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Benedict XVI faces his toughest critic: himself

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 18, 2017 | In Reviews

Toward the end of his 4th (and presumably final) book-length interview with Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Last Testament, journalist Peter Seewald asked the now-retired Pontiff to name his own greatest weakness. Benedict replies: “Maybe clear, purposeful governance and the decisions that have to be made there.”

Both admirers and critics of the retired Pope would agree: management was not his strong suit. He was by nature a professor, not an administrator. And he knew that. Several times he had asked St. John Paul II to allow him to leave his post at the Vatican and return to his scholarly work. But the Polish Pope needed him. Then, when John Paul II died, the Church needed him. This wistful theme runs all through Last Testament: Benedict’s realization that he had been called out of his “comfort zone,” called to play a role for which he was not naturally cast.

As an important aspect of his weakness in managerial skill, Benedict confesses that he is not a particularly good judge of character; he is too quick to think the best of people, too slow to see their failings. Perhaps that characteristic, nourished by a remarkable degree of humility, helps him to recognize the justice of some complaints against him. His judgment of himself is unsparing, critical, and—usually—accurate.

But then, just after asking about his weaknesses, Seewald poses a companion question, and the former Pope stumbles:

And what do you think you did a particularly good job at?
[Laughs] That I don’t know.

Reading that passage, I was reminded of an exchange in an earlier book, in which Benedict—then reigning as Pontiff—told Seewald that he expected to be seen by history as an unremarkable Pope, an afterthought following the great John Paul. I don’t lightly disagree with Benedict; he is usually right. But here I am quite sure he is wrong. His humility makes him blind to his own importance.

Last Testament is, in all probability, our last chance to explore the workings of a great mind, to know the inner thoughts of a man who, placed in positions that he did not want, strove to serve the Church he loved in the best way he could. He was a teacher, a champion of truth, at a time when truth was imperiled by what he so accurately called the “dictatorship of relativism.” He was a calm voice of objective reason in an era of subjectivism, and above all a sure voice of faith in an age of unbelief.

Seewald is canny enough to open the book with a discussion of the Pope’s resignation: the reasons that prompted it and the quiet life that has followed. There are no special revelations here, but these are undoubtedly the questions that most readers would like to have asked. It is noteworthy that the interview process had begun before the resignation, and Benedict was inclined to stop the process; but he reconsidered under Seewald’s persuasion—and with the proviso that the book could be published only with the blessing of Pope Francis.

Benedict speaks with love and admiration about his successor, but he steers well clear of current controversies in the Church. In that respect, too, the book does not lend itself to headline coverage. Indeed a good deal of the work is devoted to the young Ratzinger’s progress in his early academic career, with recollections of his professors, friends, and colleagues. Most American readers will flip quickly through those pages.

There are a few minor revelations in the book, however:

  • There is a much-reported incident in which Cardinal Schönborn insisted that Pope Benedict must dismiss Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as Secretary of State, and an exasperated Pope slapped the table and replied: “Basta! Bertone stays!” It makes a good story, but it never happened, Benedict reveals. He remains to this day fully loyal to Cardinal Bertone, and suggests that the Italian cardinal was a target of criticism simply because he was not a diplomat.

    (Actually the criticism of Bertone was—like the criticism of Benedict himself—focused mainly on failures of management. There is no particular reason why a skilled diplomat need be a competent manager, or vice versa. But that points to the odd combination of responsibilities given to the Vatican Secretary of State: a topic for a future column.)

  • Benedict has serious questions about Germany’s “church tax,” and unequivocally condemns the practice whereby those who do not pay the tax are effectively excommunicated. He argues that the German Church is far too rich, staffed by thousands of people for whom the Church “is only an employer toward whom they are critical.” He acknowledges that for all its material wealth, the faith is weak in his native land.

  • Benedict regards his 3-volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, as the centerpiece of his pontificate. Writing that work gave him new energy, he reveals. “It was for me the perpetual wellspring from the depths of the sources.” So if you really want to understand Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth is evidently the one work to read; in that respect, Last Testament subverts itself.

Jesus of Nazareth was written, as the retired Pontiff has explained, to re-introduce a skeptical world to the reality of the Savior—not as a myth or a set of abstract propositions but as the Incarnate God. Benedict tells Seewald that he has often had questions about his faith, but he has never doubted the central reality, because he has had too many tastes of God’s presence. As he lives out his old age, he discloses, he is preparing to live in that Presence, as “all of life ascends to an encounter.”

When Seewald asks what should be written on his gravestone, Benedict chuckles and replies: “I would say nothing! Only the name.” There he goes again, downplaying his own importance. But Seewald suggests that his episcopal motto might be added, and the retired Pope agrees. So the gravestone should identify him as “Co-worker of the truth.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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