Will you still write?
No! No, no, I knew after Christmas: this is Nunc Dimittis; I have done my work.
Are there diaries or notebooks?
No diaries, but I have written down some reflections at certain intervals, which I am disposing of.
[Laughs] Because it is too personal.
But that would be—
A field day for the historians.
These remarks come at the beginning of Pope Benedict XVI’s recently released volume, Last Testament: In His Own Words (Bloomsbury, 2016). The book contains a series of interviews between the pope emeritus and Peter Seewald, the German journalist and author who has been a collaborator with him since he was simply Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The book functions partly as a kind of third autobiography, covering formative experiences from throughout his life and joining Milestones, Memoirs 1927-1997 (Ignatius Press, 1997) and Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (Ignatius Press, 1997), the latter also published with Seewald.
Many chapters touch on particularly controversial or difficult periods from Ratzinger/Benedict’s career and offer clarifying notes: from the “Vatileaks” affair and clergy abuse scandals to his support for Pope Francis, from his family’s staunch opposition to Nazism and his time in the German army to his role while working as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, including clarification of his contribution to various official documents.
Others bring up his sense of vocation, with especially touching notes about early family life and strong faith, as well as his recent retreat (after his resignation from the papacy) into “the silence of Mater Ecclesiae” — a reference to the name of the monastery in which he now resides and, one suspects, a gesture at his escape into a well-deserved period of rest and prayer.
The book’s short chapters, conversational nature, and interesting story matter make for excellent, even quick, reading. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the translator, Jacob Phillips, a lecturer at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham; he has managed to convey admirably the quick, lively character of the German original, as well as its lighter, funny moments.
But the book does leave a little something out about Benedict’s career, which a conference organized by Phillips attempted to address on Nov. 8: “Pope Benedict XVI’s Theological Testament” was held at St. Mary’s and sponsored by two institutes there, the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society and the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible.
At the beginning of the conference, Phillips commended Last Testament, noting that Peter Seewald had managed to capture a number of “juicy stories,” but “what doesn’t come through as strong … is Benedict XVI’s theological contributions.” Later that evening, at the book’s launch event, he highlighted the special character of Benedict’s thought: it is marked by “contemporaneity without being modernist, fidelity without being reactionary.”
The papers offered throughout the day underlined this point, as they took account of Benedict’s massive corpus, which he wrote over many years as a lecturer, professor, bishop, cardinal, and cardinal prefect, and finally, as pope.
In “Writing ‘Lives of Jesus’: Pope Benedict and the Gospels,” the Rev. Canon Professor Richard Burridge, winner of the 2013 Ratzinger Prize and Dean of King’s College, London, gave an account partly of his work and partly of Benedict’s concerns with the topics of revelation and Scripture. He highlighted the congruence of his approach, as an Anglican biblical scholar, with the Vatican II document on revelation, Dei Verbum. (Benedict XVI is well-known to have contributed significantly to this document as a theological peritus or “expert” for Cardinal Josef Frings at the council. He also wrote the official Vatican commentary on the text and its drafting.)
Burridge especially highlighted how the concept of literary “genre” appears at key moments in Dei Verbum, although it is rendered somewhat misleadingly in the official Vatican translation as literary “form.” The difference between the two strikes at the heart of the sort of New Testament criticism popular in Germany at the time Ratzinger underwent his education and that he rejected in his great trilogy Jesus of Nazareth. It lies also at the center of the crucial contribution Burridge made to Gospel study. He emphasized freshly in What are the Gospels? (albeit, as he said, somewhat “obviously”) that the Gospels are most similar to the Greco-Roman genre of bioi: “lives” or biography.
Jacob Phillips’s paper, “‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’: Martin Luther and Joseph Ratzinger on the conscience,” was something of an ecumenical gift, and he framed it as such, especially as Roman Catholics consider how to weigh the legacy of the Reformation, and Luther more specifically, in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses.
The treatment of the two figures side by side was fascinating, and hearers came away with a more nuanced understanding of Luther’s peculiar insistence on the individual’s right to hold a contrary position (“Here I stand” for shorthand), as well as Ratzinger’s nuanced view of ecclesiastical authority and communal conscience (“Here we stand”). Phillips argued that “the much aligned Panzerkardinal” (a nickname for Ratzinger while he was cardinal prefect) offers some of the more remarkable interpretations of Luther. Ratzinger’s positions “seem closer to Luther than [was] late medieval scholasticism.”
What might surprise many is that Ratzinger affirms that a “misguided” individual conscience must still be respected, partly because the conscience “yearns for the good, even when it misappropriates it.”
Christopher Altieri, assistant professor of philosophy at the Collegium Augustinianum in Rome, attempted some “preliminary reflections” on Benedict’s political thought in “The Things of the City,” although he confessed that he was “going to try to state a position in a form that may eventually prove defensible,” but was somewhat inchoate at the time of presentation. He believes Benedict “was self-consciously and deliberately a political thinker, though not” in the way that label is normally understood. Especially, he showed Benedict’s interest in metaphysics “in the mode of wonder,” the opposite side of the coin to politics: “the principle of order” in the universe and “the ordering principle in human affairs.”
Through various addresses, not least in Regensburg and London, Benedict outlined a firm position on the nature of Western civilization, with special reference to how the classical and Christian inheritance undergirds the idea of inalienable and natural rights in particular national laws and in more universal statements about human rights.
For Benedict, the confluence of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman learning was key:
This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history — it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe. (Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections“)
For my part, however, Mary McCaughey delivered the paper that demonstrated most ably the remarkable range and quality of Benedict’s theological depth and legacy: “Through the lens of the pure in heart: Ratzinger’s theological method and the interpretation of revelation.”
McCaughey is attached to the Priory Institute (a Dominican centre for theological studies) in Dublin, and a member of the Ratzinger Neuer Schülerkreis, a group of Ratzinger’s former students and their protégés who regularly discuss his writings. What became clear throughout her presentation is the way that Ratzinger’s writings represent a unique and complex synthesis of Vatican II’s conciliar theology, as well as that of the great Continental luminaries of 20th-century Roman Catholic thinking that preceded him, such as Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Josef Pieper.
For that reason, it may surprise readers to learn that Pope Benedict wishes he had done more before he finished writing. Peter Seeweld asked him, “What would you like to have occupied yourself with more in life?” He responded:
Of course I would like to have worked intellectually more. ‘Revelation’, ‘Scripture’, ‘Tradition’, and ‘What is theology as an academic discipline?’, this was the field of topics that I wanted to elaborate better intellectually: something I could not do. But I’m nevertheless content with the other turn of events, with what has happened. The loving God wanted something different. That is obviously then the right thing for me now.
It is a remarkably humble statement for someone who began his career with decisive contributions to a conciliar document on revelation. But, after such a fulsome career, how does Pope Benedict spend his time?
Well, I can now pray the breviary deeply and slowly and thereby deepen my friendship with the Psalms, with the Fathers. And every Sunday … I compose a little homily. I let my thoughts be orientated towards that over the whole course of the week, so they mature slowly, so I can sound out a text from many different angles. What is it saying to me? What is it saying to the people here in the monastery? That is what is actually new, if I may put it so: tuning in to the prayer of the Psalms with even more silence, making myself more familiar with it. And in this way the texts of the liturgy, above all the Sunday readings, accompany me throughout the week. (emphasis added)
Or, as Peter Seewald puts it at the end of Last Testament:
Could one say that Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, the man of reason, the bold thinker, ends up as a monk, as a person at prayer, where reason alone is not enough?
Yes, that is right.