Just before he was elected Pope in 2005, Benedict XVI issued a warning about the “dictatorship of relativism” which refuses to “recognise anything as definitive”. The truth, his argument went, cannot be tossed aside with every passing wind of doctrine. Those words now seem prophetic when read in light of the attack on the United States’ congress by a group of Donald Trump supporters.
The incident in Washington DC was the culmination of years of polarisation and divisions, so much of it fuelled by social media where people increasingly live in their own information ecosystems. In the echo chamber which is the dictatorship of relativism, people are unable to find common ground with those whom they disagree or even see objective truth. Believe what you want to believe, and make the truth what you want it to be.
This has had catastrophic consequences for Trump supporters. For months, they have been fed a relentless diet of misinformation that the election was stolen from their president. The baseless claims are without evidence and have been rejected by every court who has examined them. Yet the Trump mob which invaded the heart of American democracy, egged on by an irresponsible president, continue to believe the claims to be true.
For a Christian – and a Catholic – a dictatorship of relativism must be resisted. More needs to be done by the Church to tackle the pandemic of misinformation which is infecting the Body of Christ. It has been profoundly disturbing to witness the large numbers of Christians throwing themselves behind the Trump cause while some Catholics even became tightly connected with the group which carried out the insurrection. The shocking events on 6 January mean that action is needed to bring about some kind of reconciliation within the Church following this episode.
Two days before the violence was carried out, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal ambassador to the United States, gave an interview to Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Viganò spoke about the “overwhelming evidence of irregularities that has emerged in several states” and that “those who fight courageously to defend the rights of God, the Nation, and the Family, the Lord assures his protection”.
Archbishop Viganò has become the personal chaplain to hardcore Trump supporters, and has entwined his message with the worldview of QAnon, the dangerous conspiracy theory labelled domestic terrorism by the FBI. Archbishop Viganò must bear some responsibility in setting the stage for what happened in Washington DC.
Support for Trump's MAGA agenda doesn’t just exist on the fringe. Last month, Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s former treasurer, described Trump as “a bit of a barbarian, but in some important ways, he is ‘our’ barbarian” while several US bishops have indicated their support. Most prominent among them is Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York who has publicly flattered Trump.
As I set out in my book, The Outsider, the pro-Trump movement is deeply linked to those opposed to the direction of Francis’ papacy and has been fuelled by the Catholic media conglomerate, EWTN. Their support for Trump has been resolute and witnessed in a series of fawning interviews with the president. At the same time, through its presenter Raymond Arroyo and outlets such as the National Catholic Register, they have promoted Archbishop Viganò, who in 2018 called on the Pope to resign. It is little surprise that Bannon asked Vigano in his interview whether “the Trump Administration could be instrumental in helping to return the Church to a pre-Francis Catholicism”.
Nevertheless, a better way is possible. Incoming President Joe Biden says it is time to heal the nation, and the same can be said for the Church. While the US bishops have announced a working group to examine President Biden’s view on abortion, a working group on reconciliation following the Trump presidency is equally urgent.
One step forward could be through a synodal process, something which the Pope has urged the Church to embrace. It could be the equivalent of a truth and reconciliation commission, and a genuine attempt to overcome the epic levels of polarisation.
“This synodal approach is something our world now needs badly,” Francis writes in his latest book, Let Us Dream.
“Rather than seeking confrontation, declaring war, with each side hoping to defeat the other, we need processes that allow differences to be expressed, heard, and left to mature in such a way that we can walk together without needing to destroy anyone. This is hard work; it needs patience and commitment – above all to each other. Lasting peace is about creating and maintaining processes of mutual listening.”
It also requires breaking out of the dictatorship of separate information worlds and recognising the uncomfortable truth that some in the Church played a role in fuelling the violence on the Feast of the Epiphany 2021. In 1995, as he opened the Truth and Reconciliation commission in post-Apartheid South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it this way.
“To be able to forgive one needs to know whom one is forgiving and why. That is why the truth is so central to this whole exercise.”