The dictatorship of relativism strikes back—and goes nuclear

Some ecumenical thoughts at Holy Week 2010 from John Stephenson

The secular press has had it in for Joseph Ratzinger for going on three decades. Before his election as Pope in the spring of 2005, he was routinely derided in his homeland as the Panzerkardinal (“tank cardinal”) and caricatured in North America as the “Enforcer” or even the “Rottweiler.” The roots of this negative reputation stretch back at least as far as the book-length interview he granted to the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori that catapulted him to global fame when published as The Ratzinger Report in 1985. Prior to that juncture, as a heavyweight German academic who had leapfrogged over a major episcopal see (Munich-Freising) to become a leading official in the Roman curia (as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) under the still new John Paul II, Ratzinger’s was hardly a household name.

But shrewd observers must wonder about the startling disproportion between the enormous hue and cry artificially whipped up by the media and the softly spoken real life figure who seems always to have avoided hyperbole like the plague. Even though the curial department over which he presided for almost a quarter century is the direct heir to the 16th-century Inquisition, the disciplinary measures dealt out by Ratzinger against barely a score of wildly Modernist (actually mostly apostate) theologians over more than two decades add up to a string of fairly mild censures, gentle slaps on the wrist in most cases. Hans Küng lost the right to teach theology as an accredited representative of the magisterium (as his missio canonica was stripped from him), but (despite his clear disavowal of the divinity of Christ!) retained his status as an incardinated (=rostered) Roman Catholic priest, and he has, well, greatly profited in fame and fortune from his much trumpeted role as Rome’s chief dissident. Had he rather than Ratzinger landed in the chair of cardinal prefect back in the early 1980s, the media would have shown no sympathy for the advocates of traditional Christianity that a totalitarian liberal such as Küng would have hounded to the remotest margins of Church life; ironically, there is no more illiberal force on earth than a liberal with his hands on the levers of power.

 Moreover, when someone takes the trouble to examine Ratzinger’s huge opus over close to six decades as a professional theologian, they make the discovery that he occupies a centrist position in the constellation of modern Roman Catholic theology; he is at most mildly “conservative”, the “ultra-conservative” label routinely affixed to him by most sections of the press being sheerly laughable.

As I set forth the Roman Catholic reality in our St. Catharines Religious Bodies (Comparative Symbolics) course, I point out the current uneasy coexistence of three groupings in that vast church body.

Modernism on the rampage (or the elephant actually destroying the living room)

In the one corner are the media-supported Modernists, those who do not acknowledge the definitive quality of God’s unsurpassable self-revelation in Christ, and who thus regard faith and practice not as givens to be handed down intact but as man-made constructs to be refashioned at whim according to the capricious desire of succeeding generations. Roundly condemned and solemnly proscribed by Pius X (1903-1914) and still held back to a great extent by Pius XII (1939-1958), the Modernists crawled out of the woodwork during the reign of John XXIII (1958-1963), and Modernism swiftly rose to a dominant position in Roman Catholic theology in, with, under, and around the (sixteen) officially promulgated documents of Vatican II (1962-1965).

As a young theologian, Ratzinger attended Vatican II as a peritus (=expert) of somewhat “progressive” tendencies. By Council’s close he was uneasy over the tone and content of its last document, Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World. Shocked to the core by the virulently anti-Christian positions embraced even by theology students (led by such figures as the radical Tübingen exegete Ernst Käsemann) in the student uprisings of 1968 (Achtundsechziger [“68ers”] is an actual word in modern German), Ratzinger firmed up his centrist credentials and switched his support from the left-leaning magazine Concilium (the house organ of Küng & Co.) to the middle of the road Communio (the substitute publication of von Balthasar and friends).

Clearly, the Modernists who surged forth to theological dominance in the wake of Vatican II have never forgiven Ratzinger for his “betrayal” of their cause; in their books (literally, in the case of Küng’s interminable memoirs) he is and remains a cross between Brutus and Judas Iscariot. At least some of his media woes are attributable to the Modernists’ insatiable thirst for revenge for, say, his pointed critique of Gaudium et spes written ten years after the close of the Council. But these pages of sober commentary are surely sweet music to orthodox Lutheran ears. Yes, Vatican II was infected by the dementedly schwärmerisch optimism of the Kennedy era (Principles of Catholic Theology, 372; 383). Yes, Gaudium et spes considers the “world” a positive entity, with which it seeks dialogue and cooperation with a view to building jointly with it a better global state of affairs (Principles, 379f.). Had he lived much longer, Hermann Sasse, who was careful to register both the strengths and the weaknesses of Vatican II, would surely have added his Yea and Amen to Ratzinger’s analysis of Gaudium et spes.

As they still pretend that everything in the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic garden is fine and dandy, the Modernists undoubtedly continue greatly to resent Ratzinger’s telling Vittorio Messori in the early 1980s how “we must speak …of a crisis of faith and of the Church” (Ratzinger Report, 44; “the gravity of the crisis,” 62;  “in this confused period, when truly every type of heretical aberration seems to be pressing upon the doors of the authentic faith,” 105). Later in the same decade I headed the first chapter of CLD’s Eschatology volume “General Apostasy: the Sign of our Time.” Guess what? Ratzinger, the GAFCON Anglicans, and I are spot on. Might there be something slightly fishy in the direction ELCA, ELCiC, TEC (the US Episcopalians), and the Anglican Church of Canada have been heading lately? The Modernists and their media allies would much prefer that no one notice these developments.

The traditionalist rump

In the opposite corner to the Modernists who can do no wrong in the eyes of the mainstream media stands the numerically much smaller traditionalist minority that can do no right. When did you last read a fair account of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) in the “quality” press? When did you ever read there an objective appraisal of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) that Lefebvre founded to withstand the Modernist juggernaut that came out of the Council? But the sainted Professor Marquart would have rejoiced at the clear profession of Ac 4:11-12 (“no other Name”) with which the SSPX politely responded to Benedict XVI’s address at the Jewish synagogue in Rome on Sunday 17 January 2010 ( After Archbishop Lefebvre (without papal permission) ordained four bishops in 1988 to continue his work, he and they incurred automatic excommunication, with the result that the SSPX has (paradoxically, given its deepest intent) been out of communion with Rome since that date.

With his vast breadth of learning and his generosity of spirit towards the Orthodox and the heirs of the Reformation (especially the Lutherans: “The Lutherans are to Ratzinger what the Orthodox are to John Paul: the separated brethren he knows best, and for whom he has the greatest natural affinity.” John Allen, Cardinal Ratzinger, 231), Ratzinger is far removed from the wavelength of the SSPX and of the former members of that body who have returned to full communion with Rome under the auspices of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). Of course, these groups are well aware that it is humanly impossible for them to face a more favourable occupant of the papal chair in the foreseeable future, with the result that the SSPX has lately toned down its anti-papal polemics and willingly begun to participate in a theological dialogue with the CDF.

In the centre receiving shots from both (all) sides

Ratzinger belongs to the centrist mass of Roman Catholics who accept Vatican II, but decline to see the Council (as do Küng & Co.) as a brutal rupture with the foregoing tradition. To understand his papal programme (inasmuch as we may talk of such a thing), we must realise that he is endeavouring to steer his massive ecclesial ship back into a centrist channel after a good forty years of disastrous leftward lurch—just consider the pitiful liturgical shambles that emerged from Paul VI’s Novus Ordo of 1969, causing Hermann Sasse to remark in his last years how Rome had suddenly “canonised St. Zwingli.” A few years ago, in his new capacity as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger coined the phrase “hermeneutic of continuity” to describe an approach to Vatican II that seeks to interpret its documents in harmony with what went before. A major task awaits orthodox Lutheran theology in the shape of updating Chemnitz’s Examen Concilii Tridentini by performing the same service for the documents of Vatican II. Applying the hermeneutic of continuity to these texts, a Chemnitz of our time would discern areas of interconfessional agreement and rapprochement, on the one hand, and of ongoing dissent and debate, on the other.

As, in company with his predecessor on the papal throne, Ratzinger has occupied Rome’s middle ground, significant differences of interpretation and emphasis have certainly existed between the close colleagues. With his undying commitment to Gaudium et spes, Woytyla was some degrees to the “left” of Ratzinger, who is very much a man of Lumen Gentium, the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. As he approved my copious quotations from Ratzinger in the CLD volume on Eschatology, the sainted Robert Preus commented to me that Raztinger (whom he respected) was “more Catholic in the best sense” than the Pope under whom he served.

By the way, the world still hates, loathes, & detests Christ and His Church!

In addition to the unremitting hostility directed at him from the Modernist wing of his own Communion, even prior to his election as Pope, Ratzinger was a favourite target of the unbelieving world’s impassioned hatred for Christ Jesus our Lord and the members of His mystical body. Some years ago, the British Daily Telegraph (which at one time had the reputation of being a “quality” newspaper) reported that the then cardinal had committed a terrible “gaffe” by publicly expressing hope for the conversion of the Jews. Fancy that, a Christian wishing salvation for a sizeable group of his neighbours, a faux pas indeed! A Google search has confirmed my memory that British journalists were likewise incensed by the then cardinal’s comparison of Buddhism with spiritual autoeroticism. How scandalous that a Christian spokesman should speak candidly of religions that offer a spurious salvation!

The Canadian mainstream media were frenziedly sharpening their knives against Joseph Ratzinger in the weeks when he was a strong candidate to succeed John Paul II. His papacy was barely a few hours old when the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) evening news ran a segment on an aged Italian woman (a “good Catholic”, of course) who stood crestfallen amid a jubilant crowd as Benedict XVI appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s, walking dejectedly away as she realized that women’s ordination, contraception, sexual licence, abortion on demand, and all that good stuff would still be denied the papal seal of approval. That bloody hatchet job had been carefully prepared way ahead of a cardinal’s booming “Habemus papam—reverendissimum dominum Josephum Cardinalem Ratzinger” from the balcony!

Reason was thrown to the winds and sheer hysteria set in on Benedict XVI’s second visit to his German homeland, when he delivered a thoughtful lecture to the University of Regensburg in his capacity as emeritus professor of its faculty of theology. How sheerly outrageous that Ratzinger dared quote a harassed Byzantine emperor to the effect that Islam first conquers and then sustains itself by the sword! As the media, with the BBC in the forefront, stoked Islamic wrath and liberal outrage, they failed to state that the orchestrated acts of violence that rapidly broke out from one end of the Islamic world to the other only corroborated the simple, incontestable fact that Islam is, well, not quite a religion of peace as President Bush once fantasised.

Remarkably, when the press manufactured further storms of outrage on his lifting of the excommunications still hanging over the four remaining SSPX bishops in January 2009, one of the strongest defences made of Benedict XVI in his homeland came from the word processor of Germany’s leading orthodox Lutheran theologian. Gottfried Martens once told me that he shares Joseph Ratzinger’s appraisal of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, namely that he also takes the view that the laboriously achieved document does not in fact represent an authentic, deeply based agreement on the topic in question. And yet, with much greater clarity and conviction that most German Roman Catholic spokesmen could muster, Dr. Martens pointed out in his parish newsletter that the Pope had simply smoothed the way for talks between the SSPX and the CDF by graciously lifting the excommunication of the four renegade bishops; he had not granted them a recognized public ministry in the Roman Catholic Church—they remain unrostered, to use our terminology; and least of all did he knowingly “rehabilitate” a Holocaust denier. But instead of surfing in search of better information to, the mainstream media take every opportunity to add the charge of “rehabilitating a Holocaust denier” to their already lengthy list of Ratzinger’s many sins. The day after his election to the papacy, the headline of a British tabloid read, “From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi!” For as is well known, conscripted teenagers forced into the collapsing armies of the Third Reich shared all the guilt of the worst war criminals, especially if these young men happened to be German nationals.

The negative reaction aroused already by the Ratzinger Report laid bare the sheer fury shared by Roman Catholic Modernists and the unbelieving world in general against anyone who dares to intimate that the historic Christian religion is, to put it bluntly, true. Neither apostates within Holy Christendom nor naked unbelievers outside her borders will ever forgive Ratzinger for the grave breach of secularist, pluralist etiquette involved in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth. It goes without saying (and around the Holy Week of each year the several forms of mainstream media say it loudly, often, and emphatically) that Jesus was an ordinary man, a wacko apocalyptist, or a failed political revolutionary. Stones must fly and clubs be brandished against a learned man fully familiar with all the “Jesus of history” literature from Reimarus to the present, who winsomely draws on believing scholarship of all confessions to offer a calm and cogent argument that the real, actual Jesus is the one who meets us in the Gospel record. Where the North American liberal intelligentsia can offer no refutation, they spit contempt. And a Western Europe sunk in a new heathenism and undergoing Islamic takeover can only howl at this attempt to arrest its suicidal downward slide.

Preaching the homily at the opening Eucharist of the 2005 papal conclave, an address that he likely regarded as his swan song before heading back to private life in a Bavarian retirement, Ratzinger dared to call a spade a spade by drawing attention to la dittatura del relativismo, a now familiar phrase that surely needs no translation. So, as even more lamentable reports surface of the horror of sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests and religious brothers, it goes without saying that the secular press has tried, convicted, and executed Ratzinger for a string of alleged cover-ups as archbishop, cardinal, and Pope. The declining John Paul II may indeed have been somewhat remiss in addressing this evil, but the press, spoon-fed by Roman Catholic Modernists, cannot be expected to highlight insignificant details such as the fact that Benedict XVI has vigorously addressed this issue from the first days of his papacy (remember the disciplining of Fr. Maciel, once the protecting hand of the former Pope was withdrawn?). The Manchester Guardian (another allegedly “quality” newspaper from the UK) announced the other day that, for twenty-four years, Ratzinger failed to act on clerical sexual abuse of children; its journalists forgot to mention that the issue was only directly handed to his congregation in 2001! (Check out ) When guilt is foreordained and execution already carried out, mere supporting evidence is of no account. Barely a week ago the New York Times headlined the “news” that, as cardinal prefect in 1996, Ratzinger quashed the canonical trial of a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese accused (and believably guilty) of unspeakable crimes. There is no likelihood of the NYT apologising for its barefaced lie, uttered after it declined to interview the canon lawyer who presided over the judicial proceedings in Milwaukee. According to him, the canonical process was still in full swing when the accused priest died; we can’t expect the secular press to get the point that the case then moved to the final court of appeal.

Christendom as a whole is under attack

In a letter to the Sunday Telegraph published in that newspaper’s 28 March 2010 edition (, five Evangelical bishops of the Church of England have politely drawn attention to the increasing volume of persecution of Christians in England and, in a governessy sort of way, insisted that the antichristian forces in British society cease and desist forthwith. The bishops’ reproach fell somewhat short of white-hot prophetic vigour: “We are deeply concerned at the apparent discrimination shown against Christians and we call on the Government to remedy this serious development.”

As the bishops’ letter begins with a protest over the case of a middle-aged English nurse dismissed for insisting on displaying, when on duty, a crucifix that she has worn since her confirmation decades ago, it demonstrates how British society in particular (along with European society in general) has lurched dramatically back to a stage prior to the work of the much maligned Constantine the Great. While the bishops’ concern is genuine and the issue they address real, one wonders whether they are taking the right approach. Can we picture Peter and Paul, around the year 68, stamping their feet and stressing the paramount need for Nero to respect the human rights of the nascent Christian community in Rome? Can we get our hands on evidence that the bishops and other ecclesial spokesmen of the day adopted the tone of these Anglican Evangelical prelates toward Decius and Diocletian? More to the point, can we imagine Diocletian, Decius, and Nero meekly agreeing to “remedy the serious developments” that had occurred on their respective imperial watches? Rather than issuing impotent appeals to the successive beasts that arise from the earth, bishops are to prepare and equip the Christian faithful to undergo the fires of tribulation that the Lord permits to come their way. For, make no doubt about it, the days of Diocletian and Decius and perhaps of Nero also are fast returning to the Western world.

Not in the same ballpark as Leo X & Co.

Orthodox Lutherans would have to be churlish in the extreme if they could not spare an ounce of affection for Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as perhaps the first Pope in history to have a good idea what the Lutheran Reformation was and is all about, and, moreover, to have at least a shred of sympathy for its core concerns. In his writings Ratzinger routinely quotes Luther from the Weimar Edition and the Confessions from Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht’s edition of the Bekenntnisschriften; not all Lutheran professors of theology do the same. His aversion to the philosophical trajectory of Karl Rahner took concrete form in Ratzinger’s preference for the Bible and the Church Fathers, especially Augustine, over Thomas Aquinas (see Milestones, 44, 52f., 128f.). Isn’t this how we too want to do theology?

The following quotations randomly chosen from a couple of his works show that Ratzinger “gets it” in a way that the Renaissance (and Tridentine?) Popes did not. For starters, some words from the Ratzinger Report on sacramental confession, where the cardinal spoke of “the seriousness of the encounter between two persons aware of being in the presence of the shattering mystery of Christ’s forgiveness that arrives through the words and gestures of a sinful man” (Ratzinger Report, 57). And then: the inmost core of the new commission [Mt 18:15-18; Jn 20:23], which robs the forces of destruction of their power, is the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded upon forgiveness. ...The Church is by nature the home of forgiveness, and it is thus that chaos is banished from within her. She is held together by forgiveness …she is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness (Called to Communion, 64).


…we are all in need of forgiveness, which is the heart of all true reform. …The Church is not a communion of those “who have no need of the physician” (Mk 2:17) but a communion of converted sinners who live by the grace of forgiveness and transmit it themselves. …I believe that the core of the spiritual crisis of our time has its basis in the obscuration of the grace of forgiveness (Called to Communion, 148f.).

Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue got off to a skewered start at the very outset when Luther proposed a discussion on soteriology only to have Sylvester Prierias (in terms of curial office the 1981-2005 Ratzinger of that day) use ecclesiastical strong-arm tactics with a distorted account of Scripture and tradition by way of response. If a formal dialogue were ever to take place between the orthodox Lutheran Churches of the world and the Holy See, some critical questions would certainly need to be posed, and spirited discussion would certainly ensue. Perhaps another perspective might be offered on the 11th-century Cluniac Reform from the account given by Benedict XVI in his catechesis of 11 November 2009: And maybe we might explore a little further Ratzinger’s rationale for priestly celibacy, in the course of which he made the barbed remark that the married clergy of the East are not real pastors, just liturgical ministers (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, 199). Ouch! Should a panel of our theologians ever sit down with a group of their Roman Catholic counterparts, concern might be raised that Benedict XVI has been somewhat profligate in his granting of indulgences, a form of bounty that all Lutherans will forever denounce as counterfeit spiritual currency. As Easter of 2010 approaches, though, if for no other reason than that we remember Martin Niemöller’s post-war regret at not having spoken up for the Jews in due season, we might fitly major in sympathy, understanding, and prayer for the courteous and learned aged prelate who is right now a walking target for innumerable hellish darts launched by theological Modernists and by the unbelieving world that have between them zero tolerance for any crisp, clear, and confident confession of Christ Jesus our Incarnate God.