Is sexual activity morally right or wrong? Most people would say, “It all depends.” The church says it depends on whether you are alone or with someone, whether you and that someone are of different sexes and married, whether you can responsibly bring a new child into the world, and so forth. In other words, the church teaches that the morality of sexual activity is related—or relative—to various conditions. Is this moral relativism? Or is it moral absolutism, for the church teaches that unless sexual activity meets certain conditions it is always wrong?

Answers to these questions depend on whom one asks, since the words “relativism” and “absolutism” are both used in loose and idiosyncratic ways. One is tempted to say the meaning of “relativism” is relative to the absolutist who condemns it. To call someone a relativist or an absolutist is almost always to make an accusation. A relativist, one is led to suppose, is the sort of person who would be all in favor of torturing children if that would get their parents to divulge some important secret, while an absolutist is someone who would never permit a lie, even if the lie would save one’s children from a madman.

Critics of relativism typically point to the dangerous consequences of allowing exceptions to moral norms. They argue, quite reasonably, that telling teenagers there might be exceptions to rules against sexual touching is to invite sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancy. Similarly, critics of absolutism point to the dangerous consequences of following moral norms without consideration of circumstance. For example, it strikes them as perverse to let a pregnant woman and her unborn child both die, when one of them might be saved by separating them. (The critics are not persuaded by the reply “Better two deaths than one sin.”)

In a homily he gave just before becoming pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger accused relativists of doing only what they desire and being concerned only with themselves. The rule for this sort of relativism is “Do whatever you want,” though most people who endorse this rule would probably add the proviso “as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” Ratzinger had also claimed, on an earlier occasion, that relativism is indissolubly linked to democracy. According to this understanding of democracy, what counts as morally right in any given country is whatever a majority of its citizens decide is right. Most real democracies, however, are constrained by constitutions that affirm and protect basic rights, including the rights of those who disagree with the majority.

The pure relativist claims that moral judgments completely depend on the unique features of each situation, each culture, each agent, etc. For this reason, pure relativism claims that there are no universal moral standards. One can distinguish this extreme position from a principle of moral “relativity” that refers to the way some conditional features of a moral act have a bearing on the way we ought to evaluate it. The undergrad who says things like “Whatever people decide is right for them” or “Who’s to say?” is expressing one rather crude kind of relativism. Among more sophisticated relativists, one finds both the deconstructionist, who reduces everything to social conditioning, and the antifoundationalist, who observes that every judgment has presuppositions, which themselves have presuppositions, and so on ad infinitum. Thus the range of relativisms goes from a fairly unreflective subjectivism to hyper-reflective academic discourse based on a failed objectivism.

One doesn’t need to be a relativist to acknowledge that all moral decisions are “subjective” in the sense that they must be made by subjects. Without a subject’s freedom, no morality is involved. We become relativists only if we use the term “subjective” to mean that whatever individuals (or groups) choose is “right for them,” by virtue of the fact that they have chosen it. It requires subjectivity to appreciate the evil of torture or the beauty of Michelangelo’s David. But it isn’t our subjective evaluation that makes things beautiful or evil. So, for example, in an earlier stage of the abortion debate, one sometimes heard it said that if a woman doesn’t want a child, then—and for that reason—the child has no rights, or does not even count as a child. A fetus wanted by its mother is a person just because she wants it, while an unwanted fetus lacks personhood just because it is unwanted. Fortunately, the abortion debate has turned more and more toward the question of whether the fetus possesses the properties that constitute personhood, a question whose answer does not depend on the attitude of its mother. It is now conceded, at least tacitly, by most defenders of abortion that it is not a woman’s subjective evaluation that confers humanity on the life developing within her.

There are at least two other important considerations that are often used to support some kind of relativism. One can find a warrant for both in the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on another.... Nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (14:13–14). The first consideration has to do with the different capacities people have for perceiving and doing what is right; and since it is harder for some people than for others to do the right thing, one should “no longer pass judgment on another.” But this doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t make judgments about the objective rightness of another person’s actions. Both Jesus and Paul regularly made such judgments, and so must the church today. The second consideration has to do with intentionality: we cannot be blamed for what we do not intend to do. Thus the woman who intends to steal ten dollars from another woman’s purse is guilty—has sinned—even if she later discovers she actually took the money from her own purse, while the woman who mistakenly takes money from another’s purse when she means to take it from her own has not sinned. From this sound moral analysis, one kind of relativist falsely extrapolates that all of morality consists only in good or bad intentions: whatever we intend with good will is right.

Academic relativists typically arrive at relativism by rejecting “objectivism”—or what they sometimes call the “view from nowhere.” Objectivism, they say, naively holds that we can perceive, understand, and evaluate in a way that is not dependent on our bodies, our culture, and our history. It falsely imagines that what is right or wrong has always been obvious and always the same to anyone who has the use of reason. It imagines a set of moral norms free of the shaping hands of Origen, Aquinas, Pope Paul VI, and Cardinal William Levada. There is obviously something to this antiobjectivist critique. As Joseph Ratzinger once wrote, “Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction. It is not the uninvolved who comes to knowledge; rather, interest itself is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know.”

One of Aquinas’s great maxims is that what we can know and love depends on our constitution. Without eyes—that is, without the kind of eyes that human beings happen to have—we can’t see that grass is green; seeing color depends on having a certain kind of body. Similarly, what we know, and how we know, depends on the kind of minds we have as human beings, and the kind of cultures we inhabit as American Christians or Indian Hindus. How one relates to another culture will depend on certain features of one’s own culture.

But some relativists exaggerate the significance of these real contingencies. Rightly recognizing that we can see green only because of the way the human eye functions, they wrongly conclude that there is nothing to reality beyond perception. They fail to see that the color of grass is an “objective” property in the sense that there is something in grass—something apart from us—that manifests itself as green to eyes like ours. Similarly, they fail to see that, while our culture influences what we understand, this doesn’t mean that we simply make up or “construct” our moral world from scratch. What the U.S. bishops wrote about the evil of nuclear war in 1983 was the product of its times, but it was also true: an adequate response to real events and dangers. Human understanding is finite and imperfect, but not for that reason unconnected to the world. Even though we see through a glass darkly, we do see something; and some see better, or more, than others. Ratzinger was therefore right to reject the kind of relativism that claims moral judgments are neither true nor false.

The term the church uses to designate acts that are always wrong is “intrinsic evil.” When an act is “intrinsically evil,” circumstances, consequences, and intentions can do nothing to change the wrongness of the act. This is so not because of some hidden tautology—for example, murder (defined as unjust killing) is always unjust. It’s because of the very nature of the act.

The church’s teaching about certain sexual matters (fornication, masturbation, the use of birth control) is clear enough. Reproductive technology has added certain new items to the list of proscribed practices. But how does the church know when something needs to be added? One standard answer has been that whatever the church teaches to be intrinsically evil is intrinsically evil. Unfortunately, recent statements from Rome have made this criterion less than secure. In Veritatis splendor, John Paul II gave the following examples of intrinsic evil: “any kind of homicide...abortion...mutilation... subhuman living conditions...deportation, slavery, prostitution, degrading conditions of work.” Does this mean that killing in war, surgical amputation, and the deportation of illegal aliens are intrinsically evil? The examples John Paul gave were drawn from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, where those things were described as bad but not as intrinsic evils. In Veritatis splendor, John Paul wrote that they are wrong “always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.” In doing so, he seemed to expand the category of intrinsic evil well beyond its prior limits in Catholic moral theology.

Despite these questions about what counts as intrinsic evil, one should note that underlying the church’s teaching about absolute norms are two important insights. The first is that once we have established what is wrong, we are absolutely bound to act accordingly. The second is that at least some moral values and imperatives really are universal. There are of course moral obligations that cannot be generalized, so closely do they relate to one’s particular circumstances. For example, Christians believe that there is no general obligation to marry or remain celibate. One is morally obligated to discern and follow God’s will, which in this case cannot be determined by reference to any set of rules. Similarly, the church acknowledges that some moral teachings are relative to historical circumstance. Though capital punishment is commanded by God in the Scriptures and has been defended by Catholic theologians for many centuries, John Paul wisely discouraged the use of the death penalty in our own time.

Still, most of the moral norms we follow and teach have universal significance, even if they are not absolutely binding. Humans should not lie, kill, break promises, destroy others’ property, etc. These norms refer us to values that should always be taken into account, even when we decide that circumstances override the norms themselves. In war, soldiers must do things it would be wrong for them to do as private citizens; but if they are allowed to kill other soldiers, it is not because the value of human life is temporarily suspended. Moral obligations are variable and complicated because goods sometimes conflict with one another, but a good does not cease to be a good simply because it must be sacrificed or subordinated. To understand value as relative in this way makes one a realist, not a relativist.

Related: Indefensible: Moral Teaching after 'Humanae Vitae,' by Michael Dummett
Rome & Relativism, by Martin E. Marty, Robert P. Imbelli, and Philip Kennedy

Edward Vacek, SJ, holds the Stephen Duffy Chair in Catholic Theology at Loyola University, New Orleans.

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Published in the 2011-03-11 issue: View Contents
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