VATICAN CITY — A leading contender to head the Roman Catholic Church demanded a rigid defense of its traditional moral teachings Monday as he and 114 fellow cardinals convened to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II. Their first session ended at dusk after an inconclusive first ballot.
In a centuries-old ritual wrapped in solemn pageantry, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the cardinals in a morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica and an afternoon procession into the Sistine Chapel. Then, after an unprecedented live telecast of their opening ceremony, the red-robed "princes" of the church locked themselves in the chapel to begin their conclave -- the secret sessions to choose the 265th pope.
Two and a half hours later, black smoke poured from the chapel's chimney, signaling to an expectant throng of thousands in St. Peter's Square that no candidate had achieved the 77 votes required for election. The cardinals adjourned until today.
Conclave rules dictated that Ratzinger, as dean of the College of Cardinals, lead the proceedings, and he used his homily at the Mass to articulate the core principles of a traditionalist bloc within the conclave and the kind of pope it seeks. That group of cardinals favors continued centralization of authority in the Vatican, opposing those who want more flexibility for local bishops in running the church or applying its doctrine.
The homily, read in Italian and meant to set the tone for the conclave, was a clear drawing of battle lines before a worldwide television audience. It came from the Vatican official who under John Paul had silenced scores of dissident theologians and priests and alienated millions of Catholics while defending such church taboos as those against birth control, women in the clergy and marriage for divorced Catholics.
The 78-year-old German prelate, chief of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog office since 1981, has emerged as the candidate of the traditionalists and reportedly lined up as many as 50 votes. Even if his candidacy were to fail, he would play a major role in choosing the next leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.
Facing a semicircle of his peers, Ratzinger stood at the main altar of the basilica and, in a strong voice that weakened slightly as his sermon went on, bluntly admonished them to reject the notion that there are no absolute truths.
"Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as fundamentalism," he said, "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 certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desire," Ratzinger said. The church, he added, must embrace an "adult" faith, "which does not follow the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties" but is "deeply rooted in friendship with Christ [and] gives us the knowledge to judge true from false."
He drew a smattering of applause from other cardinals when he asked God to give the church "a pastor according to his own heart, a pastor who guides us to knowledge in Christ, to his love and to true joy."
Last week, a bloc of cardinals opposed to or uneasy with the idea of a Ratzinger papacy began to coalesce. Many of them reportedly favored an early-round candidacy for the ailing Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan and highest-ranking champion of "collegiality" -- or democracy -- in the running of the church.
Walter Kasper, a German cardinal in the Martini camp and head of the Vatican department for outreach to other Christian groups, gave what appeared to be an anti-Ratzinger sermon Saturday.
"Let us not search for someone [as pope] who is too scared of doubt and secularism in the modern world," he said.
Father Tom Casey, who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said Ratzinger's focus Monday on threats to traditional Catholic identity would also have drawn a cool reception from another group of cardinals, those who believe that the church's top priority should be fighting for social justice.
Ratzinger "is presenting his view that Europe is the place where the battle for the soul of the church is going to take place," Casey told the BBC in a televised commentary. "Many in Latin America, Africa -- the developing world -- are asking: 'Where are the issues of the poor, refugees, world debt?' These are big issues. Ratzinger is being honest in saying what the big issues are as he sees them. He is laying his cards on the table."
It was not clear what the inconclusive first ballot meant for Ratzinger's candidacy. Before the conclave, some observers had speculated that Ratzinger and Martini would first test the strength of the opposing blocs and each give way to younger, like-minded candidates if they lost momentum in early rounds of voting.