Benedict XVI: A Life
By Peter Seewald
Volume 1: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965
Published in English by Bloomsbury Continuum, London, 2020
Translated by Dinah Livingstone
Peter Seewald has recently published an extensive biography of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and the work is a masterpiece which, once begun, cannot be put down. Seewald writes with agility and brilliance. He clearly describes and links the life events and thinking of Joseph Ratzinger while placing them in the historical context of the evolution of humanity and the Catholic Church over the last century. Seewald, who began his career as a journalist, carries out this task in a very logical, truthful, and perfectly intelligible way and, in doing so, shows that he has become an accomplished historian. I would even venture to predict that this book will soon become a true classic and required reading for anyone who wishes to be familiar with and to understand the essence, history, and future path of the Catholic Church and the surrounding world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In addition, I believe the biography will be of special interest to all supporters of the Austrian school and lovers of liberty who, whether believers or not, persistently condemn the “fatal conceit” of statism. In fact, the dictatorship and imperialism of political correctness, the manipulation of the masses, and, in short, the deification of human reason that is behind and fuels the huge political power and social engineering binge gripping the modern world are denounced again and again and have been, so to speak, among the principal leitmotifs in the thought and work of Joseph Ratzinger throughout his entire life.
Seewald presents his subject as an extremely humble and good-natured person who is always open to dialog and willing to accept his adversaries, regardless of the attacks and biased manipulations he suffers. This quality does not prevent Ratzinger from defending the truth using the powerful reasoning of his own mind (or arrived at through prayer), such that “he could not remain silent when he saw things that had gone wrong.” In this sense, Ratzinger’s approach is in line with the motto of Ludwig von Mises, expressed in Virgil’s famous words: “Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito. (‘Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.’)” Indeed: “In professional arguments, [Ratzinger] did not compromise.” I see this as the only acceptable position for a scholar who seeks the truth, and I have humbly tried to adopt it myself: With respect to theory and the search for truth, “take no prisoners.” Moreover, Seewald points out that in Ratzinger’s view, “it was disastrous to accept what is false, dishonest, or wrong or to buy success and public prestige by sacrificing the truth or by approving the prevailing opinion if it relied on untruth.” Thus, the fate of good, responsible men is to always “swim against the tide,” which clearly coincides with the destiny of liberty lovers who oppose statism in our day because it rests on the “fatal conceit” (in the words of Hayek), or the “hubris by which human beings self-importantly claim to become the autonomous creators of an earthly paradise” that can lead only to the self-destruction of the human being. Just as every libertarian views the history of humanity as but a record of the battle between freedom and the coercion and servitude characteristic of the state, Ratzinger ultimately views history as a record of the battle between faith and unbelief, between good and evil, and the latter is represented by all attempts by human beings to rise to perfection by their own efforts (via, I would add, the use of political power and social engineering), attempts doomed to disaster. Ratzinger does see the formidable nature of the forces of the Evil One, who I believe is particularly embodied in the state and in political power that rests on lies (and continually thwarts human freedom—our chief attribute—and the spontaneous order of the market and society). However, Ratzinger holds that the power of the Most High is always stronger than all other forces put together. The future is not to come, but to be made, and it is up to both us and God. Whatever happens, we will never see the triumph of the destructionism (to use Mises’s term) typical of statist socialism, which is among the main manifestations of the Devil’s constant attempt to destroy, through envy, the work of God and his main creature: the human being.
Seewald has written a biography filled with small details and surprising information about Ratzinger’s life. For instance, we read that his parents met and married thanks to an ad his father—an honest local police officer—placed in a Catholic newspaper in search of a girlfriend. We learn that Ratzinger does not like to reveal or celebrate his birthday. Seewald also writes about the great uncle and priest Georg Ratzinger, who was a delegate to the Reichstag in Berlin in the nineteenth century and fiercely opposed Prussian militarism and the “German nationalist mania for greatness” of Bismarck and his acolytes—a view which, incidentally, fully coincides with that of the leader of the true German liberals, Eugen Richter, whom Seewald does not mention. In addition, we read that Joseph Ratzinger, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1997, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Navarre. Also honored was the American economist Julian Simon, a member of the Mont Pelerin Society and a great Hayekian population theorist (whom I had the privilege of meeting before his untimely death). Moreover, Seewald writes in detail about the period during which Benedict XVI received his formal education. We find that his main calling was always scholarship, teaching, and research and that he never sought to get ahead or pursue a career in the Catholic Church, and thus, the author attributes to fate—that is, divine providence—Ratzinger’s continuous rise (a path he never deliberately sought nor predicted), which culminated in his being pope.
To a professor like yours truly, it is especially appealing and interesting to learn from Seewald and the documentation and numerous testimonies provided by students and considered in the book that Joseph Ratzinger has always been an excellent teacher who inspired his students. Blessed with an extraordinary memory and capable of writing with not only his head but also his heart, his main ability consists of making even the most complex theological matters look simple. Despite his humility, modesty, and high-pitched voice, he always spoke with confidence, knowledge, and contagious enthusiasm and even gave a poetic touch to his thoughts (such as when he explained that the Church receives and projects the light of Christ like the moon receives and projects the light of the sun). Like all good professors, Ratzinger has always acknowledged his debt to his main teachers and those thinkers who came before him and have most influenced his development, including Saint Augustine, Saint Bonaventure, Cardinal Henry Newman (whom Ratzinger himself beatified), the theologians de Lubac and von Balthasar, and the philosopher and political scientist Eric Voegelin (who, incidentally, was a regular participant in Mises’s Vienna seminar in the 1930s). That such a professor, whose classes were always packed when those of his academic colleagues were half empty, should be the object of all sorts of envy and university intrigues will not surprise anyone minimally acquainted with the workings of academic institutions. And Peter Seewald gives us a detailed description of all of these vicissitudes so the reader can understand the reasons behind the journey that led the professor of dogmatic theology Joseph Ratzinger to the Universities of Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg, before Pope Paul VI named him, in 1977 and at the age of fifty, Archbishop of Munich, and shortly afterward, Cardinal.
Perhaps nothing has done more to elevate Joseph Ratzinger than his participation as a young theologian acting as advisor to Cardinal Frings on the work of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Pope John XXIII himself was very impressed with a key lecture given by Frings and remarked to him, “You have said everything that I’ve thought and wanted to say but was unable to say myself.” Slightly flustered, Frings answered, “Holy Father, I did not actually write the lecture. A young professor [Ratzinger] wrote it.” To this, John XXIII replied, “I did not write my last encyclical myself either. You just need the right advisor.” Though, at the Council, Ratzinger always fought for a reform and aggiornamento of the Church to help it escape stagnation, he later observed with great disappointment that the postulates contained in the Council documents and promoted by Ratzinger were manipulated and twisted by most of the media, which fed on a trend of “overwhelming progressivism that evaded the true faith and gave a blurred, journalistic view of the Council.” As an example, Ratzinger mentions a fellow “theologian who I knew had left the faith (he had told me so himself), someone who didn’t believe in anything, and yet, began to teach that his ideas about the Council represented authentic Catholicism.” The pain this caused Joseph Ratzinger (who is kindness personified) can be compared only to that he felt when many in the German-speaking theological world aligned themselves against him. Seewald explains and documents in detail the particularly destructive, manipulative influence of Hans Küng, viewed up to now as the golden boy of theology by the most hypocritical and self-righteous media outlets, which, led by Der Spiegel, have always used any excuse to criticize John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and in general, the Catholic Church. Joseph Ratzinger has always managed to endure this pain without the slightest complaint and with great fortitude, and following his elevation to the papacy, he even extended a warm welcome to Küng, who had just announced with trumpets his “enormous disappointment” over the result of the election that had made Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI.
Seewald also offers us a brilliant, detailed explanation of Ratzinger’s great contributions to ecumenism and unity with the Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches, as well as his efforts toward the forging of a closer relationship with Jews and Muslims, always with an attempt to build bridges and emphasize more what unifies than what divides, “since all contain much that is true and holy.” However, as is logical, Ratzinger has never gone to the extreme of blurring the true Catholic faith or ceasing to defend it. Illustrative of this is the fact that on many different occasions and despite all of the manipulative media campaigns, both Jews and Muslims have stated that thanks to Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church’s relations with Judaism and Islam have reached a level of understanding and acceptance unforeseen in the history of the Church.
Another recurring topic of great importance to Ratzinger has been the close, inescapable relationship between faith and reason, since “great moral knowledge is just as reasonable and true as great knowledge in the natural sciences and in technology; natural law is moral law.” For faith without reason becomes fanaticism, and reason without faith becomes futile and destructive. In this light, Ratzinger’s critique of “liberation theology” is especially brilliant. This movement is a true twentieth century heresy with its roots in the thinking of western Marxist intellectuals, a tradition very far removed from Latin American culture and largely responsible for the defection of many South American former Catholics to evangelical churches. Elsewhere, I have given a detailed summary of Ratzinger’s brilliant, pertinent, balanced, and also devastating critique of “liberation theology.” See my review of volume 10 of the Collected Works of Joseph Ratzinger [Procesos de Mercado: Revista Europea de Economía Política 16, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 489–492]. The remarks it contains apply here as well.
In short, from the perspective of Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has emerged and evolves as a true spontaneous order established and guided by Christ, an order constantly enriched by numerous community initiatives, and fueled and maintained by, above all, the “simple and straightforward” faith of many ordinary Christians. According to Ratzinger, what truly invigorates the Church is the faith of fishermen, “simple people,” those who are “poor in spirit,” who are truly blessed, as opposed to the “cold religion of academics,” who are always complicating things.
Seewald also discusses the emergence and evolution of various crises blown out of proportion and manipulated by the media and adversaries of Benedict XVI—for instance, the lifting of the excommunication of Holocaust denier Bishop Williamson, the Regensburg lecture (which was manipulated and treated as an insult to the Muslim world), and the so-called “condom crisis.” Prominent among these is the pederasty crisis in the Church, which was most forcefully condemned and effectively dealt with by precisely Joseph Ratzinger, as Peter Seewald shows in detail in his book. None of these crises explains the resignation—an unprecedented event in the Catholic Church—of Benedict XVI following eight years of very fruitful and intense papacy. Joseph Ratzinger has repeatedly justified his decision on the grounds of his poor health and loss of physical strength to continue, at nearly eighty-seven years of age, doing the vital work properly.
The figure of Pope Francis which emerges—at least between the lines—in Seewald’s book is quite intriguing. On the one hand, we read that a pope must make “statements that are clear and unconfusing, but also conciliatory, to avoid dividing the flock” and that he “must have a pleasant appearance, or at least not be ugly”(!). On the other hand, one deduces that, though it is still too soon to evaluate the papacy of Pope Francis, his two predecessors (one—John Paul II—already a saint and the other—Joseph Ratzinger—perhaps the most important and kind-hearted Catholic theologian in recent times) have been very tough acts to follow. In any case, it is unsurprising that Pope Francis risks ultimately being deemed a bluff for those in the more “progressive” wing when they see their bold expectations, always heightened by the media, come to nothing or almost nothing; or being deemed a destabilizing pope who, rather than unite, causes confusion and division in the people of God whenever he makes rash or easily manipulable statements. He may be seen as the latter by those in the more “conservative” wing of the Church and, in general, all who watch how the pope, in this difficult situation, often takes refuge in the more worldly, political, and thus, easier angles (“throw away” culture, inequality, the environment, the need for a “world government,” etc.). The book contains a very enlightening account of how Bergoglio was the preferred candidate of members of the so-called “Saint Gallen Group” of progressive clerics who, led by Cardinal Martini, Archbishop Emeritus of Milan, were ardent adversaries of Wojtyla and Ratzinger and conspired all they could to keep Benedict XVI from being elected. In spite of it all, Ratzinger’s deep kindness again surfaces when he repeatedly declares that his personal friendship with Pope Francis not only remains, but is becoming ever deeper.
Every work, no matter how good, inevitably contains a few shortcomings or surprising assertions which, as Marañón used to say, can make it even more attractive, like beauty marks adorning the skin of a lovely woman. There are few weak points to note in Seewald’s work. (Incidentally, it has been superbly translated and published in Spanish with so few misprints that I can barely count on the fingers of both hands the errors I found in the book’s 1150 pages.) However, it could be noted that, though Seewald clearly highlights the socialist nature of Nazism and the fact that the German Catholic Church brought together one of the most effective fronts against it (in stark contrast to Protestants’ traditional support of German statism from the time of Bismarck), he does not delve into the leading role the social market economy promoted by Erhard played in the Wirtschaftswunder, or German economic miracle (though Seewald does acknowledge that Ratzinger greatly admired Adenauer). Seewald also neglects to mention the magnificent speech Benedict XVI gave before the Bundestag on September 22, 2011, in which, following in the footsteps of Saint Augustine, he referred to any government not subject to Law as a “band of robbers.” (This was a real anarchocapitalist bombshell, since, as we well know, nowadays the main threat to Law—with a capital L—invariably comes from the government itself.) Moreover, I would have liked to know what influence Ratzinger had on John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. (Seewald indicates that Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, painstakingly examined every encyclical.) This encyclical of John Paul II’s is very important, since in it, he clearly comes down on the side of capitalism as opposed to socialism, which he considers an intrinsically immoral system, a position which contrasts with a certain impartiality later expressed by Ratzinger on occasion. The same could be said of Ratzinger’s late concessions to environmentalism, though always stressing that human beings are also part of the natural environment which must be protected and that therefore, there is no greater contradiction than, for instance, defending animal species while accepting abortion. In addition, we could mention the also surprising revelations Seewald makes regarding Frings and Ratzinger’s nuanced “objection” to Paul VI’s declaring (as he did on November 21, 1964) the Virgin Mary the Mother of the Church. Apparently, Frings and Ratzinger reasoned that such a declaration might create a further, unnecessary barrier between Catholics and Protestants. Finally, there is the insufficiently explained reference to Ratzinger’s reformulation of his ideas on giving Communion to the divorced and remarried included in volume 4 of his Collected Works [Obras completas, published in Spanish in 2014].
Though the importance of this book justifies a lengthy review, it is now time to bring it to a close. Clearly, in an anarchocapitalist world, in which there are no states, nor politics, nor left nor right to flirt with, the Church will finally be able to break free and devote herself completely to fulfilling her fundamental mission: transmitting faith in Christ. For this vital mission, as the discerning Nicolás Gómez Dávila affirms in his Scholia to an Implicit Text, Jesus, the founder, left no writings, only disciples. Therefore, in current times as well, and in the words of Ratzinger: “Above all, that of which we are in need at this moment in history are men who, through an enlightened and lived faith, render God credible in this world… We need men whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up to the hearts of others.” The rest must be left to divine providence, which, as we know, always acts subtly, silently, almost imperceptibly, but, without exception, charitably and benevolently.
Madrid, December 20, 2020
Jesús Huerta de Soto