Understanding the Thought of Benedict XVI

BOOK PICK: Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought

(photo: Cropped book cover)



By Elio Guerriero

Ignatius Press, 2018

706 pages, $34.95

To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531


Author Elio Guerriero wanted to write a book about Benedict XVI that showed a true and moving portrait of the man who would be pope. Guerriero explains why:

“I wanted to tell about an honest man, in love with Bavaria and books, who reluctantly left his professorial chair for an episcopal see. With the same attitude, he set out for Rome and experienced the restrained joy of the sower who sows the seed in the hope that many will gather it in. His acceptance of his election as successor of John Paul II was once again an act of obedience to the decision of his confreres in the episcopate. In a famous essay, he had spoken about the martyrological structure of the Petrine primacy. In the somewhat convoluted language of theologians, he meant to say that serving as pope requires a martyr’s patience, and the ability to endure suffering.”

While this sympathetic intellectual biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI may, at 700-plus pages, appear daunting, the book is remarkably free of the “somewhat convoluted language of the theologians.” Its size is unavoidable, given the breadth and depth of its subject’s activities as a first-class theologian at five German universities, prolific author, archbishop of Munich, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for almost a quarter of a century, pope for nearly eight years, and pope emeritus for six and counting.

Guerriero does a masterful job tracing his subject’s life and thought, setting it in its historical, geographical and intellectual contexts. I especially appreciated his well-explained syntheses of the key issues then-Cardinal Ratzinger faced as CDF prefect and Benedict did as pope. William Melcher’s translation of this book from the Italian is excellent.

Explaining Ratzinger/Benedict’s thought in an understandable way is no easy task.

Names like Guardini, Congar, de Lubac, von Balthasar, Rahner, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Habermas, Küng, Piper, Adam, et al. populate these pages; and while few, if any, of them are light reading, both Ratzinger/Benedict and Guerriero make what’s at issue generally intelligible.

That’s no mean feat, given that much of the discussion implicates modern challenges to faith that, even when conducted at the 30,000-foot level, eventually seep down into the popular mindset, for good or ill. Ratzinger/Benedict has always been solicitous about the faith of the faithful, not just in the sense of “protecting the simple” (see 1 Corinthians 8:9) but, above all, out of awareness that the truths of the faith are saving and redeeming truths, not just academic exercises lacking larger existential significance.

At the very beginning of John Paul II’s pontificate, George H. Williams’ Mind of John Paul II was an intellectual biography that helped determine my academic future, setting me out as a student of Karol Wojtyła.

I hope that Guerriero’s book serves a similar purpose, helping new thinkers to take up and push forward Ratzinger/Benedict’s thought. We need Catholic intellectuals to glean the harvest from the seed Ratzinger/Benedict sowed. General readers will likewise find this book — a rewarding and substantial presentation of the thought of the 265th pontiff — well-worth the read.

April 16 is Pope Emeritus Benedict’s 92nd birthday. This book, presenting the thought and concerns that have been important to him, is a fitting present to a man whose life has not been driven only by “obedience” (let alone obedience just “to the decision of his” episcopal confreres) but — above all — as  Guerriero makes clear, by love of Love.

As his trilogy on Jesus Christ, completed at the end of his pontificate, bears witness, theology is not about “what” but “Who”: about the Love that “moves the sun and stars.”

John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

All views are exclusively his.