Guerriero’s thorough analysis of Joseph Ratzinger tells this cautionary tale with a sobering moral lesson.
Caricatured as “God’s Panzer” and a Grand Inquisitor, not to mention a Hitler Youth recruit, Joseph Ratzinger has long generated controversy. Even his surname smacked of sinister and devious intent. His wartime upbringing deeply colored his outlook. In the public eye, however, his reputation has obscured his theological acumen, the diplomatic difficulties and occupational hazards which markedly aged him. As Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, his complex career nears its dogged end.
This well-timed critical biography by the Sao Paolo-based theologian-journalist Elio Guerriero renewed debate over the Pope’s impact when it appeared in its original 2016 Italian-language edition. Translated by William J. Melcher, this fluidly written and fairly balanced presentation combines an in-depth examination of Ratzinger’s busy life with deft introductions to his thought. Few among the billions who recognize the Cardinal-turned-pontiff’s name likely comprehend the breadth and depth of his scholarship, pursued during not only his professorial but his many pastoral and pre-papal appointments with impressive industriousness.
After a brief interview where Benedict explains his reasons for retiring from the papacy in 2013 due to exhaustion and declining health, Guerriero follows a chronological organization which helps the reader keep track of the frequent shifts in locale and position which Ratzinger made after his birth in provincial Bavaria in 1927. This review can only touch on the massive amount of carefully documented information, opinion and a bit of speculation gathered by Guerriero, enriched from his own insider perspective as part of Ratzinger’s Communio group of leading theologians who launched an innovative international journal in the early 1970s.
The first touchy topic appears early on, for readers expect any treatment to treat that very young seminarian’s inclusion among Hitlerjugend. Every German teenager had to enlist. The rector of Ratzinger’s school enrolled en masse his cadre of clerical students “not as volunteers, but as conscripts.” At the age of 15, Ratzinger found himself so assigned, in a group so as to avoid retaliation on his school. At 16, he was called up for home defense in an anti-aircraft unit. On discharge, he was immediately summoned for forced labor. Around Christmas 1944, he was drafted. Three weeks before the surrender of the Reich, he turned 18. He deserted rather than face the collapsing front line against the Allies. Taken by the Americans as a prisoner of war, he and his fellow seminarian, brother Georg, were released by the time of the 1945 harvest. The two young men resumed their clerical studies starting in 1946. This episode is summed up here to demonstrate the complex circumstances which shaped Ratzinger: fear, courage and survival.
Against charges that he was “too soft on Nazis,” a quoted classmate responds that Ratzinger hated them. More loyal to Bavaria than Germany, Ratzinger oriented himself theologically towards a progressive preference. He favored the local and the amenable to the distant and the dismissive authority. Within his writings, Guerriero discerns a youthful promotion of a free conscience speaking bold truth.
Christianity, in Ratzinger’s formative post-war studies, stimulated the community bonded by “mutual respect more than by the rigor of the law and by force.” Ordained alongside his brother in 1951, Joseph Ratzinger served at a Munich parish where two priests had been executed late in the war as resisters to Nazism. Throughout this narrative, the roles played by Catholics and other Christians to thwart the totalitarian regime emerge as a telling backdrop for Ratzinger’s ideas.
At 25, he was already a theologian. “The truth is a person, Ratzinger maintained, and one arrives at it by love.” Two demanding dissertations, and grueling years of advanced study enabled the new priest to gain recognition for his academic skill.
He supported the reforms of Vatican II and attended the council as “an official expert.” But the lengths to which some liberals distorted the counsels proclaimed soon bothered Ratzinger. Teaching at Tűbingen in 1968, he recoiled at the puerile tactics of violence-prone protesters. He moved to the less-prestigious university at Regensburg, where his sponsorship as a co-founder of Communio boosted his standing, for better and worse, among cutting-edge theologians after the Council.
Appointed as archbishop of Munich in 1977 at 50, his trajectory elevated him to the prefecture of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. This entity had been preceded by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. As the chief judge over theological orthodoxy in the Church, Ratzinger could not help but spark ill will.
For he confronted the dissension among the liberalized clergy and restive laity which spread widely and deeply after the mid-1960s through his deployment of reason, ecological insights, philosophical sophistication and mercy—as well as fidelity to a moral law which rankled the millions of loud voices rallying for radical rather than cautious progress. Guerriero patiently takes the reader through the famous contretemps with Ratzinger’s rival from the academic left, fellow German firebrand Hans Kűng. Such contentions deepened after Ratzinger was elevated as a cardinal. He championed careful consideration of Europe’s Christian heritage at a tumultuous time when Marxist theory and capitulation to secular pressures commanded the allegiance of many intellectuals, theologians and clergy.
This did not increase his popularity. Ratzinger’s diagnosis of the (post)modern ills suffered by his home continent and his remedy of a revival of a Christ-centered community were met with indifference or dismissal by most among his intended audience. Guerriero admits that this quixotic campaign, continued after he was elected by his fellows among the cardinals as the Bishop of Rome in 2005, was crippled by the erudition of its articulate but very academically inclined prelate. More a professor than a preacher, Benedict XVI lacked the novelty of John Paul II as a fresh arrival from behind the Iron Curtain, and in retrospect the affable role assumed by his successor, Jorge Bergoglio, when Ratzinger stepped aside in 2013.
Meanwhile, eight years of Benedict’s reign gain thoughtful analysis. Guerriero examines the pope’s “Regensburg Lecture” which infuriated Muslims, his incisive if overlooked encyclical on the environment and his refusal to enact hasty changes demanded by clergy impatient with the direction Ratzinger extended the firm trail of his chiding Polish predecessor. This path took the attentive Catholic into a realm of human dignity and communal solidarity with Christ, but it did not create the buzz of soundbites or headlines which a cynical media chose in spinning the dictates of a Supreme Pontiff, often misconstrued or distorted through mainstream journalism. The nuances of papal reflection never turn into snappy headlines.
Guerriero realizes that the decisions taken by his subject to retreat from the fray, even as sexual abuse scandals widened into his former jurisdiction of Munich, may not have been the most winning. Benedict preferred to spend his breaks writing at his desk rather than charming crowds. The Church, among many of its constituents, wanted a more hands-on manager. Ratzinger’s “natural reserve” increased, in his biographer’s estimation, by the intransigence of many in the hierarchy to support his nuanced and erudite expressions for a more subtle reform than anticipated during a scandalous era when crises and corruption enmeshed the Vatican Bank, exposed the clandestine networks of intrigue and vice within the walls of a hundred-acre Roman realm and led to the defection of many to evangelical or more exotic faiths. Tens of millions, across the “advanced nations” where Benedict sought to revive the faith, stalk away from the Church into dissent and disgust. Many of those remaining never fill its pews, identifying as but nominally Catholic.
In the end, the shame of pedophile priests, conniving bishops and covetous dioceses proved too much for an aging pope. The majority of abuse cases occurred between the 1960s reforms and the 1980s, when a laissez-faire sociological and “who am I to judge?” approach to clerical mores shoved aside the pre-Vatican II penalties relied upon as sanctions against those who carried on these heinous acts. Guerriero observes that these countercultural sexual and social mores created a lax enforcement of canon law, and that the victims of such supposed “tolerance” did not, all the same, tend to come forward until the 2000s. But as the leader of Catholicism, Benedict XVI attempted to punish evildoers—too often, after the fact.
The timing of diabolical revelations of clerical sin collided with further exposure of crime through VatiLeaks and by 2012, the burdens became unbearable for a fragile body if still a sharp mind. Benedict’s span of power brought him into what became intolerable problems to supervise and rule upon among well over a billion followers. Guerriero concludes that Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict both lacked collaborators within the episcopate. Clerics “did not facilitate the task of the pope who had gone out of his way for them.” Too few took up Benedict XVI’s challenges to serve the Church; Europe, especially his German homeland, “showed little interest” in the papal affirmation of Christian humanism or the continent’s spiritual heritage. He recognized that his pastoral care and his theological wisdom would conclude as they began in his youth, among now a dwindling community.
Perhaps, as Rod Dreher’s 2017 bestsellerThe Benedict Option, (named after the pope’s namesake who brought monasticism to the West as the Roman Empire crumbled) has proposed, true believers may comprise a “saving remnant” predicted by scripture, which will rally around a tradition rejected by their consumerist, media-fueled, permanently “outraged” and corporate-controlled cynical era.
Recommended as a companion from Guerriero’s publisher, Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision (2015) spans the Catholic intellectual tradition that shaped Ratzinger’s worldview. Those wanting background in the thinkers and artists generating the energy which that priest in postwar Europe shared will benefit from Royal’s research. They will gain wisdom too from the 700 closely printed pages of Guerriero’s epic, which chronicles ambitious attempts of a smart pope who faced a suspicious clergy and a snide or suppressed cohort rankling at papal privilege. As a study in reserved reform and bitter backlash against it, Elio Guerriero’s thorough analysis of Joseph Ratzinger tells this cautionary tale with a sobering moral lesson.