Confronting Moral Relativism With a Map and Compass


St. John Paul II challenged us all to “evangelize” and in trying to meet his charge I have found many obstructions in attempting to introduce someone to the faith. One issue that can be a hurdle that is often brought up within informal discussions or in an RCIA class is moral relativism. It seems that once Church doctrine and dogma start to be examined then the question is raised about there being an absolute right or wrong as the Church teaches, or are right and wrong just relative conditions.

Relativism is a framework and worldview that provides an interpretive key for one’s experience, especially the experience of making moral judgments. The cultural climate of today projects a relative morality as the accepted norm through the media, the arts, the schools and government. Truth and morality are presented as relative and the individual is taught that he or she can make their own truth – it is all in the eyes of the beholder. The transgender movement is a glaring example.

Many religions, but especially Catholicism declares that there are moral absolutes that provide direction for right and virtuous conduct. Consequently, any consideration of the Catholic faith is initially at odds to the person who believes in relative morality. The sense of everything being relative is a roadblock to exploring let alone understanding or accepting religious dogma and doctrine. I am finding that more and more individuals accept some form of moral relativism that can be the “elephant in the room” interfering with being receptive to the faith.  Therefore, whether in informal conversations or formal RCIA lectures our audience’s framework of “relativity” has to be addressed if we are to move forward to truly evangelize – to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2).


One view of morality is that morals provide a direction for how to “navigate” and find our way through life. The relative mindset views morality as being highly individualistic and situational. In today’s culture, it is often expressed, as anything is OK (if it is OK for me) as long as it does not hurt somebody else. Who is to say that one person’s morality is any better than another’s is an example of a tolerant acceptance of such a relative morality.

By contrast, our Catholic faith is one of moral absolutes revealed by a loving God that provides a direction for living a faith-filled and virtuous life to serve God and our fellow man. In turn, we have a conscience that if properly formed can provide us with a personal direction for distinguishing between right and wrong that reflects that absolute morality. The challenge within an evangelical framework is how best to present this belief in a manner that is understood and accepted which to the relativist mindset does not compute?

The works of your hands are right and true, reliable all your decrees, established forever and ever. To be observed with loyalty and care (Psalm, 111: 7,8).

Over the years I have found a valuable way of opening the door for discussion of the Church’s tenants, dogma, and doctrines are through analogies. It is similar to Jesus’s use of parables. One such analogy that I have used to address the relative morality mindset is drawing a parallel between how we navigate to find our way on land and how we navigate our way to live out our moral lives.

Land Navigation by Map and Compass

In the past, I taught land navigation in the Army and currently teach map and compass skills to National Park Rangers and visitors.  I have found this to be a great analogy for opening up the discussion on relative versus absolute truth and morality.

A map is nothing more than a picture of an area of land taken from above so you are looking down on it. It may show the earth’s surface or part of it displaying the shape and position of countries, boundaries, natural features such as rivers and mountains and manmade features such as roads and buildings. The two most useful maps that most are familiar with are “road maps” showing all the major roads for a given area (such as a state) and a “topographical” (topo) map showing all the natural features in a given area. Maps of the world’s surfaces are all oriented toward “true” north of our earth. True north is the direction along the earth’s surface towards the geographic or true North Pole. Pick up any road or topo map and the top of the map is always toward the north.

A compass is an instrument containing a magnetized pointer that shows the direction of magnetic north with a 360-degree circle showing all possible bearings (directions) from that magnetic north.

Navigatigating With Absolute Directions

A map provides an absolute direction to determine what route you should take to reach a destination or to find out where you are if lost. That absolute direction is based on the map being oriented toward true north, which is constant for the entire earth. It serves as the guidepost that provides an orientation for where you are and where you want to go. True north is not nor can it be a relative position. A map is useless if one were to orient it toward any other bearing (east, west etc.) providing a false line of direction. You would stay lost.

A compass provides another absolute direction that is oriented toward magnetic north. Depending upon where one is on the earth it may be the same as true north or slightly off by so many degrees called declination. Consequently if one wants to find a “true” direction that declination has to be accounted for (either adding or subtracting degrees to find a true north) or your line of travel will be off.

Navigating by Moral Absolutes

A map is analogous to moral absolutes. Our faith-based morality is based on what God has revealed through the Mosaic Law (10 commandments), Jesus’s beatitudes and teachings. Those moral precepts were not made by man but revealed by God through Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition. In turn, those moral absolutes are not just unique to Christianity but have stood for thousands of years in other cultures based on the natural law that is reflective of God’s law of what is considered right and virtuous behavior. Just as “true north” does not change so, the same can said for the moral absolutes.

A compass is analogous to one’s conscience. Our conscience can provide a moral direction however, only if “well-formed”. Taking a compass bearing without knowing the declination can provide a false direction. Knowing the declination is analogous to having a well-formed conscience that corrects and fine-tunes our sense of morality for what we should do and how to act. For example, adjustments to a compass reading take in to account the degrees of declination. An analogy for the conscience is a situation where a store clerk mistakenly gives you back an extra dollar in change. If you kept that dollar it would technically not be stealing since it was the clerk’s mistake. However, a well-formed conscience (declination) would lead you to know that it really would be stealing (since it is not your correct change) and you need to return it.

Opening the Discussion

Section III of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is devoted to living out the Christian Life and is reflective of the absolute morals revealed by God. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong is part of living out our faith. However, that ability is seriously hampered by the influence of the relativist culture. As a consequence, evangelization requires developing methods that can aid in opening up the discussion of moral principles. I believe that one has to first be receptive to learn about and then, hopefully, follow those moral absolutes. Using the land navigation analogy can be a tool to open the door for such a receptive discussion.

As for yourself, you must say what is consistent with sound doctrine. (Titus 2:1)


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3 thoughts on “Confronting Moral Relativism With a Map and Compass”

  1. Tom,
    Your audience may not be telling you that the new elephant in the room is Popes changing things and calling it development whether it is St. JPII and Benedict not mentioning Romans 13:4 as they called for the abolition of the death penalty which is affirmed by Romans 13:4 and affirmed by Pope Pius XII in 1952 or it is Pope Francis in AL, green lighting non annulled divorced and remarrieds receiving Communion. Catholicism in real terms is losing the claim of non relativism for the better read. People from the African bush and the Asian rural…yes…they can be fooled on that score until they too read moral theology history. How do I stay Catholic? By not conflating the infallible territory of the Church with the non infallible territory. AL is non infallible and so are the new “developments” on the death penalty.

  2. Pingback: SATVRDAY EXTRA – Big Pulpit

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