The Dispatch: More from CWR...

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI: Reflecting on his new biography

With Peter Seewald’s unparalleled access to the pontiff, the strength of his biography comes from bringing Benedict’s personality to the forefront.

This February will mark nine years since the historic renunciation of Pope Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger would have gone down in history as a great theologian without his rise to the chair of St. Peter, although through his papal ministry he became a teacher of the world. The power of Benedict’s writing speaks for itself, though his life also witnesses to the power of truth and service.

Peter Seewald, who edited many interview books with Ratzinger, before, during, and after his pontificate, has written a thorough biography in two volumes: Benedict XVI: A Life (Bloomsbury Continuum, Vol. 1, 2020; Vol. 2, 2021). With Seewald’s unparalleled access to the pontiff, the strength of his biography comes from bringing Benedict’s personality to the forefront, helping us to get to know the great theologian-pope better, while gaining insight into the providentially guided trajectory of his life.

The first volume traces his early life in the tumult of the interwar period in Germany and the rise of Nazism. I felt much admiration for the Pope’s own father, Joseph Sr., who, as a police officer, resisted the rise of the Nazis and kept his family out of danger for as long as possible, even moving to a remote farm. It was precisely the Second World War that deepened young Joseph’s sense of vocation and his recognition of the urgent need for God, as he witnessed the spiritual and material collapse of his own country.

As a seminarian, he also discovered the great power of theology, particularly in the thought of St. Augustine, that pointed to how the modern world could recover God. Ratzinger sensed his theological vocation in finding a new voice through which he could make the timeless truths of the faith accessible in a new way. It was this mission that led him to the forefront of the Second Vatican Council as the peritus of the centrally important Cardinal Frings. At the culmination of the first volume, Seewald sheds new light on Ratzinger’s influential speechwriting for Frings, which helped set the tone of the proceedings, and his behind the scenes work on the drafts of the Council documents themselves.

The second volume begins, however, with upheaval that followed Vatican II, which necessitated Ratzinger’s break with the progressive school of theology. He helped to found an alternate movement, the Communio school, which would continue to return to the sources of the tradition while speaking to contemporary concerns. Ratzinger, it should be noted, did not suddenly change his thinking; he realized, rather, that many in the Church were too quickly casting aside the Church’s teaching and liturgical tradition and embracing a worldly spirit. His resistance to this self-destruction led to a long campaign of character assassination, seeking to recast the shy and mild-mannered professor as a reactionary grand inquisitor.

This false line seemed to find confirmation with the appointment of Ratzinger as the Archbishop of Munich by Pope Paul VI in 1977, though, in fact, the professor saw this as an enormous sacrifice of service, as he had to abandon his teaching career. He would not stay in Bavaria long as a bishop, as the newly elected John Paul II insisted that Ratzinger come to Rome to serve as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

After serving tirelessly throughout John Paul II’s pontificate, dealing with issues of Marxism, the relation of the Church to other religions, and the drafting of the Catechism, Pope Benedict XVI was chosen as the most fitting successor to continue the trajectory of the New Evangelization. There is no doubt that Benedict left a great legacy of teaching in his three encyclicals and many speeches throughout the world, although his eight years as Pope were also plagued by ongoing and unfounded attacks on his character and scandals such as Vati-Leaks. His time as Pope has been overshadowed by his historic decision to resign, facing the weakness of advanced old age, which many saw as changing the way we view papacy.

It is difficult to avoid comparing Seewald’s work to George Weigel’s monumental biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope. Weigel was well positioned to interpret the theological and philosophical thrust of Karol Wojtyła’s life, as well as its intersections with the political and cultural movements of the 20th century. Seewald came to know Ratzinger well and did succeed in capturing his personality, itself a helpful accomplishment. As a journalist, he gives excessive focus to public opinion, and, although he does address the Pope’s major books and speeches, more work needs to be done to capture the depth of his theological vision and spiritual life.

In my own opinion, we will find Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy most fully in his tireless and prophetic witness to the need to put God first in all things, giving him primacy in the liturgy, society, and in our own lives.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 24 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor for the Augustine Institute. He is author of Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press) and the editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

15 Comments

  1. “ In my own opinion, we will find Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy most fully in his tireless and prophetic witness to the need to put God first in all things, giving him primacy in the liturgy, society, and in our own lives.”

    Pope Benedict’s real legacy will rather be that of his renunciation of the papacy on grounds that remain even 9 years later as ambiguous, confused, and controverted and the opening thereby provided for a successor who is widely viewed as among the most catastrophic papacies in the 2,000-year-old history of the Church.

    • Paul, you say the grounds for the renunciation remain ambiguous. Is not rather the renunciation itself ambiguous, in that he appears to have renounced the Active Ministerium but not the Munus or grace of office. He remains Vicar of Christ, and dresses accordingly. Ganswein explained very clearly the extended Petrine Ministry and that PPBXVI has retained the title and must be addressed as Your Holiness. The text has been reproduced as the perfect Chapter 7 in Ganswein’s 2021 EWTN book. This event appears to have greatly displeased “the 2nd Bishop in White” (thus Bergoglio described himself in Fatima). It is surely the best title for him. What is playing out is major. For Archbishop Lenga in Poland, the Fatima vision of a City in Ruins in probable within the next 24 months. Cardinal Sarah calls PPBXVI the Martyr Pope… “We would be mistaken to think that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete…” PPBXVI 13.05.2010.

    • You cannot be serious. There is nothing “ambiguous, confused, and controverted” about his resignation. In my experience, only the members of breakaway sects from the Catholic church, such as the SSPX (whose leader had to be excommunicated) and the sedevacantists, pursue this slanderous interpretation of events. Despite all their goofy, legalistic attempts to cast his resignation in doubt, they have never been successful in doing so, because all their theories amount to a series of conspiracy theories.

      It is the stance of these breakaway Catholics that Benedict is responsible for the shortcomings of Pope Francis. This is just an evil attempt to undermine the whole church, which they are happy to do. Pope Benedict did not elect his successor, and the college of cardinals was composed of most good orthodox prelates. Upon his election, Pope Francis was immediately and viciously attacked by the leftist Catholic press, because THEY thought he was a conservative in the mold of JP II and Benedict. Just go read what they wrote about him immediately after his election.

      So don’t try to blame Benedict for what Francis turned out to be. That is deeply unfair and unchristian. I have no way of knowing whether you belong to one of these breakaway Catholic sects, but they usually omit that part when posting comments, so they can appear to be wholly within the Catholic church. But your arguments are the same as theirs.

  2. Although I love Pope Benedict as a saintly man who placed God and the Church at the center of his life, I doubt that I shall ever fully forgive him for his ambiguous “resignation” that ushered in the papacy of Bergoglio!

  3. Some are chosen by intervention of the Holy Spirit to retain Church focus on the truth of Christ, which apparently occurred in Ratzinger’s turn from the progressive movement to emphsis on orthodoxy during Vat II.
    Interestingly, I recall reading in Seewald’s commentaries he was more Augustinian and consequently Platonic in the genre of Saint Bonaventure. Benedict reminiscing said he by nature was more sensual and focused on beauty akin to his mother’s personality. That seems paradoxical when reading his responses to theological issues when cardinal prefect for the CDF. Although consistent with a progressive outlook. He is considered the primary source of the Doctrinal Commentary to John Paul’s Fides et Ratio. That commentary is a vital understanding of the hierarchical nature of doctrine and the level of adherence owed. Were it followed today we would have avoided much of the ambiguity on ethical and doctrinal questions.
    Friends at the Casa Santa Maria who met him affirm that his personality was gentle, soft spoken. From my perspective a personality refinement acquired by iron willed adherence to the person of Christ.

  4. “Weigel was well positioned to interpret the theological and philosophical thrust of Karol Wojtyła’s life, as well as its intersections with the political and cultural movements of the 20th century.”

    It may be that with time Weigel’s interpretation will be shown to be wrong.

    • But there is absolutely NOTHING that indicates Weigel was wrong in the slightest. Again, certain people from the breakaway sects seem to hate JP II and Weigel, and they cannot effectively rebut a thing Weigel says, they just slander him.

  5. VOLUME 2 page 538: “I don’t want to take a position on that last question, because it goes into too much detail about the gouvernment of the church and would therefore go beyond the spiritual dimension, which alone STILL REMAINS MY REMIT.” PPBXVI retains the Munus, the grace of Office within the Extended Petrine Ministry. What is playing out is deeply historical. Cardinal Sarah calls PPBXVI “the martyr Pope”. Bergoglio called himself “the second bishop in white” during the Fatima canonisation homily.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI: Reflecting on his new biography – Via Nova Media
  2. The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI: Reflecting on his new biography – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  3. FRIDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*