“Morality is the glue that holds society together… Ethical/moral relativism undermines that glue…This philosophy is an intellectual failure… yet it is extremely influential in contemporary culture,” says Fr. Kevin Azubuike Iwuoha in his as-yet-unpublished, 400-page doctoral thesis, completed in May, 2012.
After a year of intensive research into the philosophy of relativism, Fr. Kevin defended his thesis before a panel of seven academics through the Graduate Theological Foundation in conjunction with Oxford University. “One of the men on the panel didn’t like my premise. I had said that Christian ethics asks the higher question of ‘What should/ought I do?’ while secular ethics asks merely, ‘What can I do?’ The fellow said that Christian ethics takes away freedom. I told him that freedom requires responsibility. Christian morality is the best way for human beings to live.” Thankfully, Fr. Kevin was awarded his Ph.D. in the Department of Philosophy in spite of the one opposing professor.
Fr. Kevin hails from southeastern Nigeria and is a member of the Ibos tribe. When he left his homeland to seek higher education, in obedience to his bishop, Fr. Kevin was shocked to witness the widespread influence of the relativist philosophy in the West. “Every day now I hear young people saying they don’t need to follow what the Church teaches as truth. They think they can define truth for themselves.”
Fr. Kevin is currently the pastor of a small parish in the mountains of New Mexico. Even there, among his devout, Hispanic congregation, he listens to grandparents and parents struggling with questions: “They say their children are gay or living with a lover. And the children are angry when challenged. The children say if they were born in Buddhist or Muslim countries they would believe different things, so Catholic must not have a corner on truth.”
The way to change the current downhill slide toward moral anarchy is to counter the unreasonableness of relativism with the truth of the Gospel, says this priest. He is currently preparing two books, one academic and one pastoral, to be published in Nigeria.
“Children in the United States are being formed by the internet rather than by their parents and the Church. There are ideas, images and information out there that children simply should not have access to,” said Fr. Kevin in a recent interview before he flew home to spend a month in Nigeria with his family. “The children can find all kinds of immorality justified on the internet. It is not taking away their freedom, if you take away access to this garbage! This is where it must begin—with parents—for us to stop what is happening.”
Fr. Kevin gives us a deeper look into the history, meaning and implications of relativism in his writings.
A definition: “The relativist maintains that truth may be and often is different for each society… What is true or right for a society…is said to be true or right relative to that society and may be different in other societies…Further, the moral relativist tells us that there are no objective overriding principles, which everyone should use in deciding what to do.”
That means, according to relativism, Christians aren’t supposed to judge or condemn as “sinful” any acts by anyone different from his/her own group or culture. Yet our society goes on to make plenty of judgments against Christianity; i.e. no prayer in schools, no references to Christ or Christmas in the public square, the removal of crosses as public memorials, and the condemnation of anyone who insists on traditional marriage as a “bigot.” Meanwhile the way of life that works for any small group is first accepted, then embraced and then legalized/normalized and promoted by the entire culture, as in the case of the gay issue. This is done in the name of “tolerance and anti-discrimination.”
The relativist perspective could eventually force our entire society to accept the values and lifestyle of every deviant group, since all standards for discerning a comprehensive view of right and wrong have been removed. There are groups in the modern world that embrace everything from pornography to S&M, infanticide, bestiality, polygamy, pedophilia, and gender spectrum education. Relativism opens the door for accepting all of this.
Fr. Kevin cringes. He tells the story of a groups of nuns who made clear that there are standards which must be upheld even in difficult circumstances. These nuns were raped during a violent period in Uganda. One of the nuns became pregnant as a result. Her congregation applied to Pope John Paul II asking if she should have an abortion so that she could remain in her life as a nun. The Pope responded that she could still go to heaven without being in the religious order and the baby’s life was still sacred regardless of the circumstances. The nun left the order, with the blessing of the others, and gave birth to the child. A man who heard the story courted her and they were married. Today this couple is active in the international pro-life movement. God can make something beautiful out of even the most horrific experience.
“The relativist would say she should have an abortion since it was discussed. But she knew her faith says there is a universal truth involved here. Life is sacred– ‘Do not kill.’ As a result, a child lives and there is daylight for both the mother and child.”
The ideas of relativism have been cultivated in the fields of sociology, anthropology and philosophy coming out of greater familiarity and exposure to different cultures. Researchers observed differences concerning judgments about “right and wrong” behavior based on cultural norms. In poor villages of India for example, killing a baby has no moral stigma. Into the 20th century, Eskimo men shared their wives with strangers as a sign of hospitality. In the Aztec culture in Mexico, cannibalism and human sacrifice dominated the culture. Thus, professors of “multiculturalism” came to believe that it is “elitist” to impose western, Christian morality on other cultures. In fact, politicians, such as President Obama, now apologize for ever having tried to spread Christian morality throughout the course of Judeo-Christian history.
In the field of ethics relativism says, “Right and wrong are not absolute and must be determined by a combination of observation, logic, social preferences and patterns, experiences, emotions, and ‘rules’ that seem to bring the most benefit to the most people (utilitarianism). An act is morally right if, and only if, it is permitted by the conventions of its society.”
Under this definition, abortion is now a “moral choice” because it is approved of by the law of the land. Laws then are equated with the societal definition of good versus bad. When God is removed from the picture, the State becomes the arbitrator of morality.
Fr. Kevin posits this scenario as a way to challenge people to think beyond this relativist framework: “If a person comes to the United States without the legal paperwork, but is desperately in need of help, which should take precedence—the law of that country or a broader definition of morality?” He cites the story of 17-year-old Fauziya Kassindja who fled from Toga, Africa to avoid female genital mutilation in 1996. When she arrived in the US, she was imprisoned for 18 months. The first judge who saw her said she didn’t have the proper paperwork and he did not see grounds for asylum. What followed was a widespread debate regarding whether it was acceptable to sit in judgment regarding the tortuous practice of mutilation practiced as a custom in another country.
The same people who condemn the “bigotry of Christians because they impose their beliefs on other cultures” in this case were willing to vocally condemn the practices of another culture because it was “the RIGHT thing to do.” People who had previously insisted there are no moral absolutes, in this case were very willing to rally against a practice that violates the bodies of young women.
Fr. Kevin calls all who will listen to remember and repent: “Though they would not admit it, those who supported Kassindja were coming to recognize a universal standard of goodness. There really are moral standards which can be known but have been buried under these murky waters of relativism.” To counter this pervading philosophy requires a process of clear reasoning.
It is true that there are differences in cultures. But does that mean there are no universal truths? Does it mean we cannot judge the conduct of people or nations? To argue against relativism is to say there are moral truths that transcend time and place.
Judging actions which affect all:
At the site of the Warsaw Ghetto where thousands met their death at the hands of the Nazis, an artist was recently allowed to display a statue of Hilter’s face on a praying child. One blogger states the relativist position: “The price one pays for his own freedom is to tolerate the freedoms of others.” The writer presumes the artist has a right to display this statue in the name of “free speech” even in a place where so much pain was perpetuated by the man portrayed.
The blogger’s comment shows the widespread confusion about “tolerance” which has become a cultural branch of relativism. Tolerance of an idea is much different that tolerance of an action that affects society. Certainly, the artist can believe, think or create as he wishes. But, for his work to be displayed in a public forum, judgment is required by those in authority. To display such a sculpture is to give value to its message. And that is the part that is intolerable. If we are unable to use reasoning, and even commonsense, to judge such things, then the result is moral chaos.
Relativists say that we can reason about good and bad (morality) by basing definitions solely on our own experience and the situation at hand. These same people would say that the truth about physical reality can be arrived at by careful study–and such facts are universal. This is like saying that the numbers of abortions can be counted because “numbers don’t lie,” but the reality of dead babies can’t be understood in the same way by everyone. Some see the dead bodies and call it “the destruction of human lives”; while others see the bloody remains and call it “discarded parasitic tissue.” And according to the relativist, both perspectives are equally valid and neither can be called “truth”.
Yet, to give validity to two different observations, which are clearly contradictory, is to make a farce out of reasoning. Just as the “numbers don’t lie”, the truth that those numbers represent dead babies is a verifiable reality.
Fr. Kevin says reasoning is discarded primarily because human beings like to justify sinful behavior, and prefer to view evil choices as something “good”, in order to avoid the natural consequences of making bad choices. When evil is justified, rationalized and excused, the entire social structure is threatened. Mental health requires a “reflective equilibrium”—actions, and then an interior judgment about those actions, must be in line with some basic understanding of morality.
“As a society we need ‘good people’ who can make inner assessments regarding healthy, moral behavior. But we are losing that inner compass,” says Fr. Kevin.
All aspects of life involve moral judgments
All spheres of human endeavor have an ethical/moral component. “Is this law good and right? Is this use of chemicals going to harm others? Is this history lesson true to the facts or a distortion?” Judgments are made on every level of human activity. Judgments are critical to societal functioning.
If a child begins to steal and gets away with it, justifying it as “redistributing the wealth,” he may go from stealing candy to stealing cars and never acknowledge the wrongness of this behavior because “it’s right for him” (relativism).
If an anthropologist seeks to justify the widespread practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism in the Aztec culture by making it appear to be reasonable and “normal for the life and circumstances of those people” (relativism), warning bells should go off in the mind of anyone with moral reasoning.
Did the Spaniards have a responsibility to bring an end to the practice of systematic human sacrifices by the Aztecs? Of course. For the sake of the lives saved, for the sake of morality and all of humanity, that chapter in history was brought to an end. As Fr. Kevin said, “Christian morality is the best way for human beings to live.” The commandments–not to kill, lie, steal or indulge in sexual perversions–are God-given. No man-made model can compare.
But relativism has muddied the waters of clear thinking. Somehow, we need to step back, breathe deep, and let our minds clear, so that the grandeur of Truth can be revealed to us. And then we must speak to the world in truth.
Fr. Kevin has some advice for countering relativism. More on that in my next post!
Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Moral Relativism based on Judith Costello’s interview with Fr. Kevin Iwuoha, a priest who is in the United States “on loan” from Nigeria, and his as-yet-unpublished 400-page doctoral thesis.
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