Pope Benedict XVI spoke a good deal about the “dictatorship of relativism,” but it wasn’t always clear what exactly he was talking about. That should not come as a surprise because one of the hallmarks of relativism is ambiguity, muddiness of expression and foggy thought.
Another turn of phrase for “dictatorship of relativism” might be the “tyranny of tolerance.”
Treading between tolerance and tyranny is to walk a tightrope.
Nobody wants to dispute the fact that tolerance is a virtue, and nobody wants to argue for intolerance, however, there does need to be an ordering of virtue. Tolerance is too often mistaken for charity, and having good manners is too often mistaken for being good. Real goodness, like real charity is tough love because real goodness, like real charity, loves the truth and the truth hurts.
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, “Tolerance is a nice word for indifference and indifference is an elegant word for ignorance.” The reason for having an open mind (like the reason to have an open mouth) is eventually to close it–because it has been filled with something good.
Tolerance, on its own, is a weak virtue that eventually turns on itself with a suicidal bent. This is because the one thing tolerance cannot tolerate is intolerance, and the more tolerant a person becomes the more every little bit of intolerance becomes intolerable. So the person who puts tolerance as the highest and only virtue, finally is incapable of tolerating anyone or anything or any law that limits or defines anything because to limit or define any behavior or any sort of person is perceived as a form of intolerance.
Relativism becomes the only rule. The only dogma is that there can be no dogma. The only discipline is that there must be no discipline. The only ultimate authority is that there must be no authority. The one thing that has meaning is that no thing has meaning.
As a result the ‘tolerant’ person will endorse the most draconian restrictions on those he perceives as being intolerant, and because the intolerant will be with us always, those laws against intolerance have to become increasingly restrictive, and the tolerant society turns into the most intolerant of societies. So in the name of tolerance freedom of speech will be curtailed, freedom of religion will be ended, freedom of association will be restricted and freedom of conscience will be violated.
Furthermore, relativism leads to a moral and intellectual vacuum. Where there is not truth nothing is true and humanity cannot live for very long without truth. What happens then is that we search for someone who will give us the security and “truth” we long for, and that sort of security needs to be enforced. Consequently it is not the person who is most true who prevails, but the one who is strongest.
When tolerance is the only virtue, tyranny eventually takes over.
What is the answer? The Catholic Church teaches that tolerance is good, but the clear teaching of Catholic truth is better. That teaching should never be delivered with force or condemnation. Instead it should be preach with both clarity and charity, and most of all it should be preached with our lives and not only with our lips.