Who is Benedict XVI?

POPE BENEDICT XVI: A PERSONAL PORTRAIT. By Heinz-Joachim Fischer; translated by Brian McNeil (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 481 Eighth Ave., Suite 1550, New York, N.Y. 1000, 2005), 213 pp. HB $19.95.

Heinz-Joachim Fischer is a German journalist who studied philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and subsequently became a journalist writing for the prestigious German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and other media outlets. He has known Cardinal Ratzinger for 30 years on a personal and professional level and has conducted many interviews with him. As a Catholic and Vatican correspondent he understands the Church and has had personal contact with the Pope over the years. The strongest aspect of this book is its treatment of the Cardinal’s Bavarian background and his years in Munich as well as the impact of his work at the CDF upon the Catholic Church in Germany. He also shows why Ratzinger slowly began to distance himself from some of his liberal colleagues such as Hans Kung; he felt compelled to do so because they had first distanced themselves from the Catholic Church and its way of understanding the faith. Fischer also notes the personal cost of Ratzinger’s fidelity to the Church; the young theologian would have led a life of comfort in academia with approval of progressives inside and outside the Church had he simply gone along with the crowd; but this young theologian could not do so if it meant a denial of some important element of Christianity.

This relatively brief biography consists of reminiscences of conversations and interviews with the Cardinal over the years and reflections on significant events in his life. The first third of the book deals with his life prior to the death of Pope John Paul II including his early years, his career as a theologian and university professor, and his brief work as Archbishop of Munich, and then his 26 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Fischer does not deal with events in his life in a strictly chronological order but rather thematically. Some of these themes include: “the Pope’s candid theologian, the fight over Liberation Theology, meeting Mozart in heaven, and an intellectual rooted in faith.” The lack of chronological order can be a bit disconcerting for the average reader who knows nothing about Ratzinger’s life and career; on the other hand, the treatment of Benedict according to various themes permits the reader to gain an insight into his personality, intellect, apostolic work, and daily life. Thus, we are shown how his early immersion in the simple but rich Catholic culture of Bavaria had an impact upon the rest of his life; we encounter a lover of music who is at home in the world of Mozart and Bach; we meet a Cardinal who provides rather strong medicine for the various crises within the Church and the secular world. This first section is the most solid section since it is based upon Ratzinger’s words, writings, and deeds as well as conversations Fischer had with him. The second part of the book coves the days of transition from the moving death of John Paul II and his funeral to the conclave and the actual election of Pope Benedict XVI.

Fischer makes a number of speculations about the mood and actual discussions of the cardinals both prior to and during the conclave. The problem with this approach is it is difficult to ascertain how reliable his sources are. Vatican and Roman gossip can be fascinating, but often unreliable since sources inside the Vatican often turn out to be clerics outside the Vatican with a very creative imagination. On the other hand, most of Fischer’s reconstructions of these debates are plausible in view of debates that have been going on within the Church over the course of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate—with the first and various tensions within the Church. The third section deals with the first days of his pontificate and attempts to foresee how he will guide the Church in the coming years.

This brief volume is a good introduction to the life and personality of Pope Benedict XVI.

Fischer is very balanced in his comments and evaluations. It is clear that the author deeply respects the integrity, intellect, deep spirituality, gentleness, and courage of our new Holy Father. Fischer is aware that Ratzinger carried a heavy burden as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Church that was often misunderstood by critics inside and outside the Church and often in a very malicious manner. He demonstrates that Ratzinger’s theological judgments and disciplinary actions were often far more balanced than his critics admitted. Even though the Cardinal Prefect condemned certain aspects of Liberation Theology as dangerous to the faith, he also strongly upheld the teachings of the Church on social justice in a balanced manner. Fischer is also aware that critics have often misunderstood the reserved and intellectual personality of this great theologian. At times he has been portrayed as cold or aloof; however, the author recounts incidents which show Ratzinger’s great concern toward others in even the smallest details such as selecting an appropriate gift for friends whom he would visit. The author also notes that even his critics are impressed by the Cardinal’s grasp of the facts and arguments and willingness to listen to all the arguments.

Fischer also deals with the Cardinal’s role in a number of controversial decisions the Cardinal made as Prefect of the CDF and also his relationship with John Paul II. He lists some of the most important controversial documents and disciplinary actions of the CDF under Ratzinger. He also examines the controversy about church counseling services to pregnant woman and the issuing of certificates by church groups which could then be used to obtain an abortion; this issue caused major divisions among the German laity and even some bishops. Some critics sought to blame Ratzinger for some of these controversial decisions and imply that he was acting independently of the Pope. The author exposes this myth and demonstrates that the Pope and his Prefect acted together in perfect harmony. When some critics claimed that Dominus Jesus was written by Ratzinger on his own, Pope John Paul insisted that he fully supported the document and was involved in its writing. Fischer notes initial reservations of Ratzinger and other cardinals about the Church’s admission of its guilt at various times during its history; however, Ratzinger eventually had a prominent role in the actual penitential liturgy as the list of errors was recited. However, the question of which actions were initiated by the Pope and which were initiated by Ratzinger remains unanswered. Since the pontificate of John Paul was one in which many things were delegated to the Roman Curia, one can presume that many concrete details were left to the Curia. However, all final documents were approved by the Pope himself and the fact that the Pope and Ratzinger met at least once and often twice a week insured that John Paul was deeply involved in everything the CDF produced. Future historians may have access to various archives that might shed more light on their working relationship.

An appendix includes a chronology of the life of Pope Benedict, Ratzinger’s moving homily at the Burial Mass of Pope John Paul II, a list of the Cardinals who elected him, and brief summaries of the lives of other Popes named Benedict and of St. Benedict of Nursia. There are also 24 pages of photographs, some in color, from his early years until his first days as Pope.

Edmund W. Majewski, S.J.
St. Peter’s College
Jersey City, N.J.

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