Pope Benedict XVI resigned seven years ago, a radical move from a leader viewed as the supreme conservative. Yet, he's still draws interest and controversy. At least publisher Bloomsbury Continuum is counting on it, with the November 17 release of an English translation of German journalist Peter Seewald’s first book in a two-volume set, Benedict XVI: A Life. With unparalleled access to Benedict, Seewald’s interviews with the former pope have garnered headlines in the past, as the pontiff expressed muted criticism of the Church and his successor Pope Francis. Over the past several years Seewald has had a spate of books written in a spirit of sympathetic collaboration with Benedict, but his upcoming 496-page Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927-1965, offers something different: an exhaustive and scholarly overview of the first third of Joseph Ratzinger’s life, ending four decades before he’d be elected pope.
Published in Germany last April, the biography’s English translation was edited by Robin Baird-Smith who says that Seewald is “objective. Sympathetic but objective. He does not try to hide the truth.” Baird-Smith points out that in Benedict XVI: A Life Seewald considers controversial aspects of his subject’s biography, including his youth in Nazi Germany, and his reserved personality. According to detractors, Benedict is stern and severe; his supporters say that he is shy and withdrawn. But all agree he lacks the media-friendly charisma of his predecessor John Paul II and his successor Francis.
Who then, other than scholars, would be in the market for a door-stopper about the Pope Emeritus? Bloomsbury sees a wider audience ahead. According to the publisher, they are printing an initial release of 50,000 copies, with a publicity campaign aimed specifically at religious Catholic readers.
Former journalist David Gibson, now director of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a frequent Benedict-critic from the left, sees the Pope Emeritus as a fascinating subject for even the casual reader. “Now to get a flesh-and-blood portrait of someone imbued with such a remarkable lineage – Saint Peter, infallibility and all that – seems new, and very much part of the cultural zeitgeist.” While Francis has drawn acolytes among the more liberal wings of the Catholic Church, and beyond, Benedict’s reputation has (rightly or wrongly) endured as being a staunch conservative, a doctrinaire traditionalist. Yet when he resigned, he was the first pope to do so in almost six centuries. For a pontiff regarded as conservative in not just matters of theology and politics, but also personality, the abdication was “rather amazing. Especially for a man so closely associated with tradition. People want to know what’s up with that,” says Gibson.
A Controversial Icon
Benedict’s paradoxically tradition-shattering retirement is part of the reason, Gibson argues, that biographies of the former Pope, and treatments of his voluminous theological writings, have been unusually popular. Works such as John Allen Jr.’s Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger (written several years before the resignation), Elio Guerriero’s Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought, and Gibson’s The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World approached the former pope from a variety of doctrinal perspectives. “His appeal seems less in who he is, or was, as in what he represents,” says Gibson, “He is an icon of conservatism for many, and an object of scorn and criticism for many others.”
That “culture war” lens for looking at Benedict and Francis, however, can’t totally account for the Pope Emeritus’ continued popularity as a publishing subject. Baird-Smith agrees with Gibson that the media has often configured Benedict as a sort of “doctrinal Rottweiler,” but he emphasized that that simplification does a disservice to the subtlety of the former pope’s thought, as he views Benedict as “unquestionably the most intellectually gifted Pontiff of the post war years.” For many Catholics, to write Benedict off as the voice of the right wing in a culture war with Francis on the left is too facile, an ideological binary that over-simplifies.
The Rev. James Martin S.J., editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone, says, the two popes “aren’t ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ as much as they are simply popes in different ways.” For readers with a theological sensibility, drawn to books like Seewald’s biography, this nuance matters. Equally important is that long before he was Pope Benedict XVI, he was the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the contemporary era. Knowledgeable readers are responding to that as much as to his papacy.
An Elegant Writer
Fr. John Fessio S.J., the founder and former editor of Ignatius Press, as well as a doctoral student of Ratzinger’s when the later was a theology professor at the University of Regensburg in the 1970s, says that people are often drawn to “Popes involved in historical movements,” figures like the controversial World War II Pope Pius XII or Pope John Paul II who confronted the Soviet Union, but that Benedict “doesn’t exist in a historical nexus which would make him naturally interesting to readers.” But Benedict remains an object of readers’ fascination for a different reason – because he was a talented writer and thinker in a way that other popes aren’t, says Fessio. And Martin says that the “Pope Emeritus is a master communicator, and an elegant writer who probably reached as many people through his books as through his encyclicals and papal pronouncements.”
It's a side of Benedict that those committed to the caricature of him as "God's Rottweiler" might not find recognizable, but it’s a sort of literary charisma that his dedicated readers are attracted towards. He wrote over 60 books, including his landmark trilogy collectively published under the title Jesus of Nazareth which interpreted the life and teachings of Christ. Anthony J. Ryan, the marketing director at Ignatius Press, which has published scores of books by or about Benedict including English translations of most of Ratzinger’s works, calls Benedict’s writing style “accessible, readable and appealing.”
The most popular of these works aren’t easily slotted into a “culture wars” narrative. Many readers drawn to treatments of Benedict such as Seewald's aren’t just those that agree with him, but simply those that take a serious man seriously. “Most intellectuals can appreciate him” said Fessio, “even if you disagree with him.” Maybe especially if you do.