Book review by Elisabeth Hellenbroich

The book is based on a series of interviews by the Bavarian journalist Peter Seewald with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (Benedikt XVI. Letzte Gespräche mit Peter Seewald, Droemer-Verlag München 2016). The last conversation took place in May of 2016. The interviews give a condensed overview about the rich intellectual experience which Joseph Ratzinger, Professor, Cardinal and later Pope, had.

The interviews offer a fresh insight into the actual thinking of Benedict XVI and destroy those prejudices that, especially after his resignation as Pope (28. February 2013), tried to portray him as a counter-pole to the actual Pope Francis. What is coming to the fore is a very brilliant thinker, a humble personality that expresses a deep gratitude toward his predecessor John Paul II and to his successor, Pope Francis. The book essentially makes clear that there is no break between the pontificates, but a continuation of the work that was begun at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which opened up a new era and caused a fundamental change within the Catholic Church.

Spiritual influence on Ratzinger

In his book Seewald illustrates that a key role for the shaping of Ratzinger’s theology was his personal experience with the Nazi dictatorship, the Second World War and the destruction and radical negation that was spread at that time. Very similar to John Paul II, Ratzinger personally lived through the consequence of atheistic systems, the destruction of the cross and the insanity of a regime that wanted to create the “new man” but ended in terror and apocalyptic destruction. What he told in the interview is that, after the war, he understood that he should dedicate himself to the defense of Christianity against the “devaluation of Christian values”, Seewald wrote in the introduction.

After his resignation as Pope – the first time in approximately 600 years- Benedict XVI was truly happy about the election of Pope Francis, who is the first pope from “the New World” as he underlined in the interview: “It means the Church is dynamic and open and new developments are taking place within it. There are no frozen structures, but there is again and again something surprising, “which makes clear the dynamic with which the Church is constantly ‘renewing itself’.”

Benedict underlines that he expected that South America will play a big role. It’s the biggest Catholic continent, the most suffering one and burdened with huge problems. “Therefore it was the right moment for South America to be chosen. The new Pope is Italian and South American.” He added to this observation that from his point of view Europe is no more the center of the world Church. “Europe will maintain its responsibility and its specific tasks. However the faith in Europe is so much weakening, that from this standpoint it can only in a limited way give impulse for the World Church and faith within the church. ..We see that there are new elements throughout Africa, South America, and the Philippines, a new dynamic in the Church which refreshes the tired West and gives it a new dynamic.” He is particularly critical about Germany: “There is engagement for God coming from the heart. But on the other side there is the power of bureaucracies which, by theorizing faith, by politicizing, show a fundamental lack of dynamic.” He speaks about the suffocating effect which results from structural bureaucratic preponderance: “Europe now gets evangelized from outside in a new way.” Hence it is clear for him that “Pope Francis brought a new freshness, a new joyfulness, a new charisma which addresses the people. This is something beautiful.”

The education of Josef Ratzinger

Josef Ratzinger was raised in a rural area in Bavaria. He was born in the year 1927 as the youngest of three children in a very pious catholic family which to a large extent was shaped by the “piety of the 19th century.” He loved his parents and was a brilliant pupil. At the age of 14 he was capable to translate church texts from Greek and Latin into German. When he entered the theological seminary 1939 in Traunstein, the Second World War had already begun. It was a difficult period which he and his family had to live through, being staunchly anti-Nazi. At the end of the war he was put into an American prisoner camp where he had to suffer from terrible hunger as well as asocial behavior among the prisoners. On 3rd of January 1946 he began his university study of theology in Freising which was continued in Munich, where the so called “Munich School” played a decisive influence in shaping his thinking. Throughout the interview we can see a red line: What really fundamentally shaped Ratzinger’s thinking after the Nazi dictatorship and second world war, was the realization that “we experienced a time where the ‘new Reich’, the German Myth, the Germaneness was proclaimed and where people spread deep contempt for Christianity, especially Catholicism, because it was Roman and Jewish.” Hence the postwar period opened a new Era, a new horizon of hope and thinking.

In looking back to the period of the Fifties and early Sixties, Benedict stated: “We were progressive. We wanted to fundamentally renew theology and with this also shape the Church in a new and lively way. Therefore we were happy that we lived at a time where the youth and liturgical movements were looking for new horizons. We were opposed to the neo-gothic style and the narrow kitschy piety and sentimentalism of the 19th century….We wanted a new piety, receiving its main impulse from the liturgy, a sober, new modern form of piety.”

The one thinker that most profoundly influenced Ratzinger was St Augustine. Especially the personal inner conflict fought out by St Augustine (Confessions) which impressed him more than St Thomas, whose books according to him were more like “school books”. An influential theology teacher at the University of Munich was Gottlieb Söhngen from the Rhineland who became a very close friend of his. The “Munich school” was shaped by its emphasis on the Bible, the  Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers and the ecumenical idea. Söhngen also had great affinity to Romano Guardini whose book “On Jesus “ Ratzinger read at the time, which fascinated him. Another influence exerted on him was Michael Schmaus, Professor of Dogmatic theology in Munich. As chaplain in Bogenhausen (Munich)  he in 1958 wrote an essay “The new pagans  and the Church” which caused big reaction. He then became assistant teacher in the seminary in Freising, youth group leader from 1955-59, and after his habilitation and dissertation he got a call as professor for Fundamental Theology and Dogmatic in Bonn.

The Second Vatican Council

His stay in Bonn was a very rich experience for him.  The first lecture he gave was entitled “The God of faith and the God of reason”, on the 24th July 1959.The university hall was overcrowded. He had read a lot of Pascal and Guardini’s “Memorial”, as well as St. Augustine who conceived man as a unity between reason and emotion. “I was seen as a young man who wanted to look for new ways and open new doors”, Ratzinger said in the interview. He had very lively debates with excellent scholars like the Indologist Paul Hacker, as well as with the Franciscan Sophronius Clasen, a St. Bonaventura specialist. And he was in contact with people from different theological high schools in and around Bonn, including the Franciscans, the Dominicans in Walberberg and the Steyler Missionaries in St Augustin near Bonn.

At the age of 35 Ratzinger became one of the main catalysts for the preparatory work of Vatican Council II (1962-65), which marked the opening of the Church to modernity. As John XXIII said once, the author of the book remarked at one point, “nobody else but a theological teenager (meaning the young theologian Ratzinger) was capable to express in a better way, what he, John XXIII had intended as initiator of the Council.” The Second Vatican Council was announced on January 1959 by Pope John XXIII, who described it as a moment of “spiritual renewal for the Church” and for Christianity to come to a closer reunion. Being an advisor to the Cologne based Josef Cardinal Frings, who was member of the ten person comprising Council Presidium, Ratzinger played an influential role in the  preparatory commissions which had the task to prepare the Council’s agenda and produce the decrees that were agreed upon during the Council’s sessions.

In Cologne Ratzinger got acquainted with Cardinal Josef Frings, who in 1949 had written a crucial book about the social doctrine of the Church: “Responsibility and co-responsibility in the economy. What does the social teaching say about the assistance and participation?”. It was in the context of a speech Ratzinger had given at the Bensberg (near Cologne) Catholic Academy. Cardinal Frings asked him at that time to write a speech for him, which the Cardinal presented at a Genoa conference on the 19th November 1961. It was a historical speech entitled “The Council and the modern world of thinking”, which was to determine the proceedings of the Council. It contained a harsh attack against the neo-scholastic obstinacy of the Church and against the defects of the Holy Office (Congregation for the doctrine of faith) and it demanded that more rights be given to the bishops of the regional and local churches within the universal church. The speech got enormous attention and Pope John XXIII was so enthusiastic about it, the author Seewald writes, that he invited Frings to talk to him. He expressed his gratitude for the speech and spoke about a “happy congruence of thinking”. When Frings answered that he wasn’t the author of the speech, but a young professor was, the Pope answered: “My last encyclical was also not written by myself.  What counts is what you identify with”.

Ratzinger in the interview underlined the enthusiasm he felt during the time of the Second Vatican council and the discussions he had with outstanding Church intellectuals like Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner. He underlined that he saw himself as “progressive” and that in his view the Council itself reflected this new spirit of a new beginning in the Church in the various decrees that were finally agreed upon.  In the Sixties, Ratzinger taught as professor at the theology faculty in Münster, followed by his teaching engagement in Tübingen (in 1968 his book “Introduction into Christianity” got published, causing wide-spread enthusiasm), where he collaborated with Prof. Hans Küng, who later became an adversary of his. After Tübingen, he taught at the universities of Regensburg and Munich. Under Pope John Paul II he served as Prefect of the Congregation for the doctrine of faith between 1982 and 2005. In the year of death of Pope John Paul II, who at that time was terribly sick and weak, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a text for the Pope to be presented at the day of crucifixion which was celebrated in the Rome Colosseum. In the text, which had been approved by the Pope, he warned about the “dirt” in the Church and “the betrayal of Christ”.

Pope Benedict XVI meetings with Obama and Putin

On the 19th of April 2005 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger appeared on the window of St. Peter’s square as the 264th Successor of St Peter. At the beginning of the Cardinal’s conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger had warned in a homily of a “Dictatorship of relativism” which takes as measuring rod only the individual and his desires. “The Church should proclaim truth and faith, against all ideologies and fashions”, he admonished.

Pope Benedict XVI remembered that among those who visited him after being elected pope, there was then Russian Orthodox Church representative Kirill. Benedict described the discussion as “a very beautiful discussion. He embodied something of a Russian peasant, which I liked. We understood each other quite well.” Speaking about his relation with the Protestant Church and the ROC, he said that there was a common knowledge about “what is essential in Christianity; that we must stick to the moral idea, to marriage and family. There are big common interests. Especially since it became clear in Russia, what happens when you drop all this.” He also remembered various meetings which he had with leading politicians such as Barak Obama Shimon Perez and Vladimir Putin. Obama he described as a thoughtful person who looked for the meeting and listened carefully. The discussion with Russian president Putin he described as “quite interesting. We spoke German, he speaks perfectly German. We didn’t go deep into things, but I think that he – a man of power of course – is somehow touched by the necessity of faith. He is realist and sees how Russia suffers under the destruction of morality. But also as a patriot who wants to make Russia a great power again, he sees that the destruction of Christianity threatens to destroy Russia. Man needs God, this he sees very clearly and he certainly is internally touched by this.”

Concerning his pontifical visits, like the one to Germany in 2010, he made a lot of interesting observations in particular in respect to the Catholic establishment in Germany which, as he put it, was not very enthusiastic about the new evangelization (the Commission for the new evangelization was created under Benedict’s Pontificate in January 2013). “In Germany we have this established and highly paid Catholicism, especially concerning the Catholic employees who have a trade union mentality towards the Church. The Church is only seen as an employer against whom one is critical”, the Pope said. He underlined that they don’t express a dynamic of faith but they just have their positions. Hence he saw a big danger for the Church in Germany due to its huge bureaucracy. “The Italians can’t afford so many paid people,” he said. “The cooperation is based on voluntary work. Big Catholic gatherings like the one in Rimini are organized by volunteers. It’s all unpaid.” He very openly admitted that he feels “quite depressed about this situation, this overweight of money which is there, as well as about the cynicism in German intellectual circles.” The various scandals like the Williamson case, about which he – as he underlined in the interview – was informed very late, the abuse cases, the Vatileaks were described in the book as occasion to wage “a huge propaganda battle against me”. On the other side, he also emphasized that he was quite active in steering against this: purging from office 400 priests, reforming the Commission Ecclesia Dei, reforming the IOR, and dissolving the gay lobby.

Rediscovering the central role of faith in a de- Christianized Europe

The leading motive for Benedict’s pontificate was “the rediscovery of the central role of faith.” The new world is not yet there, he said in the interview, “but it is clear that the Church gets more and more away from the old European structures  and gets a new Gestalt and new forms of living.” With respect to the future of Christianity he stated: “We are no more compatible with the modern culture…. We live today in a positivist, agnostic culture, which shows more and more intolerance toward Christianity (…) and we are confronted with a Europe where the de-Christianization is progressing, the Christian disappears more and more from the public and where the Church must find a new presence.”

October 2016

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