In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI was the first pontiff to resign in 800 years. Since assuming the novel title of Pope Emeritus, the aging Benedict has been supplanted in the public eye, with his successor, Pope Francis, seen as more personable and media-savvy. Despite Benedict’s relative eclipse, on December 10, Bloomsbury is publishing Benedict XVI: A Life, Volume Two: Guardian of the Faith, Pope, Pope Emeritus, German journalist Peter Seewald’s second volume in his biography of Joseph Ratzinger. A first printing of 100,000 copies has been set. The book will examine some of the most contentious religious and cultural issues that marked the Pope Emeritus’ tenure, many of which generated controversy over the past decade.
“All the red-hot topics occur in this second volume,” says the book’s translator, Robin Baird-Smith, describing a volume that still provides a more subtle take, but also is a reconsideration of a figure who, if not as relatable as Francis, has long been respected as an intellectually formidable thinker and writer.
Baird-Smith explains that Seewald’s book covers Benedict’s contribution to the reformist conclave of the 1960s known as Vatican II, his reaction to sexual abuse of minors within the Church, and his speech at the University of Regensburg, which was widely viewed as Islamophobic. Because Benedict has long had a reputation for being stern, doctrinal, and orthodox, his conservative admirers have sometimes positioned the former pope as a foil to the more liberal Francis. With the unprecedented situation of two men who have both had the title being alive at the same time, there has often been an irresistible tendency among some in the media – and the Church – to present the popes as being in conflict, an interpretation that also denies the continuities, which exist between the two. Baird-Smith says that Seewald’s book provides much-needed nuance to our understanding, as it was “written by an admirer of Benedict who is far from hagiographic or unrealistic.”
Benedict is a figure who remains a touchstone for many Catholics – both among conservatives who approved of his tenure and liberals who were critical of him. Kaya Oakes, a professor at U.C.-Berekely and an award-winning freelance religion journalist who often covers the Catholic Church, explains that for her, “Benedict is thought of as problematic.” She says that among many marginalized Catholics—women, LGBTQ Catholics, or immigrants—there is a sense that the former pope hindered “the church from moving into the contemporary era.” However, “traditionalists who don’t see Francis as legitimate would love to see Benedict back on the job,” Oakes says.
Seewald’s first volume didn’t much change this overall perception about the Pope Emeritus being polarizing. Baird-Smith confirms the title was popular in conservative circles, while David Gibson, a journalist and director at Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, and a critic of Benedict, observes that Seewald’s first volume “really seemed to be hailed by Ratzinger’s fans.”
Despite enthusiasm from conservative Catholics, prominent progressive Catholics also expressed admiration for Seewald’s scholarship, as well as a desire to see this subsequent volume complicate some of Benedict’s legacy, and to perhaps answer questions about the former Cardinal Ratzinger. Fr. James Martin, editor of the liberal Jesuit magazine America, says that the first volume “was a superb overview of the first half of the life of a person who would have been a significant figure in the Church even had he not been elected Pope.” Gibson explained that a large part of Ratzinger’s influence on the Church predated his election as Pope, first in the role that he played as a participant in the discussions during Vatican II, and then in his role as an enforcer of orthodoxy when he was the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith underneath Pope John Paul II.
Seewald’s biography, Gibson explains, could illuminate how enthusiastic or resistant Ratzinger was about Vatican II, which could recast our understanding of his papacy. Oakes says that she hoped this book would complicate the reductionist narratives concerning Benedict and Francis, noting that despite the former’s image, “it might be helpful to remember that he is a theologian, so some of his writing and thinking is pitched to a very specific audience,” while also remembering that there “are elements of tradition that lots of progressives actually like, mostly aesthetic ones – music, art, beauty – and that’s something Benedict is also very fond of.” Yet Gibson says that it remains to be seen how much the new volume either confirms or denies these expectations. “I think if anything the [previous] Seewald biography, and his own commentary… have only solidified the preexisting perceptions of Benedict and Francis as coming from quite different theological perspectives.”
If there is one thing that unanimously interests Catholic commentators, it’s Benedict’s resignation. It is no surprise then that Seewald’s biography – including an interview with the retired Ratzinger – is generating interest. “One of Benedict’s most important gestures was his resignation,” says Martin, calling it a “dramatic spiritual act.”
“I mean that in the most positive way possible,” Martin adds. “I think it was an extraordinary act of humility.”
Yet, Gibson points to alarming conspiracy theories of traditionalist Catholics who refuse to accept that Francis is pope. He hopes that Seewald’s book will “dispel once and for all any conspiracy theories.” Of course, the biography could ignite more controversy and new disagreements. “It remains to be seen if there are any surprises in this volume,” Gibson says. “If so, it will be like tossing a match into a dry forest.”