Benedict XVI and Relativism in the Life of the Church

Issue 1705

15 June 2017

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily during the Mass for electing a Roman Pontiff1 on April 18, 2005, gave a clear description of the Church’s doctrinal situation in recent years. He called attention to the problem of relativism and outlined the journey that the Church would have to take in order to avoid being distracted by ideologies and remain docile to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Basing himself on the text of Ephesians 4:1116, he noted that “having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times.” The opposite side of the coin of this “clear faith” leads to a state where “[we] are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

The Cardinal speaks therefore of a “dictatorship of relativism” centered on the “ego” and its “desires.2 To satisfy these desires and to permit the “ego” to remain at the center a supporting “ideology” needs to be found, so you let yourself be carried about by “ideological currents” and “fashionable opinions.” Moreover, Ratzinger laments that fidelity to the deposit of faith is charged with being “fundamentalist.

In the context of these affirmations, we must ask ourselves what Cardinal Ratzinger intended by the word “relativism” and next how Benedict XVI developed his pastoral work, taking account of what he himself described as an “immaturity of faith.” This clarification is necessary for the terms “relativism” and “fundamentalism” may become clichés where different things are mixed indistinguishably. They may be transformed into a polemical weapon to be used against any adversary, against any attempt to put the principles of the faith and the doctrine of the Church into practice. Joseph Ratzinger himself recognizes, in an article from 1991, “that in some situations a pinch of relativism and a bit of skepticism may serve. We do not intend to question that. But, relativism remains completely inadequate as a general foundation on which to live.3

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