Comment

Relativism has undermined the United Nations – and institutions closer to home

(Getty)

Benedict XVI's warning is as pertinent as ever

While all eyes seem transfixed on either judicial usurpations of constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom, nebulously partisan impeachment proceedings in the United States, or ecclesiologically invalid synods in Germany, I’ve been thinking about yet another institution which seems to be sawing off the branches upon which it sits.

On Tuesday, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin was in New York City to address the United Nations General Assembly on the urgent threats to human dignity that come from an “ideological colonization” and “from imposing the will of a few on the many.” The Vatican has, in fact, been developing these criticisms of the United Nations for a long time. Indeed, Pope Francis has sounded out these themes on multiple occasions.

The pope first talked about “forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family” in 2015, and the same year he very pointedly told the United Nations to reject gender ideology. Pope Francis said these ideologies were fueled by relativism — a relativism which pulls and tears at the fabric of the family, and thus also pulls and tears at the fabric of nations.

Commentators have apparently forgotten that this theme of relativism threatening the human person and the common good through new ideologies was actually developed by Pope Benedict. In 2008, Benedict XVI addressed the United Nations concerning the way this relativism is threatening the human person and the common good of families and political communities. He told the United Nations that “the common good” cannot “be attained merely by applying correct procedures, nor even less by achieving a balance between competing rights.” Rather, he said that there must be an account of how “rules and structures” are “intrinsically ordered to the common good” if they are to “safeguard human freedom.”

Benedict noted that the founding of the United Nations had coincided with a secularization that clouded both our confidence in human reason, and the transcendent vision which is required to recognize the true dignity of the human person. Benedict warned that when human rights yields to “a relativistic conception” — once rights become detached from a substantive and common vision of justice — it soon brings conflict. It’s precisely this same relativism that threatens not only the UN but all of our most necessary institutions today.

And that’s what struck me about Cardinal Parolin’s warning to the UN on Tuesday, condemning ideologies which “impose the will of the few on the many.” It harkens back to Benedict’s warning that “a prevailing secular ideology” threatens both the human person, the family, and nations because of “the decisions of the few” who actively “work against the common good.” It’s this relativism we see at work in the UK, the US, and in Germany. It’s this relativism that we see at work in the legal redefinition of marriage and family, and in the breakdown of long-standing constitutional safeguards, and even within the Church’s own governance.

Cardinal Parolin hit hardest on the UN’s relativization of life itself, stating that “the Holy See rejects the interpretation that considers abortion or access to abortion, sex-selective abortion, abortion of fetuses diagnosed with health challenges, maternal surrogacy, and sterilization as dimensions of these terms, or of universal health coverage.” That’s because abortion is the sharp end of the stick of relativism. As the sword of “ideological colonization” threatens the human person made in God’s image, it also begins to bring a sword to all the institutions: first the family, and then to our political life, and then, at some point, it’s difficult to prevent the sword from also touching the Church.