In Germany, reality and media-hype are worlds apart when it comes to Pope Benedict’s latest book-length interview called Last Conversations (Letzte Gespräche) in German (and Last Testament in English). Accused of lacking tact, of wanting to interpret his own pontificate when this should be left to others, and of bashing the German hierarchy when he was himself part of the system are a few of the accusations leveled against Benedict by the Jesuit Andreas Batlogg, editor of the progressive journal Stimmen der Zeit (Voices of the Time). Readers of Last Conversations will conclude that Stimmen der Zeit is more concerned with following the Zeitgeist than preaching religious truth.
Benedict’s simplicity and humility shine through this interview conducted by Peter Seewald. He is not defending himself, but reminiscing, explaining, responding very simply to Seewald’s questions. Originally, these conversations, initiated at the end of his pontificate (though held mostly afterwards), were meant to help Seewald write Ratzinger’s biography. Only after Seewald secured the approval of Benedict and Pope Francis were these revealing interviews published.
Many faithful were shocked, bewildered, and saddened by his announcement that he would abdicate the throne of Peter. It went against centuries of Church practice and seemed to contradict the shining example of St. John Paul II the Great who revealed in his final years the significance of suffering. It was therefore mainly the progressives, for whom Ratzinger had been a thorn in the side, who applauded his decision. But, contrary to speculations, it was not vatileaks, the Williamson affair or any of the other scandals that led Benedict to abdicate. On the contrary, he insists one should not leave when things are unresolved or at their worst. The reason for his decision was declining health. His energy was on the wane and he felt he could no longer shouldering the heavy burdens of his office. Of course, as he admits, the office of Peter is not merely about executing duties. It enters into one’s being. At the same time, he felt incapable of dealing anymore with day-to-day business. He sees his vocation differently than John Paul II. Benedict is confident he made the right decision. For somebody who acted fearlessly during his whole life, speaking of the ills of his time whether opportune or not, it would have been out of character to become suddenly pusillanimous. God is the center of his life, and in his heart of hearts, it was clear to him that God not only allowed him to leave, but that it was his duty.
Ratzinger spoke with a prophetic voice his entire life. First, he was rebutted by the conservatives for that reason, and later by the liberals. This is a good indication that truth has always been his guiding-light, rather than the factions of right or left that tend to overlook either the ever-fresh newness of God’s revelation or its timelessness. In 1958, for example, he published the article “Die neuen Heiden und die Kirche” (“The New Pagans and the Church”) where he spoke about the spreading loss of faith despite a seemingly blooming Church. Though he was simply seeing the signs of the time, the article was viewed as heretical by some, while his colleagues in Freising were shocked and his nomination to the university of Bonn became jeopardized. On the other hand, his beautiful speech in Freiburg in 2011 was heavily criticized by progressives since he was asking the German church to shed its worldliness, its emphasis on institutions and conventions in order to open itself anew to the call of Christ. It could not have been said in a gentler way, quoting Mother Teresa that what needs to change in the Church is “you and me.” And yet, it was received badly. The pope wasn’t telling the Church to abandon its wealth, or that it was squandering its money (the extensive national and international charitable outreach of the Church in Germany is very generous). Instead, he wanted a change of heart. In contrast, Pope Francis was applauded when he called for an end to careerism in the Church, probably because there is no negative prejudice against him from mainstream progressives. Benedict is also spot-on in the Last Conversations when he speaks about the “union mentality” of Church bureaucrats and officials in German who simply view themselves as mere employees working for a paycheck. That the uproar is so great even from the progressive lay-organization of German Catholics, “Zentralkommittee deutscher Katholiken,” shows that he hit a sore spot, as Archbishop Gänswein pointed out in his defense of the book.
As Seewald points out, Hans Küng was the source of bad press that Ratzinger received following the Vatican Council. They were first colleagues and even collaborators, until Ratzinger realized that Küng no longer saw theology as the means by which Catholic beliefs are explained and defended. Though Ratzinger was not behind the latter losing his mandatum (i.e., his permit to teach at ecclesiastical institutions), he became a target of Küng’s ire. When Ratzinger left his position as archbishop of Munich in order to become prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), he was still loved and respected; after all, he had been a star-theologian of Germany and a good bishop. His reputation changed following a relentless campaign of slander by the press.
We also learn from the book that Benedict’s approach to decentralization mirrors that of Pope Francis. Benedict working towards a greater interaction between the local church and Rome, and only intervened when things were going in the wrong direction. He clearly has German bishops in mind when he says that many prelates who opposed centralization lacked real initiative, probably because their priority was merely to embrace the progressive agenda. Going with the Zeitgeist made the German church conventional and mediocre, instead of emanating the refreshing challenge of holiness. Ratzinger has always been a man inspired by the timeless newness of the truth. He was deeply formed by the personalism of his day, inspired by Henri de Lubac and von Balthasar to shed the moralistic narrowness of nineteenth century spirituality, advocating a return to the early Church Fathers, opposed to clericalism and seeing the second Vatican Council as an important means of renewing the Church, while opposing the abuses that followed.
But no matter what his critics say, Ratzinger has left a great legacy behind as an author, a pope and a man, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day he is made a doctor of the Church. The personal spiritual journey of Seewald makes him uniquely qualified to ask the important questions. He had left the Church in 1973, had become a Marxist and worked for a number of left-wing journals before interviewing Ratzinger in the 1990s, then finally re-entering the Church. His profound understanding of Benedict and Catholicism, as the preface demonstrates, shows that he learned a great deal from his lifetime of experiences. David Berger, who had gone from being a famous Thomistic, conservative German theologian to outing himself as homosexual in 2010 and criticizing Benedict vociferously, has now come to regret his attacks. Interestingly, he admits that the press at the time would have eagerly published anything he said against the pope. When a prominent journal invited Berger to criticize Last Conversations, he refused to do so, expressing his esteem for the pope emeritus. The very fact that this book is number one on the best-seller list of the news magazine Der Spiegel is reason for hope.
When reading this book, one is struck by Benedict’s holiness and humility, his serene acceptance of harsh attacks, and his simplicity. Readers will be able to tell that his faith and trust in God is childlike, rather than naïve, because he has weathered many storms. He is not the caricatured inquisitor who arrogantly claims to own the truth, but somebody who knows that “the truth possesses us and has touched us.”
He has now arrived at the threshold of eternity, ready for the loving embrace of the Father. He is, as Seewald formulates it, “in silence and prayer, in the heart of the faith.” This last glimpse into the heart and mind of this holy man can nourish us on our journey during these troubled times in the Church and in the world.