Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

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

A random 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.


“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.)

In his hands, theology lost all remoteness, becoming something vital to understanding the time. In his foreword to Last Testament, “One Last Visit,” Peter Seewald describes Pope Emeritus Benedict as “the philosopher of God.” Yes, but he was also the theologian of the humble human seeker, explaining, illuminating, and synthesizing in the hope of reconciling humanity with the Word.

His witness against the age ranks him alongside Václav Havel and ­Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Yet Ratzinger was a different kind of dissident. The others, driven underground by regimes whose tyranny had become incontrovertible, became, for a time at least, ­unambiguous heroes. Ratzinger appeared to belong to an establishment—he was pope, after all—but was really the prophetic voice of dissidence from a darkening future, a free radical before his time. Now, though frail of body, he remains the most eloquent voice of God in the world, perhaps the sole surviving such truth-teller to whose words humanity will hasten when the darkness becomes undeniable.

In this, the last of four book-length interviews, Pope Benedict relates to Peter Seewald how he followed the path first forged by Augustine in seeking a synthesis between revelation and philosophy, between the Abrahamic, living God and the God of the philosophers. “I came to the conclusion: of course we need the God that has spoken, the God that speaks, the living God. The God that touches the heart, that knows me and loves me. But he must be accessible somehow to the mind. The human being is a unity.”

His “trade” might be called the science of the unknown, the realm beyond the three-dimensional that, though we may be unable to penetrate it, nonetheless defines the structure and nature of the world and the flesh and blood of our humanity. Ratzinger early on recognized that we had entered an age inimical to the religious impulse. He saw that although faith is incessantly exposed to the influence of culture, this had ceased to work the other way around. And since all cultures are necessarily founded on religious ideas, the eclipsing of God in culture invites destruction. Belonging to God, he wrote in Theology of the Liturgy, “means emerging from the state of separation, of apparent autonomy, of existing only for oneself and in oneself. It means losing oneself as the only possible way of finding oneself.” The problem is not simply humanity’s escalating remoteness from God, but that, in becoming “dissimilar” to God, mankind becomes “dissimilar to itself,” to what being human truly is.

There is, he said in that dazzling “bunker” speech to the Bundestag in September 2011, an “ecology of man.” Man “is not merely self-­creating freedom”; he is intellect and will, but also nature, “and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

That speech amounted to a summary of his lifetime’s public project: to warn of the eclipsing of mystery in modern culture, of the decline into an absolutist relativism and the positivist codes and delusions which lock us into a bunker of error—and then the antidote: throwing open the windows so that God might be recognized anew by his people. “The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more.”

Such warm appeals are obscured by one of the tiresome liberal clichés about Joseph Ratzinger, that he was a modernizer who “turned,” becoming an arch-traditionalist seeking to go backwards in time. This falsehood goes back to Vatican II, when the young Professor Ratzinger, who attended as theological adviser to Cardinal Frings of Cologne, was first deemed a “progressive.” He does not reject the label, but explains to Seewald that, at that time, it meant something different than today: not that you were “breaking out of the faith, but that you wanted to understand it better, and more accurately, how it lives from its origins.” The change in meaning was already detectable at the time of Vatican II, but “only began to loom clearly with the passing of the years.”

Saint John Paul the Great, and latterly Pope Francis, have revelled in crowds. Benedict spoke heart to heart. John Paul was the pope of popes—the man who drew multitudes of the curious and hungry to be uplifted and enthralled; Benedict was the envoy, interpreter, diplomat, persuader, prophet, the one who attracted people one at a time in the fragile hope of having their questions answered. Wojtyła was a town crier to the world, warning of amnesia concerning God and the annulling of his laws. Ratzinger was the fireman who climbed out on the ledge to talk the world down, heart by heart. Unexpectedly, he was adept at reaching out to the educated generations of young people seeking to comprehend the lassitude invoked in them by a globalized culture selling sensation and freedom but not the peace their hearts craved.

A Spanish friend described to me the extraordinary events at the aerodrome of Cuatro Vientos, Madrid, in the summer of 2011, where Pope Benedict XVI said Mass in front of two million young people for World Youth Day. All day, despite temperatures nearing 40 degrees centigrade, multitudes of the young sang and danced as they waited for the pope, fire trucks spraying water over them to keep the heat at bay. Later, as the pope began his homily, there was a sudden change in the weather: The rain came in great horizontal sheets that left nothing or nobody undrenched.

The pope abandoned his homily; it became uncertain that the event could continue. Then Benedict began to speak again. He said the Lord had sent the rain as a gift. He told the young people that they would encounter ­trials in their lives much worse than this, but should not be fearful because they would be accompanied always. “Your strength is stronger than the rain,” he said. Then, with the storm still raging, the pope knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and two million young people lapsed into silence.

Seasoned policemen afterwards said that, had a storm like this hit a rock concert or football match, there might have been a major catastrophe. Here, there was silence, stillness, before something immense. For seven years, Spain had been in the clutches of the Socialist regime of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had sought to squeeze the mysteriousness out of civic reality. In Madrid that weekend, the children of that grim era recognized something more hopeful than what politicians call progress, more beautiful than what journalists call freedom.

The following morning, a squad of reporters from one of the leading Spanish dailies descended on Cuatro Vientos to sift through the detritus of the previous day. They were searching for beer cans, used condoms, evidence of drug use among the young people who had gathered to greet the pope. They found nothing to satisfy them.

It is twenty-five years since Peter Seewald first interviewed Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, twenty years since the publication of their first book-length interview. (Salt of the Earth, published in 1997, was followed by God and the World in 2002 and Light of the World in 2010.)

When they first met, Seewald was a lapsed believer. In the foreword to Salt of the Earth, he summarized the general cultural situation with his own:

I had left the Church a long time before; there were plenty of reasons. Once upon a time, all you had to do was sit in a church, and you got bombarded by particles of faith loaded in the course of centuries. But now every certainty had become questionable, and all tradition seemed impossibly old and stale. Some were of the opinion that Christianity had to adapt to people’s needs. Others thought that Christianity had outlived its usefulness; it was out of date and no longer had a right to exist. It is not altogether easy to leave the Church. But it is less easy to return. Does God really exist? And, if so, do we need a Church as well? What is it supposed to look like—and how can someone rediscover it?

The four books can be said to amount to an exploration of these questions with the man most qualified to answer them. Seewald certainly became convinced. On the occasion of the publication of Light of the World, he told the French weekly magazine Pèlerin: “Today, after having formerly rejected the Church and spent time as a Communist, I’m finding once again—in the Gospels—the ideals of my youth. Christianity is not reactionary; it is revolutionary. That’s what we need to rediscover.” In his foreword to Salt of the Earth, Seewald noted that Cardinal Ratzinger, on the morning of their first encounter, did not ask him about his “past or . . . current status.”

Last Testament is billed as their final conversation. One of its most intriguing aspects is as a document of the friendship between these two men from the land of the Reformation, the German former agnostic and the German pope emeritus. The relationship reveals an essential fact about the personality and intentions of Pope Benedict XVI: his commitment to conversing with the doubter in this age of skepticism, to speak in the language of the world.

The questions follow the already well-travelled path of Joseph ­Ratzinger’s biography—his youth, student days, time in the German army in World War II; seminary years and theological apprenticeship; early priesthood; professorship in Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg, with accounts of the legendary theologians he encountered, including ­Romano ­Guardini, Martin ­Buber, Karl ­Rahner, Josef Pieper, and Hans Urs von Balthasar; arrival in Rome for Vatican II; relationship with Hans Küng; the 1968 uprisings; Humanae Vitae; work as archbishop of ­Munich and Freising; later, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; life as Pope Benedict XVI through the many upheavals such as the Regensburg speech, the ­Williamson and Vatileaks affairs; the sexual abuse scandals; the places he visited and public figures he encountered; and, finally, the historic resignation of 2013.

It has been called “the most revealing book yet on Benedict XVI.” The fascinating things we learn are mostly not “newsworthy,” nor are they in the tradition of the grand Ratzinger exposition. But this book does deepen our sense of the personality, gentleness, humor, and subtlety of the pope emeritus. Benedict disposes here of several legends that have grown up since his resignation: that he stepped down because he was being blackmailed (no, he was simply no longer strong enough); that he is less than approving of the style of his successor (“On the contrary, I approve, definitely”).

We learn of his lifelong love of walking; that he has for some time been completely blind in the left eye; that he always has a couch nearby to lie upon while he thinks; that his handwriting becomes tinier as he ages; that he needs “lots of sleep” (­seven, eight hours) and never works into the night; that he hates cufflinks; that he has never had a driver’s license; that he always writes in shorthand and in pencil so he can erase things as necessary; that, although he loves music, he cannot have it playing while he writes; that he never “properly learned” Italian; that his mother’s parents were married after her birth but that she remained “illegitimate” for some time due to a legal oversight; that he was “a real fan” of Pope John XXIII.

Seewald, from the start, took on the secondary task of dispersing the myths and distortions concerning Benedict XVI. In an interview published in the January-February 2016 edition of Faith magazine, he said that Ratzinger “was always a very modern person, even if many didn’t see him this way; modern in a sense he does things no one has done before because they’re necessary, examining those steps like no one else. He examines them not only with his mind but of course in prayer as well.”

We see an example of Benedict’s approach when Seewald asks him where the God of hope and love is actually to be located. Here we see the breadth of Benedict’s gaze as he acknowledges the difficulties of confronting a positivistic world with a proposal that, in some respects, is conceptually and linguistically confounding. Is it not the case, Seewald wonders, that heaven is nowhere to be found in what we see as reality? So where, then, might God be enthroned? The pope laughs:

Yes, because there is not something, a place where He sits. God Himself is the place beyond all places. If you look into the world, you do not see heaven, but you see traces of God everywhere. In the structure of matter, in all the rationality of reality. Even when you see human beings, you find traces of God. You see vices, but you also see goodness, love. These are the places where God is there.

The translation of theology and faith into the language of the present time “has tremendous lacunae,” he continues. We need “new conceptual schemes,” to renew our thinking about many aspects of God, to “completely clear away these spatial things, and grasp matters afresh.” God is the reality that upholds all reality. “And for this reality I don’t need any kind of ‘where’, because ‘where’ is already a limitation, already no longer the infinite, the creator, who is the all, who sweeps over all time and is not Himself time, for He creates time and is always present.”

It would be invidious to seek to go beneath Pope Benedict’s apparently wholehearted endorsement of his successor. Still, more than a few Catholics remain dismayed by the change they feel Francis represents. There are those who complain that the present pope plays into the hands of a hostile media and those who argue that he cleverly equivocates with a view, perhaps, to keeping the Church intact while bringing it into a new phase. The apparent ­ambiguity concerns certain moral ­questions, over which a struggle harking back to Vatican II continues to play out. Other observers point, with some ­plausibility, to the resonances between many of Pope ­Francis’s ­statements and the positions articulated by Benedict, arguing that the change has amounted more to a shift of style than one of substance. (This appears to be Benedict’s own mature judgment.)

One of the most intriguing answers in this book comes in response to Seewald’s question as to whether Benedict sees himself as “the last Pope of an old era or the first Pope of a new era.” Benedict responds: “Between the times, I would say.” Itself an ambiguous response, it may indicate a belief that the Church is currently treading water, that we have yet to reach the crucial moment when a dispute traceable back to Vatican II will be resolved one way or the other. It is a dispute predicated largely on the differing definitions of the word “progressive” that Benedict identifies. Depending on which definition one chooses, a whole host of questions now facing the Church will receive very different answers. Under Francis, no less than under Benedict, Catholics continue to live “between the times.”

Charming as this book is, there are a few minor stylistic flourishes and proofreading irritants that mar it somewhat. On page sixty-one, for instance, Pope Benedict tells of an infection in his finger when he was seventeen, reportedly declaring: “My whole thumb had gone horribly ­sceptic and hurt terribly.” If this is not a mere error, the world may yet have reason to be grateful that this scepticism did not spread outwards from the finger of the future pope, thus vindicating the hopes of the malevolent and myopic editors of the world.

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, author of nine books, and a playwright.