Artcles > Conscience
and the Dictatorship of Relativism
Conscience and the Dictatorship of
Of the modern thought which
claims to set people free but actually enslaves them
- by John Mallon, Contributing Editor, Inside the Vatican
An American professor of law and ethics writes an article
in a prestigious medical journal calling for laws restricting
the rights of medical professionals to follow their consciences,
and testifies before a U.S. Senate committee to the same effect.
Is this an example of the “dictatorship of relativism”
warned about by Cardinal Ratzinger the day before he was elected
Pope Benedict XVI? Our contributing editor provides an analysis...
The day before he was elected Pope Benedict
XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned the world of a “Dictatorship
of Relativism.” The choice of words was striking. In
repeating it I sometimes say the “Tyranny of Relativism”
but quickly remember the word used was dictatorship.
It is true that relativists are now brazenly attempting to
dictate to consciences. In the United States, where the nonestablishment
clause of the Constitution protects religion from government
interference, some are twisting that noble tradition to set
government against religion and the human conscience formed
Simply put, the Dictatorship of Relativism is now demanding
that when religious faith comes into conflict with non-faith,
faith must give way. When belief comes into conflict with
unbelief, belief must give way. When religion comes into conflict
with anti-religion, religion must step down. The model expected
by the authors of the Constitution that religion would inform
consciences and consciences would form those who make the
laws is being scrapped by some who insist—dictate—that
personal conscience must play no part in public affairs. As
when relativists insist “there are absolutely no absolutes,”
this is an absurdity. Out of what conviction can anyone claim
personal conscience must not come into play? Convictions usually
reside in the conscience.
A striking case has recently illustrated this problem.
Professor R. Alta Charo, J.D., who teaches law and bioethics
at the University of Wisconsin Law and Medical Schools in
Madison, thinks there should be limits to the influence of
conscience in public policy, and that the law should require
health care professionals to violate their consciences in
certain cases. On June 20 she testified before the U.S. Senate
Judiciary Committee to this effect. Four days earlier she
published an article stating her views in the June 16, 2005
issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, one
of the most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals in
the world, which as such, ought to be scientific and objective.
On June 20 the American Medical Association also approved
a measure which would force pharmacists to fill prescriptions
for all legal drugs even if filling those prescriptions violated
their consciences. This was in response to lawsuits by three
Illinois pharmacists to stop Governor Rod Blagojevich’s
executive order mandating pharmacists to dispense all legal
drugs. The lawsuit claims the governor’s order violates
state law which allows health professionals to opt out of
acts they consider morally offensive. These issues have been
brought to the fore by the socalled “Plan-B morning
after pill,” also known as emergency contraception.
Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the pro-life group, Concerned
Women for America, reported in a June 28 column on the website
townhall.com, “The AMA says it supports a pharmacist’s
right to refuse to prescribe some drugs, but wants pharmacists
to make sure a patient has access to the drugs by making an
‘immediate referral to an appropriate alternative dispensing
pharmacy without interference,’ according to the resolution.
Many pharmacists say that’s the same as forcing them
to fill prescriptions that violate their beliefs.”
Professor Charo defends the notion that the state has the
right to dictate to consciences, and her article, though cleverly
written, is blatant Culture of Death propaganda, complete
with dubious and flatly ideological presuppositions masquerading
as presumed facts and conventional medical ethics.
Her article stands as a vivid example of what then-Cardinal
Ratzinger was referring to when he spoke of “The Dictatorship
She writes: “Largely as artifacts of the abortion wars,
at least 45 states have ‘conscience clauses’ on
their books — laws that balance a physician’s
conscientious objection to performing an abortion with the
profession’s obligation to afford all patients nondiscriminatory
access to services. In most cases, the provision of a referral
satisfies one’s professional obligations. But in recent
years, with the abortion debate increasingly at the center
of wider discussions about euthanasia, assisted suicide, reproductive
technology, and embryonic stem-cell research, nurses and pharmacists
have begun demanding not only the same right of refusal, but
also — because even a referral, in their view, makes
one complicit in the objectionable act — a much broader
freedom to avoid facilitating a patient’s choices.”
Charo objects to the idea that making a referral makes one
complicit in an immoral act. (Not surprisingly she uses the
term “objectionable” instead of immoral.) Charo
apparently believes that if a physician has a moral objection
to performing an abortion the needs of the physician’s
conscience are met in merely refusing to perform it himself
or herself, but then they should be required by law to make
a referral to a physician who will perform the abortion.
Evidently this professor of ethics has no idea what conscience
In other words, imagine that, in the not-too-distant future,
it were legal for a physician to shoot a patient dead if the
patient so requested. Charo believes a scrupulous physician
may say to a patient, “No, I don’t do that,”
but then would be required to say, “But, here, go to
my colleague across the street, she will gladly shoot you
to end your misery.”
Far-fetched? Not really. There are physicians who see no
moral difference between shooting a patient on request and
performing an abortion. In the consciences of these professionals
both are murder. (Except in the case of the abortion the one
being killed has no say in the matter.)
Charo complains: “This expanded notion of complicity
comports well with other public policy precedents, such as
bans on federal funding for embryo research or abortion services,
in which taxpayers claim a right to avoid supporting objectionable
practices. In the debate on conscience clauses, some professionals
are now arguing that the right to practice their religion
requires that they not be made complicit in any practice to
which they object on religious grounds.
Even more remarkably, she suggests that those claiming conscience
as grounds to refuse to participate in immoral medical procedures
do so without honor if they are unwilling to pay a price for
Although it may be that, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “in
matters of conscience, the law of majority has no place,”
acts of conscience are usually accompanied by a willingness
to pay some price. Martin Luther King, Jr., argued, “An
individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust,
and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order
to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice,
is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
Who says these professionals are not paying a price for their
She claims: “What differentiates the latest round of
battles about conscience clauses from those fought by Gandhi
and King is the claim of entitlement to what newspaper columnist
Ellen Goodman has called ‘conscience without consequence.’”
This is false. The consequence of these professionals following
their consciences is a living child who would otherwise be
But what is truly breathtaking here is that Charo is willing
to use the very words of Gandhi and King (and elsewhere, C.S.
Lewis) to argue precisely against what they were actually
fighting for: A just society in which one does not have to
suffer punishment for following one’s conscience. In
fact, would not a society where one must suffer for following
one’s conscience be the very definition of an unjust
society? Yet Charo would have it so for these healthcare professionals.
The spoken word is often more unguarded than the written
word, and Charo makes an extremely telling remark as to her
“ethical” orientation in an audio interview accompanying
the online article. She makes the statement, “What is
happening is that [health care professionals] are saying,
‘My role as an individual, as a Catholic, or a Methodist,
or a Lutheran is more fundamental than my role as a physician,
or a pharmacist, or an ambulance driver.’”
What Charo fails to understand, (or pretends not to understand)
is that what makes the professional a good Catholic, Methodist
or Lutheran is precisely what makes them good, ethical and
trustworthy physicians, pharmacists or ambulance drivers:
their conscience. The problem is she thinks that’s a
She continues: “And that’s what’s changed.
That question is: which is the most important hat you’re
wearing at the moment when you are dealing with the patient.”
However, Charo fails to note that it is only since the legal
fiction of Roe vs. Wade, which set the precedent for the current
Dictatorship of Relativism, that has this changed. Otherwise
ethical behavior has been this way for four thousand years:
that there should be no conflict between who one most fundamentally
is, as determined by one’s conscience, and what one
does in one’s profession or any other aspect of life.
In a sweeping judgment, Charo says, “... of course,
the professionals involved seek to protect only themselves
from the consequences of their actions — not their patients.
In Wisconsin, a pharmacist refused to fill an emergencycontraception
prescription for a rape victim; as a result, she became pregnant
and subsequently had to seek an abortion. ... Under Wisconsin's
proposed law, such behavior by a pharmacist would be entirely
legal and acceptable. And this trend is not limited to pharmacists
and physicians; in Illinois, an emergency medical technician
refused to take a woman to an abortion clinic, claiming that
her own Christian beliefs prevented her from transporting
the patient for an elective abortion.”
Charo makes several assertions in this jam-packed paragraph.
First, she makes the stunning judgment that the motives of
these health professionals are selfish, seeking their own
good but not that of the patient. In this she violates the
rules of civil discourse which discourage imputing motives
to your opponents. Charo is not a mind reader.
Second, physicians in our society are highly honored professionals,
rigorously trained, usually taking up their profession for
noble and altruistic reasons and they are licensed by the
state for their highly specialized and urgently needed skills.
We expect medical professionals to be people of conscience
and good judgment— even wisdom—who make very difficult
decisions not only for the good of their patients but for
the common good of society.
The procedures and actions Charo seeks to portray as normative
medical care are in fact highly controverted. In fact, abortion
is not medical care but a disruption in the normal, healthy
human function of pregnancy for reasons other than preserving
life and restoring health. Many health care providers believe
these disruptions are not only harmful to their patients in
particular, but society in general. Charo wants us to believe
that contraception, “emergency contraception,”
abortion, and other ethically dubious items on the bio-ethical
frontier are unqualified goods for society—or at least
“necessary” in a less than perfect world. She
would have us believe that professionals who recuse themselves
from these activities do so to support an agenda, rather than
a genuine concern for their patients and the common good.
By her tone, attitude and presuppositions she is treating
her own agenda of “value free” health care as
a fait accompli and those professionals about whom she complains
as laggards holding up progress with ethical concerns all
“progressive people” have long dismissed.
Predictably, she falls back on the emotional appeal of “hard
cases” referring to a woman refused “emergency
contraception” who “had to seek an abortion.”
Last we heard, from Charo’s ideological comrades, abortion
was a “choice.” Has something changed? Not to
minimize the tragedy and trauma of rape, it still does not
automatically medically indicate an abortion. In fact, abortion
is virtually never indicated for strict medical reasons. Second,
the dangers of “emergency contraception” are serious
and well documented.
Then Charo poses the loaded question:
Should the public square be a place for the unfettered expression
of religious beliefs, even when such expression creates an
oppressive atmosphere for minority groups? Or should it be
a place for religious expression only if and when that does
not in any way impinge on minority beliefs and practices?
No serious Christian wants to see genuine minority groups
oppressed, but there is a difference between ethnic, religious
minorities and ideological “minorities.” Charo
seeks to conflate the two. Most adherents to the world’s
major religions subscribe to a moral code which is essentially
the same in those religions, and they generally agree on traditional
sexual and medical ethics.
Sexual ideologues, on the other hand—feminists and
liberals of various stripes—have been hiding behind
the skirts of minorities, the young, and the poor like snipers
claiming that anyone who shoots back is taking aim at minorities.
Like much of their rhetoric, this is nonsense, and shows the
weakness—the emptiness—of their logic.
If they really cared much for minorities, the young and the
poor, they would stop patronizing them and killing their unborn
and shoving contraceptives down their throats under the pretense
that they “need” them for their own good. They
would stop using these people, attempting to borrow the “credibility
of victimhood” for their anti-life agenda.
Perhaps most cynical of all is Charo’s citation of
C.S. Lewis to argue in favor of the ideas against which he
fought strenuously in his literary career as a Christian apologist.
Inside the Vatican asked Boston College philosophy Professor
Peter Kreeft, a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, to comment on
Charo’s arguments in general, (see sidebar). As for
her use of C.S. Lewis, he simply referred to Lewis’s
essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism” from the book
Christian Reflections. Where Lewis speaks of “Social
Reformers,” one could easily slip Charo’s name
into this essay written sixty years ago for a remarkable and
prescient description of what she is doing.
Lewis writes: “Let us get two propositions written
into our minds with indelible ink. (1) The human mind has
no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a
new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum.
(2) Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting
some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from
the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium. This whole
attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective
and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong.
It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar.”
Charo precisely fits Lewis’s description here, as she
is attempting select one value, a “right to privacy”
or “the right to choose,” as her “one thing
necessary,” her “unum necessarium,” and
use it to trump the entire moral law, including proscriptions
against murder, which is what abortion plainly is, as is the
“Plan-B morning after pill” when it is effective.
The drug, when it works as prescribed, prevents a living fertilized
egg from attaching to the uterine wall causing it to be swept
out of the woman’s body. In her view these displaced
and exaggerated values also trump the rights of health professionals
to follow their consciences in refusing to refer patients
to other willing physicians or pharmacists for abortions or
the “morning after pill.”
Pope Benedict XVI uttered a striking confirmation of Lewis’s
point written sixty years earlier, in the midst of the Second
World War. Speaking to the gathered young people at the Saturday
night vigil at World Youth Day on August 20, in Cologne, Germany,
Benedict said: “The saints, as we said, are the true
reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical
way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution
come, the definitive way to change the world.
“In the last century we experienced revolutions with
a common program – expecting nothing more from God,
they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world
in order to change it. And this, as we saw, meant that a human
and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute
guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative
is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes
away his dignity and enslaves him.
“It is not ideologies that save the world, but only
a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of
our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true.
True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the
measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting
love. And what could ever save us apart from love?”
The Culture of Death is cut of the same cloth as the diabolical
twentieth century ideologies cited here by Benedict. In fact,
it is the same thing in a new disguise. Its agenda is loveless
and incapable of bringing the healing which medicine exists
to bring. In its attempts to ignore God and reduce the moral
law to “choice” and “privacy,” Culture
of Death spokespeople like Charo are attempting to use the
state to violate the sacred ground of conscience. This outlawing
of conscience, in a word, is tyranny.
The logical outcome of this agenda, if successful, can only
be the same results produced by National Socialism in Germany
and Soviet Communism in the twentieth century: enslavement
This is what both Lewis and Benedict are warning of. The
death toll from abortion in the United States alone since
1973 is already 45 million and counting.
Charo needs to restudy the meaning and role of conscience,
and remember that, like charity, it begins at home. Perhaps
she should expend more concern for those being killed—and
those women being traumatized—by abortion and “emergency
contraception” than those being “offended”
by the ethical decisions of conscientious professionals.
John Mallon is contributing editor for Inside the Vatican
magazine. He can be reached at
Portions of the above article previously appeared on the website,
A Catholic philosopher responds to
Should Pro-Life Doctors Violate Their Consciences?
Inside the Vatican asked Peter Kreeft, a professor of
philosophy at Boston College and a popular Catholic apologist,
to examine Professor Alta Charo’s argument that the
law ought to require pro-life doctors to violate their conscience
by mandating their referring their abortion-seeking patients
to abortion providers. His response:
The analogy with euthanasia [in Mallon’s
analysis] is valid. Would it be OK if I as a doctor said,
“I won’t blow your brains out, but I will refer
you to my colleague down the street who will”? No. But
this analogy will probably be unconvincing to the likes of
Dr. Charo because they see nothing wrong with euthanasia.
(Perhaps some of them do see something wrong with euthanasia
by means of shooting a gun rather than shooting up a drug,
but clearly that is an aesthetic issue, not an ethical issue:
they have no moral objection to killing, but to blood on the
floor or loud noises.)
So let’s use an analogy with something even pro-choicers
believe to be morally wrong.
I think the two analogies pro-choicers habitually get the
angriest at, or the most “hurt” by, are the most
telling: the Holocaust and slavery. (“That hurts me”
is a very effective rhetorical substitute for argument in
our therapeutic culture, by the way; if you have just been
conclusively proved to be a sociopath, all you have to say
to “refute” the argument is that you are “hurt”
by such “insensitive” words. The prisoner may
as well argue to the judge, “You’ re trying to
make me feel guilty!”)
They feel hurt because they are hurt, but they are hurt because
their argument has been hurt.
Suppose I am a German during the Nazi era who knows where
Jews are hiding. I do not believe it is right to kill Jews,
and I do not kill them, but I tell the Nazis where they are
hiding so that the Nazis can kill them. (Let’s suppose
that if I didn’t tell them, someone else would, just
as if, as a pro-life doctor, I don’t refer my patient
to an abortionist, many other doctors would.)
Now suppose there was a law that claimed to have a “conscience
clause” which specified that if my conscience told me
Jews were persons with a right to life, I could not by law
be compelled to kill them, but this same law mandated that
I rat on them so that someone else could kill them. Who could
argue for such a law?
Or suppose there was an American law enacted after Dred Scott
that claimed to have a conscience clause because it said that
a citizen whose conscience told him slavery was morally wrong
was not required to physically capture and return a runaway
slave, but he was legally required to rat on them, share information
that would lead to their capture, i.e., give a “referral.”
Who could argue that such a law would be just?
Sharing information is an act, a choice; if the one who performs
that act does so knowing that the information will help a
second party to harm a third party, the first party shares
legal as well as moral guilt for the harm done to the third
Suppose my friend asks me to rob a bank. I refuse to physically
take part in the robbery, but I help him by telling him when
the cop goes off the beat, or what the combination of the
safe probably is. The law rightly holds me guilty. But helping
someone else to kill an unborn human being, or a Jew, or enslave
a Black, is harming a third party.
But pro-choicers believe (or say they believe) that the third
party—unborn humans—are not human persons. Yes,
and Nazis believed (or said they believed) that Jews were
not human persons but vermin; and slave owners believed (or
said they believed) that Blacks were not fully human persons.
Why is the case of abortion different from the cases of genocide
In all three cases, the nation was divided, with significant
numbers on both sides. In fact, the majority of Americans
supported slavery, or were at least “prochoice”
about slavery, until the Civil War; and most Germans supported
Hitler at first, and much of his anti-Semitism.
The deeper legal issue here is whether the people are above
the law or whether the law is above the people; whether we
are governed by will or by law.
The American Founding Fathers had a genuine fear of the kind
of totalitarian democracy they saw in the French Revolution.
Theirs was a deliberate alternative to the philosophy of Rousseau,
that what we call “consensus” and what he called
“the general will” in a democratic society was
infallible (“vox populi, vox Dei”).
It need not be a Robespierrean “reign of terror”
in the streets, but the violence will always erupt somewhere,
if only in the womb. What De Tocqueville called “soft
totalitarianism” always results in some hard totalitarianism,
some violence against some human life. The reign of absolute
tolerance is jealous and absolutistic; Pope Benedict calls
it “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Take an absurd but logically relevant case. Suppose the richest
51% of Americans supported a law declaring that the poorest
49% of Americans were not persons but food, and it was now
legal to cannibalize them.
Why should such a belief not be put into law?
The answer cannot be “consensus.” The consensus
is for the law. The only possible answer is that such a law
would be unjust. But it would not be unjust if justice is
defined simply as consensus, with no “higher law,”
whether natural or positive (the Constitution), that could
judge even some majoritarian consensus to be unjust.
Even legal positivists who refuse to refer to a “natural
law” but who are strict constructionists, like Robert
Bork, would use the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to
strike down such a law.
- Peter Kreeft
Inside The Vatican (ISSN 1068-8579) is a Catholic news magazine, published monthly except July
and September, with occasional special supplements.