Discovering the Pearl of Great Price

Ratzinger on Relativism in the West

In the wake of a progressively globalized society, namely, the integration of the various cultures, markets, and political convictions, the world faces the question of determining a principle constituent of unification.1 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, throughout his various letters and works, articulates that in an attempt to amalgamate the complex structures of religions and cultures, man has “set [culture] against truth.”2 As such, rather than seeking the binding principle that genuinely integrates humankind, it is relativism that has become the sphere of interrelationship between peoples and cultures.

Relativism, however, cannot sustain the unity of cultures since it disregards the possibility of a universal criteria for truth, paradoxically leads to a new dogmatism, and harbors the unraveling of morality. It is precisely for this reason that Ratzinger emphatically asserts, “This relativism, which is nowadays to be found, as a basic attitude of enlightened people . . . is the most profound difficulty of our age.”3 Thence, in this paper I will consider, through the prism of Ratzinger’s thought, the effects of relativism upon the political architecture of society and the possibility of formulating a global ethos.  

In his homily prior to being elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Ratzinger asserted that “we are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely in one’s own ego and desires.”4 It is significant that here Ratzinger defines this “dictatorship of relativism” as “letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’. . .”5 This “dictatorship of relativism” proposed by Ratzinger, then, holds to no definitive moral compass or root, though it commands positive claims about human acts and relationships. Letting oneself be ruled by the reign of relativism, one is assuredly “tossed here and there” by the new dogmas advanced by consensus or power, rather than what is true about man and his ultimate destiny.

It is of import to turn our attention toward the reason why relativism seems to be “the only attitude that can cope with our modern times.”6 In an attempt to construct a human society void of the Divine, reason becomes the standard for the universal consensus of men who spring from differing cultures and heritages. This seems to answer the questions of religious fundamentalism, which have resulted in intolerable acts such as terrorism. However, while one can argue that religion alone, without the “guardianship”7 of reason, can fall astray, one can similarly argue whether reason is tenably reliable unto itself.

Undoubtedly, human reason, while good in se, is also the source of the atomic bomb and the genetic modification and breeding of human beings.8 Human reason, then, cannot be the illimitable harbinger of what is permissible. As such, one must conclude that that which is possible by way of reason is not univocal with that which is permissible. Thence, a “global society with its mechanisms of power and its uncontrolled forces and its varying views of what constitutes law and morality,”9 cannot sufficiently rely on reason to create for society reasons for positive law.

Ultimately, the residual moral values of the Western conscience that still linger today, without their grounding in a universal reality that presupposes the positive law, will eventually wither by the effects of the relativistic worldview. To maintain the rights that belong to “man qua man”10 amidst intercultural relations, modern society does well to revisit the question of whether there is a rational law that presupposes and legitimizes human rights.

Politics and the Architecture of Society

Let us now turn toward the task of the political body regarding its members. According to the Magisterium, “the responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason that the political authority exists.”11 In other words, the political body realizes its responsibility in attaining the common good. It is this goal which orients the political community’s laws and actions. To do so, the political structure of every nation has the task of “[harmonizing] the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice.”12 As such, within the realm of politics, that which is interpreted as the common good by those in authority must indeed be “the effective good of all the members.”13

However, if the measure of the common good for society and its members is not the consensus of governmental representatives, it must find its value under the aegis of the Good itself. In this way, “the common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole creation.”14 Without its underpinning in reference to the human person’s Ultimate End, the common good becomes merely “socio-economic well-being,”15 determined by those in authority.

In this regard, as Ratzinger has keenly articulated, democracy, along with its political endeavors, seems to find its philosophical basis today, not upon the roots in which Western culture was engendered, but upon relativism.16 Since this philosophical groundwork measures everything on the basis of freedom as its fundamental value, it follows that, among the various cultures and beliefs present in society, none can assert a “right way forward.”17 Significantly, it must be noted that relativism is not the mere resignation before truth; rather, it “defines itself positively on the basis of the concepts of tolerance, dialectic epistemology, and freedom, which would be maintaining one truth as being valid by everyone.”18

As such, since no one can claim truth, relativistic iterations of society “[draw] life from . . . acknowledging each other as fragmentary attempts at improvement and trying to agree in common dialogue.”19 However, in the sphere of politics, one cannot maintain a definitive relativism, as there are realities that must always be considered evil, and may never become good by way of agreement.20 Ultimately, the moral values within society cannot be taken as “automatic,” as these values “depend on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every form of human behavior must be subject.”21

Paradoxically, though relativism denies the objective and universal basis of truth, it posits absolute truth claims regarding its highest values, such as tolerance. In this manner, relativism truly becomes a “dictatorship” of ideological values determined by a stringent legal positivism. Ratzinger, in like manner, asserts, “The more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism.”22 This “new dogmatism” suffuses thought and language under the guise of “political correctness,”23 and its highest value of freedom therefore becomes limited to the notions of those in authority and power.

This is the illusion of relativism, namely, that it caters to and renders communion to all cultures and heritages. Rather than seeking true knowledge and freedom of thought, speech, and religion, relativism subordinates and restricts all that which falls outside of its gamut of acceptance. Hence, a democratic society based on a relativistic humus, though harboring residual Western values, can easily unravel and lay itself vulnerable to becoming, as historically observed, an “open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”24

The Prospect of a Global Ethos

Since an absolute relativism cannot genuinely sustain a global unification of cultures, while holding a binding criterion for a universal moral formula, it is of merit to ask if a global tenet is possible, and, if so, what are ways in which it may be proposed. In reference to Ratzinger on this particular idea, he asserts that “the rational or ethical or religious formula that would embrace the whole world and unite all persons does not exist; or at least, it is unattainable at the present moment.”25 Pointedly, Ratzinger arrives to this conclusion by reasoning that the secular rationality that seems apparent to most is a product of Western development.26 In this way, European formulations of thought cannot be reproduced throughout all cultures. Ultimately, the modern Western outlook of reason devoid of faith is inoperable as a unitive principle.

What, then, can be proposed in regard to seeking a principle of worldwide unification? Here I will suggest one thesis put forward by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger that offers a substantially more holistic vision than that of relativism. Ratzinger, firstly, stresses that a global ethos cannot be generated “by experts, since no committee or council, whoever its members . . .”27 can produce a universal tenet. Further, he deduces that “something living cannot be born except from another living thing.”28 As such, the basis for a global morality cannot be simply created by the efforts of man, albeit his intelligence or abilities.

Precisely for this reason Ratzinger concludes that there must a re-mingling of faith and reason, which averts the hubris of the isolation of faith or reason as the answer to the construct of a pluralized human society. This is more, as Ratzinger highlights, than simply returning to faith, but rather the freeing of reason’s blindness through a purification process. As such, faith and reason “purify and help one another . . . and they must acknowledge this mutual need.”29 However, it would be naïve to determine that, in our present intercultural milieu of society, “one could dismiss other cultures.”30 This would lead to a “false Eurocentrism”31 that would become detrimental to authentic unity. In this manner, there must be a genuine interrelatedness to achieve any kind of global unification. In answering this, Ratzinger proposes:

It is important to include the other cultures in the attempt at a polyphonic relatedness, in which they themselves are receptive to the essential complementarity of reason and faith, so that a universal process of purifications (in the plural!) can proceed. Ultimately, the essential values and norms that are in some way known or sensed by all men will take on a new brightness in such a process, so that that which holds the world together can once again become an effective force in mankind.32

Hence, through a genuine exploration of the values which stem from the nature of man, integrating both faith and reason, the various world cultures can begin to find the authentic ground of the unity of all men, namely, God.

Employment of the “Creative Minority”

Lastly, let us consider the implications for propagating “that which holds the world together” in an increasingly relativistic society. By removing God from the public sphere, and defining Christian claims as intolerable, men have come closer to “the edge of the abyss . . . [to] ever greater isolation from reality.”33 Therefore, “that of which we are in need at this moment in history,” Ratzinger asserts, “are men, who, through an enlightened and lived faith, render God credible in this world.”34 As such, the world is in need of men who heal the wounds left in the aftermath of Christians who have lived contrary to the truth about God and about man. These men, Ratzinger attests, are:

. . . men whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up the hearts of others… Only through men who have been touched by God, can God come near to men.35

Thus, it is through men who faithfully integrate their mind and heart in the contemplation of God, that the insemination of the universal criteria of truth can be possible in a culturally diverse global society.

Moreover, as elucidated by Ratzinger, this project may be considered the employment of the “creative minorities.”36 Further, to elaborate this notion, he asserts that it is important for the Church “to have convinced minorities” not only in the Church, but “beyond the Church and for society.”37 Therefore, it is these men, who “in their encounters with Christ have discovered the precious pearl that gives value to all of life,” reveal to the world that Christian values do not “immobilize humanity,” rather they provide humanity the “wings that carry it upward.”38

The “creative minority” extends the incarnation of the Verbum which gives man his true meaning, and frees him from all error. By appealing to man’s incessant search for truth, meaning, and happiness, those who become hidden leaven in society make possible the formation of a “Christian civil religion that would not be an artificial construction of something that everybody supposedly finds reasonable, but rather a living partaking of the great spiritual tradition of Christianity, in which these values are actualized and revitalized.”39


As a globalized society continues to develop, the world is faced with the challenge of determining that which unifies the various cultures and political structures. Throughout his various texts, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has articulated that relativism is deemed the answer to the intercultural community and its relationships. However, relativism leaves men bound to the reign of legal positivism, which is grounded in consensus and power. Paradoxically, rather than freeing man, the illusion of relativism constricts man to the happenstance of current ideologies. To help orient man to the fundamental truth about himself, others, and the world, the values that have shaped the Western conscience must return to the fore as the ground to build a genuine interrelated human society. Ultimately, it is those who have found the pearl of great price40 who can suffuse the world once again with the objective and universal values that hold it together.

  1. Joseph Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together — The Pre-Political Moral Foundations of a Free State,” Matiane, January 6, 2019,, 1.
  2. Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004), 72.
  3. Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 72.
  4. Joseph Ratzinger, “Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice: Homily of Card. Joseph Ratzinger,” Vatican, April 18, 2005,, 2.
  5. Ratzinger, “Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice: Homily of Card. Joseph Ratzinger,” 2.
  6. Ratzinger, “Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice: Homily of Card. Joseph Ratzinger,” 2.
  7. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 5.
  8. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 5.
  9. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 5.
  10. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 7.
  11. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Ed. Vaticana, 2004), 168.
  12. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 169.
  13. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 169.
  14. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 170.
  15. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 170.
  16. Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, trans. Michael F. Moore (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2006), 117.
  17. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 117.
  18. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 117.
  19. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 117.
  20. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 117 (here Ratzinger enumerates various intrinsically evil acts that may never become right in virtue of consensus, such as killing innocent people, or denying individuals the right to be treated as human and the right to a way of life appropriate to being human).
  21. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 407.
  22. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 128.
  23. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 128.
  24. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 407.
  25. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 9.
  26. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 9.
  27. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 128.
  28. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 128.
  29. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 10.
  30. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 10.
  31. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 10.
  32. Ratzinger, “That Which Holds the World Together,” 10.
  33. Joseph Ratzinger, “Europe’s Crisis of Culture,” Matiane, July 7, 2020,, 12.
  34. Ratzinger, “Europe’s Crisis of Culture,” 12.
  35. Ratzinger, “Europe’s Crisis of Culture,” 12.
  36. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 120.
  37. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 120.
  38. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 120–121.
  39. Ratzinger and Pera, Without Roots, 124.
  40. Matthew 13:36.
Fr. Matthew Gonzalez About Fr. Matthew Gonzalez

Fr. Matthew Gonzalez is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark. He holds a BA in Catholic Theology from Seton Hall University, as well as an MDiv and an MA in Systematic Theology.


  1. Avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

    Your article was not easy to read but contains wisdom. I hope you are aware of John Wu, the great Chinese Scholar and Catholic who taught at Seton Hall. Here is the conclusion of his spiritual autobiography, Beyond East and West. In simple terms verifies your thesis. He also states clearly the need for deeper spiritual education.

    “Our pilgrimage is therefore neither eastwards nor westwards, but inwards; and this is what I call moving beyond East and West. It is not fair to Christianity to call it ‘Western.’ Christianity is universal. In fact, the West has something to learn from the East, for, on the whole, the East has gone farther in its natural contemplation than the West has in its supernatural contemplation. To take just one instance, the average Buddhist in China knows something about the three stages of Abstention, Concentration and Wisdom; while the average Christian has no idea of the three ways, the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive. The spiritual education of the Christian is sadly neglected.”

    Wu, John C.H. Beyond East and West. University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.