Vatican City Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, considered a top contender to be the next pope, made his final public appearance before being sequestered in the Sistine Chapel on Monday, lashing out at the trends he said were taking root in the Roman Catholic Church.
Cardinal Ratzinger, the powerful dean of the College of Cardinals, used his homily at the Mass dedicated to electing the next pope to warn cardinals and the faithful about tendencies that he considered dangers to the faith: sects, ideologies like Marxism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism and relativism the ideology that there are no absolute truths.
"Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labelled today as a fundamentalism," he said, speaking in Italian. "Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching,' looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards.
"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires," he told cardinals, bishops and others gathered in St. Peter's Basilica for the solemn Mass before the conclave.
It was a blunt reminder to the 114 other cardinals who will elect the next pope that there are absolute truths in the church. The German-born Ratzinger, 78, has been guardian of those since 1981 as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responsible for maintaining the church's hard line on issues such as birth control, barring women priests, abortion and euthanasia.
In that role, Cardinal Ratzinger has silenced dissident theologians, reiterated church teaching and served as a close aide to Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Ratzinger has most often been mentioned as a possible "transitional" pope, who because of his age would likely have a short reign following the 26-year papacy of John Paul, the third-longest in church history.
Hard-liners who favour continuing John Paul's conservative policies also could back Cardinal Ratzinger at the helm at the church. And there are a lot of them: John Paul appointed all but two of the voting-age cardinals at the conclave. Only Ratzinger and the American Cardinal William Baum weren't named by John Paul.
But objections to a Ratzinger papacy could come from cardinals who want the next pope to be an experienced and widely admired pastoral figure, in the mold of John Paul or John XXIII. More liberal Catholics might also be alienated by a Ratzinger papacy.
Only in the last line of his homily did Cardinal Ratzinger refer specifically to the job awaiting cardinals later Monday:
"At this time, above all, we pray with insistence to the Lord, so that after the great gift of Pope John Paul II, he again gives us a pastor according to his own heart, a pastor who guides us to knowledge in Christ, to his love and to true joy."