On Pope Benedict’s Final Insights and Recollections

“If a pope were only ever applauded, he would have to ask himself whether or not he was doing things right.”  ∼ Benedict XVI, Last Testament, 2016.

“The bishops (at Vatican II) wanted to renew the faith, to deepen it. However, other forces were working with increasing strength, particularly journalists, who interpreted many things in a completely new way. Eventually people asked, yes, if the bishops are able to change everything, why can’t we all do that? The liturgy began to crumble, and slip into personal preferences.”  ∼ Benedict XVI, Last Testament, 2016.


What is the function of a retired, “emeritus” pope? A retired pope’s first task is not to be in the way of the man chosen to succeed him. An existing pope saying one thing and a retired pope saying the opposite would cause considerable confusion in the Church. Though not wholly on the surface, we do presently have a rather surprising amount of confusion. It does seem to relate to differences between the two recent papacies. A retired pope, however, can certainly reflect on the stages in his own life journey that led him to the priesthood, the hierarchy, the papacy, and retirement.

The previous “interview” books of Pope Ratzinger—The Ratzinger Report, The Salt of the Earth, and Milestones—were of considerable interest and often of philosophical depth. The Last Testament has little that is really new. Many informational questions are addressed to Benedict. He seems to enjoy them and the conversation with Seewald. But in off-handed comments and direct responses, we do find things of inspiration and interest in this final testament.

The book’s initial questions concerned the reasons why Benedict retired. At the time, I myself thought the resignation was a mistake both in terms of the papacy’s functioning and in terms of the justification for breaking the tradition of a pope dying in office. Pope Benedict frankly presents the case as one of health and efficiency. The slow death of John Paul II, an incapacitated pope, was dangerous for the Church. Modern medicine has lengthened the ages of many people. Limits must be looked at. Benedict does not doubt his decision to resign. Others might look on it in terms of consequentialism; namely, that what followed was not really a good thing. But even if Benedict held this view, he would not say so.

Benedict--Last TestamentBenedict is content that, in his life’s work, he has said what he could say. “But I could not write any more. There needs to be methodical work behind writing, and that would be simply too arduous for me now.” He did not think that he still had something further “to leave for humanity.” This judgment is not to forget the many things that he did leave for humanity. He thought that he could still pray. “In old age you are more deeply practiced…. Life has taken its shape. The fundamental decisions have been made.” One does not need to live much longer or say much more when we see a life from this perspective.

Benedict has always been honest about himself. “The difficulty with God is the question of why there’s so much evil and so forth; how something can be reconciled with his almighty power, with his goodness….” But a difference can be found between a question having an answer and our ability to know what this answer is. “If I do not understand something, that doesn’t mean that it is wrong, but that I am too small for it.” It may be difficult to clarify why evil is found in the world. Still, “The closer you come to his [God’s] face, the more intensely you feel how much you have done wrong.” In other words, Benedict sees himself already involved in the mystery of evil.

Benedict is concerned with “the communal character of our beatitude.” He unites theological reflection with his own personal life.

God is so great that we never finish our searching. He is always new. With God there is perpetual, unending encounter, with new discoveries and new joy. Such things are theological matters. At the same time, in an entirely human perspective, I look forward to being reunited with my parents, my siblings, my friends, and I imagine that it will be as lovely as it was at our family house.

Benedict is not an “elitist.” “I am an entirely average Christian. Naturally Christianity is about a concern to recognize the truth, which is light.” Faith is really something that enlightens us. Baptism in Greek, he observes, connotes light and coming to see. We are enlightened to see what we did not otherwise see. Of his own family, Benedict affirms that, “we were completely normal people.”

Benedict does not think that he did everything right. The low points in his papacy were the scandals among the clergy and how to deal with them, as well as with the butler who betrayed him. Benedict went about correcting the damages efficiently and quickly once their nature and scope were clear to him. At the end, he reflected, in a revealing comment: “I cannot see myself as a failure. I did my eight years in service.”


Benedict loved music, especially Mozart. “There’s a clarinet quintet that I really like. Then the Coronation Mass, of course. The Requiem I’ve particularly enjoyed. It was the first concert I heard in my life, in Salzburg.” At the end of World War II, the young Benedict was optimistic. “Now to be living in freedom again, to be in an era in which the Church can come forth afresh, have questions put to her and is being sought out, this was lovely to see.” On his almost not receiving a second doctorate needed to take a chair in German universities, he reflected: “I believe it is dangerous for a young person to go from achieving goal after goal, generally being praised along the way…. A human being needs to endure something in order to learn to assess himself correctly, and not least to learn to think with others.” We note this dark passage: “But certain people in Germany have always attempted to bring me down.”

Over the years, the cultural situation changed. Benedict was concerned with the serious condition of the Church in Germany and in Europe. Other traditions needed to be brought in, “It is clear that Europe can no longer take itself as the center of a global Church.” Benedict knew history. He knew that Christianity could be wiped out in large parts of the world. “Of course the Word of Gospel can disappear from continents. Indeed we can see now that the Christian continents of the beginning, Asia Minor and North African, are no longer Christian. It can even disappear in places where it was dominant. But it can never remain unsaid; [it] will never be unimportant.” Benedict saw that the faith was disappearing in Europe. “It was palpable that, although everything institutional was still there, the real world had shifted away from the Church.”


Of his own education, Benedict said: “Well, I didn’t want to operate only in a stagnant and closed philosophy, but in a philosophy understood as a question—what is man, really?—and particularly to enter the new contemporary philosophy.” He did not like scholastic Thomism. “I wanted out of classical Thomism, and Augustine was a helper and guide with this.” However, “The personal struggles which Augustine expresses really spoke to me. Thomas’ writings were textbooks, by and large, and impersonal somehow.”

Benedict saw himself as a theologian. “I was now coming closer to glimpsing theology as a whole… The highlight was, of course, Söhongen [his teacher]; he moved me the most and he was the one through whom I discovered and recognized what theology is.” He admired accurate thinking. “I was experiencing now the adventure of thinking, of knowledge, of advancing towards and entering deeply into things.” The “adventure of thinking” is a characteristic of life about which Benedict reminds us.

What did being a scholar theologian consist in? First, it did not mean ceasing to be a priest. “I was never a professor only. A priest cannot be just a professor by any means. If he was, he would be neglecting his calling. The priestly commission always involves some pastoral care, some liturgy too, as well as conversations.” But secondly, “You have to read everything and think about it afresh once again…. It is only when you can express it and say it that you have inwardly understood it.”

In his early days, Benedict was considered to be a liberal or a progressive. However, “at that time, progressive did not mean that you were breaking out of the faith, but that you wanted to understand it better, and more accurately, how it lives from its origins.” He soon discovered after Vatican II that many wanted to separate everything before and everything after the Council. Theology, however, could not be an independent discipline all by itself. “We knew that theology without the Church would be theology in name only, and would no longer have any meaning.” He associated himself with Josef Pieper and Henri de Lubac. “What Guardini was for Munich, Pieper was for Munster. Only later did he go in the same direction as I did, and Lubac. We saw that the very thing that we want, something new, is being destroyed. Then he energetically opposed it.” These are insightful words.

While Benedict had problems with Thomism, still he often speaks like a good follower of St. Thomas: “We need the God that has spoken, the God that speaks, the living God. The God that touches the heart, that knows me and loves me. But he must be accessible somehow to the mind. The human being is a unity. And what has nothing at all to do with the mind, but rather takes its course alongside it, would then not be integrated into my whole existence, it would remain some kind of separated element.” Benedict always shows a deep insight into modern culture and how it deviates from right order. “Today we live in a positivistic and agonistic culture, which shows itself more and more intolerant towards Christianity. In that sense, Western society, or Europe in any case, will no longer be simply a Christian society.”


How does Benedict see the world after his resignation? “More and more people asked themselves then: does the Church still have a homogeneous set of doctrines? They no longer know what the Church actually believes.” Yet, the Church is a unified, consistent whole and ought to present herself this way. “It was important for me that the Church is one with herself inwardly, with her own past, that what was previously holy to her is somehow not wrong now…. The moment that one sees a Church schism looming, the pope is obliged to do whatever is possible to prevent it from happening.” A pope, however, does not have to be a theologian or a philosopher. “A pope does not have to be a theological scholar, absolutely not. But he must have some cultivation of the intellect. He must know what the currents of the day are.”

This interview contains two items of political import that are worth noting. Of his famous Regensburg Address and its relation to Islam, he remarks:

I read this dialogue of the Palaeologus because I was interested in Islamic-Christian dialogue. In the sense it was no accident. It really is about a dialogue. The emperor who was quoted already operated under general Muslim rule—and nevertheless there was a freedom, so he could say things people today are not able to say any more. As such, I just found it very interesting to bring up this part of a five-hundred-year-old dialogue for discussion. … I underestimated the political implications of the event.

What is of interest in this passage is the notion that people five hundred years ago were more free frankly to discuss whether Islam was in fact violent than they are today under the auspices of regimes that claim to practice free speech.

Benedict’s brief comment on politics is quite incisive: “I have never attempted to exert myself politically, but I always had a great personal interest in politics, and in the philosophy that stands behind it. Because politics lives off a philosophy, politics cannot simply be pragmatic, in the sense of ‘we’ll do something.’ It must have a vision of the whole.” Philosophy is a quest for the whole. Political philosophy does presuppose this vision, which is present even when it is denied, perhaps especially when it is denied. For politics, when it neglects its philosophical origins, makes itself its own philosophy immune from any judgement but its own about what is good and what is evil.

In conclusion, here is how Benedict sees his successor: “Everyone has different charisms. Francis is a man of practical reform. He was an archbishop for a long time, he knows the profession, and before that he was already a superior with the Jesuits, and he simply has the courage to organize things.” He recognizes Francis’s way to approach things. But for himself, he remains more philosophical. The last words in the interview, with which Francis would agree, are these: “It has become increasingly clear to me that God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force, rather he is love and loves me, and as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love.”

(Photo credit: wikicommons)


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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