Benedict XVI: A Life. Professor and Prefect to Pope and Pope Emeritus. 1966 – The Present
By Peter Seewald. Bloomsbury. 2021. 568 pages

Seewald’s second volume of his magisterial biography of Joseph Ratzinger takes up the story in 1966. The Second Vatican Council ended the year before and Ratzinger could clearly see that things had begun to go off the rails. Ratzinger’s insightful contributions as a Council peritus or expert had a profound impact on the direction of the Council. But as Ratzinger now recognised, what the Council fathers had decided upon was one thing, the so-called “spirit of the Council” was a completely other thing.

Seewald cites a parallel drawn by the famous Church historian Hugh Jedin between the years following the Second Vatican Council and the 16th century. In both periods Catholics “sleepwalked” into heresy thinking that all they were doing was reforming the Church; in both periods warning voices were dismissed as reactionary, new communication media greatly facilitated the dissemination of dissent, and passive (German) bishops were instrumental in allowing these things to happen.

Seewald does well to centre his two-volume biography on the Vatican Council as this event lies at the very heart of the life of Joseph Ratzinger. The intense academic training of his youth came to fruition in the Council, and his life subsequently – as academic theologian, archbishop of Munich, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, or Pope – can be read as a struggle to defend and implement the correct understanding of the Council. Throughout Volume II, increasingly dissident theologians such as Ratzinger’s one-time academic colleague Hans Küng, snipe away at Ratzinger as their great nemesis.

That so much of Ratzinger’s life is spent opposing this false “parallel Council” does not mean he was (as he has so often been caricatured) a conservative reactionary. For him the dichotomy between conservatives and progressives misses the important point that the Council was neither “conservative” nor “progressive” but missionary. This is what the Council sought in opening up the Church to the world.

Ratzinger distinguished three main forces struggling to shape the future of the post-conciliar Church: neo-Marxist progressivism, narrow conservatism hostile to the Council, and the true theology of the Council.

In 1966 the 39-year-old professor took up – naïvely as he later said – a new academic post in the theology faculty of Tübingen, working alongside Hans Küng. Küng ended up being a thorn in Ratzinger’s side over the coming three decades, perhaps motivated by envy of his colleague’s brilliance and popularity. When, in 1969, Ratzinger could bear Küng’s “big mouth” no longer he moved to the University of Regensburg – though Küng put it out that he fled the University of Tübingen because of the atmosphere of violent student protest.

Seewald considers the eight years he spent in Regensburg to be an important but neglected period in Ratzinger’s life: “It was important because in these years Ratzinger tried to find answers to the cultural and religious crisis of the time.” He believed that this crisis was in large part due to the “disintegration of the liturgy”. His battles with theologians attacking traditional Catholic dogma intensified during this time, and amongst other actions he co-founded the influential journal Communio to bolster genuine Catholic theology (having disassociated himself from Küng’s increasingly unorthodox Concilium journal).

Archbishop and Prefect of the CDF

In 1977 Ratzinger ruefully accepted his appointment by Pope Paul VI as archbishop of Munich and Freising, while a theologian of the stature of Hans Urs von Balthasar was horrified that theology should lose such an important thinker to the episcopacy. Three months later he was made cardinal by Pope John Paul II, and in 1981 he became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

And so began what Seewald calls the “closest relation ever between a Pope and his successor to the papacy”. Certainly it was a remarkable combination of two churchmen gifted in very different ways. Several times Cardinal Ratzinger petitioned the Pope to release him from his onerous task as prefect, but the Pope knew better than to lose him. In 1986, in response to Ratzinger’s complaint that “my time is up”, the Pope replied, “That would not do”. Again, after ten years in office to the same request came the same reply: “No, no, no, that won’t do.”

Though Ratzinger did not feel up to the task, he clearly was remarkably successful in the job. His victory over the Liberation Theology of such influential theologians as the Brazilian Leonardo Boff was one of his triumphs in his time as prefect, with enormous repercussions for the Church, especially in South America: “If the theories of political theology had prevailed, a new schism would have been inevitable. “Ratzinger saved the continent for the Catholic Church,” said a colleague in the CDF.”

His intellectual superiority was “so obvious” according to a Vatican insider, that “in the long term it is not easy for someone of equal rank to have to live with such an intellectually and theologically outstanding man as Ratzinger.” He engaged with a dialogue of the highest intellectual calibre with even the likes of Jürgen Habermas, one of the last representatives of the left-wing Frankfurt School. Habermas proved to be in complete agreement with Ratzinger in rejecting an anti-religious society. Linked to this was his intolerance of stupidity: “… he kept an icy silence when he had to listen to it,” said a journalist.

With his intellectual acumen and personal courage he was very successful at guarding the Pope’s flanks (ironically he would fail to find such a guard for himself among his successors in the CDF after his election). He suffered for this, being dubbed a “persecutor” when in reality he was the one persecuted, “a sort of scapegoat”.

And yet he was not the narrow conservative many painted him to be. It is very revealing that on the appointment of the liberal-leaning Lehmann and Kasper as cardinals, Ratzinger discussed the two appointments with Pope John Paul II. As Ratzinger himself said: “Of course, he [John Paul II] would not have appointed anyone from Germany or elsewhere as cardinal if I had spoken against it. Indeed, there were friends who told the pope I would behave in too gentlemanly a fashion in such cases and not appreciate the situation realistically enough. But it seemed to me that temperaments and views different from my own ought to have a place in the College of Cardinals, in so far as they remained within the bounds of the Catholic faith.”

During his 24 years as prefect of the CDF Ratzinger was “unsurpassed in analysing the situation within the Church” as well the malaise of neo-paganism afflicting the world at large. Besides innumerable interviews he produced many books and essays on matters spiritual and cultural. Notable among these are his book-length interviews The Ratzinger Report (1986), and Salt of the Earth (1996).

The papacy

Despite being almost 78 when the conclave met to elect John Paul’s successor in April 2005, many commentators and even the bookies saw Ratzinger as Wojtyla’s “natural successor”. And so he turned out to be, but also with a series of unique talents, especially his profound intellectual capacities. Where “Wojtyła was a man of images; his successor was a man of words. People came to the former to see him; they came to the latter to hear him.”

His release from the CDF also allowed “an aura of gentle kindness” to replace the inevitable defensiveness that went with his previous role. This was very attractive to the young. “One of the young people confessed: ‘The Pope is like my granny, she always says the same thing. And even when I don’t go along with it, I know that basically she is right.’”

The new Pope was soon “regarded not only as the greatest theologian ever to sit on the chair of St Peter, but also as one of the most important thinkers of our time.”

“He is the great thinker,” said the Austrian Jesuit theologian Franz Xaver Brandmayr, who was very close to the Vatican and rector of the Pontifical Institute of Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome. “In an era beset by irrationalism and loss of truth, he answers rationally, without being confined to rationalism.”

The biblical scholar Thomas Söding marvelled that anyone who as pope added “regular times for study to his diary” must be “filled with unbounded curiosity to learn, assimilate and think through what others have thought, said and written”. Since Pius II in the 15th century, there had “never been such an educated humanist on the chair of Peter as Benedict XVI.”

Pope Benedict addressed in particular the great problem of our age: “the God crisis”.

He knew from first-hand experience as a child in the Nazi Germany that when a society loses God it also loses the foundations of a civilised existence. In 2018, as Pope Emeritus, Ratzinger gave this dramatic description of the power of “the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanist ideologies”.

“Contradicting them means being excluded from the basic social consensus. A hundred years ago anyone would have found it absurd to speak of homosexual marriage. Today anyone opposing it is socially excommunicated. The same goes for abortion and creating human beings in a laboratory. Modern society is formulating an anti-Christian creed and opposing it is punished with social excommunication. It is only natural to fear this spiritual power of Antichrist and it really needs help from the prayers of a whole diocese and the world church to resist it.”

He addressed the basic questions of man’s relationship with God in his two encyclicals Deus caritas est (2005) and Spe salvi (2007). The solution to the crisis of the Church would only be found through the faith of the Church. For him it was clear that the Church had to rediscover the faith of simple people: “It is not the intellectuals who are the standard for the simple people, but the simple people who are the standard for the intellectuals.” At the same time it must rediscover Christ, “beyond traditionalism and progressivism; following Guardini’s dictum that Christianity is not the following of an idea or a programme but a person: Christ.” To this end he managed – astoundingly – to produce a three-volume magnum opus on the life of Jesus.

As Seewald puts it, “The pope’s book on Jesus was the quintessence of a man who, as schoolboy and student, as a priest, theologian, bishop, cardinal and head of the Catholic Church, pursued the figure and message of Jesus, not only with scholarship but also spiritually.”

Crises and resignation

From the outset he had his opponents, especially in the German-speaking world. Astonishingly only two German bishops attended a post-election reception for his compatriots, and this because, “on the first election of a German pope for 500 years, the secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference, Hans Langendörfer, had not deemed it necessary to cancel a routine meeting of the German bishops.”

His fellow Germans were amongst his harshest critics during the three crises that were to dominate the final four years of his papacy. The first crisis was the “Williamson Affair”. In January 2009 the excommunication of bishops belonging to the schismatic Society of St Pius X was lifted. One of these bishops was an Anglican convert, Richard Williamson, who had only a short time previously denied the Holocaust ever happened. A series of stupid failures by the Roman Curia launched the Pope into the crisis which marked the beginning of a process that ultimately led to his historic decision to resign.

Then “in the course of 2009 a tsunami arose that would shake the foundations of the Catholic Church right into the papacy of Pope Francis. Many people said it was the biggest ever crisis in church history. Gänswein called it the ‘9/11 for our faith’, which traumatized the Catholic Church just as the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 had traumatized the USA.”

This was of course the child sexual abuse crisis, the epicentre of which was Ireland. From 2009 onwards report after report, first in Ireland, USA and Germany and then elsewhere, revealed the depth of abuse of children in Church-run institutions, or directly by priests, and often covered up by high-ranking officials. This left the Church in Ireland “a wreck” in the words of Fr Vincent Twomey, and the Catholic Church facing a “media meltdown”.

The final crisis, Vatileaks,  unfolded in January 2012 with publication in the media of sensitive private documents which had been stolen from the desk of the Pope’s secretary by the papal valet Paolo Gabriele. (Police were later to remove 82 boxes of stolen documents, gifts and even a gold nugget from Gabriele’s apartment.) On his release from prison he was given a job the Pope had taken care to find him – ironically in the photocopying room of a Catholic hospital.

Through 2012 Pope Benedict prayed and weighed up the possibility of resigning the papacy and had decided on this course of action in August. He made the announcement to a shocked group of cardinals gathered in a routine Consistory on 11 February 2013.

Two weeks later, on the last day of his papacy, as he was about to leave the Vatican, he said to the cardinals gathered for the coming Conclave: “And among you in the College of Cardinals is the future pope, to whom today I promise my unconditional respect and my unconditional obedience.”

Seewald later asked him how he could offer obedience to a successor when he had no idea who it would be. Benedict replied: “The pope is the pope. It doesn’t matter who it is!”

Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He teaches occasional...