Yesterday evening Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Benedict XVI. As I watched the live announcement on the Internet via the BBC's Vaticam I was struck by two things: (a) the cardinals have chosen an old inquisitor to be pope, and (b) what an interesting choice of name. Benedict XV was an anti-war pope who reached out to Muslims and children, following a pope known for his anti-modernist witch-hunt. Is this why Ratzinger chose to be called Benedict XVI?
It is unfair and somewhat silly to discuss what the papacy of Benedict XVI may bring. When John XXIII (the good pope) was elected back in 1958, many believed that he would be a continuation of his predecessor, but as we all know he shook the world with the changes he proposed during his short tenure as pontiff.
Before the conclave that elected Benedict XVI, I was somewhat taken aback by comments from Cardinal Ratzinger about relativism. Well, as it happens, I'm a relativist. According to Ratzinger, relativism is against the teachings of Christ; or does he mean against the teachings of the church? You see, respectfully, to me that's relative.
"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires," he said Monday in a pre-conclave Mass just a few hours before the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel to start voting. The church, he insisted, must defend itself against threats such as "radical individualism" and "vague religious mysticism." During the same homily he also said that, "Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. [...] Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards."
I seriously doubt that Pope Benedict XVI will change his view on absolute truth. If he does I will become a most devout catholic. So, just as an introductory benchmark, here are some truths uttered by Cardinal Ratzinger in relatively recent times.
In 1986, he denounced rock music as the "vehicle of anti-religion." What can I say about that? Archbishop Mercieca knows too well that rock music and rockers can be as religious as any old pius person. He told me so personally when we met at his office in 1999. Then again, Mgr. Mercieca is younger than the new pope.
On a more serious note, in 1986 Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a document entitled Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. Among other things, in this letter he say: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." I have not seen the document, but this quote is taken from the National Catholic Reporter. He's conservative, for sure, but no one (not even gays and lesbians) can argue that his heart is not in the right place. In that same letter he adds, "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action." Good condemnation, wouldn't you say?
In 1987, he was behind the order stripping American theologian the Rev. Charles Curran of the right to teach because he encouraged dissent; crippling Latin Americans supporting the popular "liberation theology" movement for alleged Marxist leanings; coming down hard on efforts to rewrite Holy Scriptures in gender inclusive language.
In 1988, he dismissed anyone who tried to find "feminist" meanings in the Bible. Last year, he told American bishops that it was allowable to deny Communion to those who support such "manifest grave sin" as abortion and euthanasia. This even became a (minor) issue for John Kerry in last year's presidential election.
News reports from the last 24 hours say that he once called Buddhism a religion for the self-indulgent. In an interview with the French newspaper/magazine Le Figaro last year, he suggested Turkey's bid to join the Europe Union conflicted with Europe's Christian roots a view that could unsettle Vatican attempts to improve relations with Muslims. "Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe," he was quoted as saying.
In 2000, Ratzinger branded other Christian churches as deficient - shocking Anglicans, Lutherans and other Protestants in ecumenical dialogue with Rome for years. However, on the 6th of March 2002, Zenit.org had him denying that Christianity is superior to Islam. "It is true that the Muslim world is not totally mistaken when it reproaches the West of Christian tradition of moral decadence and the manipulation of human life. [...] Islam has also had moments of great splendor and decadence in the course of its history." Zenit is an International News Agency covering events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church. It's a great source for keep up with what goes on in and around the Vatican.
It's good to have another non-Italian pope, I guess. Like many other, I was not expecting a new pope from an almost post-Christian European country. Values in a Time of Upheavals, a book released last week, has Ratzinger calling demands for European "multiculturalism" as a "fleeing from what is one's own." I'm sure Norman Lowell agrees.
In case you're wondering what the new pope thinks of the new EU constitution, here's an interesting quote from last week on women's ordination: "The fact that the church is convinced of not having the right to confer priestly ordination on women is now considered by some as irreconcilable with the European Constitution." These words appeared at Zenit.org on 11 April, last week.
To His Holiness Benedict XVI, who will be inaugurated as the 265th pope on Sunday, I say the same thing he can (and probably would) tell me: bless you.