Benedict’s Prophetic Voice

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: While Pope Benedict foresaw the mistakes of our day with crystalline clarity, he responded to these errors with Christian hope, not with despair.

Then-German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger leads a final Mass for papal election before the start of the conclave in Saint Peter's Basilica April 18, 2005 in Vatican City.
Then-German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger leads a final Mass for papal election before the start of the conclave in Saint Peter's Basilica April 18, 2005 in Vatican City. (photo: Alessia Guiliani/Pool / Getty)

During Joseph Ratzinger’s more than 70 years of priestly service, his formidable Catholic intellect blessed us with a legacy of insights matched by very few others in the long history of the Church. And he was never more profoundly prophetic than when he warned in April 2005 about “the dictatorship of relativism” that is crippling so many lives in our increasingly irreligious modern world.

While it would come to serve as a defining catchphrase for his papacy, the term was actually coined one day before he was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. It was delivered in the context of the homily that then-Cardinal Ratzinger preached at the Mass immediately before the assembled cardinals went into the conclave and elected him as Pope St. John Paul II’s successor. 

Reading the signs of the times at this significant moment, the soon-to-be Pope highlighted the multitude of confusing “winds of doctrine” that have arisen in recent decades, ranging from Marxist collectivism to radical individualism. Collectively, these secularized ideas undermine the Gospel truths about humankind’s purpose and eternal destiny that Jesus first proclaimed nearly 2,000 years ago. 

“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism,” Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, “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. 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.”

At the time of his election, Benedict was particularly concerned about how this thinking had hollowed out the faith of his native European continent, displacing its foundational Christian identity with a rationalistic worldview that allows no place in public life for beliefs that are anchored in religion instead of empirical science. In another address he delivered shortly before becoming pope, he described how this scientific rationalism operates from the premise that its conception of freedom, untethered from “unscientific” religious beliefs, can serve as the fundamental principle for ordering societies.

In practice, though, this untethered rationalist freedom quickly degenerates into prohibitions that deny the free expression of all viewpoints judged to be intolerant or discriminatory by rationalism’s changeable canon of values.

“Very soon it will not be possible to state that homosexuality, as the Catholic Church teaches, is an objective disorder in the structure of human existence,” Cardinal Ratzinger predicted. “And the fact that the Church is convinced of not having the right to confer priestly ordination on women is considered by some up to now as something irreconcilable with the spirit of the European constitution.”

Those who doubt the prescience of these predictions, and the degree to which even the Church itself is being distorted by this relativistic mentality, need only to look at the agenda of dissent now being pressed forward brazenly by the German Synodal Way on these issues — with the full support of most of Germany’s Catholic bishops.

A related error that Benedict repeatedly warned against, most famously in his September 2006 address in Regensburg, is the contemporary intellectual insistence that the truths of religious belief must be separated from the application of reason. 

This disconnect of faith from reason degrades human persons from possessing the dignity of beings created in the image of God, reducing them instead to the status of merely material creatures whose needs can be identified and addressed only by secular societies according to a utilitarian morality devoid of any recognition of faith. 

Here in the U.S. at this moment relativism’s dictatorial advance, and the separation of faith from reason, can be seen most clearly in the accelerating drive by many American public institutions to impose an ideology of “gender identity.” This destructive ideology falsely claims that a person’s God-given and immutable biological sexual identity is not what defines whether an individual is male or female. Instead, whether an individual is male, female or “gender-fluid” must be defined solely on the basis of an individual’s self-identification with respect to their sexuality. It’s hard to get more “relative,” or less reasoned, than that.

Furthermore, just as Benedict prophetically warned, leading proponents of gender ideology are vehemently dictatorial in their insistence that no one can be allowed to dissent from their perspective.

We are also currently experiencing the harsh realities of the dictatorship of relativism in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Pro-abortion ideologues now are insisting that their own belief, that in the name of “freedom of choice” every pregnant woman has the right to abort a baby at any time right up to birth, is the only viewpoint that individual states can be allowed to express in their abortion laws. The rights of the unborn to remain alive, and the rights of pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to strive to protect their lives, are of no consideration for these relativistic extremists. 

They are backed in their extremism by sympathetic pro-abortion state governments such as California, which in the wake of Roe’s demise has passed a plethora of completely one-sided new pro-abortion laws.

Benedict’s concerns about the West’s dictatorship of relativism, and the abandonment of Christian belief that underlies it, were never directed primarily toward the specific political contexts of issues like abortion and human sexuality, although this political context does provide striking confirmation of the problems he forecasted. Even less, as George Weigel eloquently observed after the pope emeritus’ death, could this kind-hearted and gentle man ever be wedged into a preconceived politicized caricature as a mean-spirited “conservative” doctrinal inquisitor.

Instead, the pope emeritus remained permanently a man of the Church he loved so deeply, true to its unchanging deposit of Catholic faith rather than the secularized doctrinal and political winds of modernity. His principal objective in considering contemporary ideas and events was always to discern how the Church can engage constructively with today’s prevailing political and cultural dynamics, in order to proclaim anew Christ’s saving message to every man and woman of this time.

And while he foresaw the mistakes of our day with crystalline clarity, he responded to these errors with Christian hope, not with despair. As he reminded his fellow cardinals in his famous pre-conclave homily, the core antidote to every cultural, social and spiritual malaise is always the same: friendship with Jesus Christ.

In contrast to those determined to build the dictatorship of relativism, “We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man,” he declared. “He is the measure of true humanism. An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false and deceit from truth.”

We pray now that Pope Emeritus Benedict will stand together with his great friend and collaborator John Paul II “in the window of the Father’s house,” to employ Cardinal Ratzinger’s own compelling imagery at the conclusion of his homily at John Paul’s funeral Mass. From these heavenly heights, we hope that in God’s providence this holy tandem of contemporary popes will continue their intercession for the men and women of our time, just as they toiled so courageously on our behalf throughout their long lives of earthly service.

God bless you!