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Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait
by peter seewald
ignatius, 260 pages, $24.95

When Peter Seewald published a book-length interview with Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996, it was met with silence by the German intellectual and theological establishment. As a former editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, “An interview that a freelance journalist has held with someone is out of the question for us”—especially if, as in this case, that someone was the same prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whom German theologians and intellectuals had tried to blackguard and ignore. No matter. The Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium eventually sold half a million copies in twenty languages.

Now, in a new biography of that cardinal—the man who has since become Pope Benedict XVI—Seewald adds a demonstration that he understands as well as anyone the many-sided scholar who is today the successor of St. Peter. Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait effectively brings the pope to the wider world—mostly because its author is a journalist able to ask the questions nontheologians and nonbelievers find interesting. A communist when he first encountered the future pope, Seewald nonetheless had insight and integrity that gradually enabled him to recognize the central claims of Christianity, even when he could not accept their truth. And, as his work with then Cardinal Ratzinger on The Salt of the Earth progressed, he managed to escape the narrow constraints of the German intellectual and theological world, coming to admire his subject.

Indeed, by his own account, the answers Seewald received “grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.” He started to read the gospels regularly and to go to Mass. Belief became a burning issue for him and he was horrified by the possibility that his questions had no answers. He has now quietly returned to the Church, acknowledging that, by Catholic criteria, only a conservative can be progressive—which is to say, only someone who keeps the treasure of faith complete and intact is able to achieve progress.

Press stereotypes have framed the questions typically asked about Joseph Ratzinger’s personal development. He was, after all, a progressive peritus at the Second Vatican Council, an adviser to Cardinal Frings, and one of the champions of reform. How could he have possibly become the dour “Panzer Kardinal” in charge of the Holy Office, who pursued dissident theologians? And, given his persona as a brutal enforcer, what can explain his apparent further development into a benign and gentle pope, drawing enormous crowds of pilgrims to hear him?

Seewald is convincing in his account of Benedict’s personal story as one of steady, logical development rather than a series of abrupt conversions provoked by adversity or ambition. The cardinals who elected Joseph Ratzinger pope acknowledged his theological expertise, but they knew as well that he was a Bavarian gentleman of the old school, with a quiet charm and unfailing courtesy that the wider world would like when they encountered it.

The secular press’s profiles of Ratzinger while he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were often wrong, and it is not surprising to read Seeward’s story about how, while his first article on Ratzinger was being prepared, the editors rejected the first twenty-five photographs of the cardinal because he looked “too good.”

Ratzinger has clearly been reinvigorated by his election to the papacy, but his personal style has not changed. It is true that, while he was a professor, he was a clear-headed opponent of the Marxist radicals at Tübingen in 1968. But, contrary to the claims of Hans Küng, he was never shouted down by his students and never treated badly by them. After the Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx had lectured at the university, a panel discussion was scheduled, which included Küng and Ratzinger. In the animated discussion, Ratzinger said nothing until the students started to call out “Ratzinger must speak.” He did so for fifteen minutes, summarizing and analyzing so successfully that the chairman concluded that nothing more needed to be said and closed the meeting happily.

The real cause of his change, if change there was, proves to be his working out the consequences that flowed from the two forces driving the changes of the Second Vatican Council: aggiornamento, bringing the Church up to date, and ressourcement, returning the Church to the biblical and patristic sources. An overemphasis on adaptation quickly led, in some cases, to a surrender to the world, to the salt losing its savor. As early as 1966, Karl Barth asked Paul VI in an audience, “What does aggiornamento mean? An accommodation to what?”

As radical liberalism gathered steam, especially in some Western countries, pastors, congregants, and theologians alike got caught up in the lust for change, and their leaders revealed more of their hidden ambitions. Without doubt, a good deal of the postconciliar religious collapse was self-inflicted. But that fact does not require us to minimize the immense sociological changes occurring in the 1960s and 1970s with the invention of the contraceptive pill and the consequent sexual revolution. Paul VI smelled the “smoke of Satan” in the Church too late.

Ratzinger was one of an important group of theologians who realized that the primacy of the biblical Christ and the integrity of the Catholic tradition were threatened. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and the Polish Karol Wojtyła were of the same mind.

Benedict has now been pope for over four years, and in Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait, Seewald enthusiastically lists his achievements, correctly noting the Muslim—Catholic dialogue that followed the Regensburg address (potentially a development of enormous import) and especially the “Benedict Effect” in Germany, where conversions and returns have increased and the numbers leaving the Church declined. More would be helpful, but the biography was concluded before more recent controversies over the lifting of the excommunications of the Lefebvre bishops, the Brazilian abortion, and condoms in Africa. Still, Benedict is in good health and in good form. With modern medicine and God’s blessing, he could approach the longevity of Leo XIII. Surprises could still lie ahead.

Traditionally, the papacy has been enriched by a creative tension between the Secretariat of State, which usually espouses a more pastoral or diplomatic approach, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, concerned to preserve the purity of the apostolic tradition.

Benedict’s secretary of state was secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while Cardinal Levada—a man with a strong doctrinal background and wide pastoral experience—now heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is a little early to judge whether this change of leadership styles has been completely successful.

Perhaps unintentionally, Seewald also demonstrates another characteristic of the Holy Father. He does not rush to decision quickly or lightly. When Seewald first broached the idea of the Salt of the Earth interview, he heard nothing for some months, until a letter from the cardinal’s secretary informed him that the project was being prayerfully considered.

Two months later, the project was approved and moved forward slowly, with many stops and starts. And when the final text was delivered for approval, it sat for nearly four months before a reply came, which recommended no changes at all.

Benedict XVI continues to move serenely, with his own style and at his own pace, even with the liturgy. He believes the crisis in the Church springs largely from the disintegration of the liturgy, even in our era of “violent change” and “epoch-making upheaval.” These are unusual perspectives, even for the first pope elected in the third Christian millennium. We await further developments with faith, hope, and love.

George Cardinal Pell is archbishop of Sydney.

Image by PxHere licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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