Volume 1 of Peter Seewald's, Benedict XVI: A Life, studies the ex-Pope's childhood, from his birth in 1927 and his early career as a priest and theologian through the Second Vatican Council. Seewald is not a neutral observer, but a sympathetic frequent interviewer of the ex-Pope. And his work benefits from his close long-term association with Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, and his immersion in the ex-Poe's thinking. If there is one over-arching leitmotif, it would seem to be the author's determination rebut the idea that Ratzinger radically changed at some post-conciliar point - perhaps 1968. Instead, he wants to show how Ratzinger was a real reformer at the time of the Council but in a distinctive, tradition-affirming manner.
Inseparable from this, the book highlights Ratzinger's Bavarian roots and the resonance of traditional Bavarian popular piety in the ex-Pope's personal development and religious formation, "an old Bavarian heartfelt piety, a faith that was charismatic, emotional, vivid and healing" - a world which, as the Pope himself later admitted, "was quite different from the world of today."
Personally, I have long thought that the trajectory of Benedict's career reflects this irresolvable tension between the pull of tradition (symbolized by his Bavarian base in Baroque liturgy and Mozart Masses) and the push of modern life and thought with which he fully engaged as a professor and then as a Council peritus. Ratzinger found himself somehow straddling that tension, that constant potential for conflict. As someone who in my youth likewise fell in love with the Church in large part through her traditional liturgy, I found this section of the book particularly compelling.
One weakness of the book's approach is that, in attempting to address almost every relevant 20th-century influence, Seewald takes the reader on too many excurses into other stories, the salience of which might have been better presented in more abbreviated form. That said, while the author offers a detailed treatment of Catholic resistance to National Socialism (including, of course, Ratzinger's father's strong anti-Nazi position), these were for the most part heroic outliers. The deeper question of how and why such a society so easily and with so few exceptions fell under Hitler's spell receives somewhat less attention. And, while no one could have fully foreseen where such actions as the dissolution of the Catholic Center Party and the Concordat might ultimately lead, the broader question of how the Church approached the challenge of the century still haunts her encounter with contemporary political and social ideologies. Seewald does, however, quote Ratzinger as observing: "Even then it dawned on me that they (the bishops) partly misjudged the situation in their battle for the institution. A mere institutional guarantee is useless when the people are not there who can carry it out with inner conviction."
As Seewald tells the story, which is evidently how the ex-Pope himself sees his story, fidelity to tradition and intellectual progress were complementary. Even as a student, Ratzinger was thinking forward: ‘We wanted to radically renew theology, and thereby reshape the church in a new and more dynamic way." It was a time "when new horizons and new paths were opening." The author effectively recaptures some of the excitement of the rising intellectual ferment of the 1950s and 1960s, even while he also recalls the challenges Ratzinger experienced in the German academic life at the time.
All this of course, leads up to the final part of the book which treats Ratzinger's influence on Cologne's Cardinal Frings and on the German episcopacy's participation in the Second Vatican Council. Of particular interest is how Ratzinger is contrasted, even at that stage, with that other Wunderkind, Hans Kung. Already, unlike Kung, Ratzinger came to recognize the Church less as concilium and more as communio. In a famous lecture the year before the Council opened Ratzinger asserted:
"All errors in this area are ultimately caused by applying a secular constitutional model to the church. That misses her uniqueness, which she derives from her divine origin. The Council is not a parliament, and the bishops are not members of parliament, who receive their authority and mandate solely from the people who voted for them. They do not represent the people, but Christ, from whom they have received their mission and ordination."
Throughout, while not downplaying Ratzinger's real role in moving the German agenda forward at the Council, Seewald stresses his view that "Ratzinger had never been progressive or conservative in the usual sense. Rather, he had always tried to unite tradition and and progress, history and the present, out of [what Hansjurgen Verweyen calls] a ‘mystical awareness of faith’."
On the other hand, Seewald says Ratzinger at the Council failed "to realize the consequences that the desire for change might have for the deconstruction of the church, especially in the area of the liturgy." He also "definitely underrated the power of a developing mass-media society."
And that is where he leaves us, with the Council concluded - eager for Volume 2 to come out in English.