In a homily given to the College of Cardinals before he was elected pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously coined the phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism.” Commenting on St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the future pope spoke about how we must have “the maturity of Christ” and “not remain children in faith.” To be a child, Ratzinger said, quoting St. Paul, “means being ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.’” He explained that this teaching was timely in our present age because “Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error comes true.”
In other words, a mature Christian stands firm in the faith, but those who lack maturity allow themselves to be swept into the ideologies of their age. This “letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there,’” rather than being grounded in the truth, is precisely the then-cardinal’s definition of “relativism.” He says:
“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
This idea is echoed in the US Bishops’ guide to faithful citizenship where they teach that believers should be “guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party.” Christians are called to transform their political party and “not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”
What the world saw on display this past week in the mob at the U.S. Capitol building was a clear example of Christians not recognizing anything as definitive in order to serve their egos and desires. This was an example of Christians allowing themselves to be transformed by their political party—to the point of denying truth and reality—and is sadly what the world has seen on social media throughout the pandemic and presidential election. This is the relativism Cardinal Ratzinger warned us against.
Brothers and sisters, if you have distorted the Gospel for a political agenda—even good agendas like freedom, patriotism, religious liberty, or even pro-life politics—you must repent. You must repent of rejecting reality for lies. You must repent of your relativism and your immature faith. Repentance is the first step to becoming an authentic witness. If you don’t repent, you will continue to preach a tinged Gospel, a partial Gospel, an anti-Gospel. You will make Jesus your prop. And the world is watching.
Stop publicly denying the reality of current events. Stop spreading lies about a rigged election. These are lies that led to lethal violence. The overwhelming number of conspiracies Christians have spread on social media over the past year is a witness to something much different than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In no uncertain terms, the Catechism teaches that any public statement that’s “contrary to the truth takes on a particular gravity” (CCC 2476). Intentionally spreading false information (or taking little trouble to know if what you’re posting is true or not) “does real violence to another” for “lying is destructive of society” and “tears apart the fabric of social relationships” (CCC 2486). This brings to mind Dostoevsky’s warning in The Brothers Karamazov:
“People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and to coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves.”
You must repent of your public rejection of the reality of current events. What better defines relativism than insisting that Trump won an election that he lost, or proclaiming that Antifa stormed the Capitol building when they didn’t? We are not credible witnesses to eternal truths if we’re terrible witnesses to temporal ones—if we can’t even accept the plain reality in front of us.
The world saw a sign that said “Jesus Saves” in the midst of a riot where people died. The world is watching our social media accounts with profile images of our Blessed Mother spreading lies. You must repent.
And after you repent, you must believe. Cardinal Ratzinger said:
“An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deception from truth.”
Before you call others to the Lord, listen to how he’s calling you to himself. He’s not calling your moral code, your culture warring, or your flag. He’s calling your heart. The very core of you. And if you give it to him, he will dismantle you. He will strip you of your political certainties and your comfortable position in your tribe. He will rinse your heart, wring your heart, purify your heart of everything that’s not him.
Then, and only then, will he fill you, bursting and overflowing, with freedom, with truth, with power, and with love. He will fill you with all those things you don’t have right now, and those things you need. But it is impossible to receive this abundance until God purges you of ideology and relativism. And be warned: it will hurt. It will cost you.
The early Church spread rapidly because it was credible. Christians witnessed Jesus Christ by serving the poor and the vulnerable. Christians witnessed Jesus Christ because they chose death over being swept up in the political agendas of the powerful. Friendship with Jesus Christ costs something. There is no cheap grace.
Christians can’t change the world unless we let God change us first. We can’t twist him to fit our desired outcomes. Most people who dislike Christians have never truly heard the Gospel proclaimed and demonstrated and lived out. They’ve heard our politics, morality, and culture warring. They haven’t heard the astonishing news of Jesus Christ, of his love, of his unrelenting desire to rescue every last one of us. They haven’t heard these things because we only mention them as a side note, a window dressing to our other ideas. In Gaudium et Spes, the Church teaches:
“Believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.”
People haven’t heard the authentic, essential Gospel because we haven’t proclaimed it. If we haven’t proclaimed it, it’s because we haven’t really given Him our hearts yet.
Brothers and sisters, repent. Repent because the world is watching. Repent and believe in our loving God who desires to save you more than you want to be saved. Only then will you be an authentic witness of the Gospel.
Image Credit: Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons