Benedict XVI: A Life, Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965
By Peter Seewald, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2020, 512 pages

Peter Seewald’s first interview with Cardinal Ratzinger in November 1992 was providential for him — it led ultimately to his return to the Catholic Faith — and also for the Church, since it in turn lead to a series of book length interviews with one of the greatest theologians in Church history, and ultimately to this riveting biography.

Seewald clearly has a great love for his subject, and his subject would appear to have great confidence in his biographer, granting him many hours of interviews. And just as importantly, Seewald has a great understanding of the historical, ecclesiastical and theological context of Ratzinger’s life. Frequently the reader is treated to very informative “digressions” into historical events, intellectual movements and key thinkers which have formed the warp and woof of his life.

Quite rightly I think, he treats one particular event – the Second Vatican Council – as the fulcrum of this amazing life: the formational years as a boy and as a “master student” in the seminary appear as a providential preparation for his later work as a theological adviser, and then as a peritus, in the Council. The three sections of Volume One trace this natural progression: “The Boy”, “The Master Student”, “The Council”.

The boy

The early years of Ratzinger the boy were clearly shaped by three influences: familial, geographical and political. Above all, it is his strict but principled father, Joseph Ratzinger Senior, who stands out as the dominant influence in his formation. A simpler but warmer-hearted mother served to soften the home atmosphere. Throughout their lives the three children, Joseph and his two elder siblings: Maria and Georg, were inseparable.

Everywhere in the boyhood formation of little Joseph the geography of his native Bavaria appears key: whether it is in its Marian shrines, monasteries, small towns, or in its natural beauty. Politically, however, Nazism cast a dark shadow over what otherwise would have been an idyllic boyhood. This made life particularly complex for the family, as the father was a policeman, and his barely suppressed disdain for the regime endangered his job and forced his early retirement.

While the Nazi regime went through a series of political and later military triumphs, the mental agility of little Joseph, along with his quiet reserve, was becoming apparent. He followed his older brother’s footsteps and began boarding in the Traunstein seminary in 1939 – the year that the Second World War erupted. The first years of the war left his studies and his growing love for classical music and German literature unscathed. But when air attacks on Southern Germany began in 1943, he was drafted into an anti-aircraft battery and the horror of the war was now before his very eyes. Years later he would still awaken sweating from nightmares in which “I was back in the flak”.

Later he was required to dig trenches with the “Reich Labour Service” and then he was drafted into the Wehrmacht as an ordinary soldier. He spent forty days in an American prison camp at the end of the war before his release and return to his family.

The collapse in 1945 marked the end of Germany’s insane 12-year infatuation with Nazism, and left the 18-year-old Ratzinger more ready than ever for a radical commitment to God.

The master student

In January 1946 Georg and Joseph entered the Freising Seminary, stepping from a destroyed Germany into a new world of lectures in philosophy, theology, Latin and Greek. Ratzinger “burned with a hunger for knowledge”. Both brothers were clearly gifted, through Georg more musically and Joseph academically, earning them the respective monikers of “Organ Ratz” and “Book Ratz”.

In 1947 Ratzinger continued his studies in Munich University. Ratzinger commented that “the university was my spiritual home.” The post-war years produced both a “Catholic Spring” in the war-torn countries of continental Europe, as well as an exciting intellectual ferment. It is fascinating to see how he immersed himself in the works of contemporary thinkers and writers such as the liturgist Romano Guardini (whose lectures he attended in Munich), Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos and Hermann Hesse.

His greatest intellectual discovery was much different however – it was St Augustine, and in particular his Confessions. He could relate to Augustine’s passionate search for the truth (over Aquinas’ more dispassionate engagement), as well as Augustine’s desire to be a writer (rather than an ecclesiastic). The Confessions would be the one (non-scriptural) book Ratzinger would take with himself to a desert island.

It was also in Munich that Ratzinger experienced the “first great crisis of his vocation” – having developed romantic feelings towards a female fellow student there. Several months of soul-searching ended with a conviction that God’s protecting hand would guide him: “I was convinced – I don’t know how – that God wanted something from me, that could only be achieved by my becoming a priest.”

After the brothers’ ordination on 29 June 1951, Joseph was given his first appointment, as a curate in Bogenhausen. Though the shy young priest lasted only a few months in the job before being appointed to the post of lecturer in the Freising seminary, he won the hearts of his parishioners.

The young priest’s classes were so engaging that before long a “Ratzinger Worship Society” had been formed! Students were convinced that he was not interested in just matters academic. Ratzinger believed that the Faith could only be learned, when “it warms your heart”. A “personal involvement” was essential for studying theology — which meant “accepting the truth about yourself in the light of God.”

Before being confirmed in an academic career, he still had to submit his Habilitation. What he produced was a remarkable 700-page work on the concept of revelation in the work of St Bonaventure. While the approval of this magnum opus seemed like a foregone conclusion, its approval was dramatically opposed by the vain and pompous professor Michael Schmaus, in what appears to have been a fit of pique. Potential disaster for Ratzinger’s career was averted when he ingeniously edited the pages which were apparently unacceptable to Schmaus, resubmitted it, and won approval – thereby becoming the youngest professor of theology in the world.

The Vatican Council

This section begins with Ratzinger taking up a post in Bonn in 1959 – with the spirit of the Sixties already stirring. Bonn was a city in which he was never more relaxed, and here he did what he always did: held students spellbound with his lectures and forged deep friendships and academic alliances.

The ferment of the time was compounded by Pope John XXIII’s convocation of an ecumenical Council – “with no particular problem to solve”. While many in the Roman Curia were approaching this as a short, pro forma, rubber-stamping exercise, elsewhere in Europe it was being given much deeper consideration.

Cardinal Frings of Cologne, after sitting in on a lecture Ratzinger gave on the theology of the Council to come, asked him to prepare the text of a speech the Cardinal himself had to give on the same topic in Genoa. The text of the “Genoa Speech” found its way to the Pope himself who not only commented to Frings: “You have said everything that I’ve thought and wanted to say, but was unable to say myself”. Its contents were echoed in his opening speech to the Council. Even before the Council began Ratzinger was making his mark.

Frings increasingly sought Ratzinger’s advice on the first drafts of Council documents, with their rather staid scholastic formulations. Ratzinger sent him back “many corrections”. The 34-year-old professor was convinced that the faith must “get out of this armour, adopt a new language, and be more open to the present situation. So there must also be greater freedom in the Church.”

Theologians were very important to the development of the Council, but it seemed tailor-made for Ratzinger as it dealt particularly in areas that he had specialised in: revelation, ecclesiology, and liturgy. As one theologian remarked: “The Germans strongly influenced the Council. There was one towering figure in particular: Ratzinger.”

Ratzinger assisted Cardinal Frings in opposing the modus operandi of the Roman Curia, which was minimal, even token, discussion of the documents that they had prepared for the Council fathers. While this may have appeared to some as a rebellious attitude, it was one adopted out of a sense of responsibility and out of a love for the Church.

Seewald disagrees with the myth of a “great change” or conservative swing of Ratzinger’s thought during the Council. Perhaps he didn’t fully appreciate how the intense desire for change at the outset of the Council could lead to an attempt to deconstruct the Church, and in particular its liturgy. From early on Ratzinger had taken issue with erroneous ideas of other theologians such as Fr Hans Küng. Ratzinger demonstrated that Küng’s conception of the Church was the fruit of a flawed understanding.

Later on, Ratzinger was to speak of a parallel council, a council of the media (in large part led by Küng, who proved to have a talent for PR) which invoked a nebulous “spirit of the Council”. When Ratzinger returned with Frings to Rome in September 1963 for its second session under the new Pope, Paul VI, it was appearing to many that the faith was only a matter of opinion. By 1964 “the genie was out of the bottle”. When the Council ended in 1965 the real work of saving the work of the genuine Council was about to begin.

Benedict XVI: A Life, Volume One is a wonderful book, though marred at times unfortunately by typos and weak translating. Volume Two, covering the post-conciliar period of Ratzinger’s life, promises to be equally fascinating, especially as it will centre on, in the author’s words, “a 50-year battle for the Council’s legacy”.

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...