Carl E. Olson
Catholic World Report

The veteran German journalist discusses his new biography of Benedict XVI, and reflects in detail on Ratzinger’s childhood, personality, education, and role in key Church events.

The veteran German journalist Peter Seewald first met Joseph Ratzinger nearly thirty years ago. Since then he has published two best-selling book length interviews with Cardinal Ratzinger—Salt of the Earth: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church at the End of the Millennium and God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time—as well as 2010’s Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs Of The Times and 2017’s Benedict XVI: Last Testament—In His Own Words.

He is also the author of Benedict XVI : An Intimate Portrait, and the photo-biography titled Pope Benedict XVI: Servant of the Truth.

His most recent book is an ambitious, multi-volumed biography of the pope emeritus. The first volume, titled Benedict XVI: A Life—Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965, is available in English.

Seewald recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about his biography of Benedict XVI, and spoke in detail about Ratzinger’s childhood, personality, education, and role in key Church events—especially the Second Vatican Council.

CWR: Let’s begin with some background. When and how did you first become acquainted with Joseph Ratzinger?

Peter Seewald: My first encounter with the then Cardinal was in November 1992. As author of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine I was tasked with writing a portrait of the current Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF). Even then, Ratzinger was already the most sought after churchman in the world, second only to the Pope. And the most controversial. The reporters stood in line to score an interview with him. I had the good fortune to be received by him. Apparently, my cover letter had sparked his interest, in which I promised to strive for objectivity. And that was indeed what I wanted.

CWR: What sort of access have you had to him over the course of that time?

Seewald: I was not a fan of his, but I asked myself the question: Who is Ratzinger really? He had long since been pigeonholed as the “Panzer Cardinal”, the “Great Inquisitor”, a grim fellow, therefore, an enemy of civilization. As soon as one blew this horn, one could be absolutely certain of the applause of journalist colleagues and the mainstream audience.

CWR: What was different about you?

Seewald: I had studied Ratzinger’s writings in advance and especially his diagnoses of the times. And I was somewhat stunned to see that Ratzinger’s analyses of the development of society had been largely confirmed. In addition, none of the contemporary witnesses I interviewed, fellow students, assistants, companions, who really knew Ratzinger, could confirm the image of the hardliner, on the contrary. With the exception of people like Hans Küng and Jürgen Drewermann, his notorious opponents. Of course, I also wanted to see for myself, on site, in the building of the former Holy Inquisition in Rome.

CWR: That was an unforgettable moment?

Seewald: Yes. The door to the visitors’ room, where I was waiting, opened and in stepped a not too tall, very modest and almost delicate-looking figure in a black cassock, who extended his hand to me in a friendly manner. His voice was soft and the handshake was not such that one had broken fingers afterwards. This was supposed to be a Panzer Cardinal? A prince of the Church greedy for power? Ratzinger made it easy for me to strike up a conversation with him. We sat down and started talking. I simply asked him how he was doing. That was the key. Apparently, no one had ever cared about that. As if he had been waiting for this, he completely openly disclosed to me that as of now he felt old and used up. It was time for younger forces and he was looking forward to being able to hand over his office soon. As we know today, nothing came of it.

CWR: How did that access and time together inform this biography?

Seewald: Of course, I would never have dreamed what would follow from that hour. That I would eventually compile four books of interviews with Ratzinger or rather Pope Benedict. I had been expelled from school, didn’t have a high school diploma, had left the Church at the age of 18, and as a juvenile revolutionary I didn’t have much to do with the Faith. However, at some point the cultural and moral decline in our society had made me think. It was clear to me that the disintegration of our standards had to do with the pushing away of the values of Christianity, ultimately with a world without God. I began to look into the questions of religion and found it adventurous to attend church services again. On top of that, I could see that in Ratzinger there was a man who, out of the handed-down Catholic Faith and out of his own reflection and prayer, could provide fitting answers to the problems of our time.

CWR: What qualities did Joseph (Sr.) and Maria Ratzinger possess and instill in their three children – Georg, Maria, and Joseph – so that all the siblings had a strong sense of religious vocation at early ages?

Seewald: Perhaps it must be said that many vocations came forth from the Ratzingers’ ancestral home. One of Joseph senior’s brothers was a priest, one of his sisters a nun, and his uncle Georg, also a priest, had become famous far beyond Germany as a member of the Reichstag and a writer. The family of the future Pope lived a deep piety in the tradition of liberal Bavarian Catholicism. This example had an educational and contagious effect. Benedict XVI said about his mother that she was a very sensual, warm-hearted woman. From her he got the soulfulness, the love of nature. As a policeman, his father was a strict but above all straightforward man who valued truth and justice and, as an anti-fascist, foresaw early on that Hitler meant war.

CWR: How significant was the relationship between Joseph, Sr. and Joseph, Jr.?

Seewald: Extremely important. Through his honesty, his courage and his clear mind the senior was a role model on the one hand, and at the same time Joseph knew that he was truly loved by him. The parents had never insisted that their children should become “something special”. The father was highly intelligent, had a poetic vein, observed the teachings of the Church and at the same time lived a very down-to-earth Catholicism. Above all, he was characterized by a critical mind. He was not afraid to criticize even bishops who had come to terms with the Nazi regime.

Benedict XVI said about his father: “He was a man of intellect. He thought differently than one should think at the time, and with a sovereign superiority that was convincing.” When he was discerning a priestly vocation, he confessed, “the powerful, resolutely religious personality of our father was also a decisive factor for this.”

CWR: What are some key characteristics about Ratzinger’s youth – in terms of both places and events – that shaped his thinking as a teen and young adult?

Seewald: If there is an era in which Ratzinger was perfectly happy, it was the years of his childhood in the baroque Bavarian town of Tittmoning, near Salzburg, shortly before the Nazis came to power. The beauty and atmosphere of this typically Catholic place and the loveliness of the landscape left their mark on him. Ratzinger later spoke of his “dreamland.” It was in Tittmoning that he had “his first personal experience with a place of worship.”

It was not only about the “superficial and naïve pictures”, which naturally can easily impress a child’s mind, but behind them “profound thoughts had already settled early on”. At the same time, he had witnessed how his father, as police commissioner, intervened against Nazi gatherings. He had subscribed to the anti-fascist newspaper “Der gerade Weg” (The Straight Path) and only called Hitler a “stray” and a “criminal”. As a civil servant, he was under pressure to join the Nazi party after 1933 at the latest, which he refused to do.

CWR: You write, “Joseph was also was forced to join the Hitler Youth following his 14th birthday. However, he refused to appear on ‘duty’.” How might you sum up his view of the Hitler Youth in particular and the Nazi movement in general?

Seewald: Joseph experienced how after 1933 priests were persecuted and the Church was increasingly restricted. As a pupil of the Episcopal boarding school in Traunstein, he stayed away from the Hitler Youth until there was a compulsory obligation to join. The fact that he refused to show up for HJ exercises says everything about his courageous attitude towards the hated regime. Even as a schoolboy, he admired the actions of the “White Rose” resistance group. “The great persecuted of the Nazi regime,” he later confessed, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, are great role models for me.”

Once, in a laudatory speech for his brother, he gave an insight into how drastic the experiences of those years were. The terror of the Nazi regime and the need for a new beginning had strengthened in Georg as well as in him the willingness to dedicate their existence to a life with and for God. “In the headwind of history, in the experience of a non-musical and an anti-Christian ideology, its brutality and its spiritual emptiness,” he wrote, “an inner firmness and determination was formed that gave him strength for the road ahead.”

As Pope, he explained at a 2005 youth meeting at the Vatican that his decision to enter the Church ministry was also explicitly a counter-reaction to the terror of the Nazi dictatorship. In contrast to this culture of inhumanity, he had understood that God and the Faith point the right way. “With her power coming from eternity, the Church”, Ratzinger maintained, had “stood her ground in the inferno that had engulfed the powerful. She had proven herself: The gates of hell will not prevail against her.”

CWR: You mention the impact of reading Guardini, Newman, Bernanos, Pascal, and others, but emphasize in particular how important Augustine’s Confessions were to Ratzinger as a seminarian. Why and how was that book so significant to him?

Seewald: If he could take just two books with him to an island, Ratzinger once told me, they would be the Bible and Augustine’s Confessions. Ratzinger was endlessly inquisitive as a young student. Like a sponge he soaked up the world of the intellect that opened up for him. And while he found the thinking of Thomas Aquinas “too closed in on itself,” “too impersonal,” and ultimately somehow inanimate and without dynamism, in Augustine, on the other hand, he felt, the passionate, suffering, inquisitive person was always directly there, one “with whom one can identify,” as he said. In the Doctor of the Church he discovered a kindred spirit. “I feel him like a friend,” Ratzinger confessed, “a contemporary who speaks to me.” With all the reason, with all the depth of our thinking.

Ratzinger had some patrons, but his real master is Augustine, the greatest father of the Latin Church, as Ratzinger saw him, and “one of the greatest figures in the history of thought.” He found himself so well expressed in Augustine that when he spoke about the Doctor of the Church, it always sounded a bit like a Ratzinger self-portrait: “He always remained a seeker. He was never simply satisfied with life as it is, and as everyone else lives it, too. … He wanted to find the truth. To find out what man is, where the world comes from, where we ourselves come from, where we are going. He wanted to find the right life, not just live along.”

CWR: During his studies, Ratzinger apparently enjoyed lectures given by a wide range of professors, from “progressive” to “traditional”. How did this help him form his theological and pastoral perspectives? And why was Gottfried Söhngen so important to him during that time?

Seewald: After the end of the war, of the Nazi madness, which was also a madness of godlessness, the signs were for departure and renewal. The professors at the Theology Department of the University of Munich were the best in their field. The “Munich School” was characterized by an open-minded and at the same time history-oriented theology.

His doctoral supervisor, Gottfried Söhngen, had immediately recognized Ratzinger’s enormous talent and, with the topic of his doctoral thesis – it was called “People and House of God in Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church” – led him onto a track that, with the teaching about the Church, also had as its goal the love of the Church. Söhngen was someone, Ratzinger said, who “always thought from the sources themselves – beginning with Aristotle and Plato, through Clement of Alexandria and Augustine, to Anselm, Bonaventure and Thomas, to Luther and finally to the Tübingen theologians of the previous century.” The approach of drawing “from the sources” and knowing “really all the great figures of intellectual history from one’s own encounter” had become a decisive factor for him, too.

The topic of his habilitation, which Söhngen had picked for him, is undoubtedly one of the great moments in the life of Benedict XVI. After the dissertation had dealt with the ancient Church and addressed an ecclesiological topic, he was now to turn to the Middle Ages and modern times. The title was “The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure.” Ratzinger’s research results and his formula of the Church as the People of God from the Body of Christ then replaced at the Council the inadequate concept of the Church as the People of God, which could also be understood politically or purely sociologically.

CWR: Why did the young Ratzinger quickly gain so much attention as a priest, professor, and theologian?

Seewald: It was because of the way the world’s youngest theology professor held lectures. The students listened attentively. There was an unprecedented freshness, a new approach to tradition, combined with a reflection and a language which in this form had not been heard before. Ratzinger was seen as the new, hopeful star in the sky of theology. His lectures were taken down and distributed thousands of times throughout Germany.

Yet, his university career almost failed. The reason for this was a critical essay from 1958 entitled “The New Pagans and the Church.” Ratzinger had learned from the Nazi era: the institution alone is of no use if there are not also the people who support it. The task was not to connect with the world, but to revitalize the Faith from within. In his essay, the then 31-year-old noted: “The appearance of the Church of modern times is essentially determined by the fact that in a completely new way she has become and is still becoming more and more the Church of pagans …, of pagans who still call themselves Christians, but who in truth have become pagans.”

CWR: At the time, this was an outrageous, scandalous finding.

Seewald: Certainly, but if you read it today, it shows prophetic features. In it, Ratzinger stated that in the long run the Church would not be spared “having to break down piece by piece the appearance of her congruence with the world and to become again what she is: a community of believers.” In his vision, he spoke of a Church that would once again become small and mystical; that would have to find her way back to her language, her worldview and the depth of her mysteries as a “community of conviction.” Only then could she unfold her full sacramental power: “Only when she begins to present herself again as what she is, will she be able to reach again the ear of the new pagans with her message, who up to now have been under the illusion that they were not pagans at all.”

Here, for the first time, Ratzinger used the term “Entweltlichung” (lit.: de-worldization = detachment from worldliness). With that he followed the admonition of the Apostle Paul that the Christian communities must not adapt themselves too much to the world, otherwise they would no longer be the “salt of the earth” of which Jesus had spoken.

CWR: You write that the “most important Church event of the twentieth century” – that is, the Second Vatican Council – ”seemed tailor-made for him…”

Seewald: One can only understand the Second Vatican Council from its historical context. Pope John XXIII saw the need to seek a new relationship between the Church and modernity in the face of a post-war changed world. In retrospect, it seems like a heavenly coincidence that Ratzinger not only received the chair for dogmatics in Bonn at that time, but after giving a lecture on the upcoming Council he also immediately became a close advisor to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, who was to play a prominent role in Rome. The young theologian was virtually predestined to give decisive impetus to the Second Vatican Council. Without his contribution, the Council would never have existed in the form we know it.

CWR: What are some reasons for that assessment?

Seewald: This already began in the run-up to the Council with the legendary “Genovese Speech”, which he had written for Cardinal Frings. John XXIII said afterwards that this speech expressed exactly what he had wanted to achieve with the Council, but had not been able to formulate in this way. In his opening address, the Pope had then declared, in reference to this speech, that it was “necessary to deepen the immutable and unchangeable doctrine, which must be faithfully observed, and to formulate it in such a way that it corresponds with the requirements of our time.” At the same time, he called it the Council’s task to “transmit the doctrine purely and completely, without attenuations or distortions.”

Ratzinger was well prepared. Some of the task areas that would prove to be the keys of the Council – such as Sacred Scripture, patristics, the concepts of God’s people and of revelation – were his special topics, due to the specifications of his doctoral advisor, Söhngen. And furthermore: Through his education in the “Munich School” he brought with him the vision of a dynamic, sacramental and salvation-historical form of Church, which he set against the strongly institutional and defensive Church image of Roman school theology.

In order to modify the relationship between local and universal Church, between the Office of Peter and the Office of Bishop, he had developed beforehand the image of Communio, which was to become decisive for the Council. The constitution of the Church was to be “collegial” and “federal”; with simultaneous emphasis on the primacy of the Pope and unity in doctrine and leadership.

Moreover, as a connoisseur of Protestant theology and through his preoccupation with world religions, Ratzinger was familiar not only with the issues of ecumenism, but also with the relationship of Catholics towards Judaism. In other words, exactly the subject matter for the schema Gaudium et spes, which, along with the schema on revelation, was to become the most important document of the Council.

Already in his first statements on the schemata prepared by Rome for the coming Council, the then 34-year-old professor guided the 74-year-old Cardinal Frings. Ratzinger’s expert opinions were not only aimed at criticism. In a statement from September 17, 1962, for example, he said: “These two draft texts correspond in the highest degree to the objectives of this Council as declared by the Pope: Renewal of Christian life and adaptation of ecclesiastical practice to the needs of this age, so that the witness of Faith may shine forth with new clarity amid the darknesses of this century.”

CWR: Nevertheless, underestimated problems emerged.

Seewald: Yes. Ratzinger became the Vatican Council’s spin doctor alongside the influential Cardinal from Cologne, who adopted all of his texts. The Curia had assumed that its submissions needed only to be rubber-stamped by the assembly of cardinals, and the council could be completed in a matter of weeks. Ratzinger was then involved in ensuring that the given agenda and predetermined processes could be broken up and everything renegotiated. Traditionalist in his basic attitude, but modern in habitus, language and orientation, he was able to gain recognition and a hearing in both the conservative and progressive camps. In retrospect, of course, he also realized the collateral damage he had caused with the uprising of the cardinals, which he had helped to incite, namely a “fateful ambiguity of the Council in the global public, the effects of which could not have been foreseen”. It gave impetus to those forces that regarded the Church as a political issue and knew how to instrumentalize the media. “More and more the impression was formed,” he noted at the time, “that actually nothing was fixed in the Church, that everything was up for revision.”

CWR: Near the end of this volume, you write, “Recent research shows that [Ratzinger’s] contribution [to the Council] was much greater than he himself revealed”

Seewald: This already began with the groundbreaking “Genovese Speech” of November 1961 and his appeal that the Church should discard what impedes the witness of Faith, from the expert reports on the schemata, in which he criticized the lack of ecumenism and pastoral style of speech, to the eleven major speeches for Cardinal Frings that brought the Council Hall to a boil. In addition, there was the textual work he did as a member of various council commissions.

As mentioned before, Ratzinger wrote the draft with which Frings, on November 14, 1962, brought about the overturning of the Council procedure established by the Curia. He was behind the November 21, 1962, dismissal of the schema on the Sources of Revelation, which he had criticized as being “frosty in tone, in fact, downright shocking.” That was the turning point. From that hour on, something new could happen, the true Council could begin. Joseph Ratzinger had thus a) defined the Council, b) moved it in a forward-looking direction, c) through his contributions had played a decisive role in shaping the results.

With Ratzinger’s contribution to Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation – which, along with Nostra aetateGaudium et spes and Lumen gentium, is one of the keys of the Council – a new perspective opened up: away from an overly theoretical understanding of God’s revelation and toward a personal, historical understanding based on reconciliation and redemption.

CWR: Later it says in your biography: “The doors had barely shut on the last session when a Herculean task began for Ratzinger, a 50-year battle for the Council’s legacy.” What are the main features of his contributions and what he – as prefect for the CDF and as pope – sought to do in relationship to the Council?

Seewald: To be clear, the Council Fathers had not legitimized any rhetoric that would amount to a secularization of the Faith. Neither was celibacy shaken, nor was the priesthood of women envisaged. Neither was Latin banned from the liturgy, nor was there a call for priests to no longer celebrate Holy Mass facing ad orientem together with the people.

Nevertheless, it had become clear that the Vatican Council had strengthened forces that sensed an opportunity to jettison basic tenets of the Catholic Faith with the help of an ominous “spirit of the Council” to which they consistently referred. Ratzinger and his comrades-in-arms had underestimated that the desire for change could also develop into a desire to deconstruct the Catholic Church. And they had underestimated the influence of the media that were aiming for a systemic change in the Church.

For Ratzinger, therefore, a fifty-year struggle for the true legacy of the Council began. What John XXIII wanted, Ratzinger said, was precisely not an impulse for a watering down of the Faith, but an impulse for a “radicalization of the Faith.” He saw himself as a progressive theologian. However, being progressive was understood quite differently from today, namely, as the effort for a further development out of tradition – and not as empowerment by means of self-important self-creations. The search for the contemporary, he proclaimed, must never lead to the abandonment of the valid.

CWR: Finally, will there be one more volume in this biography? How is work going on that?

Seewald: The text for the second volume of the English edition is available. It has already been published in the German, Italian and Spanish editions. This second part takes us from the time of the Council and the collaboration with John Paul II to the pontificate of Benedict XVI and the years as Papa emeritus. It also reveals, in particular, the background to his resignation. I hope that Bloomsbury Press will be able to publish this volume soon.

(Translated from German by Frank Nitsche-Robinson.)