Candle, Not a Torch: Reflections on Three “Isms”


Earlier this summer, I enjoyed participating with a few others in our parish in a class[1] examining how people of faith can respond to “relativism” — which I’ll define here as a belief that “there is no truth or principle to which we are all accountable (other than, perhaps, to respect others views of the truth).”

This version of “relativism” was, in our class, contrasted with a rough, simplified definition of an Aristotelian, natural law position[2]: that there is indeed a truth to which we are all accountable and, more importantly, a telos that identifies a model towards which human life should aspire.

It’s an important conversation to have, and in particular because it emphasizes that a first-order question is not simply “what is the truth of how we should live?” but whether there is an answer to that question with any universal application. And since there clearly isn’t perfect consensus to either question, how do we understand and respond to the various views? And, finally, how should Christians understand what their faith and its teachings say in response to those questions?[3]

To enable conversation about these topics, the course properly emphasizes ethical and religious disagreements must be engaged with love and compassion, rather than judgment of the person (as distinguished from judgment evaluating the merits of various beliefs, facts, and analyses). Judging the person is, as noted in Scripture, not our department.

Similarly, the course mostly held to a view that while wrongness of belief is to be addressed (rather than ignored), it should be addressed with an aim towards connection, rather than subjugation. Trying to pop someone right in the ego harms both the popper and the popped. Besides, it’s entirely possible some wrong beliefs are nonetheless well-intentioned, or the best a person can do given their experiences and instruction. The course materials include this beautiful quote to illustrate the point:

“You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.” — St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Letter 40

Many of the concerns of the course warrant further analysis. One concept is the proposition, advanced by Pope Benedict, that there is a “dictatorship of relativism” that not only denies there is a knowable truth but prohibits or scorns assertions to the contrary. That is, the objection goes, relativism isn’t really tolerant of difference, for it doesn’t include those who do have faith in a universal truth. That exclusion of universal truth, it’s argued, is needed to preserve universal authority for the ego and its desires.[4]

That may be descriptive of some schools of thought. I’m not persuaded its descriptive of all schools of thought that fall outside the Christian perspective. A broad variety of faith traditions claim a truth beyond the momentary subjective inclinations. Atheists may well claim that there are ethical truths (a telos for human beings) that transcend individual subjectivity but that these are discoverable through other means, such as the scientific method. Atheistic existentialists don’t argue there are no truths or standards, only that such must be uncovered or created, and cannot be imposed externally.[5]

Also, I suspect most people — of whatever faith traditions (or no faith tradition at all) — agree that enforced relativism is undesirable. That would sit in conflict both with reality (many people do believe in some universal truths), and with beliefs and laws on individual liberty. In any society, there remain important differences of belief as to what that universal truth consists of, what tenets it establishes, and what life choices are acceptable.


And in American history, there is a strong legal and social tradition that, outside a core consensus of universal truths, e.g., certain matters of safety and security, these questions should properly remain ultimately with the human conscience, rather than the state. It’s this view which I’ll call ‘liberalism’ — with the emphasis being on ‘liberty’ rather than any association with the political left.

This became evident during discussions in the course, in fact. Many concerns voiced and discussed referred not to division between those who believe ethics is entirely subjective and those who do not, but to a (real or perceived) fault line in contemporary society between Catholic social teaching and other views of a universal moral good.

This concern, in turn, identifies a fault line between liberalism and authoritarianism (including forms of “integralism,” which posits, in essence, that the law of the state and the laws of the Catholic Faith should be identical). Some participants, like the integralists, are concerned that both law and public society tolerate, or even celebrate, certain views. And, you guessed it, by and large these “certain views” concern abortions and reproductive health, sexual orientation and gender identity.[6]

Defining relativism, as Cardinal Ratzinger does, as “the expression of a consciousness that would like to see God eradicated once and for all from the public life of humanity,”[7] certainly does identify a problematic and unusual set of beliefs. That’s not quite the consciousness afoot today, though. Evidence is ample that God certainly does have a place in public life (albeit God as understood and worshipped differently by different traditions). Politicians of all strips attend prayer breakfasts, there is prayer before the opening of legislative sessions, and the word “God” is, after all, printed on the public currency. President Obama, for example, spoke clearly of the important role for God in public life.[8]

I don’t question Cardinal Ratzinger’s sincerity and certainly not his scholarship, but what this learned man may have meant by that statement regarding relativism was something similar to the concern I noted above: the exclusion from public life of a particular way of understanding the nature of the human being, as Catholics see it expressed by God.

Fortunately, that Catholic way of understanding (right or wrong as it may be) is a choice permitted by the foundation of our public life. The U.S. Constitution establishes as its very first statement in the Bill of Rights that it is an “inalienable” natural right to exercise faith in God in ways of one’s own choosing. By the same token, though, the Constitution restricts the “establishment” of religion — e.g., using the power of the state to prescribe, as a matter of law, a particular set of religious beliefs or practices. And while law can certainly be informed by religious views on the nature of the human person, liberalism requires certain limits on the power of particular religious beliefs to dictate what the law says.

This important point about the legal authority of the state, as distinct from the role of religious beliefs to inform the enactment of laws, was captured well by, as it happens, the same Cardinal Ratzinger. In his first encyclical after being ordained as Pope Benedict XVI, the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), he writes:

The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly…The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”[9]

Unsurprisingly, Pope Benedict is reflecting accurately Catholic canon law and its position on religious liberty:

All persons are bound to seek the truth in those things which regard God and his Church and by virtue of divine law are bound by the obligation and possess the right of embracing and observing the truth which they have come to know…. No one is ever permitted to coerce persons to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience.” [10]

The Canon Law does not, of course, mean by this to take a relativistic position. Indeed, the Canon immediately preceding says, importantly, that the Church is to “protect the revealed truth reverently,” and has the “innate right, independent of any human power whatsoever, to preach the gospel to all peoples.[11] Those statements should be read together: because they are both, in effect, assertions in defense of religious liberty. Read together, Canon Law expresses both the right of all persons to seek the truth for themselves and their own conscience,[12] and the right of the Church to assert its truth.

Which means Canon Law is nicely aligned with a natural law view expressing belief in the divinity and dignity of all persons. Consider, for example, the arguments of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, influential on the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the years following the military defeat of Nazi Germany and its fascistic and authoritarian allies.

Per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Maritain favoured a democratic and liberal view of the state and argued for a political society that is both personalist, pluralist, and Christianly-inspired. He held that the authority to rule derives from the people — for people have a natural right to govern themselves. Still, this is consistent with a commitment to Christianity, Maritain thought, because the ideals of democracy are themselves inspired by a belief in God’s rule, and that the primary source of all authority is God.”[13]

Maritain’s views align, in turn, neatly with the observations of Pope John Paul II in his encyclical “Faith and Reason,” in particular that there is “no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action. Again, the Book of Proverbs points in this direction when it exclaims: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov 25:2)”. The truth of Christian revelation, uncovered as a result of such rational inquiry “summons human beings to be open to the transcendent, whilst respecting both their autonomy as creatures and their freedom.”[14]

In a democratic and liberal society, there is similarly a recognition in law, policy, and ethics that this call to each individual to “search things out” should be respected, and state-sponsored policing of beliefs is by and large not permitted. This preservation of liberty works, of course, to the benefit of religious institutions whose views may conflict with popular or even mainstream views. And it does so while equally working to the benefit of those whose views may conflict with those religious institutions.


The integralist view, in contrast, is an approach to Catholic thought that holds that, “rendering God true worship is essential to [the] common good, and that political authority therefore has the duty of recognizing and promoting the true religion.[15] In the U.S., some Protestant views of political authority are undoubtedly similar,[16] and other countries in fact have governments that promote (and enforce) an official state religion. That phrase “promote the true religion” itself illustrates the contrast with the liberal view as embodied in the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of a state religion, and on state interference with its free exercise.

Integralists, naturally, might deny this objection. One argument integralists might raise is to say their views are not rooted simply in a desire to create theocratic control, but a view that if the role of the state is to secure the common welfare of the people, then the state abandons that duty if it abandons the work of securing consensus for beliefs and behaviors it considers to be the natural, self-evident beliefs and behaviors that foster human flourishing.

As one observer put it, “[i]ntegralism sees state direction and coercion as concerned not simply with external conformity to regulations, but with securing ethical consensus to the extent that the well-being of a community requires it.” [17] So, far from being illiberal or totalitarian, integralism’s defenders may argue they are equally committed to government through consensus of the governed. I’m willing to accept the proposition, therefore, that an integralist’s belief the state should secure alignment with a Catholic ethical consensus can be motivated primarily by love and concern for the well-being of citizens.

And yet, I think it still falls short of respecting the path and process by which such consensus must be derived, particularly in a religiously diverse society. And it leaves little room for Cardinal Ratzinger’s observation that “[a]ll persons are bound to seek the truth ,” a rule that he notably applies to all “persons,” not just all “Catholics” or all “Christians.” In keeping with Maritain’s emphasis on human rights, we must keep open the paths by which individuals come to understand what rules foster human flourishing, and the processes by which societies must develop the consensus of the governed needed to give law validity. As David French described it, it’s a mistake to focus on religious power rather than religious liberty.[18]

Consider, for example, a contemporary “hot topic” — whether laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex should go as far as to restrict religious institutions from making personnel decisions based on sexual orientation or gender identity, at least for persons in “ministerial” roles. These issues seem to be a priority for many, particularly in the context of law and politics.[19]

One argument, with strong roots in American tradition, is that religious institutions are free to make those determinations, because it is not the role of the state to unduly interfere in the free exercise of religion, and those institutions have elected to treat beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity as important to their exercise of their religion. This is the view that commanded 7 votes at the Supreme Court including two of its so-called “liberal” members, Justices Breyer and Kagan.[20]

Then there is the view, more in an integralist vein, that institutions are free to make those determinations, but on the basis that this is precisely the type of determination the state should uphold, because the beliefs those institutions hold about sexual orientation and gender identity are the correct beliefs; indeed the only beliefs that afford any opportunity for human flourishing.

In their view, it’s the correct outcome, rather than the liberty to select it, which matters. Some have written, for example that Reagan-era conservative views regarding personal autonomy should be unacceptable, given the harms that view visits upon human beings.[21] And the things that matter most, e.g., religious tradition, national cohesion, and the family, aren’t derived from, and can’t be sustained by, traditional political “liberty.”[22]

This may sound arrogant to those outside their camp, but it is worth considering that from their point of view, the question of whether institutions are free to discriminating in hiring against LBGTQ persons is akin to asking if an institution can restrict employment of persons who blow cigarette smoke in the face of their students — their presence in the institution undermines the moral health it seeks to cultivate.

Of course, though, there is scientific and ethical consensus on the harms of cigarette smoke. Whereas there is no consensus that same-sex attraction is at all harmful, particularly not when expressed in long-term, sacrificial, committed relationships that exhibit the same type of agape love Christians would advocate for in marriage. And there is, in contrast, both scientific and ethical support for the view that denigration of same-sex attraction harms both the giver and the recipient.[23]

There isn’t space in this particular post to address both the theological and scriptural considerations that should inform a view of same-sex love and marriage — suffice to say love and respect for LBGTQ people should be more ascendant than it is in some circles. And in general, to the extent love and respect for people is ascendant, I view it as a good thing. Indeed, the point of this post is to emphasize that, while it is right and good to assert one’s beliefs on public policy, doing so should emphasize helping to grow understanding and community. There are more important things than winning an argument. Christians are given greater commandments than that, to be sure.[24]

And so, regardless of which ‘ism’ appeals (or concerns you), there are better tactics than framing every argument as a “culture war”[25] . The call to pursue the truth, as described above in multiple ways, means people should be treated as individuals, not automatons of given ideologies or political camps. As noted above, it was a Democratic President (Obama) who I quoted in support of the role of faith in public life. And principled pro-life conservatives have, in some cases, followed their conscience to arrive at perhaps unexpected political choices.[26]

Ultimately, it seems to me, our concern should not be for ensuring others believe as we do on debated matters of public policy or even on matters of what constitutes human flourishing. It should be whether in asserting our views we are helping to form consciences (including our own) that are “open to the transcendent.” Do our words and actions serve “stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice?” Does our process of engagement aim not at conquering, but at understanding, dialogue and fellowship? Do we remember our humility, and do we contribute to preservation of freedom to search for the truth, as we are called to do?[27] My own Dad may or may not have known he was quoting a letter attributed to St. Paul in doing so, but one of his instructions to me said it more pithily: “whatever you do, do it from love.”[28]


[2]As this course aimed at general audiences rather than scholars, it works fine to generalize about natural law beliefs as expressed by Aristotle. The course did not address, but nor did it advocate, Aristotelian views with which most now clearly disagree. See, e.g., Aristotle, Politics, 1254b16–21 (“as between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject. And the same must also necessarily apply in the case of mankind as a whole… this is the condition of those whose function is the use of the body and from whom this is the best that is forthcoming these are by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is advantageous”).

[3]For a thorough treatment of both these questions — a survey of various views and a synopses of how scripture informs a definition of “justice” — see Tim Keller, “A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,” online at:

[4]See Fittingly for the title of this post, Cardinal Ratzinger observes “the small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been… flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.”

[5]See, e.g., Sam Harris, “The Moral Landscape,” (Free Press, 2011) online at: (values translate into facts that can be scientifically understood). For atheistic existentialism, see generally Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Hazel Barnes, translator) (Simon and Shuster, 1992), online at:

[6]These topics are indeed the subject of Catholic social teaching, but so are others, some of which were also touched on in our course discussions, such as stewardship of creation, social justice, care for the poor, peace and disarmament, sanctity of human life at all stages, and labor rights. See, e.g., (A NY diocese becomes politically active in support of labor rights for farmworkers); see generally

[7]Joseph Ratzinger, “Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures,” (Ignatius Press, 2006), p44, online at:

[8]See, e.g., Joseph Knippenberg, “Obama and Romney on Faith In Public Life,” online at: (“President Obama: From slavery to the suffrage movement to civil rights, faith — and the moral obligations that derive from our faith — have always helped us to navigate some of our greatest moral challenges with a recognition that there’s something bigger than ourselves: we have obligations that extend beyond our own self-interest”); The Economist, “The Faith of Barack Obama,”

[9]; see 1 John 4:16 (“Ὁ Θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν”)

[10]Code of Canon Law, Canon § 748, online at:

[11]Id., Canon § 747

[12]Scripture notes that even the words of prophets should be tested, in one’s own conscience. See, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:20–22: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”

[13]Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951), p.127; see ; see also;

[14]John Paul II, “Faith and Reason,” (14 September 1998), online at:

[15]“What Is Integralism Today?,” by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist, October 31, 2018, online at:

[16]See, e.g., Paul Miller, “Ten Observations on Evangelical Moral Crusading and the Culture War,” (outlining how certain groups of Protestants see themselves as warriors in a battle for control of the beliefs and values of Americans).

[17]Thomas Pink, Integralism, Political Philosophy, and the State,” online at:

[18]David French, “The Case for Religious Liberty Is More Compelling than the Case for Christian Power,”

[19]See, e.g., Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News, “Inside the Democratic and Republican parties’ very different appeals to people of faith,”

[20]See Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, 591 US ___ (2020); online at:!; Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 591 US ___ (2020), online at:!

[21]See, e.g., “Against the Dead Consensus,”

[22]See, e.g., Yoram Hazony, “Conservative Democracy: Liberal Principles Have Brought us to a Dead End,”

[23]See, e.g., (Listing among the risk factors contributing to suicide by LBGTQ persons “Laws and public policies that encourage stigma and discrimination, as well as the lack of laws and policies that protect against discrimination”).

[24]See, e.g., Matthew 22:35–40

[25]See, e.g., Kit Wilson, “The Culture Wars Ruin Everything. We Need Conscientious Objectors,”

[26]Mona Charen, “Why This Pro-Life Conservative is Voting for Biden,”;

[27]See, e.g., ; Mathis Bitton, “Robert P. George, Cornel West, and Humanitas,” online at:

[28]1 Corinthians 16:14



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Humble searcher for truth, or its approximation. “Honor is a man’s gift to himself.”