Roman Catholics in the United States who frequently use the expressions “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism” increasingly inhabit—and have helped to build—a world that these slogans describe. A real and present “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism” now reside within the groups that made these papal quotes into mantras and for whom those expressions carry the most meaning and significance.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II promulgated his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“Gospel of Life”), in which he forcefully opposed “the culture of death.” A decade later, in his final homily before being elected as John Paul II’s successor, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed his own cultural critique in this way: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
The expression “dictatorship of relativism,” like the earlier “culture of death,” quickly became popular. Over time, the two began to function as a rhetorical shorthand together. In many ways, this was a merited union, as John Paul II also critiqued relativism by name in his encyclical and throughout his pontificate, even before Ratzinger expressed it in a more pointed way.
The dual impact of these pithy, three-word English expressions on Catholicism in the United States over the past 15 years has been remarkable. It is, of course, true that, within the context of their primary sources and notable authors, these expressions have surely had thoughtful interpreters and reasonable critics and remain fruitful sources to study in detail to this day and into the future.
To speak of the “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism” is to invoke a recognisable formula that neatly sums up a particular sense of Catholic countercultural identity that has increasingly allied itself socially and politically with evangelical Protestants and the Republican Party. In this usage, this combined mantra has become a truism at best and a slogan at worst, even beyond its Catholic usage. Worse still, it has become a performative contradiction and scandal that makes a mockery of the Gospel.
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Sam Rocha is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book is The Syllabus as Curriculum: A Reconceptualist Approach.
With thanks to America Magazine and Sam Rocha, where this article originally appeared.