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Demystifying 'God's Rottweiler'



When reading Last Testament, the autobiography (written with Peter Seewald) of Pope Benedict XVI, I was intrigued by the discrepancy between my image of Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith (CDF) and the person revealed in these interviews.

Benedict XVI, from the cover of Last TestamentI had imagined him as a tall, severe man, served by a richly resourced bureaucracy, and on top of all deviations from true faith and practice throughout the world. A man who played a persistent and methodical political hand in all aspects of church policy.

My image of the man changed considerably after he was elected Pope — he was manifestly short and frail, and seemed poorly served by his Curia. It has been further challenged by these interviews given to the German journalist Seewald.

In them he speaks of his life, his motivations, his limitations, and the circumstances of some controversial events and decisions. The man and his actions appear as more ordinary and less adamantine than I had once imagined.

Benedict would have been well served by a more searching interviewer. Seewald's adulation reminded me of a football fan talking with a club legend: 'Tell us about that game against the Tigers when you took them apart after half time and showed what drongoes they are.' In his responses Benedict constantly has to minimise his own exaggerated influence and acknowledge the disparaged virtues of his opponents.

The man who emerges is a modest person of deep faith, fed by a scholarly reading of the Catholic tradition. He wanted its resources to enliven the faith and practice of the church. This was the program of enrichment rather than change that he understood the Second Vatican Council to have undertaken.

But in much of the theological thinking and practice that followed the Council he saw embodied a program of change that was unfaithful to Catholic tradition.

In his writing and his office he commended a deep understanding of faith and combatted the deviations he saw in many political theologies, in reductive understandings of Jesus Christ and of the Catholic priesthood, and in other accommodations of faith to the ethos of the secularist world.


"His approach was constantly that of the scholar who read texts closely himself and respected critics of his own texts only if they gave them an equally close reading."


He emphasises the continuity in his outlook, claiming persuasively that his views and actions were not influenced by such historical events as the student revolts of the 1960s or by political conflicts in the Vatican. He worked harmoniously with John Paul II whom he greatly admired, and as Prefect of the Congregation he operated within the responsibilities and regulations that bound it.

The need to revise regulations in the light of experience limited the capacity of the Church to respond appropriately and expeditiously to the sexual abuse scandal, but he points to what was achieved. His approach was constantly that of the scholar who read texts closely himself and respected critics of his own texts only if they gave them an equally close reading.

The only traces of anger he displays in the book occur when he discusses his difficulties with elements in the German church. He clearly believed them motivated by the desire to discredit him.

Although not the last word about Joseph Ratzinger's life, Last Testament offers a persuasive account of its continuities. It shows poignantly the sacrifice he made in leaving a scholar's life when asked to serve first as Archbishop of Munich and later as Prefect of the CDF.

In the latter role he commended the richness of the Catholic tradition, criticised what he saw as narrow or distorted views of it, and called various movements and people to account. But he showed no empathy for the people whose lives were affected by its investigations. And in many cases his officials failed to read the texts they criticised with the close and objective attention he would have demanded of his students.

His desire to commend the full Catholic faith in the face of its counterfeits has always been central in the Catholic tradition. But the opposition he claims between the intention of Vatican II to draw on the Catholic tradition to enrich the faith and life of the contemporary church and the later interpretation of the Council seems overstated. He downplays the desire of the Council to read the contemporary world in a way that would illuminate faith. That implies a messy process in which ambiguities would be expected and the weeds perhaps better left till harvest time.

He saw the central drama of our day as the struggle between living Christian faith and secularism. If so, the battle has been conceded by the Catholic leaders whose lives have discredited the living faith. But Benedict's successor has also shown persuasively that a more crucial opposition lies between living faith and the greed that dominates economic settings to the misery and the consequent closure to God of so many people.

The inflated image I once had of Cardinal Ratzinger, and that many Catholics have of cardinals and other authority figures, was shaped by fear. Fear hands over to the human beings behind the image a power they do not possess. Conversations always turn to them and inhibit the free and constructive living of faith. In helping to demystify such images Last Testament serves us well.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Benedict XVI



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Existing comments

I suppose the key questions arising from Vatican II are what is the baby and what is the bathwater and how can we remove most/all of the bathwater without adversely affecting the baby. You infer Benedict was not well served by some of his underlings in the CDF. That is probably true. These were probably ecclesiastical bureaucrats who were brought up on the Yes Father. No Father. Three Bags Full Father School of Interpersonal Relations. It must not be forgotten Rome is the centre of the circle of what is, in essence, an authoritarian ecclesiastical monarchy. We in Australia are right on the fringe of this circle, and, being Anglophone, have inherited a very different mindset. We are probably seen as troublesome 'rebels'. The Bill Morris episode would've brought this out. I think Benedict was a transitional person between the regal John Paul II and the seemingly more down to earth grass roots Francis. Given the way Francis has dealt with the Knights of Malta, I would question how sensitive to some situations he is. He seemed to act in quite an authoritarian way here. It is hard, given their offices, for either the Pope or the Head of the CDF to be a sort of lovable teddy bear all the time. We delude ourselves if we think otherwise.

Edward Fido | 09 February 2017  

The reality unfortunately is that Benedict, like his immediate predecessor failed to modernise the Church and make the Faith in Jesus Christ seem interesting and attractive to newer generations. How could you get it that wrong! They refused to read the signs of the times and got lost in some very narrow side alleys. I am constantly horrified to find I am among the youngest in almost any parish congregation, even while in my mid 60s! Gerald O`Collins` description of the destructive and arbitrary Ratzinger at the CDF are very telling. Under JP-2 and B-16 we have had a backward-looking, self-regarding, intolerant, arrogant, fearful and deaf Church leadership that made terrible mistakes and terrible senior appointments. The badly-inspired Romish English in the "new" liturgical translation from the Pell-brigade is just one rather marginal example of exactly NOT what should have happened; deliberately sticking your finger in the eyes of the pew-fodder just to show whose in charge is just not very persuasive.

Eugene | 09 February 2017  

Cardinal Newman wrote that tackling prejudices is like attacking a granite mountain with a razor blade'. The deepest prejudices we have are those traditions, beliefs and attitudes to which we bonded as children and have never questioned. This is particularly so if they seem to make us privileged, as God’s Chosen. In his Book, 'Jesus of Nazareth’, Pope Benedict wrote ‘I trust the Gospels’, showing that he was indeed a great defender of Tradition, but not free from some of the prejudices contained in the bonding he inherited. Tradition took many turns and twists, embracing many of what Jesus would label ‘Man-made traditions’. The Gospels were written, not by the Apostles, but by Greek Converts of Paul, and contain many Greek traditions that are contradictions to the teachings of Jesus. The aggiornamento which Pope John saw was necessary, but found too difficult to carry out, remains a necessity if Christianity is to promote God’s message, as Pope Francis is presently struggling to achieve.

Robert Liddy | 09 February 2017  

But those red Prada papal shoes.......to say nothing of reactionary policies in a church screaming for reform.

Peter Goers | 09 February 2017  

Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II spoke out about the need to protect God's Creation, and in this way paved the way for Pope Francis' profound encyclical 'Laudato Si' ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME'. We could best pay tribute to these three Popes by doing all we can to care for God's Creation and to mitigate climate change, arguably the greatest moral challenge of our time. Pope Francis how leads a Church in grave crisis, with widespread clerical child sexual abuse and cover-ups. It is not a time for Catholics to desert the Church, as many have done, but to do what we can to reform Church governance, promote lay leadership and the elevation of women, and challenge clergy whose clericalism embodies the use of power over, rather than service of, the People of God.

Grant Allen | 09 February 2017  

"... the opposition between... the intention of Vatican II to draw on Catholic tradition to enrich the faith and life of the contemporary Church and the later interpretation of the council seems overstated." In the light of the destruction of the liturgy, the failure of both adult and child Catholic education , the abandonment of Catholic practice and the obsession with political correctness and human (not divine) aspirations for mankind, It seems, Fr Andrew, that there is quite a disconnection between tradition and the interpretation of Vatican II by certain sections of the clergy and laity. ( Not including you). This cannot really be categorised as "overstatement". The interpretations of the spirit of Vatican II are the major destroyers of the Catholic Church in today's world. However, it will survive without the renewalists, the reformers and the self-interested. The apostate amongst us, clergy, religious and laity will not live forever but the Church will. I suspect John Paul II and Benedict are well in front of their critics who adhere to the principle - if you cant beat them denigrate them.

john frawley | 09 February 2017  

"The inflated image I once had of Cardinal Ratzinger, and that many Catholics have of cardinals and other authority figures, was shaped by fear. Fear hands over to the human beings behind the image a power they do not possess". I agree with this statement in principle, Fr Andy, but when I look into the faces of Chrissie and Anthony Foster, the fear of the Church to the Foster's truth, takes another turn. I think that the Church's fear of women in leadership roles ... and of people speaking truth to power (Church power) is altogether in another category. That fear has killed people. In terms of the Knights of Malta and Pope Francis' actions in relation to this organisation ... it is still unclear to me as to whether Pope Francis condoned or condemned their actions re handing out condoms ... this ambiguity can be a 'holding' space and place until other facts emerge and alliances either reinforced or de-bunked. Contradiction, ambiguity and paradox are all throughout biblical text ... it can be a very 'catholic' thing to do as catholicity means 'holding all things together'! The Holy Spirit, for me, is trying VERY hard to find the cracks so the light can get in. In the meantime we wait ...

Mary Tehan | 09 February 2017  

Sorry, Andrew, but it will take much more than this interview you write of to bring me to being more compassionate or understanding towards Ratzinger. I read some years ago Daniel Gawthrop's "The Trial of Pope Benedict", and thereby came to understand the nature and extent of the many injustices he inflicted upon theologians and others (including Bishop Bill Morris) all around the world. Not to mention his deafness in matters of sexual abuse of children by the clergy. All of which I had only guessed at and heard rumours of previously. His unjust behaviour, and the Vatican's "Assault on Reason, Compassion and Humanity", is another thing the Church's heirarchy, and the Vatican, should be apologizing to us for.

Michael Gray | 09 February 2017  

Grant Allen: ' the greatest moral challenge of our time." ??? The greatest moral challenge of our time, I would suggest, is for all religions to realise that each is just one interpretation of God's Constant and Universal Call, and that each has interpreted the Call very much according to their degree of development and the conditions in which they found themselves. We are ALL God's Children, scattered around the base of God's Mountain, facing different terrains to cross, but the important aspect is to move upwards, whereby we will come closer together, and be united at the top.

Rbert Liddy | 09 February 2017  

What I know about Vatican ll, reminds me of the of Council of Trent. Which was also very necessary and very good.

AO | 09 February 2017  

Pope Benedict XVI's 'above' intelIect: Above thought is the intellect, which still seeks: it goes about looking, spies out here and there picks up and drops. But above the intellect that seeks is another intellect which does not seek but stays in its pure, simple being, which is embraced in that light. Meister Eckhart

AO | 09 February 2017  

Whatever the views of JPII and Benedict, they did nothing to change "Crimen Solicitationis" wrt Child Abuse?? What will Francis do after the Australian Royal Commission into Child Abuse?? Nothing else matters?

Brian Kennedy | 09 February 2017  

Andrew I have just returned this book to my local library. I found it fascinating, educational and hard to put down. Previously I was very dismissive of all things Ratzinger. In fact when he was elected Pope, I wrote to Cardinal Pell complaining bitterly saying how could they get it so wrong. Found myself liking and respecting the man and his academic mind the more I read. It was interesting to read of known incidents and to hear Joseph’s version. Education has completely changed my attitude about Joseph Ratzinger. Don’t agree with many of his conservative views and found his statements around marriage, equality and priestly celibacy laughable. So educated but so ill informed. Ratzinger deserves respect and the privacy he seeks.

Barry Nixon | 09 February 2017  

Thank you for your honesty. I was brought up Protestant but Catholic educated in the late 1940's. It was certainly all about obedience and fear - as a child I understood this and rejected it wholeheartedly. I feel deeply for my Catholic brothers and sisters.

Jenny Raper | 10 February 2017  

There has been much intelligent comment on 'The Knights of Malta debacle', as indeed it was, in the English 'Catholic Herald'. The crux of the matter appears to not have been condoms but Francis' interference in a sovereign military order, which is given the status of a state, with representation at the UN and diplomatic dealings with other nations and which, though formally loyal to the Pope, is not directly under his control. The issue is one of autocratic interference where there should have been none. If I read Fr. Andy correctly, it was Benedict's authoritarianism in exercising authority both in the CDF and the papacy which was worrying. The papacy is the last surviving autocratic monarchy on earth with a power the Stuart Kings would envy. That power has usually been exercised autocratically and to the benefit of its functionaries rather than its members. The recent conduct of the Vatican in relation to providing information to the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse is a case in point. Can this change? It seems a long ask. I won't be holding my breath.

Edward Fido | 10 February 2017  

Perhaps Edward it would be appropriate, when the Commission has finished its work, for Australia to withdraw its diplomatic presence from the Holy See. After all, there is an Irish precedent.

Ginger Meggs | 12 February 2017  

Ginger Meggs ,You have to be dreaming ,to expect such action from our Hierarchy . Who afterall were happy with appointment of Tim Fischer some years back .Beyond belief given this man ,when Deputy PM ,while addressing a Grazier Rally in Longreach ,promised them, " bucketfuls of Extinguishment of Native Title '" Shame on our Bishops for not strongly objecting .

john kersh | 14 February 2017  

I loved this book - and think that "a more searching interviewer" would have ruined it. Pope Benedict has outlined his views in many other pages, and has been subject to intense criticism and scrutiny. His papacy was difficult and he faced undeserved hostility from people who had never read a word he had written or listened to a thing he said - why would we want more out of him? The passage when he describes his resignation, and physically leaving the Vatican was one of the most moving things I have ever read. Enough controversy, enough "searching", it's time to leave a truly good and greatly misunderstood man in peace.

Lucy | 04 March 2017  

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