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Relativism and the coercion of conscience

By Dwight G. Duncan
Posted: 1/23/2009

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In a homily delivered just before entering the conclave that would elect him pope, Cardinal Ratzinger referred to a “dictatorship of relativism”: “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.”

I think we can observe this dynamic at work in various areas of the law. When there is a consensus on moral issues like there used to be on abortion and homosexual parenting, the law tends to forbid them. Abortion was viewed as it is, the deliberate taking of innocent human life, and a healthy respect for human equality would rule it out. So, too, it was understood that children are best raised by a mother and a father. Thus homosexual adoption was not allowed.

But then there is a move to permit or tolerate them, spurred by people’s interests and desires. Roe v. Wade, as we remembered this past week, said that freedom entailed a woman’s right to choose abortion, and here in Massachusetts the Goodridge decision said that a male pair or female pair was legally the same as a male-female couple. Abortion and gay adoption were to be permitted, and not discriminated against (at least by governmental actors). Skepticism about moral matters leads to permissive policy. After all, how can we be sure when human life begins, or what the ideal parenting arrangement is?

Once the natural law is relativized, though, it is a small step from tolerance to coercion. After all, if there is no truth in moral matters, rules are simply a matter of the powers that be imposing their will (“ego and desires”) on the rest of us. I’ll give a couple of recent examples involving our governor, Deval Patrick, and the state Attorney General, Martha Coakley.

In Worcester’s Catholic Free Press dated Jan. 2, there is an article about Deval Patrick’s administration revoking its contract with Worcester Catholic Charities to do adoptions. No reason was given, but the Worcester diocese, consistent with Catholic teaching, had not been placing children for adoption with same-sex couples.

The Worcester director of Catholic Charities, Catherine Loeffler, was quoted as saying, “I firmly believe that the revocation occurred because we were providing our adoption services in harmony with Catholic teaching. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts previously denied Massachusetts Catholic Charities a religious exemption to carry out our work according to our religious beliefs and then revoked our contracts.” Realize that the Worcester Catholic Charities was not preventing gay couples from adopting, but merely refusing to do it themselves. And so they must be coerced to violate their consciences or else shut down.

On Thursday, Jan. 15, Massachusetts, through its Attorney General Martha Coakley, joined with six other states in suing the federal government to rescind a new rule that, in the words of the New York Times article the following day, “expands protections for doctors and other health care workers who refuse to participate in abortions and other medical procedures because of religious or moral objections.”

Coakley says that the new Provider Conscience Regulations “interfere with patients’ ability to access needed health care information and services and severely compromise our ability to enforce important state laws.” Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said in issuing the rule that “Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience.”

Massachusetts and six other states think otherwise: Relativism does not recognize anything as definitive, and its ultimate goal consists solely in satisfying one’s ego and desires. Upright conscience, what Newman had called “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” must be crushed. Sounds like dictatorship to me.

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.