A Teacher to the End

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Last Testament
In His Own Words
By Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald
Bloomsbury Continuum. Pp. xx + 257. $24

Review by Victor Lee Austin

To read this book is to have a low-key, comfortable, extended conversation with an old man who, as it were, just happened to have been pope. The reader will see a generous spirit, as Benedict sidesteps opportunities to make points against his adversaries; a pious spirit, as he says (of difficult problems) that of course one trusts in God; a penetrating spirit, as he deftly parses disputed points of ecclesiology (among much else).

Those of us who long for Christian unity will be particularly interested in Benedict’s recounting the process that led him to take the radical step of resigning. No pope had done so for a thousand years, and no pope ever had given a theological rationale for it. It is here in this book. On the one hand, the papacy is not a mere function; “the office enters into your very being.” On the other hand, if the capacity is lacking to do the necessary “concrete things,” then one must “free up the chair” (pp. 20–21). This distinction, of the office and the capacity to carry out the office, had been established already in the Roman Catholic episcopacy: although one remains a bishop for life, one must resign at age 75. Benedict merely, but boldly, carried through the implications.

Benedict is not a conservative. He is a child of a time in theology that wanted new understandings of old truths. He saw that theology should be renewed, just as Vatican II advanced, by drawing on the Fathers (rather than primarily Aquinas) and above all by rooting itself in and continually drawing nourishment from the Scriptures. Thus, for instance, he admits disappointment with Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (which prohibited contraception), not for its conclusion, but for its natural law reasoning. He says that John Paul supplemented this with his more wholistic, or personalist, teaching on human sexuality.

A thinker who is at once traditional and intrepid, Benedict conceived and wrote his three-volume work on Jesus while pope, an unprecedented act. Published without special papal authority, thus not becoming thereby part of the magisterial teaching of the church, it opens a new way for popes to be pope, as leading teachers. And Benedict had the chops to pull it off: it is a work that would command serious scholarly attention and do much to build up the Church, even if its author had been simply a professor.

As an Anglican, I often thought what bliss it was to be alive in the latter half of the first decade of this century. At the head of our communions were Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams, world-class theologians who would be renowned in their own right, apart from any office they held.

Last Testament came to be from edited interviews, Benedict approving the final version. Of the book’s three parts, the longest is the middle, which traces his life from boyhood to the papacy. Sandwiching this are reflections on his current life as pope emeritus, on his papacy, and on the end of life.

I wish the book had an index, and I wish that Bloomsbury had done a better job of proofreading the final text; I found a half-dozen errors without even looking for them. Perhaps an index will be added in a second edition.

There is here much wisdom for living. Throughout his life, Benedict has taken walks in the morning and evening. In his office, he always had a sofa: when he needed to think through a problem, he would lie down to do so. He said his prayers and got his sleep, never working late at night.

Benedict now writes nothing but his little Sunday homilies that are preached in private and not published. On the dust jacket of Last Testament is something that I’ve never before seen on a book by a living author: “This is his final book.” To know that something is the last one is itself a gift of wisdom. “So teach us to number our days,” says the Psalmist, “that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” Even in this Benedict would teach us.

The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.


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