The Pope of Relativism

Ratzinger and his fans should know better than to confuse Western society

When then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger fired his pre-conclavian shot across the bow of the "dictatorship of relativism," I held out at least some small hope that the same people who praised his predecessor for looking communism in the eye and calling "good and evil by name" would hesitate at least one second before signing on to a bogus equivalence between "dictatorship" and the decidedly anti-dictatorial concepts of (in Ratzinger's words) "liberalism, even... libertinism."

So much for that.

Proving once again that nothing makes easier and more pliant bedfellows than ideological affiliation, a whole team of gushing right-of-center fans—including not a small number of non-Catholics—greeted God's Rottweiler and his relativistic anti-relativism with a great gust of their own ridiculous moral equivalence.

Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger, who normally praises linguistic accuracy and condemns equivalence (well, usually), judged the "dictatorship" description "apt," and declared Pope Benedict XVI, um, "a soul-brother of Antonin Scalia."

Detroit News columnist Thomas Bray saw dictatorship and raised it to "tyranny," then placed the alleged godlessness of modern Europe on equal footing with the godless dictatorial communism of the pre-1989 East Bloc: "For the late John Paul II, the issue was Eastern Europe. For the new Pope Benedict XVI, the issue is Western Europe. History may find it difficult to judge who had the more difficult task."

Nothing like a WASP country lecturing the Catholic Old World on, er, anti-Catholicism. (What continent did they think those millions of Vatican pilgrims came from, exactly?) Yet this line of fantasia has proven popular.

"Does anyone doubt that Western Europe is tumbling downward?" Joseph Bottum warned in the suddenly Catholic Weekly Standard. "Its people are hedonists and materialists, its soccer clubs are nativist militias in waiting, its churches are empty."

Never mind that Europe is far less materialistic than the U.S. (in the consumerist sense I believe Bottum intends), or that in Spain, Portugal, Croatia, and Hungary, "nativist militias" overlapped with Catholic leagues, not with the hooligans and singing louts who for some reason enjoy watching balls being kicked around. (Unless I missed some dictatorship, there has yet to be a footballo-fascist state).

Yet soccer isn't the only sport Pope Benedict is going to save, at least if you listen to the hopes and fears being projected onto him by his ideological (if not quite co-religious) brothers in arms. "When our hearts sink because beloved baseball players are discovered to be chemical freaks or admired merchant princes turn out to be crooks, we can count on the pope," wrote the New York Post's Michael Goodwin, in a column that has to be read to be believed. "He will be steady, consistent, unshakable."

Well thank Christ for that, because without the unshakable consistency of Roma Firma, even the most happily freak-dancing teen is one hip-grind away from doing the goosestep. "The consumerism and relativism of the West can be just as dangerous as the totalitarianism of the East," The National Review's Daniel Moloney wrote.

"It's just as easy to forget about God while dancing to an iPod as while marching in a Hitler Youth rally."

This last non-sequitur hints at an even less-savory tic than your run-of-the-mill evocation of Godwin's Law. Yes, the new Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth in his teens. But instead of exhibiting the least bit of awkwardness about that remarkable if contextually comprehensible factoid, some of Ratzinger's supporters are using it as a pre-emptive criticism of his detractors, or worse yet skating right over it to compare the dreaded "relativists" to Hitler himself.

"Ironically, it was Joseph Ratzinger's fellow Germans who gave us the diabolical idea that moral absolutes are nonsense—nihilists such as Nietzsche and Nazis such as Heidegger. French philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida then corrupted the faculty of reason with their postmodernist assault on truth," wrote Catholic League President William Donohue. "'There is no such thing as truth, either in the moral or in the scientific sense.' The author of this sentence was Adolf Hitler, although it could have been penned by any of today's postmodernist intellectuals."

I'm not of the belief that we should be too judgmental about what choices 14-year-olds made under a totalitarian regime at war. That sentiment puts me at odd with likes of such Ratzinger enthusiasts as former U.S. News & World Report correspondent Srdja Trifkovic, who memorably described George Soros as "the only eminent 'holocaust survivor' who has been accused of collaboration with the Nazis." (A vile slur that was then hinted at and amplified by the Washington Times' Tony Blankley.)

In the end, the only thing truly worrisome about the Pope's past is precisely the sentence that got the conservative hyperbolists in such a lather in the first place. If there is anyone who should appreciate the vast differences between the amoral excesses of democratic secularism and the brutality of actual "dictatorship," it's the man who saw Hitler's handiwork up close. If the shepherd can't get such a basic truth straight, it's no wonder the flock sounds so ridiculous.

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