A trio of sympathetic books published since May hint at the effort to shape the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. While the portrayal emerging may appeal neither to those who’d hoped for the pope emeritus to reclaim traditionalism nor to those seeking a fuller embrace of the current pope, it might yet help consolidate support behind Francis while isolating the worst of the para-schismatic fringes.
First to appear was Oltre la crisi della chiesa. Il pontificato di Benedetto XVI, by Fr. Robert Regoli, a church historian at the Gregorian University in Rome. The 512-page book, a scholarly history of Benedict’s pontificate, was launched at the Gregorian as part of a panel whose participants included Georg Gänswein—Benedict’s personal secretary—who also used the occasion to repeat his absurd theory of the double-papacy. Two weeks ago came Servitore di Dio e dell’umanità. La biografia di Benedetto XVI, a 522-page biography of Joseph Ratzinger by Elio Guerriero, editor of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Ratzinger’s works in Italian. Released by the most important publisher in Italy, it also features a preface by Pope Francis.
Then last week came the much-anticipated, fourth book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Last Conversations of Benedict XVI. Though an English-language version won’t be available until later this fall, I recently completed the German release. It will be of interest to anyone who wants a better understanding of the Vatican and the Catholic Church of these last few years, for three reasons.
First is how the book tries to reframe Ratzinger’s thought in the context of twentieth-century Catholic tradition and situate it at the origins of the renewal of theology after World War II. Benedict recalls an article he published about the “signs of the times” in 1958—that is, even before John XXIII was elected and the expression became associated with Vatican II—and other works for which he was accused of heresy. There is a stark assessment of the immediate post-Vatican II period and a candid criticism of the theological method underlying Paul VI’s Humanae vitae, not surprising given Ratzinger’s relative lack of interest in the issue even after his election as pope. Nor is it surprising coming from a Catholic from Germany, where the diplomacy of John XXIII and Paul VI was viewed by many Catholics as too soft on Communism, as was Cardinal Agostino Casaroli’s Ostpolitik, of which Benedict says: “It was clearly a failure.”
Benedict also defends his own pontificate in presenting the period from 2005 to 2013 as a time of attempting to strengthen the synodal elements within the Church; it is the only part of the book that addresses conciliarity and synodality, and it reads as untrue to anyone who witnessed that period, even if it serves indirectly as a (correct) judgment on the centralization tendencies of John Paul II. Benedict additionally defends his liturgical policies and liturgical style but clearly distances himself from liturgical ultra-traditionalists: “Communion on the tongue is not mandatory; I have always done both ways,” he says. He denies that Summorum pontificum, the motu proprio of July 7, 2007, introducing the extraordinary form of the Mass (pre-conciliar and in Latin), was intended to appease the Lefebvrites of the Society of St. Pius X.
The second notable aspect of the book is how Benedict seeks to portray his involvement in international affairs and relationships with world leaders. For Cardinal Ratzinger, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was a significant dialogue partner, but their relationship never became a friendship. While he has words of appreciation for President Barack Obama and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, he strikingly expresses more interest in and admiration for Vladimir Putin and Putin’s concern for the future of Christianity: “Putin is a man in some way touched by the necessity of faith. He is a realist who sees Russia suffering because of the destruction of morality.” Yet Benedict also confesses that politics amounted to “the least interesting part” of his pontificate. He confesses as well that he did not consider the political significance of his speech in Regensburg in September 2006, especially the section on Islam.
The third interesting (though not surprising) aspect of the book is the resentment and bitterness Benedict expresses toward Germany and the German Catholic Church. He does not rebut a criticism leveled by Seewald against one of his successors as archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, now a member of Francis’s council of nine cardinals. He recalls the difficult apostolic journey to Germany in 2011* (especially secularized Berlin), and he repeats once again his criticisms of the wealth and bureaucracy of the Catholic Church in Germany, the “Church tax,” and the current state of German theology. He talks about Germany in terms of a Church dominated by “the power of bureaucracy, over-intellectualization of faith, politicization and lack of vital dynamism.” It’s worth noting how Benedict cites the volunteer work behind the annual meeting of Italy’s Communion and Liberation movement to romantically draw a contrast to how the Catholic Church in Germany receives money from the state, when in fact Communion and Liberation itself also receives significant financial support.
Some prominent Catholics in Germany are responding to the book negatively. Andreas Batlogg SJ, editor of Munich-based Jesuit magazine Stimmen der Zeit, suggested in a radio interview it ought not have been published; he is not concerned about the content of the book, he said, but worries its publication risks presenting Benedict XVI as still “the pope.” He also sharply criticized Gänswein for fueling a para-schismatic mentality. Batlogg has a point: the semi-retirement of Pope Benedict XVI has become a highly public event and constant part of the Church news cycle, at least in the Rome-based and Rome-focused Catholic media. This is precisely why a canonical, liturgical, and cultural-symbolical definition of the “pope emeritus” role is needed. The cover of the book lists “Benedict XVI” as the author, with no mention of the fact that he is “pope emeritus.”
The book also makes clear Benedict’s isolation from the curial and Vatican environment during his pontificate. He defends his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, but not wholeheartedly, and denies that he refused the advice of some cardinals (including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, once a student of Professor Ratzinger and now a key advisor to Francis) to fire Bertone. There are few if any words of gratitude for other key players of his pontificate. Academics know there is no politics like academic politics, but even academics, when they retire, can find nice words for their colleagues.
As to Francis: Benedict does have some nice words for his successor. Yet what he says about Francis seems framed as “theology versus Church bureaucracy”—thus reinforcing the idea that Benedict is the theologian and Francis the Church politician. Benedict’s statements on some issues seem attempts at repositioning himself, not quite vis-à-vis those who never liked him, but vis-à-vis those Catholic traditionalists who during the last decade tried to appropriate “the pope theologian” and make him more of a traditionalist than he actually was. Some of the statements Benedict makes in this book may cause nostalgic fans to feel orphaned a second time, after his decision to resign in February 2013. What he says about the theology of Vatican II and the liturgy may help break the anti-Francis alliance formed since the spring of 2013 by traditionalists à la Lefebvre and the so-called (and self-identified) Ratzingerian Catholics, theologians, and church officials. The silence of these factions in recent days is an indication of the consolidation of Francis’s authority.
Benedict does not speak at all of the Bishops’ Synods of 2014 and 2015 or the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia. Those who were hoping for an intervention by the former pope in the debate on family and the divorced and remarried will be disappointed. If you are one of those traditionalists considering the “schism option” (formally or silently), don’t look to this book for support from Benedict XVI. He now describes himself as a rebel who has always enjoyed contradicting (“die Lust am Widerspruch”), and now he has contradicted, and distanced himself from, some of those he appointed and promoted during his thirty-one years in Rome before becoming “emeritus.”
* An earlier version of this post misstated the date of the visit to Germany as 2010.