Review: ‘Benedict XVI: A Life’ by Peter Seewald
Popes are fascinating. They have both historical significance and a foundational role in shaping Roman Catholicism globally. But if a pope is also referred to as the “greatest theologian ever to sit on the chair of St. Peter” (1:xi) and the German figure who has made the biggest impact on the Catholic Church since Martin Luther (2:194), the intrigue is even greater, at least for theologically astute Protestant readers.
Benedict XVI’s Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes translated in multiple languages and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly rigor and pastoral depth. One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his person and work.
Peter Seewald’s biography Benedict XVI: A Life is a massive (more than 1,000 pages over two volumes) and engaging invitation into the personality of Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). It’s not so much a theological biography as it is a well-informed, journalistic account of the life of a shy and introverted person—with “an almost girlish softness” (2:55) and his childhood teddy bear in his bedroom (2:105)—who found himself at the center of a whirlwind of events.
Seewald had already published long interviews with Cardinal Ratzinger (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, 1997) and Pope Benedict (Last Testament in His Own Words, 2016), thus establishing a record of sustained engagement and respectful familiarity. This two-volume biography is the result of extensive research: speaking to 100 contemporary witnesses and conducting further interviews with Ratzinger. Seewald has sought to maintain “a critical distance” (1:x) while never asking embarrassing questions.
Pope Benedict XVI, born in 1927, is one of the towering figures in 20th-century Roman Catholic theology. His impressive biography includes: theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–77), archbishop of Munich (1977–81) and cardinal, then prefect, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), pope (2005–13), and, since 2013, pope emeritus after his somewhat tragic resignation. Benedict was the first German pope in 500 years.
This biography is especially welcome because it describes the context of the final years of Benedict, those preceding his resignation. The tragic outcomes of the sexual abuses, financial scandals of the Vatican bank, and Vatileaks all undermined Ratzinger’s strength, causing this very traditional pope to make a very untraditional decision.