The New Danger, Ratzinger Says, Is Relativism: When Cardinal Ratzinger Draws a New Target into His Sights There Are Often Serious Consequences

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VATICAN CITY -- Early this year, on a plane to Latin America, Pope John Paul II dismissed liberation theology as irrelevant. There were a few howls of protest, but with Marxism rapidly fading as a global ideology, many church thinkers quietly agreed.

Now Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief doctrinal official, has offered a more definitive obituary for this branch of theological thought -- and some words of warning for the future. He explained his position in talks in May to Latin America bishops and in September to some 80 bishops from mission territories.

In the 1980s, the German cardinal said, liberation theology in its more radical forms was the most urgent challenge to the faith. Its appeal collapsed along with Marxist regimes, when people recognized that redemption was not a political process, he said. But that doesn't mean the sun is now shining on the state of Catholic theology.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, a dark new cloud hangs on the horizon: relativism, or the idea that no one can presume to know the true way. Relativism may ultimately be more dangerous to Catholicism, he said, because it is popularized in efforts to "democratize" the church, to arbitrarily modify the liturgy and to erase differences with other religions.

"Relativism has thus become the central problem for the faith at the present time," he stated. That's pretty heavy judgment. When Cardinal Ratzinger draws a new target into his sights there are often serious consequences. Dubbed by the Italian press the "Panzer-Kardinal" -- after the German tank -- the 69-year-old prelate has summoned a number of theologians to the Vatican in recent years for clarification and, if necessary, correction of their views.

His Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is considered the most powerful at the Vatican, because its authority extends to any question of church teaching. In the name of doctrinal integrity, it can freeze an ecumenical dialogue, remove a Catholic professor or throw out a translation of a catechism. So when Cardinal Ratzinger talks, church people listen. The bishops were an especially attentive audience.

In the cardinal's view, relativism is a bigger threat than liberation theology was a decade ago largely because its ideas are so embedded in democratic society. The key to successful modern politics, he said, is compromise and a rejection of absolute positions. But now, theologians are mistakenly applying these methods to religion and ethics, he said. As a result, the cardinal said, Jesus is widely seen today as "one religious leader among others" and not as the living God. Likewise, concepts like the church, dogma and the sacraments are also viewed as too "unconditional," and the church is accused of intransigence and fundamentalism. …