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Posted April 18, 2005 at  12:15 p.m. CDT

Ratzinger in forceful call for conservative path

By Stacy Meichtry

In a sermon intended to set the tone for the next papal election, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a stinging critique of modern culture, calling upon the church to wield Jesus Christ as a shield against a “dictatorship of relativism.”

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Standing before a semicircle of his peers and a massive audience of rank and file faithful, Ratzinger asked: “How many winds of doctrine have we known in the last ten years? How many ideological currents, how many fashions of thought?”

“Having a clear faith based on the creed of the church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. Meanwhile relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching,' looks like the only attitude acceptable to modern standards."

Ratzinger’s sermon came hours before he and 114 of his fellow cardinals were to enter the Sistine Chapel and begin the conclave.

His sermon depicted the church as a “little boat of Christian thought” tossed by waves of “extreme” schools of modern thought, which he identified as Marxism, liberalism, libertinism, collectivism and “radical individualism.” Other dangers to the faith included “a vague religious mysticism,” “new sects,” and materialism.

“All men want to leave a trace behind,” he said. “But what remains? Not money. Buildings won’t remain; neither will books,” he said.

"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 told the cardinals, urging them to promote a “maturity of Christ” to protect the church from modern influence.

“Christ is the real measure of humanism. ‘Adult’ isn’t a faith that follows waves of fashion. Adulthood and maturity are a faith profoundly rooted in friendship with Christ,” he said  

As the dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger was designated to celebrate the “Pro Eligendo Romano Pontefice,” or the Mass for the election of the Roman pontiff, giving the conservative German a crucial platform to promote his outlook before cardinals are sequestered for the conclave. His call for resistance echoed the combative stances he’s taken as John Paul’s top theologian, mounting defenses for “Culture of Life” issues, discouraging the presence of Islam in Europe and reprimanding church scholars who pushed the theological envelope. Ratzinger has also advocated the establishment of a “creative minority” to reinforce the faith of the church.

Ratzinger is widely believed to be a papal front-runner. Vatican watchers have reported that the German has culled the support of 40 to 50 John Paul loyalists who aim to maintain doctrinal continuity with the late pope. Ratzinger needs 77 votes, a two-thirds majority, to become pope.

In previous conclaves, breakaway candidacies have been known to lose their momentum in the early stages of balloting. Opposition to Ratzinger’s candidacy has been building among a group of moderate cardinals who are moving to block the German’s candidacy. Observers have identified Cardinals Godfried Danneels of Belgium and Walter Kasper of Germany as being among the core members of the opposition group.

In a Saturday Mass at Rome’s Santa Maria in Trastevere, Kasper instructed an audience of hundreds to not expect a “clone” of John Paul, nor “someone who is too scared of doubt and secularity in the modern world.” 

Monday, Ratzinger and his fellow cardinals appeared at the Pro Eligendo Mass robed in red vestments identical to the ones they wore at John Paul II’s funeral.

Bespectacled and looking slightly fatigued, Ratzinger read his homily in a high-tenored voice that drew concentrated looks from cardinals. Throughout the sermon, he experienced small bursts of coughing. Once, he reached into his vestment sleeve and withdrew a handkerchief to smother a cough.

“In this hour we pray with great instance that the Lord, after the great gift of pope John Paul II, grant us again a shepherd of the heart, a pastor that guides us according to the conscience, love and true joy of Christ,” Ratzinger concluded, receiving applause from some cardinals, including Camillo Ruini, a powerful Italian prelate. Vatican watchers speculate that Ratzinger could shift his constituency to Ruini if his own candidacy stalls.  

Later Monday, cardinals processed into the Sistine Chapel and, placing a hand on the gospel, swore an oath of secrecy (“I promise, pledge and swear.”) against the threat of excommunication. Following the oath, Cardinal Tomas Spidlik delivered a final meditation before exiting the chapel, leaving his younger counterparts to decide whether to immediately take a first vote or wait until Tuesday.

They will be seated atop a wooden platform, elevated above electronic devices that jam cell phone signals and other spy equipment.

Stacy Meichtry is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He is reporting and writing for NCR during this period of papal transition.


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