In 1999, I was writing about the archdiocese of San Francisco as editor of a reviled publication called San Francisco Faith. Basically my mission was to draw attention to the sewer of phony, scandal-ridden Catholicism that flowed through the Bay Area in the quixotic hope of spurring orthodox reforms in its parishes. Consequently, I almost never got a civil call back from the archdiocesan press officials who considered me a tiresome bottom-feeder. That is, until Joseph Ratzinger came to San Francisco for a visit. Suddenly, the archdiocese was frantically calling me — they placed multiple calls to me the day after he arrived — to see if I would attend a press conference the archdiocese was holding for him at St. Patrick’s Seminary.
It was an amusing and puzzling turn of events: Why the frantic invitation? Did the San Francisco archdiocese need a warm body who wouldn’t hurl insulting questions at him? Were chancery officials scrambling to build a little Potemkin village to show John Paul II’s doctrinal chief the care with which they reached out to traditional Catholics?
I never figured it out, but I went to the press conference as a suddenly respectable journalist, and found myself in a near-empty room with Ratzinger and some glaring bishops. Maybe two or three other reporters were also there. What I mainly recall was the stark contrast between a serene Cardinal Ratzinger and the dismal, shifty-eyed bishops surrounding him (Ratzinger was using San Francisco’s seminary as a meeting spot to hold talks with bishops from North America and the Pacific region).
He projected an aura of self-possession, peacefulness and a quality bordering on good-humored bemusement, made more noticeable by the aspect of humorless desperation on the faces of American bishops who were soon to be exposed by the abuse scandal. I was permitted to ask a question of Cardinal Ratzinger, which I used to complain about the bishops’ accommodation of pro-abortion Catholic public figures. Was supporting abortion a grave, communion-denying sin or not? I asked. Daniel Pilarczyk, the bishop of Cincinnati, sitting near Ratzinger, looked ready to beat me up. Ratzinger responded that if the Catholic public figure acts with knowledge and consent his “collaboration with abortion is a grave sin.”
During that visit to San Francisco, Ratzinger also gave a speech on the very theme he used to begin the papal conclave — the secularist dictatorship that arises when God is no longer the measure of all things and man’s ego becomes the measure of morality and culture. The wording of the theme was slightly different. Before the conclave he used the phrase, the “dictatorship of relativism.” In San Francisco, he spoke of the “dictatorship of appearances” and described skepticism and relativism as prisons, chaining man’s mind to fictions and his will to soul-destroying sin.
Now Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger, using such potent phrases, will prove a devastating foe to a misnamed Enlightenment culture that has long eyed the Church as the only institution left to neutralize through “liberal reforms.” The power of his election can be measured in the escalating hysteria in the wake of it: like clockwork, the elite’s fake love and interest in the Church after John Paul II’s death has reverted to real hate now they know it’s hopeless to try and steer it. One thing animates the hate: the new pope’s unwillingness to substitute the ever-changing tenets of modern liberalism for the timeless teachings of Jesus Christ.
In every age but particularly in modern times a worldly elite, full of self-love and non serviam subjectivism, clangs the gates of hell against the Church, demanding that the Church serve the false philosophies and desires of sinful men instead of the changeless will of Jesus Christ. But the gates of hell have not prevailed. Ratzinger made enemies, inside and outside the Church, because as doctrinal head of it he was determined to vindicate the Church’s authoritative account of reality which recognizes God’s intellect and will, not man’s, as the source of all truth. He saw that submission to the world’s philosophy would mean taking Catholicism out of Catholicism, reducing it to Christianity without Christ that serves neither God nor man as it spirals into paralyzing doubt.
History will move out along the line Pope Benedict XVI has already marked: Will God be the measure of morality and culture, or will the desires of men be? The culture wars to come turn on this question. We have already seen the consequences of the “dictatorship of relativism”: not civilization but barbarism as humans discover that once they reject the authority of God — ignoring his intentions for the human nature he designed and the established order he created — they soon find themselves living under the pitiless and arbitrary authority of men who see no restraining truths above them.
Pope Benedict XVI, as did his namesakes, faces a dark age of Western paganism that now goes by the name of modern liberalism, and he will use a lucid orthodoxy to drive out its many shadows.