Peter Seewald is a German journalist who has interviewed Pope Benedict several times and published these interviews in the past. The current book contains transcripts of interviews conducted shortly before, but mostly after the Pope’s resignation. So the questions were all designed to have the Pope emeritus look back on his life and his service to the church and thus we get Benedict’s reflective perspective on many things from Vatican II to the “Gay Lobby” scandal in the Vatican. The things he most regrets are his lifting of the excommunication on Bishop Williamson of SPXX due to the claims that the Bishop was a holocaust denier; his inability to handle the narrative the press was constructing after Vatican II and the priest sex abuse scandal that began under Pope John Paul’s reign but lingered into Pope Benedict’s reign as well. His, regrets, however, do not in any way dominate his reflections.
I always thought–and these interviews confirm for me, that the thing that most characterized Pope Benedict’s service to the church was his constant insistence that the revelation of Christ was that the GODHEAD or the deity or God was the WORD or the logos, and thus that the inner nature of Christ and Christianity was essentially reason/rationality-not just love. That was the message of Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg address which touched off fanatical muslim riots all over the world –namely that Christianity was not like other religions; that it was not a religion at all since it was so wedded to reason at its foundation…
Benedict’s parents were devout Bavarian Catholics. His father passionately opposed Hitler and subscribed to a paper/journal that was Catholic and anti-Hitler so these sentiments were passed onto to his son. His two sons went into the priesthood with the future Pope doing his dissertation on Augustine-not Aquinas. He rose rapidly through the clerical ranks becoming Bishop of Munich near his hometown in Bavaria while his theological works were attracting attention far and wide. When Vatican II arrived the future Pope became an advisor to some of the most “liberal” Bishops attending but neither he nor they thought of themselves or the council as “progressive”, “liberal” or “innovative”. They saw themselves as re-expressing traditional positions of the Church. For example the council fathers recommended an expansion, not the elimination of Latin in the church and in the liturgy. He blames the subsequent disastrous effects of Vatican II on “progressives” outside the church who controlled media interpretations of what the council documents were otherwise saying.
“The bishops 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. Since 1965 I have felt it to be a mission to make clear what we genuinely wanted and what we did not want.” (p. 141)
but for Benedict, Vatican II was not disastrous, it was a world historical landmark for the church and the world. Its effects were not only disastrous. In the theological realm they were fruitful and revelatory. Reading these interviews, one gets the sense that Benedict’s first vocation was as a thinker and a theologian. Like every great philosopher he loved to take long walks especially walks alone. From his perspective the landmark’s in his life were not career markers like when he became Bishop, then Prefect, then John Paul’s right hand man and then Pope. No his landmarks, were his intellectual breakthroughs. The things that gave him strength despite his many and serious health issues and the crushing responsibilities of his offices was his theological work. that was how he prayed.
His explanation and description of his abdication was succinct and convincing: he was not laying down the cross associated with the papacy just the work. He could not perform the functions of a Pope given his brain hemorrhage and other very serious health issues.
Remarkably, people see this intellectual Pope as a traditionalist who opposed all things progressive and modern. While it is certainly true that he opposed all versions of the modernist heresy he did not oppose modernity per se. In these interviews he talks about the good things modernity has brought humanity including science, wealth for many, better health, global communications etc but especially the philosophical and theological insights. Like any reasonable person he wants to accept and use these good things for the betterment of humanity while opposing the well-known bad things modernity brings in its wake. its up to us to own the theological insights into the original Christian revelation that modernity gives us but no-one has yet been able to do that convincingly. There is a new world trying to be born but it has not found its midwife yet.
Do you see yourself as the last Pope of an old era?
“Between the times I would say…I don’t belong to the old world anymore, but the new world isn’t really here yet” (p. 232)