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Ne Dimittas Legem Matris Tuae

Benedict XVI: A Life Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965 

Peter Seewald 

Bloomsbury, pp.512, $35.00


The center of theological learning in Germany has long been Tübingen, the beautiful little town on the river Neckar, inhabited mostly by students, who punt down the river on spring afternoons, gliding past the suitably romantic tower where the poet Hölderlin was confined in his madness, and refreshing themselves with bottled beer and bretzel, which they buy from the canny, tight-fisted Swabian townspeople. The uneasy relations between the students and the townspeople are a fitting symbol of Tübingen theology, which is characterized by a tension between enthusiastic Romanticism and skeptical rationalism. Philip Melancthon was a student at Tübingen in the early sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century Hölderlin, Hegel, and Schelling were famously roommates at the Protestant seminary. In the nineteenth century the Catholic theological faculty was revived and Johann Sebastian von Drey and Johann Adam Möhler founded the Catholic Tübingen School in theology, with its deeply Romantic sensibilities. In Protestant theology, the skeptical “younger” Tübingen School was the work of Ferdinand Christian Baur, one of the founders of the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis. Among Protestant theologians who either studied or taught in Tübingen were Karl Holl, Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, Ernst Käsemann, and Helmut Thielicke. Among the Catholics were Romano Guardini, Theodor Steinbüchel, Bernhard Häring, Hans Küng, and Josef Ratzinger, who took up a professorship in 1966.

The first volume of Peter Seewald’s biography of Pope Benedict XVI, which has now appeared in English translation, goes up to the end of Vatican II in 1965, the year before Ratzinger moved to Tübingen. Nevertheless, in reading it my thoughts turned to the town on the Neckar. I was reminded of a resolution that I myself made there as a child. My father was spending a research sabbatical at Tübingen University, and I was attending school for the first time (having been homeschooled up to that point). I was in third grade, and our teacher had just read us a story about a child who was misunderstood by his parents. “Why don’t the grown-ups understand?” a classmate of mine asked. “After all, they used to be children themselves.” “They don’t remember what it is like to be a child,” Frau Valverde, our teacher, answered. I was struck by the words, which seemed to me an indictment of the system of which Frau Valverde (a very Swabian lady, despite her Spanish name) was a part. I resolved in my heart not to forget as a grown-up what I knew as a child.

Of the theologians who brought in the new theological paradigm at Vatican II, Ratzinger was perhaps the one who most remembered what it was like to be a child, and was most faithful to his childhood piety. Ratzinger himself gave a poignant account of his own childhood in his autobiography, Milestones. Milestones is a gem of a book—simple, modest, but written with considerable depth and artistry. Seewald’s biography does not match the literary achievement of Ratzinger’s own work, but it does round out the picture somewhat.

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