The recently published book-length interview with the Pope Emeritus, Last Testament: In His Own Words, goes far beyond the opening discussion about his resignation and retirement, also recapitulating the childhood, youth, and unexpectedly dramatic ecclesiastical career of Joseph Ratzinger. Some items from his memoirs and earlier interviews are revisited and clarified, and some controversies—like his falling out with the heretic Hans Küng—are discussed at length. Most interesting is the P. Emeritus’s continued identification as a theological progressive, and his belief that being such was always the right choice.
I do not intend to review the book as a whole, but I will share a few interesting selections from Ratzinger’s final interview. We need to be reminded, I think, of how little of a friend he was and is to the various traditionalist movements in the Church.
After the war, Ratzinger began his studies in Freising with his brother Georg, at a school that had been founded with a monastery by St. Corbinian in AD 716. He speaks of a retreat led there by a certain Professor Angermair:
He was a fresh, new thinker who particularly wanted to take us out of the cramped piety of the nineteenth century, and into the open. You sensed the new mood, and it was a breakthrough for me, so to speak. Accordingly, your curiosity then grows while you’re in university, even if everything wasn’t quite so convincing there. (Ch. 6)
This sense of moving out of a cramped spirituality and theology was a prominent aspect of the 20th-century Modernists and quasi-Modernists, although in many respects their accusations were true. There was a kind of tunnel vision when it came to theology and spiritual formation, especially as it was disseminated to the laity, and this sense of unjust confinement led contemporary thinkers to be careless when breaking off their shackles.
The topic comes up again when Seewald asks Ratzinger why he has seldom addressed the topic of Hitler and the Third Reich:
Well, the eyes are always looking to the future. And it was not specifically my topic. We had the experience within us, but to reflect further on it historically or philosophically was something I never saw as my task. For me the important thing was to conceive the vision for tomorrow. Where are we today? How will things proceed with the Church? How will things proceed in society? (Ch. 6)
From there the questions proceed deeper into his theological vision, and it is worthwhile to quote him at some length:
Well, I didn’t want to operate only in a stagnant and closed philosophy, but in a philosophy understood as a question—what is man, really?—and particularly to enter into the new, contemporary philosophy. In this sense I was modern and critical…. [I] didn’t simply want to learn and take on a closed system, I also wanted to understand the theological thinkers of the Middle Ages and modernity anew, and to proceed from this. This is where personalism, which was in the air at that time, particularly struck me, and seemed to be the right starting point of both philosophical and theological thought….
We were forward-thinking. We wanted to renew theology from the ground up, and thereby form the Church in newness and vitality. In this respect we were lucky that we lived in a time in which both the youth and liturgical movements had opened up new horizons, new paths. Here we wanted to press forward with the Church, so that, in precisely this way, she would be young again. At that time we all had a certain contempt for the nineteenth century; it was fashionable then. So neo-Gothic and those rather kitschy figures of saints, the narrow, somewhat kitsch piety and over-sentimentality—we wanted to overcome all that. We wanted a new era of piety, which formed itself from the liturgy, its sobriety and its greatness, which drew on the original sources—and was new and contemporary precisely because of this….
As mentioned already, I wanted out of classical Thomism, and Augustine was a helper and guide with this. In this connection it was worthwhile entering into a living conversation with contemporary philosophy. But I’ve certainly never been an existentialist….
I thought: we are young people, we have a point of entry. From this certainty that we are able to build the world anew, I was fearless before great things…. The personal struggle which Augustine expresses really spoke to me. Thomas’s writings were textbooks, by and large, and impersonal somehow….
It [the “Munich School”] was defined by the fact that it was completely biblically oriented, working from Holy Scripture, the Fathers and the liturgy, and it was very ecumenical. The Thomistic-philosophical dimension was missing; maybe that was its real benefit. (Ch. 6)
Neither I nor His Traddiness are great defenders of the Thomistic school, but the hubris of thinking that one can discard what had been a long-proven instructional tool for basic theology and exchange it for something which the beginners themselves were building from the ground up, is obvious. The theological legacy of Thomas of Aquino is no more disposable than the Fathers and Scriptures that the amatores aggiornamento supposedly respected. It is probably true that Thomism was in need of serious reform and correction, but the Summa has always been effective in its original intended use, as a beginner’s guide to theology. That is not something to be lightly dismantled.
(As a sidenote, it is interesting that at the end of this chapter, Ratzinger discusses the novels of Hermann Hesse, especially The Glass Bead Game, which ends with a spiritual-intellectual leader deciding to lay down his responsibilities and retire into a more humble life. I noted the similarities between the action of the novel and the P. Emeritus’s actions in a post last year.)
His thoughts continue as he hikes over the mountains and valleys of memory through his higher education:
In Munich we had of course grown up with a modern philosophy. Certain professors had taken us to pastures new and opened them up for us. I had taken this mood on internally, and tried to perpetuate it according to the possibilities at my disposal….
Only later was there separation between those who rejected the Magisterium and went their own way, and those who said that theology can only be done within the Church. [Meaning the supposedly divergent paths of the progressive school. -J] Then, everyone was still aware that theology obviously has its own freedom and task, that it cannot be completely servile to the Magisterium, but we also knew that theology without the Church would be theology in name only, and would no longer have any meaning. I was considered someone who is young, who opens new doors, treads new paths, so then persons who were just plain critical came to me. (Ch. 7)
He reflects later on many aspects of his experience during the recent Council:
During the period of the Council in Rome, did you sometimes stop for a couple of drinks with someone along the way?
Not as a pair, no, but as part of a small group. Especially in the theological commission. Then we often drank plentifully in Trastevere.
[The Pope laughs loudly.]…
Which theologians do you actually appreciate the most?
I would still say Lubac and Balthasar….
Which camp did you belong to at that time: the progressives?
Yes, indeed, I would say so. At that time progressive did not mean that you were breaking out of the faith, but that you wanted to understand it better, and more accurately, how it lives from its origins. I was of the opinion then that that was what we all wanted….
You were charged with that [freemasonry]?
[Laughs] Yes, yes, although I really shouldn’t be held in suspicion of being a freemason….
Was it a mistake to convoke the Council at all?
No, it was right for sure. One can ask whether it was necessary or not, OK. And from the outset there were people who were against it. But in itself it was a moment in the Church when you were simply waiting on something new, on a renewal, a renewal of the whole…. In that respect the time was simply nigh. (Ch. 8)
Presumptions of inaugurating a new dispensation in the Church was common among mid-20th century theologians, especially the Germans. The “new wine” apparently flowed freely across the Tiber during the Council, the same place where Fr. Bouyer famously penned the corrected text of Eucharistic Prayer II on a napkin.
It was also in Trastevere, on an outdoor table at a small restaurant in 2004, where I talked at great length with another recent American convert well into the night about the many troubles in the Church. I had barely been Catholic a full year, and already I was growing sickened by the theological and moral disintegration that most of my fellow Catholics were happy to willfully ignore or excuse. It is sad to see that Joseph Ratzinger is still so full of his youthful naïveté that he defends every principle he followed, even while weakly condemning their usual consequences.
The penultimate chapter of the interview, “Shortcomings and Problems,” is a far cry from the example of Ratzinger’s hero St. Augustine, who wrote a series of Retractationes. In here, the P. Emeritus makes a long series of excuses, and casts blame for some events (especially the “Williamson affair”) on others. He claims also that the “gay lobby” problem had been entirely taken care of before his resignation.
In the concluding chapter, he ominously describes the historical import of his papacy:
Do you see yourself as the last Pope of an old era or the first Pope of a new era?
Between the times, I would say.
As a bridge, a kind of connecting link between the two worlds?
I don’t belong to the old world any more, but the new world isn’t really here yet.
The new world is still being constructed around us, with the neverending “year” of “mercy” and “humility.” We can only pray that its reforms will be stopped before they are irreversible.
Sts. Benedict and Joseph, pray for us!