Conscience and the Dictatorship of Relativism


By John Mallon

With Comments by Peter Kreeft

Originally Published in Inside the Vatican

Of the modern thought which claims to set people free but actually enslaves them


The day before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned the world of a “Dictatorship of Relativism.” The choice of words was striking. In repeating it I sometimes say the “Tyranny of Relativism” but quickly remember the word used was dictatorship. 

It is true that relativists are now brazenly attempting to dictate to consciences. In the United States where the non-establishment clause of the Constitution protects religion from government interference, some are twisting that noble tradition to set government against religion and the human conscience formed by religion.

Simply put, the Dictatorship of Relativism is now demanding that when religious faith comes into conflict with non-faith, faith must give way. When belief comes into conflict with unbelief, belief must give way. When religion comes into conflict with anti-religion, religion must step down. The model expected by the authors of the Constitution that religion would inform consciences and consciences would form those who make the laws is being scrapped by some who insist—dictate—that personal conscience must play no part in public affairs. As when relativists insist “there are absolutely no absolutes” this is an absurdity. Out of what conviction can anyone claim personal conscience must not come into play? Convictions usually reside in the conscience. 

A striking case has recently illustrated this problem. 

Professor R. Alta Charo, J.D., who teaches law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law and Medical Schools in Madison, thinks there should be limits to the influence of conscience in public policy, and that the law should require health care professionals to violate their consciences in certain cases. On June 20 she testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to this effect. Four days earlier She published an article stating her views in the June 16, 2005 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, which as such, ought to be scientific and objective. 

On June 20 the American Medical Association also approved a measure which would force pharmacists to fill prescriptions for all legal drugs even if filling those prescriptions violated their consciences. This was in response to lawsuits by three Illinois pharmacists to stop Governor Rod Blagojevich’s executive order mandating pharmacists to dispense all legal drugs. The lawsuit claims the governor’s order violates state law which allows health professionals to opt out of acts they consider morally offensive. 

These issues have been brought to the fore by the so-called “Plan-B morning after pill” also known as emergency contraception.

Jan LaRue, Chief Council for the pro-life group, Concerned Women for America, reported in a June 28 column on the website townhall.com, “The AMA says it supports a pharmacist’s right to refuse to prescribe some drugs, but wants pharmacists to make sure a patient has access to the drugs by making an ‘immediate referral to an appropriate alternative dispensing pharmacy without interference,’ according to the resolution. Many pharmacists say that’s the same as forcing them to fill prescriptions that violate their beliefs.”

Professor Charo defends the notion that the state has the right to dictate to consciences, and her article, though cleverly written, is blatant Culture of Death propaganda, complete with dubious and flatly ideological presuppositions masquerading as presumed facts and conventional medical ethics. 

Her article stands as a vivid example of what then-Cardinal Ratzinger was referring to when he spoke of “The Dictatorship of Relativism.”

She writes:

“Largely as artifacts of the abortion wars, at least 45 states have ‘conscience clauses’ on their books — laws that balance a physician's conscientious objection to performing an abortion with the profession's obligation to afford all patients nondiscriminatory access to services. In most cases, the provision of a referral satisfies one's professional obligations. But in recent years, with the abortion debate increasingly at the center of wider discussions about euthanasia, assisted suicide, reproductive technology, and embryonic stem-cell research, nurses and pharmacists have begun demanding not only the same right of refusal, but also — because even a referral, in their view, makes one complicit in the objectionable act — a much broader freedom to avoid facilitating a patient's choices.”

Charo objects to the idea that making a referral makes one complicit in an immoral act. (Not surprisingly she uses the term “objectionable” instead of immoral.) Charo apparently believes that if a physician has a moral objection to performing an abortion the needs of the physician’s conscience are met in merely refusing to perform it himself or herself, but then they should be required by law to make a referral to a physician who will perform the abortion. 

Evidently this professor of ethics has no idea what conscience means. 

In other words, imagine that, in the not-to-distant future, it were legal for a physician to shoot a patient dead if the patient so requested. Charo believes a scrupulous  physician may say to a patient, “No, I don’t do that” but then would be required to say, “But, here, go to my colleague across the street, she will gladly shoot you to end your misery.” 

Far fetched? Not really. There are physicians who see no moral difference between shooting a patient on request and performing an abortion. In the consciences of these professionals both are murder. (Except in the case of the abortion the one being killed has no say in the matter.)

Charo complains:

“This expanded notion of complicity comports well with other public policy precedents, such as bans on federal funding for embryo research or abortion services, in which taxpayers claim a right to avoid supporting objectionable practices. In the debate on conscience clauses, some professionals are now arguing that the right to practice their religion requires that they not be made complicit in any practice to which they object on religious grounds.”

Even more remarkably, she suggests that those claiming conscience as grounds to refuse to participate in immoral medical procedures do so without honor if they are unwilling to pay a price for doing so: 

“Although it may be that, as Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘in matters of conscience, the law of majority has no place,’ acts of conscience are usually accompanied by a willingness to pay some price. Martin Luther King, Jr., argued, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.’”

Who says these professionals are not paying a price for their convictions?

She claims:

“What differentiates the latest round of battles about conscience clauses from those fought by Gandhi and King is the claim of entitlement to what newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman has called ‘conscience without consequence’.” 

This is false. The consequence of these professionals following their consciences is a living child who would otherwise be dead. 

But what is truly breathtaking here is that Charo is willing to use the very words of Gandhi and King (and elsewhere, C.S. Lewis) to argue precisely against what they were actually fighting for: A just society in which one does not have to suffer punishment for following one’s conscience. In fact, would not a society where one must suffer for following one’s conscience be the very definition of an unjust society? Yet Charo would have it so for these healthcare professionals.

The spoken word is often more unguarded than the written word, and Charo makes an extremely telling remark as to her “ethical” orientation in an audio interview accompanying the online article. She makes the statement, “What is happening is that [health care professionals] are saying, ‘my role as an individual, as a Catholic, or a Methodist, or a Lutheran is more fundamental than my role as a physician, or a pharmacist, or an ambulance driver’.”

What Charo fails to understand, (or pretends not to understand) is that what makes the professional a good Catholic, Methodist or Lutheran is precisely what makes them good, ethical and trustworthy physicians, pharmacists or ambulance drivers: their conscience. The problem is she think that’s a bad thing.

She continues: “And that’s what’s changed. That question of which is the most important hat you’re wearing at the moment when you are dealing with the patient.”

However, Charo fails to note that it is only since the legal fiction of Roe vs. Wade, which set the precedent for the current Dictatorship of Relativism, that has this changed. Otherwise ethical behavior has been this way for four thousand years: that there should be no conflict between what one most fundamentally is, as determined by one’s conscience, and what one does in one’s profession or any other aspect of life. 

In a sweeping judgment, Charo says,

“… of course, the professionals involved seek to protect only themselves from the consequences of their actions — not their patients. In Wisconsin, a pharmacist refused to fill an emergency-contraception prescription for a rape victim; as a result, she became pregnant and subsequently had to seek an abortion. ... Under Wisconsin's proposed law, such behavior by a pharmacist would be entirely legal and acceptable. And this trend is not limited to pharmacists and physicians; in Illinois, an emergency medical technician refused to take a woman to an abortion clinic, claiming that her own Christian beliefs prevented her from transporting the patient for an elective abortion.”

Charo makes several assertions in this jam-packed paragraph. First, she makes the stunning judgment that the motives of these health professionals as selfish, seeking their own good but not that of the patient. In this she violates the rules of civil discourse which discourage imputing motives to your opponents. Charo is not a mind reader.

Second, physicians in our society are highly honored professionals, rigorously trained, usually taking up their profession for noble and altruistic reasons and they are licensed by the state for their highly specialized and urgently needed skills. We expect medical professionals to be people of conscience and good judgment—even wisdom—who make very difficult decisions not only for the good of their patients but for the common good of society. 

The procedures and actions Charo seeks to portray as normative medical care are in fact highly controverted. In fact, abortion is not medical care but a disruption in the normal, healthy human function of pregnancy for reasons other than preserving life  and restoring health. Many health care providers believe these disruptions are not only harmful to their patients in particular, but society in general. Charo wants us to believe that contraception, “emergency contraception,” abortion, and other ethically dubious items on the bio-ethical frontier are unqualified goods for society—or at least “necessary” in a less than perfect world. She would have us believe that professionals who recuse themselves from these activities do so to support an agenda, rather than a genuine concern for their patients and the common good. 

By her tone, attitude and presuppositions she is treating her own agenda of “value free” health care as a fait accompli and those professionals about whom she complains as laggards holding up progress with ethical concerns all “progressive people” have long dismissed.

Predictably, she falls back on the emotional appeal of “hard cases” referring to a woman refused “emergency contraception” who “had to seek an abortion.” Last we heard, for Charo’s ideological comrades, abortion was a “choice.” Has something changed? Not to minimize the tragedy and trauma of rape, it still does not automatically medically indicate an abortion. In fact, abortion is virtually never indicated for strict medical reasons. Second, the dangers of “emergency contraception” are serious and well documented. 

Then Charo poses the loaded question:

“Should the public square be a place for the unfettered expression of religious beliefs, even when such expression creates an oppressive atmosphere for minority groups? Or should it be a place for religious expression only if and when that does not in any way impinge on minority beliefs and practices?”

No serious Christian wants to see genuine minority groups oppressed, but there is a difference between ethnic, religious minorities and ideological “minorities.” Charo seeks to conflate the two. Most adherents to the world’s major religions subscribe to a moral code which is essentially the same in those religions, and they generally agree on traditional sexual and medical ethics.

Sexual ideologues, on the other hand—feminists and liberals of various stripes—have been hiding behind the skirts of minorities, the young, and the poor like snipers claiming that anyone who shoots back is taking aim at minorities. Like much of their rhetoric, this is nonsense, and shows the weakness—the emptiness—of their logic. 

If they really cared much for minorities, the young and the poor they would stop patronizing them and killing their unborn and shoving contraceptives down their throats under the pretense that they “need” them for their own good. They would stop using these people, attempting to borrow the “credibility of victimhood” for their anti-life agenda.

Perhaps most cynical of all is Charo’s citation of C.S. Lewis to argue in favor of the ideas against which he fought strenuously in his literary career as a Christian apologist. 

A Catholic Philosopher responds to Professor Charo...

Inside the Vatican asked Boston College philosophy Professor Peter Kreeft, a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, to comment on Charo’s arguments in general, (see Sidebar). As for her use of C.S. Lewis he simply referred to Lewis’s essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism” from the book Christian Reflections. Where Lewis speaks of “Social Reformers,” one could easily slip in Charo’s name in this essay written sixty years ago for a remarkable and prescient description of what she is doing. 

Lewis writes, 

“Let us get two propositions written into our minds with indelible ink. 1) The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum. 2) Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium. This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar.”

Charo precisely fits Lewis’s description here, as she is attempting select one value, a “right to privacy” or “the right to choose,” as her “one thing necessary,” her “unum necessarium,” and use it to trump the entire moral law, including proscriptions against murder, which is what abortion plainly is, as is the “Plan-B morning after pill” when it is effective. The drug, when it works as prescribed, prevents a living fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall causing it to be swept out of the woman’s body. In her view these displaced and exaggerated values also trump the rights of health professionals to follow their consciences in refusing to refer patients to other willing physicians or pharmacists for abortions or the “morning after pill.”

Pope Benedict XVI uttered a striking confirmation of Lewis’s point written sixty years earlier, in the midst of the Second World War. Speaking to the gathered young people at the Saturday night vigil at World Youth Day on August 20, in Cologne, Germany, Benedict said, 

“The saints, as we said, are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world. In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common programme – expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world in order to change it. And this, as we saw, meant that a human and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true. True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?”

The Culture of Death is cut of the same cloth as the diabolical twentieth century ideologies cited here by Benedict. In fact, it is the same thing in a new disguise. Its agenda is loveless and incapable of bringing the healing which medicine exists to bring. In its attempts to ignore God and reduce the moral law to “choice” and “privacy,” Culture of Death spokespeople like Charo are attempting to use the state to violate the sacred ground of conscience. This outlawing of conscience, in a word, is tyranny. 

The logical outcome of this agenda, if successful, can only be the same results produced by National Socialism in Germany and Soviet Communism in the twentieth century: enslavement and death.

This is what both Lewis and Benedict are warning of.

The death toll from abortion in the United States alone since 1973 is already 45 million and counting.

Charo needs to restudy the meaning and role of conscience, and remember that, like charity, it begins at home. Perhaps she should expend more concern for those being killed—and those women being traumatized—by abortion, and “emergency contraception” than those being “offended” by the ethical decisions of conscientious professionals.

John Mallon is contributing editor for Inside the Vatican magazine. 

Sidebar: Peter Kreeft

A Catholic philosopher responds to Professor Charo...

Should Pro-Life Doctors Violate Their Consciences?

Inside the Vatican asked Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and a popular Catholic apologist to examine Professor Alta Charo’s argument that the law ought to require pro-life doctors to violate their conscience by mandating referring their abortion-seeking patients to abortion providers. Here is his response:

The analogy with euthanasia [in Mallon’s analysis] is valid. Would it be okay if I as a doctor said, “I won’t blow your brains out but I will refer you to my collogue down the street who will?” No, but this analogy will probably be unconvincing to the likes of Dr. Charo because they see nothing wrong with euthanasia. (Perhaps some of them do see something wrong will euthanasia by means of shooting a gun rather than rather than shooting up a drug, but clearly that is an aesthetic issue, not an ethical issue: They have no moral objection to killing: to killing, but to blood on the floor and loud noises.)

So let’s use an analogy with something even pro-choicers believe to be morally wrong. I think the two analogies pro-choicers habitually get the angriest at, or the most “hurt” by, are the most telling: the Holocaust and slavery. (“That hurts me” is a very effective rhetorical substitute in our therapeutic culture, by the way; if you have just been conclusively proved to be a sociopath, all you have to say to “refute” the argument is that you have been “hurt” by such “insensitive” words. The prisoner may as well argue to the judge, “You’re trying to make me feel guilty!”) They feel hurt because their argument has been hurt.

Suppose I am a German during the Nazi era who knows where the Jews are hiding. I do not believe it is right to kill Jews, and I do not kill them. But I tell the Nazis where they are hiding so that the Nazis can kill them. (Let’s suppose that if I didn’t tell them, someone else would, just as if I as a pro-life doctor don’t refer my patient to an abortionist, many other doctors would.) Now suppose there was a law that claimed to have a ‘conscience clause’ which specified that if my conscience told me Jews were persons with a right to life, I could not be compelled to kill them. Who could argue for such a law?

Or suppose there was an American law enacted after Dred Scott that claimed to have a conscience clause because it said that a citizen whose conscience told him that slavery was morally wrong was not required to physically capture and return a runaway slave , but he was legally required to rat on them, share information that would lead to their capture, i.e. give a “referral.” Who could argue that such a law would be just?

Sharing information is an act, a choice; if the one who performs that act does so knowing that the information will help a second party to harm a third party, the first party shares legal as well as moral guilt for the harm done to the third party.

Suppose my friend asks me to rob a bank. I refuse to physically take part in the robbery, but I help him by telling him when the cop goes off the beat, or what the combination of the safe probably is . the law rightly holds me guilty. But helping someone else to kill an unborn human being, or a Jew, or enslave a Black, is harming a third party.

But pro-choicers believe (or said they believed) that the third party, unborn human beings, are not human persons. Yes, and the Nazis believed (or said they believed) that Jews were not human persons but vermin; and slave owners believed (or said they believed) that Blacks were not fully human persons. Why is the case of abortion different from the cases of genocide or slavery?

In all three cases the nation was divided, with significant numbers on both sides. In fact, the majority of Americans supported slavery, or were at least “pro-choice” about slavery, until the Civil War; and most Germans supported Hitler at first and much of his anti-Semitism. The deeper legal issue here is whether the people are above the law or whether the law is above the people; whether we are governed by will or by law. The American Founding Fathers had a genuine fear of the kind of totalitarian democracy the saw in the French Revolution. Theirs was a deliberate alternative to the philosophy of Rousseau, that we call “consensus” and what he called “the general will” in a democratic society was infallible (“vox populi, vox dei”). It need not be a Robespierrean “reign of terror” in the streets, but the violence will always erupt somewhere, if only in the womb. What De Tocqueville called “soft totalitarianism” always results in some hard totalitarianism, some violence against some human life. The reign of absolute tolerance is jealous and absolutistic; Pope Benedict calls it “the dictatorship of relativism.”

—Peter Kreeft



“Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him.” —Pope Benedict XVI, World Youth Day, August 20, 2005, Cologne, Germany