Benedict XVI and Relativism in the Life of the Church

José Luis Narvaja, SJ

 José Luis Narvaja, SJ / Church Thought / Published Date:15 June 2017/Last Updated Date:1 November 2021

Free Article

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.

La Civilta Cattolica

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

What follows in the homily of Cardinal Ratzinger clarifies what is the authentic point anchoring the Church. Because when compared to relativism, “we have a different goal: The Son of God, the true man. 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. This friendship 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 must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith only faith that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.

Ratzinger thus puts together elements that are a solid defense against relativism: an “adult faith” that is expressed in charity; a “charity” rooted in the faith and nourished by “friendship with Christ”; and, beginning with this friendship, mature faith capable of “discerning true and false” and that “creates unity.

The coming and going of ideologies is ultimately founded on the love of self and on the futility of one’s own ideas.

Citing Saint Paul, Ratzinger continues affirming that on the contrary, “the truth in charity [is the] fundamental formula for Christian existence.” By this he emphasizes the necessity of basing the Christian life upon an authentic relationship with Christ, because “truth and love coincide in Christ. To the extent that we draw close to Christ in our own lives too, truth and love are blended. Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like ‘a clanging cymbal’ (I Cor 13:1).

Christ is the center of the life of the Church and of the feeling of the Church. No ideological or doctrinal current, no affiliation can occupy the place that belongs to Christ alone.

It is in the Son of God and in familiarity with him that one finds the place of discernment between true and false, ordered to the construction of charity in unity. Every other criterion is “relativist,” which indicates in this case that any idea which goes against Christ and against the logic of Christ, who desired that all were united, and that they were united in love (cf. John 17:21; 13:35 etc.)4

Then, in the homily, beginning with the words of Jesus: “No longer do I call you servants… but I call you friends” (John 15:917), the Cardinal explains what such friendship with Christ signifies. He considers it the foundation of the Christian life. And he notes two characteristics of this friendship to which the Lord invites us. 1) The first element is the revelation of the plan of God, in which Christ has made us participants: “There are no secrets among friends: Christ tells us all that which he hears from the Father; he gives his full trust, and his knowledge. He reveals to us his countenance, his heart. He shows his tenderness for us […]. Entrusts his body, the Church, to us. Entrusts his truth to our weak minds and to our weak hands. […], …the mystery of the God ‘who so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son’ (John 3:16). He made us his friends.” 2) The second element is the “communion of wills […] , in which our redemption is realized.

All of this in a perspective indicated by the first reading (Isaiah 61:13a., 6a., 8b9), which offers us “a prophetic portrait of the figure of the Messiah.” Beginning with this figure, the Cardinal highlights that “Jesus Christ is the divine mercy in person: meeting Christ means meeting the mercy of God.” And we in turn are participants in the messianic mission of “proclaiming the year of mercy” (Isaiah 61:2), because “the mandate of Christ has become our mandate through the priestly anointing; we are called to promulgate, not only in words but with our lives, and with the efficacious signs of the sacraments, ‘the Lord’s year of mercy.’”

It is not an exaggeration to affirm that these words of Cardinal Ratzinger, on the eve of the conclave that would elect him the successor of John Paul II, became the blueprint of his pontificate.

A holistic look at the pastoral ministry and the exercise of the pontificate by Benedict XVI clarifies concretely how he understood the actuation of nonrelativist thought. We will see that in none of the cases that we will take into consideration Pope Benedict XVI is closed to dialogue with the concrete situations. The response he gives to the situation is anchored to this familiarity with Christ and the Word of God, as moving toward the truth and unity founded on charity.

We will now consider two cases in which Benedict XVI gave original responses, required by charity, wherein the truth was of service to unity.

Communion with the Fraternity of Saint Pius X

On March 10, 2009, Benedict XVI writes a letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church to respond to the perplexity brought about by the provision removing the excommunication of the bishops ordained in 1988 by Monsignor Lefebvre, hoping “to contribute in this way to the peace of the Church.5 In the letter, the pope affirms that the gesture of removing the excommunication from the bishops ordained in 1988 by Lefebvre was a “discrete gesture of mercy.” He states, “the remission of the excommunication aims at the same goal at which punishment aims: to invite the four Bishops one more time to return [to unity]”.

Benedict XV affirms that “the difficult duty of faith, hope, and love in the world constitutes at this moment (and, in different forms, always) the true priority for the Church.” For this reason, he asks: “Do we truly have to let them drift away nonchalantly from the Church?” And he turns his thought to the priests of the Fraternity: “I think for example of the 491 priests. We cannot know what their complex motivations are. I think above all that they would not have decided upon the priesthood if, alongside some distorted and unhealthy elements, there had not been the love of Christ and the will to proclaim Him and with Him the living God. Can we simply exclude them as representatives of a radical marginal group, from the search for reconciliation and unity? What will become of them?”

Pope Benedict starts with the presupposition that the basis of the action of these priests is a profound love for Christ, even if the manifestation of this friendship with Jesus has brought them into disharmony with the teaching of the church. And he certainly thinks that notwithstanding this disharmony, one should ask: “But should not the great Church also allow herself to be generous in the knowledge of her great breadth, in the knowledge of the promise made to her? Should not we, as good educators, also be capable of overlooking various faults and making every effort to open up broader vistas? And should we not admit that some unpleasant things have also emerged in Church circles?”

The pope also laments that this was the occasion of tension in the Church and recognizes a certain psychological mechanism through which “at times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them – in this case the pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.

Benedict XVI ends the letter underlining – basing himself on the text of Gal 5:1315 – the fundamental principle of charity, in favor of which the Church has not always engaged all its energies. Therefore, “is it perhaps reason for surprise that we are not better than the Galatians? That we are at least menaced by the same temptations? That we have to relearn continuously the just use of liberty? And that we must always be relearning the supreme priority: love?”

After having said that friendship with Jesus Christ had brought the priests of the Fraternity to affirmations conflicting with the Church, he suggests that, for his part, this same friendship with Jesus Christ induces him to proclaim mercy, hoping that this merciful gesture becomes a principle of unity in the growth of charity.

Pope Benedict resolves this particular case, starting from the foundation of unity in charity. For this reason, he passes over dissonances in the doctrine of the group, inviting it to reestablish unity and conceding the concrete possibility of maintaining the liturgical tradition this group had used, thus doubling the forms of the Roman liturgy.

Communion with the Anglicans passing into the Catholic Church

The motivation for the acceptance of Anglican groups that ask to enter the Catholic Church is similar. In the Apostolic Constitution “Anglican rum covetous” of November 4, 2009,6 Pope Benedict writes that, as some groups of Anglican faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, have expressed the desire of being admitted into the Catholic communion, “the Successor of Peter […], who has from the Lord Jesus the mandate of guaranteeing the unity of the episcopate and of presiding over and safeguarding the universal communion of all the Churches, cannot but make use of the necessary means so that such a holy desire may be realized.

The ecclesiastical principles which drive the action of the pope are based on the oneness and unity of the Church of Christ, therefore he clearly emphasizes that “the unique Church of Christ […], which in the Creed we profess, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, ‘subsists in the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter, and by the Bishops in communion with him, even if outside of its organism are found many elements of sanctification and truth, which, as gifts proper to the Church of Christ, push us toward catholic unity” (“Lumen gentium” n. 8).

In this case the pope concedes the faculty of celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical actions “according to the proper liturgical books of the Anglican tradition approved by the Holy See, in such a way as to keep alive within the Catholic Church the spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion, as a precious gift for nourishing the faith of its members and wealth to be shared.” Moreover, he establishes that those who have “exercised the ministry as Anglican deacons, priests, or bishops, who meet the requisites established by cannon law (CIC 10261032) and are not impeded by irregularities or other impediments (CIC 10401049), may be accepted by the Ordinary as candidates for Holy Orders in the Catholic Church.” He then specifies that “for the married ministers the norms of the Encyclical of Paul VI, “Sacerdotalis coelibatus” n. 42, and of the Declaration “In June,” which signify that married Anglican ministers who enter the Catholic Church are exempt from celibacy, without drawing into discussion the general practice of priestly celibacy in force within the Church.

Here we see again that the criterion of discernment, in this real case, consists in responding to the action of the Spirit who calls some members of the Anglican Church into the full communion with the one Church. Here, what Pope Benedict concedes on the liturgical level and in the discipline of celibacy facilitates the process provoked by the Spirit. At the same time, this concession is considered an enrichment of the “common and essential divine Tradition, conserving the proper spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral traditions, which are in conformity with the Catholic faith.” The diversity of the traditions of the Churches is not considered an impediment to unity, because “there exists … a spiritual richness in the diverse Christian Confessions, which is the expression of the one faith and a gift to be shared and to be found together in the Tradition of the Church.7

The moral problem of the use of the condom

We will now consider a case where the criterion of discernment is the good of the faithful.

In an interview released to journalists en route to Cameroon and Angola (March 1723, 2009), Pope Benedict condemned the use of the condom as a means for combatting AIDS, affirming that “if there is not the spirit, if the Africans do not help, [the problem of AIDS] cannot be overcome with the distribution of condoms, just the opposite – they augment the problem.8  This affirmation by the pope was not interpreted in the context of his entire statement and so caused many criticisms that obscured the other riches of his visit to the African countries.

For this reason, in the booklength interview by Peter Seewald “Light of the World,9 Pope Benedict returns to what he had affirmed at the beginning of his apostolic trip in Africa and declares that “the problem cannot be resolved with the distribution of condoms. It is necessary to do much more. We must stay close to people, guide them, help them, and this too before they get sick.” And then he specifies that “condoms are available everywhere, whoever wants them finds them right away. But this alone does not resolve the question. It is necessary to do more.10

Benedict XVI admits that “in particular cases” the use of the condom is justified: “for example, when a prostitute utilizes a prophylactic, and this may be the first step toward moral behavior, a first act of responsibility in order to develop once again the awareness of the fact that not everything is permitted and you cannot do whatever you want.11

And to a further question from a journalist about the Church being “fundamentally opposed to the use of the prophylactic,” Benedict XVI responds: “Naturally the Church does not consider prophylactics as the authentic and moral solution. In one or another case, with the intention of diminishing the danger of contagion, it may represent however a first step on the road which leads to a sexuality lived differently, more human.12

It is interesting to note that, in the case of the prostitute, Pope Benedict presupposes a beginning of “responsibility” and of “moralization,” which may be considered a first step toward the growth of the “awareness of the fact that you cannot do whatever you want.” Thus he does not entirely dismiss that which may be considered an initial process of moral growth. He does not accept that the condom is the solution to the problem, but he recognizes that it avoids the irresponsible spreading of the illness, and more profoundly – as paradoxical as it may seem – it may be seen as a hidden seed of an act of the Spirit for moral growth and the formation of the conscience. In this case, to avoid a greater evil – the spread of the illness – Benedict XVI admits that the use of the prophylactic constitutes a lesser evil, and recognizes that it may be the beginning of an interior journey toward a good.

The papal ministry and the pontificate

Another case we now want to examine concerns the pontifical government and the magisterium. Here Pope Benedict considers the good of the body of the Church.

In the booklength interview we cited, Benedict XVI speaks of the possibility that the pope might renounce his ministry for motives that he considers grave. He explains, “when a pope arrives at the clear awareness of not being any longer capable physically, mentally, and spiritually of carrying out the duty entrusted to him, then he has the right and in some circumstances even the obligation to step down.13

Pope Benedict clarifies that the motive which may lead to resignation is the lack of strength to govern the Church, and it is for the good of the Church itself. In a preceding passage of the interview, he had already explained that stepping down may not be caused by a critical situation which the Church is experiencing: “When the danger is great, one cannot run away. This is why this is surely not the moment to step down. It is precisely in the moments like this that it is necessary to resist and to overcome the difficult situation. This is my thinking. One may step down in a moment of serenity, or when one simply cannot do it anymore. But one cannot run away precisely in the moment of danger and say: ‘Let someone else take care of it!’”14

Beginning with this declaration of Benedict XVI, one comprehends why on February 11, 2013, during an Ordinary Public Consistory, he declared: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.15

Aware of the gravity of the unusual act that he is about to perform, Pope Benedict is consistent with the reflection that he had made in the interview conceded to Seewald and, in practice, with the characteristics he had attributed to his pontifical ministry, understood as service to the Church, just as he had described in the homily of the Mass Pro eligendo Romano Pontifice.

In effect, the Petrine ministry did not entirely absorb the person of Joseph Ratzinger, but it permitted him to proceed with his personal journey of theological investigation. In the preface of his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” he affirms: “I certainly do not need to say expressly that this book is not in any way a magisterial act, but is uniquely the expression of my personal study of the ‘face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27, 8). Therefore, everyone is free to contradict me.16

Pope Benedict is also aware of the mission entrusted to him with the Petrine ministry regarding Tradition and the Churches. In the catechesis of May 10, 2006, which was part of a series of catecheses on the theme of Tradition, he explains the value of the “apostolic succession,” that “presents itself as the continuity of the apostolic ministry, guarantee of the perseverance of the apostolic Tradition, word, and life, entrusted to us by the Lord.17

Basing himself upon a text of Irenaeus of Lyon, he teaches that “this net of the apostolic succession [is] the guarantee of the perseverance in the word of the Lord, [and] is centered upon that ‘highest and most ancient’ Church known to all that was “founded and constituted in Rome by the most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul,” giving importance to the Tradition

of the faith, which in it reaches even to us from the apostles through the succession of bishops.

Benedict XVI underscores therefore that “the apostolic succession – verified on the basis of communion with that of the Church of Rome – is the criterion of the abiding of particular Churches in the Tradition of the common apostolic faith, which through this transmission was able to reach even to us from the origins.

The conclusion of this catechesis finds that “the apostolicity of the ecclesial communion consists in the fidelity to the teaching and to the practice of the apostles, through which the Church’s historical and spiritual bond with Christ is assured.” At the same time it is an instrument in the hands of the living God because “in the words of the Apostles and of their successors it is He who speaks to us; through their hands it is He who acts in the sacraments; through their countenance it is his countenance that envelopes us and makes us feel loved, embraced within the heart of God. And even today, as in the beginning, Christ himself is the true pastor and guardian of our souls, whom we follow with great trust, gratitude, and joy.

With subtle discernment for the good of the Church, the pope made then a distinction between the personal journey “of the study of the face of the Lord” and the “ministry which was entrusted to him.” He did so not only in view of his stepping down, but also in the course of his pontificate, to try to deepen that “friendship with Christ” that was the basis of his ministry. That is, at one time, for the good of the Church, he found it necessary to distinguish between ministry and personal journey of study and knowledge of Christ. Then, at another moment, he recognized his physical weakness and found it was necessary for the good of the Church that he step down from the ministry that had been entrusted to him.

* * *

After having considered these four concrete cases of the Pope Benedict’s Petrine ministry, we return again to the homily he gave in the Missa pro eligendo Romano Pontifice.

With his closing reflection Cardinal Ratzinger put together the preceding considerations, addressing the words of Jesus: “I appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). Ratzinger says: “The only thing, which remains in eternity, is the human soul, the man created for eternity. The fruit that remains therefore is however much we have sown in the souls of men: love, knowledge; the gesture capable of touching the heart; the word that opens the soul to the joy of the Lord”.

In this list of fruits that remain, we ought to not only consider the fruits, but also the order in which they are presented: in the first place, charity will never end (1 Cor 13:8); then the knowledge which will be complete when we see God face to face (1 Cor 13:12); and finally our preaching in gestures and words, which disposes hearts to the action of grace.


Thus the words of Cardinal Ratzinger are illustrated by his activity as pontiff.

We now have a more elaborate response to the question we posed at the beginning of this article about what Benedict XVI truly meant by “relativism”.

There is a relativism which consists in submitting the faith to ideologies. It is clear that the faith must dialogue with people who think in a certain way, but it cannot submit itself to this flux of ideologies.

There is then a “relativism” of a pastoral character that does not put into doubt the truths of the faith. On the contrary, it reaffirms them. The risk thus avoided is that the abstract definitions and anathemas end up “relativizing” mercy, love, and the salvation of souls, making them depend upon the respect of a norm, which is specified down to the smallest details, without taking into account that one proceeds always gradually in the good. It is here that Benedict XVI, in the cases that we have presented, relativizes some things positively for the sake of the greater good of love and the unity of the Church, showing himself patient in the “things not good” which accompany the greater good.

The Church can “permit itself to be generous” for the sake of this greater good. The motive is positive: the Church is aware “of the great breath it possesses,” it trusts in the Lord of history, who orients everything (etiam peccata [even sins], in the formula of Saint Augustine) for the good of those who love him (cf. Rm 8:28).

In this way the concluding words are those of Pope Benedict himself in his Encyclical Deus caritas est: “This [love] is light – ultimately the only one – which always enlightens a dark world and gives us the courage to live and to act.18

1.Cf. J. Ratzinger, Homily in the Missa pro eligendo Romano Pontifice”, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) 97 [2005] 685689; cf.

2.P. Ivanecky, “La critica di Benedetto XVI al relativismo odierno”, in Teologia y Vida 55 (2014) 173179, studies the concept of “relativism” in the works of Joseph Ratzinger beginning from the 1970s. For our purposes, the analysis of the term in the period of the pontificate of Benedict XVI is of interest.

3.J. Ratzinger, “Itinerari della fede tra i rivolgimenti del tempo presente”, in Id., Svolta per l’Europa? Chiesa e modernita nell’Europa dei rivolgimenti, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 1992, 82.

4.Benedict XVI treated the subject of the unity of Christians in relation to “the order or ‘hierarchy’ among the truths of Catholic doctrine” in the Address to the Participants of the Plenary Meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (January 27, 2012), in AAS 104 [2012] 108111.

5.Cf. AAS 101 [2009] 270276. The Decree of the remission of the excommunication latae sententiae of the bishops of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, January 21, 2009, affirms that “this gift of peace, at the end of the Christmas celebrations, should also be a sign to promote the unity in charity of the Universal Church and to remove the scandal of division” (AAS 101 [2009] 150151).

6.Cf. AAS 101 [2009] 985990.

7.Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants of the Plenary Meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cit., 109110.

8.“Interview conceded by the Holy Father Benedict XVI to journalists during the flight to Africa” (March 17, 2009), in

9.Cf. Benedict XVI, Light of the World. The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. A conversation with Peter Seewald, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2010.

10.Ibid. 170.

11.Ibid. 170f.

12.Ibid. 171.

13.Ibid. 53.


15.Benedict XVI, Declaratio (February 10, 2013), in

16.J. Ratzinger, Opera Omnia, VI/1. Gesu di Nazaret. La figura e il messaggio, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2013, 128.

17.Benedict XVI, Catechesis at the General Audience, May 10, 2016, in

18.Id., Encyclical Deus caritas est (December 25, 2005), n. 39.