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Benedict XVI: A life: Volume 1, by Peter Seewald

by
26 February 2021

Catherine Pepinister on a biographer’s insights into a pope’s early life

HE WAS the first pope to resign in 600 years, the first to be given the title Pope Emeritus, and a man who has lived through two of the greatest crises to befall the planet: the Second World War and now the coronavirus pandemic (for which, at the age of 94, Benedict XVI has received a vaccine).

For those who want to understand Benedict, they really need to get to grips with the man he once was: Joseph Ratzinger. For that, Peter Seewald’s first volume of biography is essential reading. True, it is hagiographic at times, but Seewald provides insightful analysis and is a useful guide to Ratzinger’s German milieu. Its elegant prose is due to not only Seewald, but also his English translator, Dinah Livingstone.

Seewald convincingly explains how Ratzinger — one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most influential theologians, once Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and eventually Pope — was profoundly shaped by the landscape of Bavaria, the theology of St Augustine, and his experience of the Second World War.

Born in 1927, Ratzinger was the son of a policeman who moved his family throughout the 1930s to different postings in a Bavaria carpeted with flowers and with enchanting views of the mountains. An appreciation of beauty has always been central to Ratzinger’s theology. Meanwhile, the thud of Nazi jackboots came ever closer in that rural idyll. Indeed, Hitler’s mountain hideaway, where he plotted much of his war campaign and the Final Solution, was but 40 km from the Ratzinger home.

The boy whose early years were spent amid a deeply pious Catholic family had his world turned upside by Hitler’s ambitions. He learnt from his father, Joseph Snr, who always loathed Nazism, that it was best to keep a low profile — an experience that might explain his later aloofness and self-containment.

The war brought conscription, manning an ack-ack battery, and eventual desertion. Once it was over, Ratzinger and his older brother, Georg, again took up their studies for the priesthood interrupted by the conflict. To their fellow seminarians, musical Georg was Organ Ratz and the library swot Joseph Book Ratz.

AlamyThe grave of Pope Benedict’s parents and sister in Penting, near Regensburg

His discovery of Augustine of Hippo was life-changing. The author of The Confessions left not only an intellectual but spiritual mark on Book Ratz, whose eloquent thesis on him suggested a golden career in theology. But then came a bitter blow. A further thesis, this time on Bonaventure, needed to secure a post as a university professor, was rejected, although a more historical account of Bonaventure later passed muster.

Seewald, who has interviewed Ratzinger in depth several times in recent decades, recalls how the theologian was first considered part of the progressive wing of the Church, rejecting neo-scholasticism, burning with a desire to go back to the early church Fathers, and rediscovering the origins of the liturgy.

This was the Ratzinger of the Second Vatican Council, at which he acted as a peritus, or adviser. His critique of the secretive and authoritarian work of the Holy Office, given that he went on to head its successor, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seems extraordinary now, as does his early desire for ecumenical progress. This was the man who, as Pope, upset the Anglican applecart when he created the Anglican Ordinariate, jeopardising inter-Church dialogue.

Book Ratz the seminarian; the youthful theologian; the Vatican II peritus — all these versions of Ratzinger are here. But it is little Joseph, so safe in the certainties of his Catholic family and faith, who seems to foreshadow Benedict XVI. The Pontiff Ratzinger, as suspicious as Augustine of accommodating modernity, will be the subject of Seewald’s next volume. In terms of producing an engrossing read, he has already set the bar high.
 

Catherine Pepinster was the editor of The Tablet throughout the papacy of Benedict XVI.

 

Benedict XVI: A life: Volume 1 — Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927-1965
Peter Seewald
Bloomsbury £30
(978-1-4729-7919-3)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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