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Review of: Benedict XVI Last Testament. In his own words with Peter Seewald

By Augustinus

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)


As one born out of time

By Augustinus

The Christian, and specifically Catholic vocation must be in the world but not of the world. But does this mean that we are pilgrims merely passing through the world but not really living in it and relishing it? I envy the individuals who are utterly OK with the world as it is…who fit into the world effortlessly and enjoy it thoroughly. They unself-consciously accept the world as it is and keep moving through it like all is well and all manner of things will be well. I, on the other hand, am disgusted by most of what I see around me. I do not feel at home in the world. I am repulsed by most of what passes for culture in the USA (a nation I nevertheless love). I wish I could be like those who just accept the world as it is and not rage against it all the time. The Marxist Gramsci’s slogan was optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect. Both the liberal and the conservative, the left and the right constantly rage against the world and see it as utterly flawed and careening towards disaster.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature this year but he has yet to acknowledge the honor. Dylan appears on the surface to be the kind of guy who effortlessly glides through the world, reveling in it and benefiting from its current zeitgeist-yet he has always also consistently shunned interviews, publicity and being “typed”. His Christian conversion in the 70s appears to have had a lasting impact on his personality and outlook so Dylan in some ways has managed to be totally in the world but not of it. The ex-beatle Paul McCartney, on the other hand, appears to have utterly merged with the zeitgeist. He appears to be totally at ease with the culture of the modern west and has benefited greatly from it.  By all accounts McCartney is a decent human being, uncorrputed by his wealth and fame -yet one feels he has not managed to be in the world but not of the world. Instead he is only in the world.

Pope Francis also seems utterly comfortable with the world today. He fits into it like hand to glove. He does not rage against the dying of the light but instead focuses on the good in front of him. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, did not attempt to fit into the modern world but he did not reject it either. He always felt that the world was going the way God wanted it to and our job  was to discern God’s will in the signs of the times. That was the message also of the classic spiritual book ” abandonment to divine providence”. Each moment brings God’s gifts to us if we but open our eyes to see and accept them….and that was how one lived fully in the world, relishing it every second but not becoming “of” it….not to get swallowed up into the world and becoming just a piece of the world with no eternal imperishable diamond within.