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A Doctor of the Church for the Modern Era

The controversy over the legacy of Benedict XVI will go on. We are living through an “epochal crossroads in the history of the Church.” Benedict XVI biographer Peter Seewald on the 95th birthday of the Pope Emeritus.


by Peter Seewald

Der neu gewählte Papst Benedikt XVI. (Joseph Ratzinger) begrüßt die Massen mit den Händen nach oben.

It was our first meeting in November 1992. As a former communist and writer for Der Spiegel, I was not particularly fond of Joseph Ratzinger. I was all the more surprised when I met a man who had none of the airs of a prince of the Church, let alone a “Panzer Cardinal”.

Everything about him seemed modest, unpretentious, accessible. When it came to his job, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confessed to me that he was tired and feeling burnt out. That it was time for someone younger than him to take over his duties. Thirteen years later, in one of the shortest conclaves in history, he became head of the oldest and largest religious organization on the planet. He even set a record, becoming the longest-lived pope since the Apostle Peter.

 

Peter Seewald bei einem seiner Gespräche mit Papst Benedikt XVI. Im Vordergrund sieht man ein Kreuz.

The world is profoundly divided when it comes to placing the German Pope.

The world is profoundly divided when it comes to placing the German pope. He is considered one of the wisest thinkers of our time, the light shining on the hill – at the same time, he has remained a controversial figure, an inconvenient man who set his opponents on edge. The former prefect was not entirely blameless in this. His occasionally rigid, direct way of communicating had a provocative effect. As the protagonist of an authentic Catholica, Ratzinger’s unwavering nature made him, next to Karol Wojtyła, the most contested leader of the Church, especially in his country of origin.

“I am not walking away from the Cross,” Benedict announced after his resignation. He knew exactly what he was talking about, both in relation to his Church and to himself. As Pope Emeritus, it was enough for him to utter a certain statement, to have written one essay, for him to be pilloried in the media. He was accused of raining on his successor’s parade and breaking his vow of silence. The truth is that there is not a single word from Benedict in which he criticizes Pope Francis. And he never actually took a vow of silence anyway.

The most recent attempt to discredit the person and the legacy of the German Pontiff were accusations that Ratzinger covered up sexual abuse and protected the perpetrators during his time as bishop of Munich. But neither did the Pope Emeritus lie in a statement, as one law firm alleged, nor was there any substantive evidence for any supposed “misconduct”. The mere accusation and the chance to say “the Pope lied”, which set in motion a wave indignation in the media, was something many had been longing for, and the opportunity was of course too good to pass up on.

Kardinal Joseph Ratzinger (73) berichtet am 30.10.2000 bei einer Pressekonferenz in München über sein Buch "Gott und die Welt", das er mit dem Journalisten Peter Seewald konzipiert hat.

The life of Joseph Ratzinger is the biography of a century.

The life of Joseph Ratzinger is the biography of a century. There is no contemporary German who could equal him in importance. There’s the youthful professor, the bright new star in the sky of theology who was able to bring a new sense of excitement and cleverness to the task of recognizing and expressing the mysteries of the faith; the 35-year-old spin doctor, whose initiatives made the Second Vatican Council into the event that catapulted the Catholic Church into modernity. As custodian of the faith, he saw to it that the ship of the Church remained on course. He stressed that though the Word of God passed down to us in the Gospel could be interpreted in different ways and always revealed new mysteries, its basic contents were nevertheless non-negotiable.

I will never forget those historic days in the spring of 2005. Hardly anyone really believed that the “Grand Inquisitor” had even the slightest chance of becoming pope. When the new pontiff finally stepped out into the loggia at St. Peter’s, the joyful roar that went through the crowd was deafening. Un papa tedesco! – “A German pope!” The first one in half a millennium. A hundred thousand people jumped up in the air, clapped their hands fervidly, and embraced on another with tears in their eyes. It’s quite possible that the new Supreme Pontiff would have liked to shed tears himself. Touched by the affection of the almighty God, who was entrusting the entire flock to such a frail man (in his own estimation) at the end of his life. “A simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord” was how Benedict XVI introduced himself. He was nevertheless comforted by “the fact that the Lord knows how to work and act even with inadequate instruments.”

Then he threw up his arms, joyful, relieved, his palms facing up and outwards, like one sees in depictions of Jesus. “I was crying,” admitted rock legend Patti Smith, who was standing in the middle of the crowd: “Even from a great distance you could sense the humanity of this man. I know he’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I think he’s a good choice. I like him, a lot.”

I had left the Church, but I was struck by how the cardinal kept insisting on the primacy of love, the nucleus at the center of all Creation.

I had left the Church, but I was struck by how the cardinal kept insisting on the primacy of love, the nucleus at the center of all Creation. How he showed that religion and science, faith and reason, were not opposed to one another. Crede, ut intelligas – “believe, that you may understand,” he said along with Saint Augustine. For truth becomes accessible to man only when he is enlightened by the Divine Spirit. His way of teaching is reminiscent of spiritual masters who persuade not with vain lessons, but by subtle gestures, discreet signs, patient forbearance; above all by their own example, which includes integrity, fidelity, courage, and a fair amount of willingness to suffer.

Im Jahr 2010 erschien das Buch „Licht der Welt“. Ein Gespräch Seewalds mit Papst Benedikt XVI. Papst Benedikt hält das Buch in der Hand, links von ihm stet Peter Seewald.

I liked his dry humor, his calm composure, his advocacy for the piety of the simple faithful. Dialogue was important to him. His disputes with left-wing intellectuals, such as the sociologist Jürgen Habermas, were the stuff of legend. During my conversations with him, he would occasionally put one leg over the side of the chair, and then, in the heat of the discussion, his mind would just take off and begin to soar. Jovial pats on the back, on the other hand, were not to be expected. The thought of having a whiskey with the man late in the evening would never have occurred to me. Never once in the nearly thirty years that I accompanied him as a journalist did he invite me to dinner. That may also be because he didn’t want to undermine the journalistic distance that formed the basis for our interviews.

Having grown up in an age when the delusion of wanting to create a world without God, to create a “new man” ended in terror and apocalyptic devastation, Ratzinger never lost the courage to stand against "they"; against what “they” said to think, to say, and to do. To speak the truth even when it is inconvenient was something he felt just as obligated to do as to resist all attempts to remake the message of Christ into a religion that served the needs to “civil society”.

With regard to the Church, there was one fundamental observation that really impressed itself on Ratzinger; namely, that “a mere institutional guarantee is useless when the people are not there who can carry it out with inner conviction.” To him, it was a terrific error to think that one only need put on a different cloak to be loved and accepted by everyone. Least of all in an age where many people no longer knew what one was talking about when one spoke of the Catholic faith. Only by maintaining its resolute ethical principles could Christianity remain a true partner in the difficult questions of modern life.

There was essentially no other churchman who campaigned so vehemently against the flattening and bureaucratization of his Church as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

There was essentially no other churchman who campaigned so vehemently against the flattening and bureaucratization of his Church asthe Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “The Church gets her light from Christ,” he insisted, “if she does not pick up this light and pass it on, then she is just a dull lump of earth.” The Catholic establishment in Germany, in particular, he criticized for stifling the “dynamic nature of the faith” with busyness, showy displays, and paralyzing debates “that completely miss the point of the Catholic Church’s mission.” Cowardly conformity to the pronouncements of the powerful forces of the media and the dominance of Mammon were the main problems, as he saw them. Countless Church officials, but most of all prominent bishops, had not only distanced themselves from the mysteries and blessings of the Catholic faith, he said, but were also blocking the souls in their care from accessing them. Moreover, it has never harmed the Church to give up her worldly possessions in order to preserve her true patrimony instead.

Was Benedict XVI really a pope whose election was a mistake, and whose pontificate was one long succession of scandals, as “critical” journalists never tire of proclaiming? If she had to write a Ratzinger biography, Christiane Florin recently said on a talk show, it would be titled It Wasn’t Me. If only she had. Then, she, the editor in charge of Church politics at Deutsche Welle, would have been spared embarrassments of this kind. The truth is that the name Ratzinger could almost be a synonym for concepts like steadfastness, courage of conviction and responsibility. When others ducked away, he stood his ground, whether as a 17-year-old soldier who had to listen to Nazi officers tell him how there would no longer be people like him – men who wanted to be priests – after the final victory; as an inconvenient theologian who opposed attempts to “reevaluate” the Council; as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith who stood in the way of those who would spread false teaching.

Man sieht einen großen Stuhl und rechts im Bild Papst Benedikts XVI. Rücken

The truth is not up for negotiation.

There is no mistaking his reproach on Good Friday 2005: “How much filth there is in the Church, even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!” And while more than a few bishops conditioned their positions on plaudits from the media, in Ratzinger’s case, appeasement was not an option: The truth is not up for negotiation, he insisted. And, if error is no longer defended against, then faith becomes no more than the lowest common denominator; this is then called “tolerance”. Consequently, what is being tolerated becomes more and more irrelevant; more important is that it is being tolerated, whatever it is.

In the 1980s, journalists started calling him the “Grand Inquisitor”, which was something started by Hans Küng in an attempt to disregard his former colleague – as was the legend of Ratzinger’s turn from progressive to reactionary. In reality, there never was such a turn. Anyone who reads Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, say, will find that he was the same theologian before 1968 as he was after. This is why the New Testament scholar Siegfried Wiedenhofer was convinced that the conflict with Ratzinger was in fact “about an epochal crossroads in the history of the Church”. At issue was whether to continue to recognize Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God according to the Creed, or merely as a historical figure who invited us to consider some interesting ethical propositions. “Seen in this light,” as Wiedenhofer put it, “nothing less was at stake than the very identity of the faith and its relevance in the modern world.”

A renewer of the faith who led people to the heart of Christianity, not its deconstruction.

Not even decades of attacks could prevent the avowed archenemy of so-called “popular church movements” from becoming the most widely read theologian of the modern era, with millions of copies in print all around the globe. One thing is certain: With his contribution to the Council, the rediscovery of the Church Fathers, and the revitalization of doctrine, Ratzinger can be considered a renewer of the faith, who, like all true reformers, helped to lead people to the heart of Christianity, not its deconstruction. His struggle against sexual abuse laid the groundwork for transparency, prevention, and atonement. Many of the reforms for which Francis has received praise were first initiated by Benedict. Interreligious dialogue and the Church’s relationship with Judaism experienced a renewed flourishing. His encyclicals such as Deus caritas est (“God is Love”) elevated papal doctrinal writing to an unprecedented level. His apostolic document Summorum Pontificum provided access to and appreciation for the traditional liturgy. The very fact that he, the reigning pontiff, took the unprecedented step of actually resigning and creating the office of Pope Emeritus, an act which changed the papacy forever, makes Ratzinger one of the most outstanding figures in the two-thousand-year history of the Church.

Das Medaillon des emeritierten Papstes Benedikt XVI. in der Kirche Sankt Paul vor den Mauern in Rom am 25. Januar 2020.

Benedict XVI did not do everything right. However, he admitted his mistakes without hesitation. But neither was he the “Professor Pope”, as journalists liked to put it. The image may have its appeal, but it misses the mark. For more than anything else, Joseph Ratzinger was a shepherd who strove to use the gifts with which he was abundantly blessed and his characteristic, almost lyrical elegance in proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ for the good of mankind. Last but not least, he saw himself as the pontiff between two worlds, the last of an old one and the first of a new one. He was, in fact, the last pope to experience firsthand the terror of the Nazis and the World War. The last pope to embody a Europe whose culture, whose scholarship, whose faith was rooted in the heritage of Greek and Roman antiquity and the religious imprint of Judaism and Christianity. The first of all Vicars of Christ to be given the task of presenting a Christology to all of humanity. And finally, the first to foresee a Church that would once again exist in a state of diaspora, and to offer Catholics – now in the difficult situation of living in a world that is again hostile to the traditions of Christianity – a concept for acting out their faith within a secularized society.

The controversy over the legacy of Benedict XVI will go on.

We may well be facing another epoch in the history of the Church, Ratzinger concluded, one in which Christianity will be characterized once more by the sign of the mustard seed, existing “in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.” If we wish to find an answer to the crisis of the Church and not to despair over the present scandals, his advice was to not identify with the currently prevailing forces in it, but with the faith of the Church and the faithful of every century. The reasonableness of faith, the example of the saints, the beauty and the depth of liturgical life – these things are not simply wiped away, over, and forgotten because the momentary spirit of the age says so.

The controversy over the legacy of Benedict XVI will go on. No serious historian could possibly claim, however, that without Ratzinger, history would have proceeded the same way as it did with him. His legacy, significant for both the Church and for the world, is that of a witness to century, a man of the center who sought to preserve in renewal, to renew in preserving. In this respect, Benedict XVI, like hardly anyone else, embodies the narrative of a Church that places its founder and his mission at the center of everything – and only in doing so can it provide direction and hope, far beyond anything on this earth. If the Catholic Church in Germany had followed his lead, it would not have become entangled in its own grand delusions, much like the German political establishment in the face of a potentially hostile aggressor; it would perhaps not be in a stronger position today in terms of membership, but it would certainly stand out more, have a stronger faith, and a greater sense of conviction.

Der Autor des Papst-Buches "Licht der Welt", Peter Seewald, am 15. November 2010 in seiner Wohnung in München am Schreibtisch. Im Vordergrund rechts ist eine kleine Figur des Papstes zu sehen.

The grain of wheat must die

The grain of wheat must die, says one of Benedict’s favorite parables, for it to be able to grow anew. Perhaps after his death, even observers outside the Church will be willing to look at the German Pope with new eyes. Internationally, there is no need for a Ratzinger renaissance; the demand for his work and the readiness to accept him as a Doctor of the Church for the modern era has never waned. “Let us dare to live like Jesus Christ,” the Pontiff called out to his people; “Lets us have the courage to live the faith. Don’t be talked into calling that old-fashioned or out-of-date! What is out-of-date and a failure is a materialistic lifestyle, all attempts to live a life without God. But Christ is not just yesterday and today, he is also tomorrow, because eternity belongs to him.”

The symbolism of Holy Saturday

It almost seems like heavenly orchestration to know that the German Pope’s birthday falls on a Holy Saturday this year; this deeply symbolic date in the Church’s calendar on which, 95 years ago, Ratzinger first saw the light of day and received baptism. 

Die Benedikt-Biographie von Peter Seewald gilt als internationales Standard-Werk über das Leben Joseph Ratzingers.

His being “the first in the new Easter water” was always seen by his family as “a kind of special privilege containing a special hope and also a special commission, to be revealed in the course of time”. That “awareness” always accompanied him, such that he kept on trying “to understand the message of Holy Saturday in ever greater depth”, even as a “program for [his] life”.

According to Ratzinger, there is something in the symbolism of this day that relates “to human history as a whole”. There is “on the one hand, darkness, uncertainty, questioning, the risk, the threat, but also the certainty that there is light, that life is worth living, worth continuing”. Ultimately Jesus’ descent into the “deepest depths” on Holy Saturday, into the realm of divine abandonment, this “darkest mystery of the faith” is also “the clearest sign of hope”: “Love penetrated the realm of death. Even in the deepest darkness we can hear a voice calling us, we can reach for a hand to grasp us and lift us out.”