George Pell on the Dictatorship of Relativism

Pell voices his objections to relativism, in society and applied in school as a principle of knowledge and learning:

Cardinal George Pell, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, gave the following speech to the National Press Club of Australia shortly after the election of Pope Benedict:

Shortly before he entered the conclave in which he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger preached the homily at the pre-conclave Mass and warned against the rise of ‘a dictatorship of relativism’. It is an evocative phrase which frightened some and provoked confusion in others.

Taking as his text St Paul’s warning to the Ephesians (4:14-16), that ‘we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine’ but ‘must grow up’ in Christ and in love, the Cardinal offered the following reflection:

‘Every day new sects are born and we see realized what St. Paul says on the deception of men, on the cunning that tends to lead into error (cf. Ephesians 4:14). To have a clear faith according to the creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism. While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of “doctrine”, seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the “I” and its whims as the ultimate measure’ …

Relativism is powerful in Western life, evidenced in many areas from the decline in the study of history and English literature, through to the triumph of subjective values and conscience over moral truth and the downgrading of heterosexual marriage …

Catholics call the universal acceptance of the many basic moral norms ‘natural law’ – the term simply means that … moral laws apply to everyone who shares human nature. Some remain sceptical of this …

Jesus said “I am the Truth” and for this he, and countless good men and women, lived and died. Nobody lives and dies for relativism: people do not sacrifice themselves for a theory which states that such a gesture is merely relative …

Recently some newspapers have given considerable coverage to demonstrating how relativism’s intrusion into the classroom as post-modernism or ‘critical literacy’ affect education at both secondary and university level. In some schools the study of English texts as English language has been abandoned altogether for the lower secondary grades and replaced with a blancmange of English, social studies and comparative religion called ‘Integrated Studies’.

While parents wonder why their children have never heard of the Romantic poets, Yeats or the Great War poets and never ploughed through a Bronte, Orwell or Dickens novel, their children are engaged in analysing a variety of ‘texts’ including films, magazines, advertisements and even road signs as part of critical literacy …

Of course there are always rationalisations for why school syllabuses are manipulated in this way. The official website of the Tasmanian school syllabus explains that the objectives of critical literacy are to enable students to ‘deconstruct the structures and features of texts’, to overcome the assumption that ‘texts [are] timeless, universal or unbiased’, to understand the ‘unequal positions of power’ that texts often present, and in this way to ‘work for social equity and change’. It is all meant to be very ‘empowering’.

Examining how relativism in the form of school-based post-modernism proposes to make students into ‘agents of social change’ makes it apparent very quickly that there is another agenda at work underneath it all. Generally accepted understandings of family, sexuality, maleness, femaleness, parenthood, and culture are treated as ‘dominant discourses’ that impose and legitimise injustice and intolerance. These dominant discourses are then undermined by a disproportionate focus on ‘texts’ which normalise moral and social disorder. Too much time is given to narratives about sad and dysfunctional individuals and shattered families … [S]tudents are not forced to confront and learn from the great English language classics but are allowed to sink towards the sordid and the dismal rather than strive towards the good and the beautiful.

Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, writing shortly after Pope Benedict’s homily, described relativism as ‘nothing more or less than the deconstruction of all objectivity in our perceptions of reality. Accordingly, there is no real, objective and historical truth, only those notions which each special proponent offers as his own idea of truth’ … If it is impossible to get a handle on the true range of human endeavour because nobility, faith, heroism and compassion become deceptions, facades for the exercise of power, then students are forced back into their own small personal worlds, good, bad or different …

[W]e should ponder the effects of an increase in the secular-relativist bite into Christianity: previous moral norms we all accept … would be vulnerable to revision …

Could this really happen in Australia? It might seem hard to believe we would ever reject the most fundamental moral values; but it was hard only 50 years ago to believe we would abort 100,000 babies a year, contemplate men marrying men, killing the sick, experimenting on human embryos …

Relativism is meant to serve as the operational principle that delivers tolerance, mutual respect, and a basis for civic peace, in contrast to the way religion causes war and dissension. Those who defend secularism and relativism continue to offer this rationale, but secularism and relativism can be dictatorial, intolerant of principled opposition …

There have been … manifestations of secularist intolerance throughout the Western world in recent years: the witch trial of Rocco Buttiglione conducted by the European Parliament because of his Christian understanding of homosexual activity; the conviction of critics of same-sex marriage for publicizing their views under human rights legislation in Canada; and the penalties handed out to Christian ministers in Victoria for allegedly vilifying Islam …

[Pope Benedict] begins to lead the Church in a Europe with a declining population, many signs of metaphysical boredom, and a culture of relativism which lacks clarity and self confidence.

Cardinal George Pell, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, gave the following speech to the National Press Club of Australia shortly after the election of Pope Benedict, in which Pell voices his objections to relativism in society, and applied in school as a principle of knowledge and learning:


Pell, George. 2005. “The Dictatorship of Relativism: Address to the National Press Club.” Canberra.


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