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Benedict XVI: A Life, Volume 2:
Professor and Prefect to Pope and Pope Emeritus: 1965—The Present
by peter seewald
ignatius press, 576 pages, $35

A shy, intensely Catholic, cats- and music-loving Bavarian boy who grew up in Nazi Germany becomes a first-class academic thinker and then, against his own will, successively archbishop of Munich, defender of Church doctrine at the Vatican, and finally pope—before sensationally stepping down. Such a story cannot but inspire biographers, and the one who has most successfully gnawed at that prize bone is undoubtedly the German journalist Peter Seewald. Seewald was raised Catholic, but became a left-leaning atheist in his youth, before working for such respected newspapers as Der Spiegel, Stern, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Since 1996 he has published some half a dozen conversations with or books on Cardinal Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, all translated into the world’s major languages. Seewald’s encounters with Ratzinger have helped lead him back to the faith; they have also produced his crowning achievement, a monumental 1,200-page biography released in one volume in German and two volumes in English: the second has just appeared.

Like the first volume, it sheds a sympathetic, appreciative light on the “Ratzinger mystery”: both progressive and conservative, loved and criticized, strong and weak. Seewald’s explanation is that Joseph Ratzinger remained the same throughout, while the world underwent a series of upheavals. And he was in the eye of the storm not by chance, but because he realized more acutely than most what these changes meant: The age of Marxist dogma was passing, only to be replaced by a relativistic ideology that was more subtly subversive and, indeed, manipulative. This is why the future pope’s childhood and adolescence are so important. Seewald’s biography clearly shows not only that pious Bavarian Catholics like him intuitively resisted Nazism and were oppressed in many ways (subtle or not), but also that they were dismayed to see that some Christians accepted accommodation with the Hitlerian ideology. This experience is similar to what young Karol Wojtyła had to cope with in Poland during the German occupation and then under the Marxist regime. If the two men shared the same theological insights, one reason may well be that they had previously survived identical ordeals that both challenged and strengthened their clear-sightedness and core beliefs. The two young men became aware that totalitarianism forbade personal access to necessarily transcendent truths.

Seewald persuasively identifies three speeches as turning points, not only in Ratzinger’s life, but in modern history. Two are obvious: Ratzinger’s homily at John Paul II’s funeral in 2005, which made the cardinals conclude that he was, in then-Cardinal Bergoglio’s words, “the only man with the stature, the wisdom and the necessary experience to be elected”—and his brief announcement of his resignation in 2013. A final illuminating “Afterword,” a seven-page question-and-answer with the pope emeritus, makes it clear that his resignation was definitely not due to any scandal or crisis: He just knew he was too weak to meet the physical demands of the job. 

The first of the three speeches Seewald pinpoints was the one Ratzinger wrote for Cardinal Frings in 1961. The speech argued that a new council was welcome, because Catholicism had always made the most of contemporary culture, and scientific and technological advances had changed the world since Vatican I. But he also foresaw that the secularized West’s domination would be challenged by Asian and African cultures. He concluded that the Church could bank on the spiritual, liturgical, biblical, and theological renewals already taking place to foster the communion to which humankind aspires and which no ideology can provide. The speech impressed John XXIII and set the tone for Vatican II, which did indeed draw on these new trends. Ratzinger played a key role at Vatican II as a theological adviser; it was also at the Council that he befriended Henri de Lubac and Karol Wojtyła. 

As Seewald argues, Ratzinger remained true to those insights; it was Küng and others, not him, who went berserk after Vatican II, posing as prophets and claiming the Council had not gone far enough. True, Ratzinger’s early work earned him a reputation as a “modernist” in some circles, thanks to his emphasis—in contrast to the then-dominant Neo-Scholastic school—on the Christian’s personal relationship with Christ. He maintained, for instance, that Aquinas was less systematic and more subtle than his followers, and that St. Bonaventure should be read not just as a philosopher in the Augustinian Platonist tradition, but as clearing the way toward a deeper, mystical, experience of God. 

Seewald does not explore in depth Ratzinger’s early writings, or his rather bumpy first steps in academia. (He had to drop the first part of his doctoral thesis on Bonaventure, a sign of his disturbing originality.) In general, Seewald’s treatment of Ratzinger’s thought is rather incomplete. More adequate introductions can be found in works by Aidan Nichols, George Weigel, and Elio Guerriero. These authors demonstrate Ratzinger’s lifelong attentiveness to religious experience, to the believer’s existential encounter with the Church’s teaching and liturgy, and also to the inevitable influence of contemporary culture on Catholics’ religious understanding and practice. He was genuinely interested in new ideas and current debates, and not systematically critical but always keen to assess their implications. As prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and then as pope, Ratzinger was far from the “God’s Rottweiler” caricature: His aim was, rather, to communicate the fundamentals of Christianity while closely watching what was going on in the world and might disturb believers.

Seewald’s narrative is meticulous, to the point where the reader sometimes loses the thread of the story. It sometimes seems as though the biographer does not want to leave aside any piece of the impressive mass of contextual information he has accumulated. Moreover, not all of it is accurate. A Frenchman will raise an eyebrow at being told that the Dominican theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P. was Belgian; or that Cardinal Ratzinger was awarded the Legion of Honor both in Rome (in Volume I, chapter 19: true) and in Paris (in Volume II, chapter 6: false) on the same day; or that he was elected to the Académie française (it was actually the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences); or that the 1789 revolutionaries persecuted the Jesuits, whose order had been dissolved in 1763. Also, the story of the birth of the international theological journal Communio (Volume II, chapter 8) is somewhat sketchy and does not match what survivors like me remember vividly: the foundational principles—editorial decentralization, bridges with secular culture, and the participation of lay academics—are ignored, and so is the key role of the French Jesuit Cardinal Jean Daniélou. Such approximations cast doubts on the tons of factual details that cannot be verified.

Nevertheless, the book is crisply written, consistently entertaining and frequently thought-provoking; through Seewald’s observations and his collecting of others’ testimonies, it reveals the meek, sharp-minded guy behind the ecclesiastical celebrity.

Jean Duchesne is emeritus professor of English at Condorcet College in Paris, co-founder of the French edition of Communio, and literary executor to Cardinal Lustiger and Fr. Louis Bouyer.

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Photo by Giuseppe Ruggirello via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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