A new book-length interview portrays a prophet of our age

Last Testament
by Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald, Bloomsbury, £16.99

The drill instructor surveyed the new recruits. He was expected to turn this pathetic rabble into an efficient fighting force for the Führer. “Who’s holding out for longest,” he bellowed, “you or me?” There was an uncomfortable silence. Then the smallest soldier in the line – a weedy and bookish figure – stepped forward and said: “Us!”

That defiant young man became arguably the most influential Christian theologian of our age and served for eight years as the spiritual leader of a billion souls. He has never lost what he calls “the desire for contradiction”: a willingness to rebel against the dictates of the age, alone if necessary. Joseph Ratzinger contra mundum.

The drill instructor anecdote is just one of many astoundingly fresh and revealing stories in Last Testament. The book is based on interviews with Benedict XVI conducted before and after his resignation by German journalist Peter Seewald. This is therefore a historic document in which for the first time in centuries – perhaps ever – a retired pope evaluates both his own pontificate and his successor’s.

When the book was first announced it didn’t sound all that promising. Seewald and Benedict XVI had already collaborated on three book-length interviews: Salt of the Earth, God and the World and Light of the World. As Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, put it at the new work’s launch: “These questions were in a field that seemed to be already harvested.” Yet somehow Seewald has gathered in perhaps the finest harvest yet.

For more than a decade I have read everything I can about Benedict XVI, but I was amazed by the revelations in this new book. I never knew, for example, that Benedict’s mother was illegitimate, that he held his first meetings as Vatican doctrinal chief in Latin (his Italian was shaky) and that he has long been totally blind in his left eye (a fact that surprised even Gänswein).

Seewald teases out some wonderful vignettes. Benedict recalls going to a party at Ernst Bloch’s house with “an Arab” who offered the Marxist philosopher his first ever drag on a hookah (“He couldn’t handle it,” he comments). He also describes how he took a choppy boat trip to Capri while serving as a theological adviser to Cardinal Frings at the Second Vatican Council. “We all vomited, even the cardinal,” he says, clearly cherishing the memory.

But Seewald is no mere biographer. He has a larger agenda: to bury the image of Benedict XVI as an aloof reactionary whose reign ended in dismal failure and replace it with one in which the German pope is the true prophet of our age. The “much-maligned Panzerkardinal ”, he writes in the foreword, is actually “one of the most significant popes ever, the modern world’s Doctor of the Church”. As an admirer of Benedict, I agree. But Seewald’s revisionism occasionally goes too far. He argues, for instance, that at the Vatican between 2005 and 2013 “liturgical extravagance was reduced” – which doesn’t quite ring true.

The book also unleashes heavy weaponry in what we might call “the Ratzinger wars” in Germany: a decades-long controversy about the direction of one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential local churches. Benedict deplores his homeland’s “established and well-paid Catholicism” and says, wistfully, that “certain people in Germany have always tried to bring me down”. He says that they latched on to “the stupid Williamson case” – when he lifted the excommunication of the English SSPX bishop without realising he was a Holocaust denier – and attacked him right up to his resignation.

Seewald pushes Benedict to deny Hans Küng’s theory that he was a progressive theologian until student protests in 1968 turned him into an embittered conservative who pulled strings to silence Küng. Whether this will be enough to displace the Küng narrative, echoed and amplified for years by the global media, remains to be seen.

Benedict’s own account of his pontificate is touchingly modest. He says it was “unreasonable” that he should have been elected at 78 and that he took the name Benedict because “I could not be a John Paul III … I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma”.

Charisma aside, he served the Church to the best of his considerable abilities, while being undermined by both bungling colleagues and sworn enemies. Now living in a monastic setting, he says that he looks forward to heaven, where he will stand “before God, and before the saints, and before friends and those who weren’t friends”.

The book’s title, Last Testament, is one rendering of the German Letzte Gespräche. Another might be “Latest Conversations”. While the book does have a valedictory feel, you can’t help thinking, as you finish it, that Benedict XVI has a lot more left to say to the world.

This article first appeared in the November 4 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here