Underrated: Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI may or may not have been a great pope — it is too soon to say — but as Joseph Ratzinger he has certainly been a great theologian. At the heart of Ratzingerian theology is an idea — it is rather an all-encompassing power — that may surprise those who think of its author as at best a desiccated, professorial pope, at worst a latter-day grand inquisitor. Luther’s big idea was that faith alone, sola fide, is necessary for salvation. What is Ratzinger’s gospel? All you need is (God’s) love.

As the first modern pontiff not to die in office, the Pope Emeritus has chosen a contemplative life in a convent. Speculation still swirls around his dramatic resignation, but there is no reason to doubt his word that his retirement was prompted by physical frailty. In 1991 he had suffered a serious stroke; he is blind in one eye. In 2005, already 78, he assumed he was too old to be elected; by 2013, after eight punishing years, he could no longer go on. Yet Pope Francis, who occasionally encounters his Vatican neighbour, assures us that “his mind is perfect”.

That is the most welcome news to emerge from the latest in a series of extended interviews with Peter Seewald. This German journalist has been his interlocutor since gaining Ratzinger’s trust during his quarter-century with Pope St John Paul II, who relied on him to define and defend Catholic doctrine. Benedict XVI: Last Testament (Bloomsbury, £16.99) contains few revelations about his pontificate, but is revealing about who this underrated man really is.

As a scholar, Joseph Ratzinger has covered a vast field in more than 60 books. His influence transcends that of any other theologian of his generation; indeed, he bears comparison with the greatest doctors of the Church. Even during his pontificate he sacrificed what little leisure he had to complete his monumental three-volume life of Jesus.

Writing as Pope, he cultivated a more impersonal style, but nevertheless his gospel of love shines through. He tells Seewald that he is particularly fond of his first encyclical, Deus caritas est (“God is love”), a justly celebrated reflection on the different meanings of love. In his last interview with Seewald, he returns to this theme. He declines to disclose personal details, “but I have been touched by [love] in different dimensions and forms. To be loved and to love another are things I have increasingly recognised as fundamental, so that one can live; so that one can say yes to oneself, so that one can say yes to another . . . God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force; rather he is love and he loves me — and as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love.” This is not the voice of an authoritarian, or even of an ascetic, but of a very human, down-to-earth Christian for whom “loving our neighbour is loving God”. Throughout Benedict’s oeuvre, one finds a refusal to see any contradiction between living a Christian life and keeping abreast of the contemporary world — or, in theological terms, between faith and reason. The love of God never fails, even when man refuses to reciprocate.

Hence he is not discouraged by the “dechristianisation of Europe”, Benedict tells Seewald. Then he offers an arresting analogy: “It seemed completely absurd in ancient times that a couple of Jews went out and sought to win the great, learned and knowledgeable Graeco-Roman world for Christianity.” It is typical of Benedict to emphasise that these two apostles, known to us as St Peter and St Paul, were Jewish. He  identifies with them, with the Jewish people and the biblical, Judaic roots of Christianity — with Jerusalem rather than Athens. He never talks of Jews and Christians except as brothers, allies in a hostile world. It pains him that his enemies deny this: “But certain people in Germany have always attempted to bring me down. They knew that this is easiest where Israel is concerned.”

Benedict has indeed always been a prophet without honour in his own land. It was in Regensburg, where he had once been a professor, that he gave a prophetic address in 2006 on faith and reason. He quoted Manuel II Paleologus: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find only things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached.” Taken out of context and attributed, not to a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, but to the Pope, these words provoked dismay in the West and violence in the Middle East. Benedict, however, was only voicing what others thought but feared to say: the threat that radical interpretations of Islam pose for the whole world. The Judaeo-Christian tradition may have reconciled faith and reason, more or less. The Islamic world has yet even to try.

The most famous of all Ratzinger quotations comes from his homily as Dean of the College of Cardinals at the Mass before the 2005 conclave. “We are building a dictatorship of relativism,” he told the assembled cardinals, “that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” In place of this dictatorship, Benedict has sought to build a truly catholic — i.e. universal — fellowship of compassion, whose goal is love.

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