Last Testament: In His Own Words
by benedict xvi with peter seewald
bloomsbury, 288 pages, $24

Arandom tale from the front line of the ­Ratzinger media wars: At the time of Benedict XVI’s announcement in 2013 that he was to step down as pope, I was writing for one of the Irish national dailies. One day, I was speaking on the phone to one of my editors—to whose ambivalent care I had filed more than a few robust defenses of the pope—when he suddenly remembered he had something to tell me. He’d been speaking to a senior Italian diplomat who had confided in him the real reason why the pope resigned.

“Really?”

“Oh yes. It’s because he no longer believes in God!” He paused before the punchline: “He’s too intelligent for that!”

Ah! A none-too-subtly coded message: Faith is incompatible with intelligence, and now your hero has tacitly admitted as much. Where does that leave you?

I relate the episode because it offers a measure of insight into the media’s hostility toward Pope Benedict XVI. Really, the thing that most bothered the commentariat about Benedict was that his every word was so coherent and irrefutable. His brilliance was not just a threat to their program but also an accusation: You’re missing something, maybe even everything. His resignation therefore came as a great relief—now they wouldn’t have to work so hard at corrupting every word of the pope’s before publication, or tinkering with the narrative to ensure a consistency of negativity.

The ideology journalists are enjoined to disseminate makes such a mindset essential. Their allotted mission is to make the world free for human desire understood in its crudest form, by the constant insinuation of what Benedict XVI, in one of his crystal phrases, termed “false infinities.” Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that his every word became twisted beyond recognition before being passed into the mainstream. For our catchword-clotted media, Ratzinger was the grim enforcer, the panzer-cardinal, the pope’s policeman, “God’s Rottweiler,” a renegade “liberal” who had become an implacable enemy of “progress,” the “man who couldn’t laugh” . . .

In turn, Pope Benedict had spent his life peering into the culture of which such malevolence was a central element. There was no existential condition of the modern age—skepticism, relativism, positivism, unreason, despair, lassitude, boredom—which he did not lay bare with great tenderness. In an age of which Doubting Thomas might plausibly be deemed the patron saint, he spoke in two languages, sometimes intertwined: the languages of the beyond and the “here below.” See the young Joseph Ratzinger, svelte and smiling in his black priest’s uniform, hair whitened from the heat of his mind, speaking in a language that seemed effortlessly to translate the word of the godly city into the idiom of the earthly metropolis and shanty-town. This fragile body has in our time been as the filament in a floodlamp of reason that has sometimes seemed capable of re-illuminating the world. (Most of the time, it is revealed in this latest book of interviews, he did the heavy generating while never moving from his couch, horizontal as a saint.)

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