Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor on relativism

The following is from an address by Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the archbishop of Westminster, 9 March 2006:

Cardinal Murphy-O’ConnorMany Europeans have convinced themselves that to be modern and free, they must be radically secular, autonomous, self-sufficient. The individual is happiest when most free – when he or she is unshackled by constraints of tradition and institutions. This idea has been taken up the state, and by the intellectual and cultural elite, so that a contrary view is often subject to ridicule or hostility. This is what Pope Benedict meant when he spoke, just before his election, of “the dictatorship of relativism” in Europe. It’s not that the Pope does not realise that there are many different religious and cultural and intellectual traditions co-existing in Europe. The Pope believes in tolerance and dialogue. But he is not a relativist. He fiercely opposes the idea that because there are different versions of truth that therefore there is no truth or worse, that the truth has to be whatever each person declares it to be. The dictatorship of relativism is the imposition of this idea that there is no such thing as common or shared values; that human beings cannot seek the truth together. The dictatorship of relativism undermines not just religion. It undermines the idea of culture and family and association.

Pope Benedict is alarmed by this, because he knows that the deepest currents of history are not fundamentally political or economic but spiritual and cultural. He knows this from the history of Europe and, in particular, the history of his own Germany and from his association with Pope John Paul. Poland survived as a nation, not because of economics or politics – it was written out of the map of Europe for one hundred and fifty years – but by its culture; by its faith; by its dogged clinging to an interior reality, beyond the reach of the state, which was what really made Poland. The history of Ireland has much that demonstrates this too. A nation is ultimately shaped not by ideology, and not by the free market –ideologies come and go; economies rise and fall – but by what people honour and cherish and worship; by what society deems to be true and good. That is its rock; everything else is like the shifting sands on a beach.

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