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The Real Benedict XVI

Reading Peter Seewald's biography in search of the real man behind the media's distorting mask
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I was up late last night finishing the second half of Peter Seewald's authoritative two-part biography of Benedict XVI, which covers his life from 1966 until his resignation from the papacy. I have to admit that it was a slog for the last ten chapters. It's strange how the life of a pope can be both so busy and so boring. (e.g., issuing documents, making trips, meeting dignitaries). But boy, did I learn a lot about Joseph Ratzinger. Here are the main lessons.

First, BXVI really was a frail, sickly man. It is common to hear some conservative Catholics bitterly complain that Ratzinger abandoned them, leaving them at the mercy of Pope Francis and the liberals. I had not realized how physically weak he was, and had been for a very long time. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, he was the Church's chief doctrinal watchdog from 1981 until his election as pope in 2005. For many years, he begged JP2 to let him retire, saying he was too physically frail to continue, but JP2 wouldn't let him. He suffered immensely in his body. Did you know that towards the end of his papacy, he was blind in his left eye? I did not. Reading Seewald gave me a new picture of the man's heroism, pushing through his exhaustion and infirmity to continue serving. The fact that he lived on for almost a decade after his resignation as pope tells us very little. He had a heart defect that was discovered many years ago. And he "suffered from almost permanent headaches since 1946/7 – sometimes so severe that work was impossible." Ratzinger had a cerebral hemorrhage at some point in the late Eighties or early Nineties, I can't recall precisely, which left him much weaker. But JP2 would not let him resign.


This is a characteristic passage:

On that 25 September Sister Christine put a greetings card on his side-table with a gold-framed number ‘10’ on it. Shwanted to wish him joy on the tenth anniversary of his appointment as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But his reaction was the opposite of joyful.

‘That’s no cause to celebrate,’ he answered shortly. ‘I never did it again,’ said Sister Christine. ‘That was the first time I became aware of how heavy the burden on him lies.'

As the narrative of his life unfolded in Seewald's account, I found myself feeling immense pity for the man, reading about his sickness, and knowing that he still had years to go as pope before he finally reached the limits of what he could bear. He had seen JP2 reduced to nearly nothing as pope, and did not want to repeat that sad spectacle.

It seems to me that this was not a matter of wanting to spare himself suffering, but rather wanting to spare the Church the curse of having a sickly pope who was incapable of governing, and therefore susceptible to manipulation by powerful figures in the Curia. It is crystal clear that as CDF prefect, Benedict wanted to move against the odious and corrupt Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, but he was unable to do so because JP2 was unable or unwilling to allow him. Cardinal Sodano, the powerful Vatican secretary of state, and JP2's secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz, were partisans of Maciel, and checkmated Ratzinger, who was only able to take action during the final months of the ailing pope's reign, when JP2 was too weak to stop him.

Similarly, Ratzinger was far more active fighting sex abuse in the clergy than most people knew. This wasn't really a secret, but it was downplayed and even suppressed by a hostile media. I knew this before I opened the Seewald book, but the biographer provides a lot of detail. BXVI was far from perfect, God knows (for example, he was too soft on Cardinal McCarrick), but he was incomparably better than his predecessor, and far, far better than most people knew (because they depend on the media to tell them). I recall something that the late Jesuit Father Paul Mankowski told me, back in the early 2000s, in the first years of the US scandal. Mankowski was a conservative, and was well connected in Rome. He told me that the fax machine in the CDF office had become like an open sewage pipe, disgorging massive amounts of foulness from American chanceries into Ratzinger's workplace. He said that Ratzinger was genuinely shocked by what he was learning, because almost all of this stuff had been kept from the Vatican by American bishops.


Many of us are under the impression that the Vatican must know everything; in fact, as you can see from the Seewald biography, offices like the CDF are shockingly understaffed and under-resourced. Ratzinger, as CDF prefect, truly had no idea things were as bad as they were, because he had no way to know if the American bishops were determined to keep the news locked down in their chanceries (and until Ratzinger's reforms, they had no obligation to inform Rome about any of this). Father Paul told me that the news coming from America in those days profoundly shocked and shook the CDF prefect.

I knew that the media hated Pope Ratzinger, but as an American, I had no idea at all how horrible it was for him among the European media -- especially the German media. In this passage, Seewald cites an academic study of media coverage of Ratzinger:

The ‘media meltdown’ for him and the Catholic Church, said Glavanovics, began in the spring of 2010, when the abuse cases became known worldwide. Critical
observers called the discussion about paedophile priests a typical example of ‘moral panic’. However important it was to report the scandal, the ‘moral panic’ caused it to be hyped in a way that did not help the victims but was used for other purposes. In the first three months of the year, Glavanovics established, Germany’s so-called mainstream media did not publish a single article in which Pope Benedict XVI was portrayed positively. For example, there was no mention of his initiatives as prefect which had introduced a zero-tolerance policy on abuse. When on 20 March 2010 the Vatican published his pastoral letter to the church in Ireland, which ‘contained a statement about the abuse debate and an apology’, Der Spiegel declared: ‘Pope silent on abuse in Germany’. Matthias Matussek, who wrote for Der Spiegel at that time, described the magazine’s policy. After he had written a positive review of the pope’s interview book Licht der Welt (Light of the World), he was cautioned by the acting editor-in-chief, who said: ‘Take care, we have 13 people on the frontline seeking to prove the pope’s involvement in the abuse scandal. You can’t just wade in and let him off!’

Basically, in the modern press world it could not be assumed ‘that media would describe reality’, said Glavanovics. The media’s function to reduce complexity was fulfilled, ‘but journalists brought their own contexts and interpretations into the news’. Journalists operated politically. In subjects where there was conflict they always reported one-sidedly and thereby used the report as a means to achieve certain aims. Journalists’ interpretations of reality were ‘dependent both on their own focus and world view, and on the world view and political line of the medium for which they were writing’

It is not surprising that the media bring their own ideological agendas to the coverage of the Church, and of the papacy. This is how they treated John Paul II. No matter what he said about any number of subjects, everything always seemed to come back to the same pelvic issues for the media. But this was especially true about Benedict, who did not have JP2's media skills and charisma, which helped Papa Wojtyla counter the media spin to some degree. Reading the Seewald book, and encountering the catalog of quite shocking media distortions and lies about the man -- especially in the German press -- made me wonder how on earth BXVI endured it. Understanding the difference between Ratzinger's papacy as it was (the good and the bad), and how it was construed by the media (and Seewald gives abundant examples), makes you wonder how you can trust anything they publish or broadcast. I kept thinking about my experience of Viktor Orban's Hungary as it is, versus how the Western media portray it.

I mention that the German media were particularly horrible. It wasn't just them. The elites in German -- including Catholic theological elites -- truly hated Joseph Ratzinger. The extent and degree of this was entirely new to me, because we Americans who don't speak German had no access to those circles. Seewald, of course, is German, and honest to God, the utter contempt they had for Ratzinger beggars belief.

For example, right after he was elected pope, and was preparing for his formal installation, BXVI hosted a social event for German pilgrims down to the ceremony in Rome:

Thousands of Catholics came to Benedict XVI’s reception for his compatriots, but only two German bishops, Cardinals Meisner and Wetter. On the first election of a German pope for 500 years, the secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference, Hans Langendörfer, had not deemed it necessary to cancel a routine meeting of the German bishops.

Ratzinger was the pre-eminent German theologian of his time, and has been acclaimed as the greatest theologian ever to sit on the papal throne. Yet he was widely despised among German theologians. A theme that emerges clearly from the Seewald book is the intellectual corruption and faithlessness of the Catholic theological elites in Europe. Read:

Although Wojtyła played such a great part in the liberation of Eastern Europe from the yoke of Communism, for the main Western media he embodied the relapse into a pre-conciliar, reactionary past for Catholicism. Catholic reformers agreed. ‘Basically the reformers want a church that is wholly secular,’ said the historian Franz Walter, adding rather maliciously, ‘a church that suits the changing needs of the middle class in middle Europe, an easy-care church that is undemanding and no bother to live with’. It was quite astonishing that ‘the strength of Catholicism in modern society has been that it has been able to oppose something persistently its own to the ramblings and wrong turnings of those secular trends’.

It is also undeniable that BXVI was a poor administrator of the Church. This had to do with his personal character. For example:

For Stephan Horn, his academic assistant at the time, Ratzinger’s weakness lay in his inability ‘to give direction to anyone. He is too retiring.’15 He often just let things take their course. Ratzinger had ‘an almost girlish softness’, said Georg May, who belonged to the generation of 1926 and was emeritus professor of church law:

Anything to do with power, strength, the use of force is completely alien to him. By nature he is a scholar. So his appointments as archbishop and Prefect of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith were actually against his nature. He carried out the duties of these offices, because in his way he is brilliant, but enforcement is not his thing.

He was first and foremost a scholar, not an administrator. And he was naive about human nature.

Cardinal Müller saw it likewise: ‘He does not believe in the evil in people. He can’t imagine it because he is not like that.’

He was also personally quite loyal to people, even if they didn't deserve it. For example, he stood by the man he had appointed Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, even though he ought to have dismissed him for being bad at his job.

Another thing: Ratzinger's theological conservatism was widely misunderstood. Here he is on his role at the Second Vatican Council:

‘Certainly I was progressive,’ he said in our conversation. ‘At that time “progressive” did not yet mean that you broke away from the faith, but that you learned from its origins to understand it better and live it better.’

Translating the faith into the present, the search for up-to-date forms in teaching and liturgy, was the first requirement for any advance towards being a missionary church. His difference from other theologians was that Ratzinger argued with the church’s faith and never against it. In a contribution to the journal Wort und Wahrheit in 1960 he wrote: ‘The point is to rescue the faith from the rigidity of the system and reawaken its original vital power, without giving up what is really valid in it.’ He said in a lecture for Frings that the aim was the one ‘that the pope set for this Council, namely to renew Christian life and to adapt church discipline to the demands of the time, so that witness to the faith can shine with a new brightness in the darkness of this world’.

He understood the word ‘awakening’ as ‘revitalizing’. It was not primarily about reorganization but about inward, spiritual reforms. The church could not win people over by inappropriate adaptation to the world. It would just lose itself.

... For the Council the opposite to conservative was not progressive but missionary. That antithesis expressed what the Council meant and what it did not mean by opening up to the world. It was not to make Christians more comfortable by releasing them to conform with a worldly or fashionable mass culture, but demanded the nonconformity of the Bible: ‘Do not be conformed to this world.’

To be clear: for young Ratzinger, reform did not mean getting rid of Catholic teachings that conflicted with what the modern world preferred to believe. Reform meant clearing away certain ossified structures and ways of doing things, so that the essence of the Catholic faith could be more approachable in the modern world. I fail to see what was wrong with that. If everything had been just fine before the Council, things would not have collapsed as rapidly as they did. Ratzinger and other conservative reformers ("conservative" in the sense we mean today) understood that something had to change. Their tragedy -- the Church's tragedy -- is that the rot was far more widespread than even they knew. One reads in the Seewald book about how truly shocked Ratzinger was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the insane radicalism that was being claimed by Catholic theologians, priests, and others, as a "Spirit of Vatican II" thing. None of this was in Council documents, yet they claimed the mandate of the Council as an excuse for their crackpot revolution.

I came away from the book thinking that the Catholic Church at mid-century was in a no-win situation. The arguments that Ratzinger and the réssourcement theologians made for reform were quite strong. But they were put forward in a situation that was roiling with cultural revolution, especially within Catholic institutions. Thus, a tragedy of world-historical proportions. I would love to read an informed counterfactual history of what would have happened to the Catholic Church had the Council never been called. I think the Church might have been stronger in some ways, but I find it impossible to believe that all would have been well. The anti-Christian currents of Western culture are simply too strong. A Catholicism that depended too heavily on intellection, and rigid doctrinal formulas, neglecting or downplaying conversion of the heart, would not have made it.

This brings me to perhaps the most surprising (to me) aspect of the biography: Ratzinger's vision of a "smaller, purer" church. Reading this taught me why he approved of his secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, making a speech endorsing my vision of The Benedict Option in 2018. Reading the signs of the times, and seeing up close the corruption and weakness of Catholicism's institutional elites, BXVI concluded that authentic Christianity would only survive these hideous times within small communities of the truly convinced faithful. Read on:

The Cologne speech precisely documents the programme Ratzinger followed as a theologian, bishop, prefect and finally as pope over the next four decades. It is worth quoting in detail, because it gives a clear insight into Ratzinger’s thinking and shows where he saw the problem for the modern church and the options for renewal he recommended. Here it is:

The formula ‘we are the church’ coined during the youth movement has got a remarkably sectarian meaning: the radius of this ‘we’ often only embraces the current small group of like-minded people, who therefore use ‘we’ to claim a kind of infallibility. In fact, that statement should rule out group self-righteousness. For it is only true if the ‘we’ includes the community of all believers, not just those of today but from all through the centuries. In this ‘we’, the ‘I’ of Christ is implied, which is what has gathered us together as ‘we’. Humanly speaking, what saves the church today is not the often faltering and uncertain rulers, who either retreat into traditionalism or anxiously look to theologians, afraid that they will be labelled as conservative, when they should be brave enough clearly to assert the Creed. What carries the church through such times of uncertainty is the persistence of the faith of communities, in which the union of past, present and future is demonstrated and endures, beyond traditionalism and progressivism: in the reality of a life today lived by the Creed.

Perhaps we have to experience the damage done by atheism in order to rediscover how irrepressibly and vitally the cry for God rises from human beings. Then at last we will realize again that human beings really do not live by bread alone; they are not saved just by having an income allowing them to possess everything they desire and freedom allowing them to do anything they want. Then they will realize that free time on its own does not set us free and that having is only the beginning of the whole problem of being. Human beings need something that Western capitalism as well as Marxism is so little able to give.

As Romano Guardini never tires of saying, the nature of Christianity is not just an idea or a programme – the nature of Christianity is Christ. When we lose him, no longer want to know him, only shadows remain. Shadows are not alive. What remains is a ghostly Christianity without power or reality. Anyone who wants to be a Christian today must have the strength to decide and the courage to be unmodern – like all children of tomorrow and yesterday. In a time that has called God dead, they must dare to set their roots in the eternal. They must have a living bond with God revealed in Christ.


In our time, Ratzinger continued, ‘Christianity has suffered an enormous loss of importance’. In more and more areas of life it now took courage ‘to confess to being a Christian’. There was even ‘the danger of an anti-Christian dictatorship’. On the other hand, in many places the church was ‘suffocated by its institutional power’.
Perhaps we should ‘say goodbye to the idea of national churches. Possibly a different age of the church is coming, in which Christianity is seen again as seed corn, in apparently unimportant small groups, who resist evil and bring good into the world, who let God in.’ Finally, and that was the point at which I thought I had
misheard, the cardinal swung into an emotional declaration: ‘The church needs a revolution of faith. It must not associate itself with the Zeitgeist. It must not give up its values in order to preserve its property.’

Here one might think of the courageous American Episcopalians, who left their beautiful church buildings to worship as Anglicans in storefront churches, rather than surrender the truth to leftist heretics running the institution.

Another passage, on Ratzinger's pessimism compared to Wojtyla's optimism:

Ratzinger did not deny the symbolic power of the millennium. But he was much too sober-minded to share John Paul II’s expectations for the date. He was clear that there would not be a mass new beginning. Whereas the pope wanted to counter the decline of Christianity with huge events, well publicized in the media, his guardian of the faith preached that the church must think of its message, which probably could only really be sustained by a small but vital and authentic circle of believers.

Exactly. The Benedict Option is also the Benedict XVI Option.

One more:

And this was also a typical Ratzinger statement: ‘Resentment of everyone and everything contaminates the ground of the soul and turns it into a waste land.’ In order to find an answer to the church’s crisis and not to despair at the current state of affairs, people should identify not with the dominant forces in the church but with its faith and the faithful from every century. The legacy of the saints, the great liturgical traditions – all those gifts from heaven would survive and regain their prestige. They were not simply wiped out, over and done with, because they were not highly valued by a temporary Zeitgeist.

That bit put me in mind of contrasting Traditionalists I know. One of my closest friends is a Latin mass Trad, and is one of the gentlest, most prayerful, most luminous Christians I know. Similarly, the Benedictine monks of Norcia are so full of the light of Christ, and an inspiration in their traditionalism. Being around them makes you want to know Jesus. On the other hand, there are more than a few Trads whose witness has been contaminated by resentment. When I was struggling to hold on to my Catholic faith, I tried several times to see if I could find a faith home among the Trads, but I found no joy, only an obsession with Church politics, cold rigidity, and anger. The thing is, I saw this happening to me, because I spent so much time staring into the abyss of contemporary Church life, especially the scandal. I could see myself becoming a version of what I found so off-putting about the RadTrads. If Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then I was missing that with my obsessive focus on resentment, which, however justified by the facts, was not enough to live on. I had to reckon with the kind of Christian and Catholic I was becoming: one whose only animating passions were hatred of the institution for what it had done and had become (and not just with reference to abuse; the Trads are not wrong in their general critique of the postconciliar church, in my view).

My problem had been identified a few years earlier by my wife, who, after seeing off the last guest at a Brooklyn dinner party, in which we Catholic men spent the entire evening bitching about the failures of the Church, turned to me and said, "We need a lot less Peter in this house, and a lot more Jesus." To be sure, this kind of thing is all over the activist Catholic Left. Whenever I hear Pope Francis griping about the "rigid" Trads, I know that he has something of a point, but that he is completely blind to the intellectual rigidity and the spitefulness of the Catholic Left running the institutions. Anyway, having learned from the excruciating experience of losing my Catholic faith, I have tried in my years as an Orthodox Christian to avoid Church politics and to do my best to connect with, as Ratzinger put it, the Church's "faith and the faithful from every century." It's not easy to do while also retaining a realistic view of the institutional Church (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, what have you) in the here and now. It won't do to retreat into a cloud of unknowing. Yet we have to give an account of the joy that is in us -- and if people can't see the joy in us, if people only see contempt and resentment, then we are doing something very wrong.

I had become that kind of Christian by the time I collapsed as a Catholic. In all honesty, it's a constant struggle for me. It's by now a familiar story to me, of meeting readers in real life, spending a little time with them, and then hearing them say some version of, "You're a lot more cheerful than I thought you would be, from reading your blog." Part of that is the fact that this is a news blog, meaning that its content is generated mostly by my reactions to news stories. Ain't much reason to be cheerful about that. The main reason I started a subscriber-only Substack is to have a place to write about the things that give me hope, which are typically much "smaller" than the things I write about here, but which loom larger in my personal life. Yesterday I wrote about the conversion story of an Italian man I wrote, who was literally approached by an angel on the streets of Rome (the angel was disguised as a homeless man), who told him all about his life, and proclaimed Christ to him. The man's cousin stood next to him, a witness to it all. It was a mind-blowing story. I first met the man a few years back, and finally persuaded him to write his story down, so I could include it in my forthcoming book. The Italian man, who was a college student at the time, experienced a radical conversion, and ended up converting his entire atheist family, including his Communist father, who accepted Christ on his deathbed.

How am I going to write about that on my news blog at TAC? I could, but it would be jarringly out of place, and as I've said before, I don't want this blog to be able to be accused of being a proselytizing tool. Yet it is precisely stories like that that animate my core, and give me the strength to keep going on through this Valley Of The Shadow Of Total Crap. I mean, look: my marriage, the greatest treasure of my life, collapsed suddenly a decade ago, though only formally last April 15, when my wife abruptly filed for divorce, with no warning (we had never discussed divorce). I can see in retrospect that it was only faith in Jesus Christ, and the joys of my children, my friends, my books, and my dog, that kept me going. This past year has been the worst of my life, but also the time that I felt closest to Christ, who has sustained me in a way that is almost (to me) miraculous. It's very difficult to convey this to people, and truth to tell, I am struggling to understand it myself, though I have become spiritually mature enough, I think, to resist my usual habit of overthinking everything. Just accept the grace and go on, trying to share it with others as best you can. Reading the Ratzinger biography helped me to understand why I identified so deeply and so intuitively with this great Christian witness of our time.

A small thing: reading this biography, I repented inwardly of my own at-times harsh judgments of Joseph Ratzinger for this or that failure of his pontificate. Admittedly, who the hell am I, an ex-Catholic, to judge Benedict XVI?! Still, seeing the pain that my Catholic friends endure at the hands of Pope Francis and his deconstruction of Catholic tradition, I at times thought that BXVI had abandoned them unjustly. Well, I had no idea, no idea at all, what the real story was, and what was going on behind the public profile. I've learned what that's like in the past year, with a lot of viciousness online from people who have no clue about the real story behind my divorce and move to Hungary, but who think they do. I had to recognize, reading Seewald's book, that I had passed judgment on Benedict XVI for things he had done, or left undone, while not understanding in any way the burdens he had been carrying behind the public mask. God knows I'm the tiniest creature compared to a Roman pontiff, but I have had a small share of what he endured. And yet unlike Benedict, who was holy, I am resentful when I hear about it. Not Benedict. He didn't have it in him to hate. I put a postcard image of him on my icon shelf, which would scandalize strict Orthodox Christians, but I ask Benedict in prayer to help me to bear my own burdens with the kind of sweet-spirited grace that animated him. In the end, nobody will remember Hans Küng, or any of the people who slandered Joseph Ratzinger. But his legacy as a thinker, a pastor, and above all a Christian in full, will live forever. Ratzinger could have allowed himself to be dragged down into the gutter with these cretins, but he kept his eyes focused on Christ, and on the "faith and the faithful from every century [and] the legacy of the saints, the great liturgical traditions." By this, he conquered. There is a great lesson in that for every one of us. This book convicted me personally.

One more thing: I was surprised by how Pope Benedict's vision of the Church in our time was grossly misunderstood, in a similar way to how my Benedict Option idea has been. Here's a Seewald passage, talking about a 2011 address the pope gave in Freiburg:

The scandal ‘cannot be eliminated without eliminating Christianity itself’. However, in a way the church’s history could be a help, precisely in times of secularization, which contributed significantly to its purification and reform: ‘Whenever societies became secularized – expropriating church goods, removing its privileges or the like – each time this led to a profound desecularization of the church; it both lost its worldly wealth and accepted its worldly poverty again.’ So the point was not to find a new tactic to make the church relevant again. It is a matter of dropping the purely tactical and seeking total integrity, which does not exclude or repress anything about the truth of today, but brings the faith completely into today’s world. […] It must bring the faith fully to itself by stripping it of what is merely apparent faith but in truth is just convention and custom.

The Freiburg speech was a wake-up call. Benedict himself even said it was ‘revolutionary’, as he put it in our conversation. But soon the pope realized that his urgency was largely ignored. Many of his audience interpreted his demand for ‘desecularization’ as meaning the church should stick to its own world and give up on social service to society, which of course was nonsense. Even Ratzinger’s opponents must have been amazed at that idea. Actually, the pope was not talking about turning away from people, but about turning away from power, from Mammon, from collusion, from false appearances, from fraud and self-deception. By turning away from the world he meant returning to souls and safeguarding humanity’s spiritual resources. His idea of ‘desecularization’ had nothing to do with withdrawing from social and political commitment or giving up on Christian charity. For him, what mattered was being resistant, uncomfortable, not adapting, showing that Christian faith reached far beyond everything to do with a purely worldly, materialistic world view. Christian faith included the mystery of eternal life.

Well ... yes! More from the Freiburg address:

All the more, then, it is time once again to discover the right form of detachment from the world, to move resolutely away from the Church’s worldliness. This does not, of course, mean withdrawing from the world: quite the contrary. [Emphasis mine -- RD] A Church relieved of the burden of worldliness is in a position, not least through her charitable activities, to mediate the life-giving strength of the Christian faith to those in need, to sufferers and to their carers. “For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (Deus Caritas Est, 25). At the same time, though, the Church’s charitable activity also needs to be constantly exposed to the demands of due detachment from worldliness, if it is not to wither away at the roots in the face of increasing erosion of its ecclesial character. Only a profound relationship with God makes it possible to reach out fully towards others, just as a lack of outreach towards neighbour impoverishes one’s relationship with God.

Openness to the concerns of the world means, then, for the Church that is detached from worldliness, bearing witness to the primacy of God’s love according to the Gospel through word and deed, here and now, a task which at the same time points beyond the present world because this present life is also bound up with eternal life. As individuals and as the community of the Church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth, because it demands no more and no less than the gift of oneself.

Benedict's point -- and the one I've tried to make for years -- is that we must withdraw from the world in one sense, not so that we can live hidden away in a cave, but so that we can more faithfully present the true face of Christ to that world. "At the same time, though, the Church’s charitable activity also needs to be constantly exposed to the demands of due detachment from worldliness, if it is not to wither away at the roots in the face of increasing erosion of its ecclesial character," said Benedict. In other words, if the Church doesn't refresh its work of love in the world by detachment from the world, the Church will lose what makes it distinct. It will be assimilated into the world. This, I would say, is precisely what the progressive reformers in the Catholic Church, and in all churches, want. And when we small-o orthodox rely only on intellection and politics to resist them, we surrender without realizing it. Benedict XVI understood this.

One more thing that shines through in the biography: Joseph Ratzinger's personal modesty, and generosity of spirit. If he really had been the "Panzer Kardinal" or "God's Rottweiler," the Catholic Church might be in better shape today. In fact, he was a kindly old German professor, a lover of prayer, music and gentleness. He could absorb the hatred of his lessers because he didn't take himself too seriously. I will allow this Seewald anecdote to stand for them all:

He was even awarded a carnival medal: Narrhalla, the Munich carnival society, distinguished the alleged ‘Grand Inquisitor’ for his humour. Ratzinger countered the expected criticism of giving the medal to a guardian of the faith by saying: ‘I think that it fits perfectly. For it is well known that it is the privilege of a fool [Narr] to be allowed tell the truth.’ Since it was ‘part of his job to tell the truth’ he was delighted at the honour. For ‘Anyone who tells the truth and does not look a bit like a clown would all too easily become self-important.’

Ya know, maybe it's just me, but I bet Joseph Ratzinger, this holy pope and mountainous intellectual, would have loved Ignatius Reilly.

The book I've been quoting is volume 2 of Benedict XVI: A Life, by Peter Seewald. I bought volume 1 last year sometime, in hardback, and left back home in America in storage. I'll be headed back sometime this spring for a visit, and will dig it up. Joseph Ratzinger was one of the greatest and most interesting figures of our time. Even if you think you know him, read the Seewald book, and I bet you'll learn fresh things. I knew what a great theologian he was, but I had not really understood how frail and human he was ... which only makes his greatness more vivid.


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Theodore Iacobuzio
Theodore Iacobuzio
"I came away from the book thinking that the Catholic Church at mid-century was in a no-win situation. "

Yes, and it's important to remember too that Pius X was only dead 50 years in 1964. The Modernists can hardly have simply gone phtt or be trusted to take their oaths seriously. They, or rather their proteges, were waiting for their chance. It is very difficult to believe that anybody as versed in Church politics and as worldly wise as Roncalli couldn't have known this.
schedule 1 year ago