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'Last Testament': Benedict's Catholic critique

Christoph Strack / wgSeptember 9, 2016

In "Letzte Gespräche," Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI criticizes the Catholic Church in Germany. The book-length interview was released Friday, with an English version, "Last Testament," expected in November.

Papst Benedikt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Ferrari

In this riveting conversation with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, #link:18968366:the Catholic Church in Germany# is presented less than favorably and criticized for its excessive bureaucracy. Benedict also casts doubt on the current church tax system in Germany, saying the "automatic excommunication of those who don't pay is, in my mind, untenable."

Now 89 years old, Benedict stepped down as pope on February 28, 2013. His thoughts on the above topics were obtained by the German journalist Peter Seewald, with whom he has enjoyed a rapport since his days as the German cleric Joseph Ratzinger. For the 62-year-old journalist and author, Benedict XVI marks the "end of an era."

Released on Friday in German, "#link:19532818:Letzte Gespräche#" (Final Conversations) is something new. Published by Droemer & Knaur the book presents a man looking back on his pontificate and on the man who has followed him: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or #link:18901696:Pope Francis#, as he is now called - a choice that came as a surprise to Benedict. "Last Testament," the English version of the book, is scheduled for publication in November.

Peter Seewald
Seewald has published three books of talks with the former German archbishopImage: Jung-Hee Seewald

The book is worthy spiritual reading; some of it even seems highly self-critical for a pope - or critical of the Roman Curia, at least. Benedict, who had ascended to archbishop in Germany, has dramatically distanced himself from the official Catholic Church in his home country.

The account is not exactly papal in nature. Until Benedict's retirement in 2013, he had come across as shy and preferred professionally polished remarks. His successor, #link:19129041:Francis, has affected more direct and heartfelt interaction.#

Italien Castel Gandolfo Peter Seewald im Gespräch mit Papst Benedikt XVI
Seewald and Benedict at Castel GandolfoImage: picture-alliance/AP/Osservatore Romano

'Not a word'

Upon announcing his retirement, Benedict said he wanted to continue to "serve God's holy church with all his heart through a life of prayer." Close confidants such as Rudolf Voderholzer, the bishop of Regensburg, had thought that, when it came to Benedict's thoughts, "not a word could be published." They were mistaken.

In the new book, Benedict airs the thoughts and considerations that led to his resignation. He says it had nothing to do with blackmail or the whistleblowing that led to the Vatileaks scandal. Rather, he speaks of "many difficulties during this time" - a reference to revelations about #link:18744684:the sexual abuse of children# by #link:18578377:Catholic clergy# and the controversy that followed his 2009 lifting of the excommunication of #link:16327722:Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier.#

Benedict sees the #link:4007448:Williamson affair as a "giant propaganda campaign" against him.# He also speaks of a "gay lobby" in the Vatican, which Pope Francis, too, mentioned just months after his election.

"It was small - four or five people maybe," Benedict says. "If they've rebuilt themselves, I can't say. In any case, such things don't abound."

The scandals, however, were fodder for a growing indifference to faith, at least in Europe. Benedict says Europe is becoming "newly evangelized from the outside." Referring to Francis, he added: "Something fresh for the church, a new cheerfulness, new charisma that speaks to people - this is very good."

Politically, Benedict is candid about his qualms with the Catholic Church in his native land. "Germany has an established and well-furnished Catholicism, often with employed Catholics who handle the church like a labor union," he says. "For them, the church is simply the employer."

Vatikan Feier des 65. Priesterjubiläums Papst Franziskus und Vorgänger Benedikt
Benedict (right) is greeted by his successor, Pope Francis, upon his return to the VaticanImage: Reuters/Handout/Osservatore Romano

Looking back in anger

Pope books are popular. This is Seewald's fourth interview book in 20 years with Ratzinger. The publisher has made an initial order of 50,000 copies, with translations forthcoming for Brazilian, Croatian, French, Hungarian, Italian, Lebanese, Polish, Spanish, British, Portuguese and Slovakian readers.

Much has also been published about Francis in his just-over-three-year papacy, and the pope has often also found a direct audience for his own writings. Unlike Benedict's encyclicals "Love" and "Hope," which were composed in a style far above other encyclicals and therefore less widely read, there is a trend toward a modern style more suitable for general consumption.

In "Final Conversations," Seewald has a final question: "Where was love in your life? Did you feel it deeply or was it merely theoretical?"

"No, no," Benedict replies. "You can't talk about what you haven't felt." He mentions his parents and siblings. "I don't want to get into private details," he says. "It moves me in so many different ways."

That much is obvious - which the author didn't make obvious enough. "There was an infatuation during his course of studies that was very serious," Seewald said in an interview about the book. "It was difficult for him. He didn't take celibacy lightly."

Some statements in the book suggest that Benedict feels that he is approaching the end of his life. He says he would like the words "worker for truth" on his gravestone - a reference to the third Johannine epistle of the New Testament. "The truth touches us," Benedict says. "We try to be guided by this contact."