search for truth inspires all genuine education — Catholic or not. Moreover, you must be convinced that, despite appearances, young people today are no less drawn to the truth than those of previous generations.  “Young people today nevertheless still have a great inner need for truth” (Pope to the Ecclesial Convention of the diocese of Rome, June 11, 2007).

Pope Benedict recently wrote in his Letter to the Faithful of the Diocese and City of Rome on the Urgent Task of Educating Young People (Jan. 21, 2008):

“In a small child there is already a strong desire to know and to understand, which is expressed in his stream of questions and constant demands for explanations. Therefore, an education would be most impoverished if it were limited to providing notions and information and neglected the important question about the truth, especially that truth which can be a guide in life.”

Catholic educators cannot afford to be confused about the nature of truth. This means that you must be convinced that the human mind, however limited its powers, can indeed come to a knowledge of truth which, in turn, can be communicated to students. Unwavering commitment to truth identifies every genuinely Catholic school, wherein there is present “an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth, in which competent, convinced and coherent educators, teachers of learning and of life, may be a reflection, albeit imperfect but still vivid, of the one teacher” (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, Congregation for Catholic Education).

Catholic educators seek to respond to questions of truth in light of reason and faith, convinced that there is no contradiction between them. On the contrary, there exists a profound harmony between “the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et Ratio, 1, Pope John Paul II). Our Catholic tradition has always valued this close connection between reason and faith.  It reacts negatively both to those who cling to faith at the expense of reason and to those who claim that reason alone can explain everything about the nature and destiny of individuals and humanity in general. If we teach that thinking critically and believing devoutly are mutually supportive, “in this way we will help young people to broaden the horizons of their intelligence, to open themselves to the mystery of God, in whom is found life’s meaning and direction, and to overcome the conditioning of a rationality which trusts only what can be the object of experiment and calculation” (Benedict to the Ecclesial Convention of the diocese of Rome, June 11, 2007). As superintendents, you have to cultivate in yourselves and develop in your colleagues a passion for truth which challenges the prevailing secular dogma of moral and cultural relativism.

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