To Joseph Ratzinger, elected Tuesday as the new Pope Benedict XVI of the Catholic Church, faith and doctrine are not things that change casually along with popular culture. They are standards.
Not long before his election, he invoked the biblical language of the Apostle Paul when addressing the subject. "Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. 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."
No doubt some Catholics were hoping for a pope who would liberalize the church's creeds and practices, or who would canonize their own lifestyles so that their own devotion would require no difficult change. But Ratzinger seems to understand that this would be a sure way to cheapen the faith and to ultimately make it of little relevance or value.
He appears ready to carry on the legacy of Pope John Paul II, who was a clear and convincing voice for moral standards in the world. That's a voice the world continues to need as popular culture tugs it toward narcissism and hedonism. It is one ingrained in his own life as he struggled against Nazi aggression as a boy in his native Germany. But it won't be an easy message to get across. That was made clear in a wire story, sent shortly after his election, concerning odds-makers who had been taking Internet bets on who would become the new pope. Many in the world find it fashionable to treat the sacred in ways that are profane.
John Paul II enjoyed enormous popularity in part because of his personality and his heroic influence over the downfall of communism. Some, it seemed, were happy to overlook the substance of what he said in favor of the man himself.
Benedict XVI will face these and other challenges. The church still is suffering the effects of sex-abuse scandals in this country involving priests and children, to name one. Another concerns the church's relations with Islam, as well as its continually evolving relationship with the Jewish faith. It remains to be seen whether he will travel as often or as widely as did his predecessor.
Because of his age (he is 78), some view Benedict XVI as a sort of transitional pope, a bridge between the enormously influential John Paul II and some other pope who would have a longer pontificate. But age and life-span are difficult things to predict. By selecting Ratzinger, the cardinals have signalled they are not interested in bending the church's moral standards to conform with the world. That is a good sign for devout people of all faiths.