"...Relativism, letting ourselves be carried away by any wind of doctrine, appears as the only appropriate attitude for today's times. A dictatorship of relativism is established that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's remarks at the pre-conclave Mass on Monday were perhaps the most forthright heard from the upper reaches of the Vatican since the Second Vatican Council. They stunned liberals and conservatives alike; liberals, because they assumed that a leading candidate for the papacy would send a more soothing message to his electors, who were present in St. Peter's Basilica; conservatives, because, after 40 years, they have learned not to get their hopes up too much.

That Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope within 36 hours of saying these words struck many conservatives as a godsend, literally; in fact almost a miracle. We hoped, but we didn't really expect it, and certainly not so swiftly. As Fr. Thomas Reese said recently on Beliefnet, the late and much-loved John Paul II was really not a conservative, although he was often portrayed as one. But judging by his pre-conclave remarks in St. Peter's, Benedict XVI really is.

The Church has been shaken by "numerous ideological currents," Cardinal Ratzinger said during his homily. "The boat has been unanchored by these waves, thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, up to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and on and on. An adult faith does not follow the waves of fashion and the latest novelty."

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the Notre Dame theologian who has been a prominent commentator on Catholic affairs and an equally prominent critic, had this to say (one is grateful to the Washington Post for embedding his remarks in ineradicable type):

"If Cardinal Ratzinger were really campaigning for pope, he would have given a far more conciliatory homily designed to appeal to the moderates as well as to the hardliners among the cardinals."

McBrien added: "I think this homily shows he realizes he is not going to be elected. He's too much of a polarizing figure. If he were elected, thousands upon thousands of Catholics in Europe and the United States would roll their eyes and retreat to the margins of the Church."

As I was reading these words, there came word of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney.

Well, I am happy to agree with Fr. McBrien. Cardinal Ratzinger was not campaigning. As for the "thousands upon thousands" who were rolling their eyes, maybe that was an underestimate.

Later in the evening, the ABC commentator Cokie Roberts confirmed McBrien's prediction. Practically frothing at the mouth, she referred back indignantly to the pastoral letter, Dominus Iesus, issued in 2000, in which Ratzinger had called other religions "deficient." It seemed to astound her that a contender for pope would regard Catholicism as superior to all other denominations. There could have been no more vivid illustration of the "dictatorship of relativism" to which Cardinal Ratzinger referred.

Because there is an election, and a new leader, liberals in the Church think that "new policies" can be pursued. The idea of permanent truth seems to be quite alien to them. That is why the gulf between liberals and conservatives is so great and is never likely to be bridged.

A relativistic outlook subordinates truth to opinion. Often in life this is entirely appropriate. We do not say that someone is "wrong" for preferring the color green, the music of Mozart, or roast beef to cold ham. Go to a cafeteria, and your friend did not choose "incorrectly" because she chose differently. Many things are a matter of taste.

But this outlook cannot be extended to the whole of life. You can say that you prefer making a living by working at night, but not by robbing people at night. We all understand that. But we need a Church to tell us that certain prohibitions hold true even when behavior is consensual and there are no ostensible victims.

Orthodox Catholics were cheered by the election of Benedict XVI because he shares their view that Church teaching on such matters as abortion, contraception and homosexuality not only ought not be changed for practical reasons, but cannot be changed for spiritual reasons. These teachings don't reflect the policies of the current administration but underlying truths about God's creation.

Papal authority, built up over 2000 years, like carefully preserved capital, would be squandered overnight by a new pope who announced new "policies" on such fundamental issues as sexual conduct (the source of almost all the contention). Liberals either don't know how hazardous it would be for the church to change these things, or (more worrisomely) they do know and don't care.

After the election of Benedict XVI, someone was quoted in the paper as saying, "Can you believe, a new pope who doesn't believe in condoms?" Far more surprising and dismaying would be a pope who did; a pope reckless and indifferent enough to overturn the teaching of his predecessors. That would demonstrate the relativism that the new pope has so rightly contested: It would show that something that was considered true yesterday is no longer considered true today.

It all seems to come down to sex. Liberals think that the pleasure associated with the conjugal act can be enjoyed in isolation. Procreation can legitimately be turned into recreation. Orthodox Catholics say no, it cannot. That pleasure is a gift from God precisely because it has a specific and remarkable purpose: at least potentially, we are thereby involved in the creation of a new human soul. If this gift is misused, then the souls of those who abuse sex are in turn at risk. We have to look at this from God's perspective, not ours. And if God's truth is unchanging, relativism is a grave threat to the salvation of souls.

Sometimes I think that progressives who have gone their own way with regard to sexual morality, don't intend to change, and yet want to remain within the Church, do understand these things a little better than they let on. They want to remain so that they can bring "political" pressure on the hierarchy to change the rules. Then maybe they will have an alibi for the Judgment Day. Why else would those Catholics who boast that they pay no attention to the Church's teaching on birth control insist that that teaching must be changed?

Maybe they are looking for a cast-iron excuse. "Well, Lord, the priest said we didn't have to confess that. The bishop? He talked to us about poverty in the Third World. We didn't hear him say anything about that. The pope? Well, he was an old man, Lord, and we always heard that the new pope would say it was okay. There would be a new policy. That's what we always heard."

Not with Benedict XVI, I hope and pray.

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