Pope Francis on Moral Relativism and Being Our Own Criterion

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Pope watchers the world over are well aware that Pope Francis has a love and a calling for the poor. 

He has told us that this inspired his choice of names. 

This emphasis on the poor has caused some disquiet in certain circles. What, they wonder, about the other things? Rumors have flown like mosquitos, claiming that our Holy Father mocked his own election, will abandon traditional marriage, is going to upend the liturgy and allow … what was it? puppets and cartoon characters?? … in the mass. We’ve been regaled with stories about his shoe color and how he’s “tipping the Church over” by washing the feet of young prisoners on Holy Thursday.

That’s why I was so glad to be able to publish a post indicating that fully 90% of Catholics who attend weekly mass approve of our new pontiff. I would guess that the other 10% must be on their computers, spinning out tales 24/7.

Today, Pope Francis made a speech to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps which should allay at least some of those fears. He talked about the poor of the world in moving terms, saying, 

How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure! After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and more just.

Then, he went on to talk about “another form of poverty … of our time,” which he said was “the spiritual poverty … which afflicts the so-called richer countries … what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”

He added that this was the second reason for his name choice, since St Francis not only loved the poor, he also loved peace.

There is no peace without truth! There cannot be peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth … it is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: It is not possible to build true links with God while ignoring other people.

Typing these words has reminded me again how blessed we are that the Holy Spirit has given us this man to be our pope. We need to follow his leadership. It’s difficult for Americans to admit that they should stop quarreling and nit-picking and just follow. But that is what we need to do. 

We are Christians, and it is our precise calling to follow Jesus. The single best way we can know that we are following Jesus is not, as our Holy Father said, to follow our “own criterion,” but to judge our understanding of how we should live by that which is given to us by the Church. 

Pope Francis is Christ’s Vicar here on Earth. 

I personally find some of the things a tiny minority of Catholics are saying about him painful. It is hurtful to me as a woman of faith to read articles attacking my Pope. I expect it from the secular world. But when it comes from Catholics, even when they are only a disgruntled few, it is appalling. 

Here, from Vatican radio, is the entire text of Pope Francis’ speech to the diplomats: 

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Heartfelt thanks to your Dean, Ambassador Jean-Claude Michel, for the kind words that he has addressed to me in the name of everyone present. It gives me joy to welcome you for this exchange of greetings: a simple yet deeply felt ceremony, that somehow seeks to express the Pope’s embrace of the world. Through you, indeed, I encounter your peoples, and thus in a sense I can reach out to every one of your fellow citizens, with their joys, their troubles, their expectations, their desires.
Your presence here in such numbers is a sign that the relations between your countries and the Holy See are fruitful, that they are truly a source of benefit to mankind. That, indeed, is what matters to the Holy See: the good of every person upon this earth! And it is with this understanding that the Bishop of Rome embarks upon his ministry, in the knowledge that he can count on the friendship and affection of the countries you represent, and in the certainty that you share this objective. At the same time, I hope that it will also be an opportunity to begin a journey with those few countries that do not yet have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, some of which were present at the Mass for the beginning of my ministry, or sent messages as a sign of their closeness – for which I am truly grateful.
As you know, there are various reasons why I chose the name of Francis of Assisi, a familiar figure far beyond the borders of Italy and Europe, even among those who do not profess the Catholic faith. One of the first reasons was Francis’ love for the poor. How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure! After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and more just.
But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism”, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.
One of the titles of the Bishop of Rome is Pontiff, that is, a builder of bridges with God and between people. My wish is that the dialogue between us should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister to be welcomed and embraced! My own origins impel me to work for the building of bridges. As you know, my family is of Italian origin; and so this dialogue between places and cultures a great distance apart matters greatly to me, this dialogue between one end of the world and the other, which today are growing ever closer, more interdependent, more in need of opportunities to meet and to create real spaces of authentic fraternity.
In this work, the role of religion is fundamental. It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam. At the Mass marking the beginning of my ministry, I greatly appreciated the presence of so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world. And it is also important to intensify outreach to non-believers, so that the differences which divide and hurt us may never prevail, but rather the desire to build true links of friendship between all peoples, despite their diversity.
Fighting poverty, both material and spiritual, building peace and constructing bridges: these, as it were, are the reference points for a journey that I want to invite each of the countries here represented to take up. But it is a difficult journey, if we do not learn to grow in love for this world of ours. Here too, it helps me to think of the name of Francis, who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.

Dear Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you again for all the work that you do, alongside the Secretariat of State, to build peace and construct bridges of friendship and fraternity. Through you, I would like to renew to your Governments my thanks for their participation in the celebrations on the occasion of my election, and my heartfelt desire for a fruitful common endeavour. May Almighty God pour out his gifts on each one of you, on your families and on the peoples that you represent. Thank you!


  • Jeremy A. Ingle

    Just one comment regarding the picture at the top which has been circulated widely as being Blessed John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. I forget who the third one is, but it’s been determined that it is not Archbishop Bergoglio (Francis). I notice you didn’t label it as such, but I wanted to point it out anyway in case anyone wondered.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Jeremy, I thought it was Pope Francis. That’s why I’ve been using it. I’ll check this out when I get time. Thanks for the info.

  • Peg

    Love, love, love him!

  • Deacon Kevin

    What Catholic in their right mind would criticize anything this holy man has said or done? Follow him! Just be quiet and follow!

    • Jack

      And on what basis do you question? Am i just supposed listen to your questions? Are you going to critize yourself into nothing?

  • Jack

    Progressives think that moral relativism is something new.

    “It is the case that all extra-biblical societies punish wrongdoing; all establish codes for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (articulated through myth and ritual, whether oral or written); all elaborate laws in general and/or specific terms, regulating behavior, punishing the acceptable, and rewarding the unacceptable. But punishment in the extra-biblical world of paganism is always based on ignorance of the good. No one knowingly does wrong. To know the good is to be (identical wth) the good. Because there is no notion of willing the good universally true for all, there is no notion at all of will in the pagan world. Because there is no notion of will in the pagan world, there is no concept of responsibility, of knowing (of accepting responsibilty for) what one has done wrong. Punishment, like all pagan experience, whereby, according to the doctrine of opposites, my good depends directly (blidly and ignorantly) on your wrong. Indeed, I can be right- because it is better to do evil than to suffer evil (or vice versa)- only at your expense, only if you are wrong. But then my good depends directly on your wrong doing.
    We may, indeed, recall the protest of Protagoras, in Plato’s dialogue of that name, against Socrates’ demonstration that virtue (justice, wisdom, the good…) cannot be taught or learned (which will later become the Stoic topos that virtue is its own reward). Protagoras points out to Socrates, reasonably enough, so it seems, that the only rationale in punishing individuals for wrongdoing is so that they will learn from their mistakes and not repeat them in the futre. Socrates has no difficulty, however, in suspending Protagoras on the contradictory horns of his dilemma. In holding that man is the measure of all things, insofar as they appear to him (we find the classic exposition of Protagoras’ famous claim in Plato’s Thaeatetus), Protagoras is one with Socrates in adhering to the doctrine of opposires as the indemonstrable first principle of life. What is good is good insofar as it appears good to me. Whatever appears, insofar as it appears to me, is the good. Because the good and its appearances to me are identical, there is no possible way for me either to know or to do the wrong. The only wrong is appearances as they appear (good) to you. To know the good is to be the good. To do something wrong is to do it in ignorance of the good.”


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