Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Why did Pope Benedict resign?

Last Testament – In his Own Words by Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald, translated by Jacob Phillips, Bloomsbury, 260 pp, £9.99, US$24.00.

Reviewed by George Weigel


In a recent interview, German journalist  Peter  Seewald  explained   that Last  Testament  –   a   book   composed of  interviews  he  conducted  with Pope  Benedict  XVI   toward   the   end of his pontificate and immediately afterward – was published in part to correct misimpressions of “one of most misunderstood personalities of our time”. Given the vicious caricature of Joseph Ratzinger as Der Panzerkardinal, a ruthless enforcer of Catholic doctrine, the intention is a noble one. Readers of Last Testament may wonder, however, what in this fourth of Seewald’s book- length interviews with the man who became Benedict XVI is going to change the views of a world media locked into its own certainties and “narratives”, much less the views of Ratzinger’s longtime Catholic critics.

For while there  are  bits  and  pieces of new information here, the essential truths about the man – his deep (and deeply Bavarian) faith, his extraordinary intelligence, his human decency – were already on display in Seewald’s three previous interview-collaborations with Ratzinger. And much as I wish it were not the case, I don’t see much in Last Testament that is going to convince those whose “progressive Catholic” program depends in part on the Panzerkardinal cartoon, and what that cartoon means for their version of post-Vatican II Catholic history, that they were gravely mistaken and owe Joseph Ratzinger an apology.

Unprecedented abdication

Many will find Last Testament interesting for its primary author’s reflections  on his unprecedented abdication. But here, too, there is little that is actually new, although there is detail that confirms what shrewder observers of Vatican life pieced together after the events of early 2013: that Benedict XVI’s poorly-planned 2012 visit to Mexico and Cuba convinced him that he could no longer travel; that he believed the Pope must be present at  World  Youth  Day  2013  in  Brazil,  a conviction that became the terminus ad quem driving the timing of the abdication and what immediately preceded it; and that, contrary to speculations that have become more lurid over time, Benedict’s concern about his increasingly frailty, which fuelled his concern that he would be increasingly unable to give the Church what she deserved from a pope, was the sole motive behind his decision to renounce the Oice of Peter – not Vatileaks, not concerns about financial and other corruptions inside the Leonine Wall, not blackmail.

Unanswered questions


Having known Joseph Ratzinger for almost thirty years, I have always been prepared to take him at his word on this, as I think any fair-minded observer who knows the pope emeritus for the honest man he is would have to do. Still, the account of Benedict XVI’s final years in voice in Last Testament leaves numerous questions unanswered.

Must the pope be at World  Youth Day in person?  Might  Benedict  not have sent some of the more compelling personalities in the College of Cardinals to represent him live in Rio de Janeiro, participating himself by video-link from Rome? Was  such  a scenario  ever considered? And if it wasn’t, what does that say in confirmation of Ratzinger’s own view – expressed before the con- clave that elected him pope in 2005 – that he was not a man whose strong suit was governance?


As for the somewhat chaotic condition in the Vatican in the latter years of the pontificate – not to mention the poor preparation for the 2012 pilgrimage to Mexico and Cuba, which seems to have had an impact far beyond the Caribbean – why did Pope Benedict not ind himself a more competent “prime minister” than Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whose record as Secretary of State the pope emeritus continues to defend in Last Testament: a defence that may be admirable as personal loyalty, but is inexplicable otherwise?

Does Benedict  XVI have any  regrets about his decision to live in a very private way as pope, absent from the wide range of contacts that kept John Paul II more informed about the world and the Church than was possible by depending solely on information from the Curia and the Vatican diplomatic service?

A short pontificate

When he knew at the outset that his would be a short pontificate – as he candidly admits in Last Testament – why did he not think this was the optimum moment to reform the structure of the Roman Curia, whose dysfunction he knew very well after twenty-some years of working in, with, and against it? In other words, why did he consciously decide not to clean house, and perhaps appoint people with real  governing skills to redesign the structure, so that his successor  could  start  a  fresh  with a better chance at getting the Vatican machinery to work more effectively in service to the New Evangelization? It is true, certainly, that the  preservation of the faith in its full integrity is the chief function  of  the  Voice  of  Peter; it is also true that it was precisely for that purpose that those who promoted Ratzinger’s candidacy in Conclave 2005 did so. But that still leaves unresolved the question of why Pope Benedict did not seize the opportunity presented by a short pontificate to effect real Curial reform.

Who was involved in, and what was the thinking behind, the decision to compound the historically unprecedented  nature of his abdication with the equally unprecedented  –  indeed,  unimagined– title of “Pope Emeritus”, and the distinctive, quasi-papal vesture Benedict adopted in his retirement? Was any consideration given to other possible arrangements (e.g, his reverting to being the archbishop-emeritus of Munich and Freising, perhaps re-enrolled by his successor in the College of Cardinals)? If there was, what was the theological and prudential reasoning that led him to adopt the style and self-presentation he did?


Post-Benedict turbulence

In the long run of Church history, what will be remembered about the pontificate of Benedict XVI is its luminous magisterium and powerful homiletics. (Does anyone seriously doubt that Benedict was the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great?) And what will be remembered about Joseph Ratzinger, thinker and author, is a body of work that bent the course of Catholic theology in a more richly biblical and patristic  direction. So the questions about Ratzinger’s capacity for governance will recede  into the background, and perhaps even be forgotten, in time. What will remain is what is far more important over the long haul: his brilliant restatement of classic Christian faith for late modernity and early post-modernity.

But given the post-Benedict turbulence in the Church, which begins to resemble the chaos of the post-conciliar 1970s that  Ratzinger  rightly  deplored  (and did much to repair), it would have been useful to get some clearer answers from Last Testament about the months  that led up to the papal transition of 2013 – and the reasons why things had come to such a state of affairs  before  Benedict XVI took the decision to step down.

 George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, where he holds the William E. Simon Cahir in Catholic Studies. His two-volume biography of Pope St John Paul II, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, has been translated into over a dozen languages.




Clarity on women and the priesthood

Without Precedent: Scripture, Tradition and the Ordination of Women, by Geofrey Kirk, Wipf and Stock, 162pp, £16.00.

Reviewed by Christina Read


“I suppose  we  just  did  not  see  it coming.” No, not another example of  post-Brexit  hand-wringing,   but the reflection of the  great  20th- century Anglican theologian Eric Mascall on the decision of the General Synod of the Church of England to admit women to ordination to the priesthood. Noting the lack of scholarly theological contribution to the debate at the time, in this book Geofrey Kirk comprehensively examines arguments proposed in favour of ordaining women and, in the words of Graham Leonard, finds “not yet a good one”. Well written and thorough, scholarly but accessible and engaging, on each point the investigation uncovers  no  precedent for the admission of women to the priesthood.

Feminist roots

Kirk begins by arguing that the roots of the feminist position lie in Enlightenment thinking incompatible with Christianity. This  consistent  point   of   reference puts him in agreement with the post- Christian   feminist   Daphne   Hampson who, after years of campaigning for women’s ordination, also concluded it was impossible to be a feminist and a Christian (although with rather different outcomes: Kirk affirming Christianity, Hampson leaving the Church).

Kirk then examines efforts to argue in favour of the ordination of women from Scripture and Tradition, exposing the sparseness of the proposed evidence and uncovering remarkable deficiencies in historical scholarship.

Jesus and women

Although  hesitant  about  the  wisdom of asking the question ‘What did Jesus really think about women?’, in a chapter of  that  name,  Kirk  demonstrates  the historical  absurdity  of  asking  whether Jesus was a feminist. Then, in the context of varying Christological perspectives in contemporary Scripture scholarship, he considers, one by one, Jesus’ encounters with women (although oddly Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is omitted from the list). Of    course,    a    difficulty    with    this approach is that the issue of sex is not important in some of these encounters.

In others  it does have some  relevance (e.g. the woman with a haemorrhage, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the  well).  However,  in  contrast  with some Church documents (pp. 17–18) and with traditionalists and many feminists (p. 31), Kirk argues that there is nothing distinctive about Jesus’ attitudes to women compared with those of his contemporaries (Kirk questioning the historicity of John 4:5-42, which describes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well).

Where does this lead? Is the question ‘What did Jesus think about women?’ really central to whether or not women can be ordained priests? The last page of this chapter brings us to an extraordinary question and answer: “Was Jesus a misogynist?... apart from the occasional harsh word to or about his mother, there is surely too little evidence in Jesus’ case to convict” (p. 47).

The apostles and St Paul

What about the sex of the twelve apostles? Kirk maintains they are necessarily male (and Jewish) because they are “a proleptic [anticipatory] symbol of the coming kingdom”, a divine reconstruction of the twelve tribes of Israel, founded on the twelve sons of Jacob; although he adds this does not preclude “the possibility that Jesus has other ends in mind . . . a church with Peter at its head and the twelve apostles as the foundation stones of its order and authority” (p. 43).

Kirk   goes   on   to   show   that   Paul’s attitude to women is not revolutionary either. Then, in a detailed analysis of a paragraph at the end of the letter to the Romans, he demolishes any hope given to the cause of women’s ordination by the brief reference to Junias (or Junia), clearly showing we cannot know with any certainty the sex of this member of the early church, nor his or her place in relation to the apostles.

The chapter “Magdalena Apostola” dismisses some fantastic extrapolations of the role of Mary of Magdala (yet some gesture toward an authentic treatment of this saint, whose feast day the universal church celebrates each year, would be welcome).

“Uncritical enthusiasm” for certain ancient works of art (photos of which are included) supposedly depicting  women as priests or bishops are also shown to amount to nothing. Ditto the Pope Joan story.

Wishful thinking

Kirk shows that looking at the past through Enlightenment-tinted spectacles has resulted in a lot of wishful thinking, some unrigorous scholarship and some plain deceit. At the end of the day, Kirk shows that it was not arguments from Scripture and Tradition that won the day at the General Synod but institutional concern about appearing relevant, so as to reverse decline, and a desire to correct a perceived injustice.

Kirk has done a great service in debunking a whole range of pseudo-scholarly lines of argument in one slim volume. A number of assumptions commonly accepted among Christians are shown to be of a very different ideological  provenance. The clarity with which he demonstrates this would be  hard  to  rival.  However, at times an approach that focuses on reiterating what women cannot do comes across as unduly negative (and this perception is heightened when, on occasion, Kirk’s witty style takes on a slightly dismissive tone). An indication of the bearing that Mariology, intrinsically related to Christology in the history of Christian theology, has upon the topic would be helpful.

The sexes and the Incarnation


The insights of Edward Holloway, founder of the Faith Movement, are important as regards the topic of this book. Only the briefest outline is possible here (see Fr Kevin Douglas’ article in FAITH Magazine Sept/Oct 2014 and the Editorial in March/ April 2009; also Edward Holloway’s: Holy Order and  Sexual  Order,  all  available free on the FAITH website). Building on the Pauline understanding of the male- female relationship in terms of the Christ-Church relationship, Holloway approaches the essential maleness of the priesthood from a consideration of the role that the two sexes have in the plan of God. Male and female exist for the sake of the Incarnation; they are created in their difference and complementarity with a view to bringing about the conception of God made man and in every aspect they ind their meaning and vocation here.


Dr Christina Read studied for her doctorate at King’s College, London. She is a member of the FAITH movement and lives with her husband and children in London.


How does Christianity fit in the public square?

Christians and the State: A Catholic Perspective for the 21st Century,

by John Duddington, Gracewing, 225pp, £12.99.

Reviewed by Nicholas Rimmer

John   Duddington   has   produced   a significant    amount    of     literature in recent years, providing seminal contributions to debates surrounding legal ethics and Christianity. His work typically focuses  on the intersection between law, religion  and  ethics within contemporary society, and as such, his  Christians and the State:  A Catholic Perspective for the 21st Century is a welcome addition to his existing scholarship,   broadening   the    scope of the discussion by framing it in the context of one central question: what is the role of Christianity  in contributing to key political and legal debates in the 21st century? In this important work, Duddington takes consideration of a number of key ethical issues that face our contemporary policy and law- makers, including marriage, abortion, euthanasia, reproductive science, and religious  conscience   and   freedoms. He endeavours to assert a core and important role for Christianity in shaping our ethical debates surrounding these issues, and deplores the contemporary perception that religion ought to play no part in contemporary political debates and discourse.

The core argument of the book seeks to reassert the role of Christianity as making a necessary contribution to the construction of ethics that underpin our society and culture, and by extension, our law-making and justice  system.  Taking as a starting point the speech of Pope Benedict XVI to the Houses of Parliament in 2010, Duddington echoes the view that Christianity ought not to be sidelined by law and policy-makers. Pope Benedict asserted that “religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation”. Duddington goes further in his discussion by grounding this assertion in conceptions of natural law and theology, and then by exploring the vital light that Christianity can bring to bear on some of these particular cases. In essence, Duddington attempts to liberate Christianity from the perception that religion is widely considered inimical to reason, and therefore cannot operate as part of the rational, secular sphere of law and politics.


The reasoned pursuit of objective reality

In order to deconstruct this widely-held perception, Duddington employs natural law theory to demonstrate the way in which Christianity should be considered as a contributor in a reasoned, ethical approach. For him, natural law is grounded in reason, and asserts an ‘objective reality’ that must be discovered by reasoned pursuit. Christianity, according to Duddington, and in particular, the Catholic tradition, can serve to help illuminate the fundamental moral and ethical framework that governs the universal laws of justice. Reason can lead to the discovery of moral universals and norms, and as such, reason and morality should not be separated in our processes of law and decision- making. For Duddington, therefore, the moral order upon which the universe is founded exists as an objective reality, and this morality cannot be culturally relativized or culturally constructed within different human societies. It is from this conceptual and intellectual basis that he is able to make the claim that Christianity should play a central role in law and politics. Christianity’s role, in this regard, is to help to shed light on the moral order that governs nature and the world, in order that this moral order may be used to shape policy, law and ethical consensus.

Having established his  core argument, and its foundations in natural law  theory,   Duddington  proceeds   to a series of practical discussions of the way in which Christianity can be mobilised in order to shed light on difficult contemporary political issues. He discusses modern conceptions of human dignity, a core refrain in human rights law, and uses this concept to argue that Christian ethics are fundamentally compatible with contemporary human rights theory. Following Aquinas, Dudd-ington argues that certain acts are considered intrinsically evil, as they contravene Christian natural law, which for Duddington, is articulated through a discourse of common good and individual dignity. By framing Christian natural law in this way, and emphasising the universality of certain objective ‘goods’, Duddington demonstrates that reasoned argument and Christian ethics are compatible, and indeed, when the state passes laws or judgements that appear to be contrary to natural law, Christianity can play an important role by acting as a moral framework to hold the state to account.

Conscience and moral universals

Duddington also provides discussion of the issue of conscience in contemporary society, citing a number of high-proile cases in which the state has intervened on issues of religious conscience and human rights. He argues that the notion of conscience is too often confused with ‘opinion’ in our contemporary discourse, and that as a result, new methods of accommodating   conscientious   objection need to be developed. Most significantly, Duddington argues against the charge that permitting an increasing role for religion in the legal and political (i.e., public) spheres would necessitate the imposition of one system of belief upon another, by re-emphasising the argument that Christianity does not serve to generate a moral code, but rather provides a vehicle through which it may be discovered.  These moral universals may also be discovered through reason, and Duddington, using the example of euthanasia, demonstrates this within the text.

Duddington’s work provides an important   and   timely   intervention on the role of Christianity within contemporary political and legal dis- courses. Duddington  expertly  justifies his arguments with recourse to natural law theory, and grounds his discussion in a series of specific examples that render  his   arguments   accessible   to a broad audience. As such, this work ofers an important contribution to present debates surrounding the role of Christianity in the contemporary public sphere.

 Nicholas Rimmer is a London-based District Judge, church reader and volunteer with the global charity ‘Lawyers Without Borders’.

Fake History

Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History,

by Rodney Stark, Templeton Press, 256pp, £14.99.

Reviewed by Jane Critten


“Mummy,  I  spent  this  afternoon trying   not   to   listen   to   the teacher.” “Why was that, Sweetie?” “She said that we’d come to the point in our science topic [evolution] when we had to choose between believing the science and believing in God.”

I wish I’d made that up, but I’m afraid our eldest and I had that conversation ive years ago, here in Somerset. I was amazed that anyone could think we believe that fossils are ‘put there by God to test our faith’ and wondered what other nonsense our children might be taught at school. We set about teaching our eldest how her faith is compatible with science and hoped that would be the last time she would encounter such a misrepresentation.

Non-Catholic credentials

However, if Bearing False Witness is anything to go by, there are many more widely-held misconceptions out there, and Rodney Stark has taken it upon himself to set the historical record straight. The very fact that this book exists at all is encouraging, not least of all  because  of  Stark’s  own  position:  “I am not a Roman Catholic, and I did not write this book in defence of the Church. I wrote it in defence of history” (p.6). Stark is best-selling author of The Rise of Christianity, co-director of  the  Institute for Studies of Religion and professor of the social sciences at Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist University. His lack of Catholic credentials  ensures  his  book is not dismissed as “a work of special pleading” (p.231).

The book is simply structured a- round the  exposition   and  refutation of ten statements which, in Stark’s experience, are “part of the common culture, widely accepted and frequently repeated” (p.5). Stark invites the reader to “consider whether you believe any of the following statements…” (p.4) which include: claims of anti-semitism; the Church’s suppression of ‘new Christian Gospels’ and of scientists; persecution of pagans; the ‘blood bath’ of the Spanish Inquisition; and the  Church’s  support of slavery. Even if you do not believe any of these myths from the beginning, Bearing False Witness can be a handy tool with which to counter these myths if you hear them from the mouths of others.

Distinguished historians

Stark  draws  clear  distinctions  between myth-peddling historians (or “distinguished bigots,” p.4) and those whom he considers to be trustworthy. These   latter   are   easily    recognised by accolades such as “the revered historian…” (p.21); “the distinguished…” (pp.63, 139, 174) or “the prolific…” (p.139). They are further highlighted through short biographies in each chapter. Presumably Stark did this to bolster the authority of those whose views he  is  advocating,  but  personally I could do without knowing that, for example, “Gerald Strauss (1922–2006) was distinguished professor of history at the University of Indiana… a fine cellist [who] played in amateur string quartets” (p.215).

I found Stark’s frequent reference to the opinion of so many other historians less convincing than he’d perhaps hoped. I’m much happier to read primary sources as evidence (even though the choice of excerpts lies with the author), as I find this more convincing and usually more entertaining.

Primary souces

Stark makes brilliant use of primary sources, for example, when pointing out that “a major reason pilgrimages were so common was because the knights of Europe were both very violent and very religious”.  He  irst  tells  the  anecdote of the most notorious pilgrim, Fulk III, Count  of  Anjou,  who  accumulated  as penances no less than four pilgrimages to the Holy Land (no spoilers from me, but Stark concludes that maybe that was “far too few” p.104). He then contrasts Fulk III with the Burgundian Stephen I of Neublans, who justified  his  decision to travel thus: “Considering how many are my sins and the love, clemency and mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ, because when he was rich he became poor for our sake, I have determined to  repay him in some measure  for  everything he has given me freely, although I am unworthy. And so I have decided to go to Jerusalem, where God was seen as man and spoke with men and to adore the place where his feet trod” (p.104-5) These examples bring the characters – and by extension, their history – to life.

In contrast, later in the same chapter, Stark tells us that “even  at  the  time they took place, Muslim chroniclers paid very little attention to the Crusades, regarding them as invasions by a primitive, unlearned, impoverished and un-Muslim people” (p.113). I would have loved to read a quotation from those Muslim chroniclers! I might then have been able to argue this point with someone, saying “Ah, but did you know that at the time of the Crusades, the Muslim chroniclers wrote…” but alas, all I can do is say, “Rodney Stark wrote that Edward Peters wrote that…”

Myths debunked

On the  whole,  Bearing  False  Witness  is a valuable read if you, or someone you know, has been lumbered with an anti- Catholic perspective of history. Each myth is successfully and convincingly debunked. As I  drew  to  the  end  of the book,  I  found  myself  musing  that if Templeton Press could  produce  a sister volume that deals with debunking present-day myths about the Catholic Church (false perceptions of the Church as homophobic or misogynistic, for ex- ample), the two volumes could together help ensure that accurate history will be taught to our children in the future.

Jane Critten has a MA in Mediaeval History from the University of St Andrews.  She lives in Somerset with her husband and five children.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2017