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First reactions to a new pope

Illustration by Holly Randall
By Rui Wang
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
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Yesterday, the smoke ran white from the Sistine Chapel, the bells rang and a new pope, the former Josef Ratzinger and now Benedict XVI, was elected. As a cardinal, Ratzinger was known to be doctrinally orthodox. He seems generally intolerant of abortion, homosexuality, ordination of women and acceptance of other religions. We should have been hoping for something more.

If Ratzinger were a comic book character, he'd be The Enforcer - snow-white unitard, burgundy cape, a blazing golden "E" on his chest and special powers of fire and brimstone.

Catholic scholars, discussing the new appointment on National Public Radio, observed that Ratzinger's election should not be surprising, because it reflects a desire to maintain the status quo and to resist liberalization of the church. His conservative outlook is similar to that of the late Pope John Paul II.

Here in the United States, the re-election of George W. Bush last year reflected a similar gravitation towards the status quo, which in this case meant a president who could deliver simple answers to a frighteningly complex world. Like the new Pope Benedict, Bush also believes in absolute truths and peeling back the liberalization of the country.

Technology, science and social progress have all advanced so much in the past 50 years that it's inevitable that institutions would feel the urge to apply some brakes. The Roman Catholic Church, like any other global institution or state, doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is as acutely affected by the hectic speed of the modern world as it affects the world in turn, and the church is worried.

As the world has "flattened" - The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's idea that globalization has created a more economically and socially level playing field among the world's population - there is a certain fear of this new, more egalitarian landscape. After all, probably the most valuable idea that emerges from globalization, particularly from being exposed to different cultures and ideas via the Internet and telecommunications, is the spread of relativism.

"Relativism" is defined by the dictionary as the view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them. So, in other words, it's tolerance: All people are capable of holding legitimate, valid beliefs, and no one set of beliefs is superior to another.

It's no surprise that this idea is not popular with the Catholic Church or the new pope. Recently at Mass, then-Cardinal Ratzinger recognized that relativism, which he defined as "letting ourselves be carried away by any wind of doctrine" was the prevailing attitude of the times. He railed against this "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires."

I'm not Catholic. The closest connection I can claim is that when I was five, I caught a brief glimpse of Pope John Paul II as he whizzed by Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. But I disagree with the new pope's characterization of relativism as a negative force. More tolerance for other religions, other beliefs and other dissenting viewpoints within the same church can only be positive. Pope Benedict's objection that relativism breeds self-interest is an unfair statement, because I can't think of anything that fuels the ego more than doctrinal superiority.

It's true that relativism can be taken to an extreme: For instance, how can you have a functioning legal or governmental system if a society has no moral or ethical preferences at all? On the other hand, doctrinal strictness is extremely damaging. In the United States, no progress would have occurred if our judges read the Constitution in a literal sense, limiting the scope of interpretation to the four corners of the document. Doctrine should be living, flexible and reflect the realities of the changing world.

Although it's impossible to know how Pope Benedict XVI will act, his appointment is even more worrisome because of the influence of the Catholic Church.

For example, the Catholic Church is internally conflicted on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. While the Vatican Council on the Family and some bishops have issued statements in the past urging that condoms do not protect people from the spread of HIV, other bishops and scholars argue that Catholicism condones condom use when it promotes the lesser of the two evils between contraception use and transmitting the virus. With the direction of the new pope, the problem of HIV and AIDS in Africa and other developing parts of the world may go through years of further distortion and misinformation as the church struggles with its stance.

I went to Easter Mass for the first time this year, and the sense of tolerance and acceptance was the most comforting part of the service. When everyone smiled, shook hands and said "peace be with you," it was exactly the sentiment for which religion should stand. Let's hope the new pope avoids the pitfalls of polarization and suppression in order to effect positive change under his reach.

Rui Wang is a third-year law student. She can be reached at

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