His Teachings on Truth and Relativism
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate, the unjust judge, raised this famous question to Jesus at His trial. To him it was all relevant, there was no absolute truth.
Today the same question arises repeatedly with the scandals of the lies of politicians, newspaper reporters and authors. Truth is not a feeling or whatever you choose it to be or what works for you. Truth is that which conforms to objective reality, whether in the physical world or in the spiritual world. For example, it’s a truth that water freezes at 32 degrees F. It is a truth that two plus two equals four. All rational people acknowledge these realities. On the other hand, the physical world is not the sole realm characterized by genuine truth. Moral truth is as much truth as mathematical, scientific, and historical truth. God is the source of truth.
All human beings desire to know and the truth is the proper object of this desire. Everyday life shows us how concerned each of us is to discover for ourselves, beyond mere opinions, how things really are. Within visible creation, man is the only creature who is not only capable of knowing but who knows that he knows, and is therefore interested in the real truth of what he perceives.
Those like Pontius Pilate and today’s Relativists believe only in the physical world. They are secularists. They say that faith in the spiritual world is a fairy tale.
Saint John Paul II said in his Encyclical Letter, The Splendor of Truth:
Pilate’s question: “What is truth” reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes and where he is going. Hence we not infrequently witness the fearful plunging of the human person into situations of gradual self-destruction. According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value. (No. 85).
What is more, within his errors and negative decisions, man glimpses the source of a deep rebellion, which leads him to reject the truth and the good in order to set himself up as an absolute principle unto himself: “You will be like God.” (Gen. 3:5). (No. 86).
Jesus who is truly both God and man said, “If you live according to my teaching, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (Jn. 8:31-32). This is truth which sets one free in the face of worldly power and which gives the strength to endure martyrdom. So it was with Jesus before Pilate when He said, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” (Jn. 18:37). The true worshipers of God must therefore worship Him “in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23) and in this worship they become free. Jesus Christ revealed that worship of God and a relationship with truth is the deepest foundation of freedom. (The Splendor of Truth, No. 87).
The Pope wrote in Faith and Reason, “Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. It is essential, therefore, that the values chosen and pursued in one’s life be true, because only true values can lead people to realize themselves fully, allowing them to be true to their nature.” (No. 25).
Catholic Moral Truth
Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. What is the ultimate source of the inner division of man who commits evil? His history of sin begins when he no longer acknowledges the Lord as his Creator and, like the Relativists of today, he himself wishes to be the one who determines, with complete independence, what is good and what is evil. Man’s first temptation was, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5). Relativists fall for the same temptation today to be like God and determine their own morality.
Pope John Paul II wrote in The Splendor of Truth:
The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end: this eternal law is known both by man’s natural reason (hence it is “natural law”), and — in an integral and perfect way — by God’s supernatural Revelation (hence it is called “divine law”). Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness. ( No. 72).
The Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator.” ( No. 80).
He wrote that the natural law is “nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation.” (No. 40) After stating that “the natural law is written and engraved in the heart of each and every man, since it is none other than human reason itself which commands us to do good and counsels us not to sin.” The Pope quotes Pope Leo XIII, “It follows that the natural law is itself the eternal law, implanted in beings endowed with reason, and inclining them towards their right action and end; it is none other than the eternal reason of the Creator and Ruler of the universe.” The Pope continues:
The natural law involves universality. Inasmuch as it is inscribed in the rational nature of the person, it makes itself felt to all beings endowed with reason and living in history. In order to perfect himself in his specific order, the person must do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practice good and contemplate beauty. (No. 51).
You can’t simply follow your conscience in the moral life. Your conscience may be wrong, so it must be formed by the Church in the truth. Relativists say that their conscience tells them that abortion is good. However, their subjective judgment of conscience does not establish the law and it does not have an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience to the objective moral good.
The Second Vatican Council teaches, “In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself.” (Vatican Council II, Declaration on Religious Freedom, No. 14.)
Relativism is the belief that truth is not objective but subjective and relative to the circumstances. It says that truth is in the eye of the beholder. It says that moral propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths but instead are relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references, and that there is no single standard by which to assess a moral proposition’s truth.
Relativism insists that morality, cultures, and beliefs are all of equal value, meaning and worth. It asserts that what is true for one person might not be true for another, and each person can decide for himself what is true and what is good. Popular expressions of relativism include comments such as, “This is true for me–and so I believe it” and “What’s right for you might not be right for me.”
Contrary to what relativists teach, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act that is intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act that is called “good” or defensible as a good moral choice. For example, abortion is always objectively evil and cannot be a good even in cases of rape or incest.
The day before his election as Pope, Benedict XVI said that “relativism which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards.” He warned us, “We are moving toward dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which as hits highest goal one’s own ego and one’ own desires.”
Some key words of relativism are justice, tolerance, peace and conservation of creation. These are nice words that call for essential moral values. But they are vague and without authoritative teaching. In fact, what do these words mean? Who defines them? What serves these values? Relativism says that these words mean whatever you want them to mean. Catholicism says that these words have objective meaning and it authoritatively teaches them in concrete circumstances.
The Church proposes to a relativistic and skeptical culture an objective view of truth and morality. A relativism incapable of accepting the objective truth exposes itself to deviations that end up by destroying man himself and what he has that is most specific and particular.
Saint John Paul II wrote in The Splendor of Truth:
All around us we encounter contempt for human life after conception and before birth; the ongoing violation of basic rights of the person; the unjust destruction of goods minimally necessary for a human life. Indeed, something more serious has happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil. This relativism becomes, in the field of theology, a lack of trust in the wisdom of God, who guides man with the moral law. Concrete situations are unfavorably contrasted with the precepts of the moral law, nor is it any longer maintained that, when all is said and done, the law of God is always the one true good of man. (No. 85).
Relativism is an ideology which can only triumph if it is imposed in a totalitarian way. The tools to impose this ideology are the mass media, formal education and activist judges. The paradox is that “relativist” democracy becomes, surreptitiously, the worst totalitarianism.
Saint John Paul II wrote:
Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. (The Splendor of Truth, No.101).
For example, in just over one generation Relativists have succeeded in shifting our society from one in which homosexual acts were a crime to a society in which homosexual acts have become a government-protected “right”, while voicing the truth that these acts are morally evil may be a crime of “hate speech.” In this way, wrong becomes right and right becomes wrong.