- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Yesterday’s election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI is astonishing on both political and religious grounds. As head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office formerly known as the Inquisition, Cardinal Ratzinger was responsible for defending Catholic teaching and punishing doctrinal dissidents. Essentially he was the Vatican’s top cop. His selection signals that church leaders want a disciplinarian to clean up some messes in the Roman Catholic Church.

The most obvious of these challenges will be restoring stability to an institution rocked by clerical sex-abuse scandals. But as one of the most prominent and highly published theologians over the past 40 years, he is also likely to address broader modern threats to religious belief. In a homily to commence the conclave on Monday, Cardinal Ratzinger specifically criticized Marxism, liberalism, libertinism, collectivism and atheism. He warned that, “We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

In his 24 years as the Vatican’s enforcer of the faith, Cardinal Ratzinger worked to restore abandoned traditions as an antidote to relativism. He wrote extensively about the need for beautiful liturgy and is an active proponent of bringing back the traditional Latin Mass that was suppressed after the revolutionary Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. One of the leading theologians at Vatican II, he is the only member of the existing hierarchy to consistently admit that its liberalizing reforms spun out of control. In 1982, he castigated reformers who “out of cowardice in face of the liberal public stood by fecklessly as faith was bit by bit traded off.”

Benedict XVI is likely not to be embraced by the mainstream media. He is more conservative than his predecessor. And unlike John Paul II, he is neither telegenic nor charismatic in public. However, he has important strengths the previous pope lacked. For example, while John Paul II had no interest in management duties of the papacy, the new pope is renowned as a skilled administrator.

One of the surprising aspects of the elevation of Benedict XVI is that the most liberal College of Cardinals in history elected the most conservative prelate among them to be their leader. This reflects an institutional self-evaluation in which cardinals decided it was necessary to scale back some 1960s reforms. It is often said that the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy look at the passage of time in centuries rather than days or years. If the ecclesiastical pendulum had swung all the way to the left in recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church now looks to be swinging back to the right.

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