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Book review: Benedict XVI: A life: Volume II: Professor and Prefect to Pope and Pope Emeritus 1966-the present by Peter Seewald

22 December 2023

Pope Benedict XVI died a year ago. Catherine Pepinster looks back

BENEDICT XVI will always be remembered for his resignation. After being worn down by the Vatican’s banking scandals, the revelations of child sexual abuse, and the treachery of his own staff — his butler stole his documents — he stunned the world by suddenly announcing that he was stepping down. But, as a witness of the physical decline of John Paul II before him, he may well have recognised that the vulnerabilities of an ageing pontiff do not help to create a well-run Church. Benedict’s health had not been good for years, and even as long ago as the time when he was appointed a bishop in Munich, he himself, Seewald writes, spoke of “my unsuitability for leadership and administrative jobs”.

Peter Seewald’s second volume of the life of Benedict XVI traces the growing influence and power of the former Joseph Ratzinger, from the the Second Vatican Council to his time as a theology professor in Germany and then Archbishop of Munich, to becoming John Paul II’s trusted right-hand man in the Vatican, to his own election in 2005 as Pope, his resignation, and then his last years as Pope Emeritus.

Volume One set the scene, exploring the family, education and political situation that shaped Ratzinger, including the Second World War. It was an illuminating and absorbing read, written by a man who knew Benedict XVI very well, having interviewed him in depth on several occasions. It was clear that Seewald admires Ratzinger, but this second volume at times descends to hagiography. There are also occasions when Seewald cannot resist a sideswipe at Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis.

By the time Ratzinger was Pope, he had a reputation as a critic of the Second Vatican Council, which, he believed, was in danger of causing a rupture with the Church’s past. He was also dubbed the Rottweiler, and yet Seewald surprisingly suggests that Ratzinger was something of a softy, and that his later appointment as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith went against his nature. “Enforcement is not his thing,” Seewald writes — which will come as a considerable surprise to those who felt Cardinal Ratzinger’s metaphorical hand upon their theological collar. Some, such as the Jesuit Jacques Dupuis, were broken by Ratzinger’s inquisitorial style.

He was firm in his desire to counter what he saw as attacks on the Church, both from within and without it. At the time of the Millennium, in 2000, Seewald recalls that Ratzinger was saying that the Church’s message “could only really be sustained by a small but vital and authentic circle of believers”, which stands in notable contrast to the message that Christians should spread the good news to everyone.

Yet, once Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, he did seem more concerned with spreading the word than with focusing on a narrow coterie. His encyclicals (teaching documents) were beautifully written, and not only treatises on the Catholic faith, but also reflections on the world. In particular, 2009’s Caritas in Veritate offered a powerful analysis of the financial crisis that had plunged the world into turmoil, in an encyclical that built on existing Catholic social teaching.

There were frequent fears that Benedict’s visits around the globe would be beset by protests, and that the shy and softly spoken German would struggle to communicate with crowds of people. Yet, as happened in Britain during his 2010 state visit, he charmed people and produced impressive speeches.

But one speech abroad caused one of the biggest crises of his papacy. When he spoke at Regensburg in 2006 about Islam, it led to furious protests from the Islamic world on account of a quotation that he used linking the religion with violence. Later, he said that he had not realised its political significance.

There was also trauma over his efforts to bring back in from the cold the members of the schismatic Society of St Pius X who had been excommunicated after their utter rejection of Vatican II. But it backfired badly when it was revealed that one of the group was a Holocaust-denier. An ecumenical crisis came with his efforts to bring into the Church disaffected Anglicans, for whom he created a personal Ordinariate. But he failed to warn the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in advance, which, if nothing else, was discourteous.

Perhaps Benedict sometimes lacked advisers who would spot problems in advance. The intellectual pope seemed lacking in understanding the realpolitik of the world and, indeed, of the Church.

Seewald covers all this in meticulous detail — sometimes in exhausting detail — and the author’s clear partiality sometimes gets in the way. Another biography, written in, say, another ten years would give the perspective that this papacy needs in order to be well analysed — and fully understood.

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

Benedict XVI: A life: Volume II: 
Professor and Prefect to Pope and Pope Emeritus 1966-the present
Peter Seewald
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29


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