As people from around the world gather in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, it is important to take stock of one of the deepest challenges to the family today: moral relativism. Relativism is a powerful challenge to nurturing healthy families because it harms the moral ecology of society. It is hard for family life to flourish in a toxic moral, cultural and political ecosystem.
Agnosticism about what is good
Under the practical relativism of today, Pope Francis says, “everything is irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests” (“Laudato Si’?” 122). Therefore, because we cannot know what is good or true for anyone else, people must have broad latitude to choose their own particular, subjective truths and goods. Hence, we often hear statements such as “My truth is . . . .”
Relativism has become, in some ways, one of the defining features of our political discourse, and people on all sides of the political spectrum are beholden to it. People on the political right tend to embrace relativism in economic matters, allowing supposedly scientific principles, empirical considerations, and market ideology to guide economic relationships. Similarly, those on the political left often embrace relativism in our relationships with our bodies and sexuality, and in our family life.
Each form of relativism is deeply harmful to building a healthy culture in which the fragile life of families can flourish. In other words, relativism hinders the advancement of the common good — the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.
Relativism and the throwaway culture
In his recent encyclical “Laudato Si’?”, Pope Francis connects moral relativism to a throwaway culture. He states: “The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: ‘Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.’ . . . We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt, and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (No. 123).
Renewing the household through integral ecology
Pope Francis calls us to reject relativism and instead embrace an ethic of “integral ecology,” which seeks the objective good of both persons and the environment, and does justice to both.
Notably, the term ecology, like the word economics, comes from the Greek word “oikos,” meaning “household.” Though a dictatorship of relativism may rule our culture, we all know intuitively that such a regime is impractical and harmful to the members of the household, both individually and collectively.
In a household, we understand that we are all inter-dependent. The same is true in families and society. Sin has a communal dimension, and the harmful acts of one can have great effects on others. As Martin Luther King Jr. liked to say, we all do better when we all do better.
Though every family and society is unique, there are, as Pope Francis explains, some universally valid principles and truths that must guide our actions in order for us to flourish. For example, in a household, founded on the marriage of a man and a woman, we prioritize our spending; we keep our house clean and don’t soil our nest; we provide for the weakest and most vulnerable first; we celebrate new life, protect it, nurture it and care for our loved ones when they are ill; and we respect each other’s individuality, but recognize that with rights come responsibilities.
The tips for good living at home are, generally speaking, the same rules for a good society — the family writ large.
What Popes Francis and Pope Benedict XVI called “integral ecology” is simply a new way of describing Catholic social doctrine. Rediscover Catholic social doctrine to combat the dictatorship of relativism. Start with “Laudato Si’?” and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.