Blessed John Paul II was able to challenge the false god of communism and win a victory. Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his pontificate to overcoming a much more resilient idol – what he called the dictatorship of relativism.
Communism made life uncomfortable (to say the least) for those who lived under it, but it could be overthrown politically. There is no fast political solution, however, to the tyranny of relativism, and indeed those who live in societies where relativism reigns supreme find that it is commended by the fact that it does not challenge one at all.
Relativism opts for the easy solution. You have an inconvenient pregnancy? Don't bother yourself with moral precepts; have an abortion. Want sex without the bother of children? Contraception has helped make sexual pleasure without commitment a dominant value in this individualistic universe. There is a call for volunteers at the women's shelter? Why should that interfere with an evening of watching TV?
The campaign against the dictatorship of relativism could not be won in an eight-year pontificate. It is one for the long term, a campaign that will grow even more intense in the years to come. Pope Benedict named the demon; the exorcism will take some time.
There is little doubt that the next pope will take up that cause, and it is almost redundant to say that the current conclave should pick a pope who will argue for the moral standards needed to protect human dignity. Nevertheless, the battle against relativism must be named as the chief challenge the Church faces in its relationship with Western society.
Chicago's Cardinal Francis George has said he expects to die in his own bed, but that he expects his successor will die in prison and that his successor's successor may die a martyr. Those are the stakes.
The culture of relativism promotes comfort today and could care less what it leaves for future generations. Government debt, environmental destruction and children abandoned through the erosion of the family are our legacy. Then there is our failure to help the Global South move toward economic development.
The only way out of this moral morass is to see Christ in every man, woman and child. That requires deep religious conversion.
One might say we require a pope who calls us more insistently to that conversion, who helps us to see that fullness of life means living for God and for others. But guess what? At least since Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris 50 years ago, they have been doing exactly that.
The new pope will surely continue to challenge our secularized world to live the Gospel. But the responsibility does not end there. We have heard the words of truth and life. When will we put them into action?