Popes are fascinating. They have both historical significance and a foundational role in shaping Roman Catholicism globally. But if a pope is also referred to as the “greatest theologian ever to sit on the chair of St. Peter” (1:xi) and the German figure who has made the biggest impact on the Catholic Church since Martin Luther (2:194), the intrigue is even greater, at least for theologically astute Protestant readers.
Benedict XVI’s Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes translated in multiple languages and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly rigor and pastoral depth. One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his person and work.
Peter Seewald’s biography Benedict XVI: A Life is a massive (more than 1,000 pages over two volumes) and engaging invitation into the personality of Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). It’s not so much a theological biography as it is a well-informed, journalistic account of the life of a shy and introverted person—with “an almost girlish softness” (2:55) and his childhood teddy bear in his bedroom (2:105)—who found himself at the center of a whirlwind of events.
Benedict XVI: A Life: Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965
Benedict XVI: Volume One offers insight into the young life and rise through the Church’s ranks of a man who would become a hero and a lightning rod for Catholics the world over. Based on countless hours of interviews in Rome with Benedict himself, this much-anticipated two-volume biography is the definitive record of the life of Joseph Ratzinger and the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.
Volume I follows the early life of the future Pope, from his days growing up in Germany and his conscription into the Hitler Youth during World War II to his career as an academic theologian and eventual Archbishop of Munich. Volume II covers his move to Rome under Pope John Paul II, his ascension to the papacy, and his controversial retirement and news-making statements under his successor, Pope Francis I.
This necessary companion to Benedict’s memoir, Last Testament, is the fullest account to date of the life of a radical Catholic leader who has continued to make news while cloistered in retirement in the Vatican gardens.
Seewald had already published long interviews with Cardinal Ratzinger (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, 1997) and Pope Benedict (Last Testament in His Own Words, 2016), thus establishing a record of sustained engagement and respectful familiarity. This two-volume biography is the result of extensive research: speaking to 100 contemporary witnesses and conducting further interviews with Ratzinger. Seewald has sought to maintain “a critical distance” (1:x) while never asking embarrassing questions.
One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with [Benedict’s] person and work.
Pope Benedict XVI, born in 1927, is one of the towering figures in 20th-century Roman Catholic theology. His impressive biography includes: theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–77), archbishop of Munich (1977–81) and cardinal, then prefect, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), pope (2005–13), and, since 2013, pope emeritus after his somewhat tragic resignation. Benedict was the first German pope in 500 years.
This biography is especially welcome because it describes the context of the final years of Benedict, those preceding his resignation. The tragic outcomes of the sexual abuses, financial scandals of the Vatican bank, and Vatileaks all undermined Ratzinger’s strength, causing this very traditional pope to make a very untraditional decision.
Since his boyhood, Ratzinger had contemplated a life dedicated to the Roman Catholic Church. When the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Faulhaber, visited his kindergarten in 1931, the 4-year-old Joseph said: “I’ll be a cardinal one day” (1:25). In 1934, his first letter to the Christ Child (the first document ever written by Ratzinger) was a request of a missal, a green Mass vestment, and a Jesus heart (1:31). The inclination of the boy was already very clear. His family life was marked by devout Catholicism of rosaries, confessions, and novenas. As children, Joseph and his older brother, Georg, used to play at being priests and hold church services. What started as a children’s game became his life: he would celebrate more than 25,000 Masses (1:250).
As Ratzinger recalls, his first experience with the faith was through “the beauty of the liturgy” (1:55). This theme would become central in his theology, which was “a mixture of rationality and aesthetics” (1:313). In fact, the book that affected him the most as a young theologian was Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. His other seminal reading was the Confessions of Augustine, whom Ratzinger considered “a contemporary, who speaks to me” (1:191) and a church father with whom he would strongly identify. The ecclesiology of the people of God in Augustine became the topic of Ratzinger’s first academic work.
Developing His Theology
In his seminary years, Ratzinger was influenced by Gottfried Sönghen, who stressed the wholeness of Catholicism, “the idea of the all-embracing, the great universal Yes of the analogy of being” (1:212). According to this view, Christianity was “the synthesis mediated in Jesus Christ between the faith of Israel and the Greek spirit” (1:269); a point that was strongly made in his 2006 Regensburg Speech (2:328–344) when he criticized the Sola Scriptura principle of the Reformation for “de-hellenizing” Christianity.
From his professor, Ratzinger learned new theological approaches informed by the liturgical movement; the historical-critical investigation of tradition (including the Bible) as a living process; a sympathy for the philosophical-theological “Nouvelle Théologie” (New Theology); an ecumenical impulse; and a passion for clear formulation in doing theology (1:215). In a nutshell, this was the “modern but not modernistic” (1:321) theological horizon of his future work.
Another early influence was Henri de Lubac’s book Catholicism with its description of the church “as Christ’s incarnation extended into history” (1:235) and its attempt to restore the church’s power and dynamism. Later, Ratzinger would have defined it as “key reading” (1:233) for his formation. Echoing Augustine’s “whole Christ” and de Lubac’s insistence on the church as the prolongation of Christ’s incarnation, in his second probationary sermon Ratzinger preached: “Being a Christian means being part of Christ himself, the continuation of Christ into our own time” (1:241).
His ecclesiology was further interwoven with the insistence on the sacramental nature of the church as the mystical body of Christ. Contrary to his contemporary Hans Küng, who looked at the church as “council–concilium,” the church for Ratzinger was “Eucharistic community–communio” (1:417).
Ratzinger’s habilitation research dealt with St. Bonaventura’s theology of history. Studying the medieval Franciscan mystic, Ratzinger solidified his conviction that “revelation was not only given in Scripture, but also in things like tradition, the inspiration of the fathers and saints, and the living faith itself” (1:280). Because of his view that “revelation is always more than its fixed expression in Scripture” and because of “the interconnection between Scripture, tradition, and the church’s proclamation,” Ratzinger has always been concerned with “the danger of Scripturism” (1:390), that is, a way of criticizing Protestantism. As an aside, Seewald refers to Ratzinger’s role in accompanying numerous Protestant intellectuals on their way to embrace Roman Catholicism (e.g., 2:51; 2:170).
Ratzinger has always been concerned with ‘the danger of Scripturism,’ that is, a way of criticizing Protestantism.
As one of the “spin doctors” at Vatican II, Ratzinger played a significant role in the drafting of its documents: “areas that proved to be key to the council—such as Scripture, patristics, tradition, the people of God and revelation—were Ratzinger’s special subjects” (1:387). Afterward, he became increasingly concerned with secularizing and protestantizing trends in interpreting the council. The revolutionary turmoil around 1968, even in Roman Catholic universities, greatly distressed him. The sexual revolution shocked him and caused him to experience a kind of “trauma” (2:30) that did not change his theology (“apart from nuances and expansions” 2:42) but certainly grew his critical attitude toward the “progressive” trends in Rome and society at large, making him pessimistic, at times despairing (2:69).
His interpretation of the council can be summarized as “hermeneutic of reform” or, to use Pope Leo XIII’s formula, “Vetera novis augere et perficere: to supplement and perfect the old with the new” (2:77). In assessing Ratzinger’s Roman Catholic theology, it is therefore dangerous to contrast traditionalism and progressivism as if they were disrupting and conflicting trends within his work. There may have been different emphases and concerns over various stages of his career, but the tale of the conversion from radical theologian to inflexible watchdog of orthodoxy is naive, as Seewald’s biography confirms. A 1982 article in a German newspaper gets it right: “he does not fit into any cliché, either conservative or progressive. Joseph Ratzinger is simply Catholic, body and soul” (2:159–160).
Ratzinger’s theology epitomizes the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. For instance, his theology always reads the Bible in light of the authoritative magisterium and through sacramental lenses. He intertwines Nicene Christology with the view that the Roman Catholic Church prolongs the incarnation. He confesses the Apostles’ Creed, as well as the anti-Protestant Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent and the more recent Marian dogmas. He always relates the cross of Christ to the representation of the sacrifice of the Eucharist. He always links the Spirit to the hierarchical structure of the church. Ratzinger thinks of ecumenism in terms of other Christians being defective and the church of Rome being the only “catholic” church. He pursues the mission of the church with attention to the catholic project to embrace the whole world. He combines the ecclesiastical outlook of the church with its political role. In this sense, Ratzinger is a modern conservative within the boundaries of a revitalized Roman Catholicism.
He is a modern conservative within the boundaries of a revitalized Roman Catholicism.
The motto of the theological journal Communio, with which Ratzinger has been associated since 1972 (2:79), neatly sums up his theological vision: “a program of renewal through the return to the sources of authentic tradition.” In other words, the updating of Roman Catholicism embodied by Benedict XVI never severs its traditional roots. Benedict never commits to Scripture alone or focused on Christ alone. It actually reinforces these Roman Catholic roots over against the claims of the Reformation. It’s a renewal of the Roman Catholic faith “from its deepest core” (2:120) or “from within” (2:164) that is not open to being corrected by Scripture alone. This is the gist of the theological existence of this scholar turned pope (now emeritus).
Carl Trueman, in the book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, rightly observes:
Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of the church in a manner alien to Protestantism. (153)
Benedict XVI embodies such a “different way of thinking.” Protestant readers may find some overlap in the use of biblical and theological language, but his overall account of the gospel is “alien to Protestantism” at a fundamental level. Still, given the towering intellectual stature of the pope emeritus and his indisputable significance for 20th-century Roman Catholicism, his biography is a fascinating entry point for coming to terms with the religious tradition that 1.3 billion people around the world claim as their own.