Book Review: Benedict of Bavaria

I picked up this book after hearing an interview with the author on Catholic Answers Live. (Listen to the interview online.) By way of coincidence, the author Brennan Pursell is a professor at DeSales University in Allentown, run by the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales, who also run the best damn high school around. Oh, and while I’m on the subject of my high school: St. Mark’s sucks!

The point of this book is to draw a picture of Pope Benedict XVI not just as a theologian or a Bishop, but as a Bavarian. It does an excellent job of showing how growing up in Bavaria impacted the Pope’s life making him the person he is today. By the accounts of all who actually know him, he is a gentle, humble kind man who tries to lead and persuade, rather than impose his will as some stereotypes would have it. It should hardly need to be done, but Pursell takes the time to deflate the myths of the “Panzer Cardinal,” claims that Benedict was a Nazi who shot down American planes, or that he’s a hardliner who crushes all questioning on theological topics. He shows the falsity of all of those claims with specific examples from Benedict’s life.

He also provides an introduction to Benedict’s theological thought and beliefs which serves as an interesting starting point for learning more about his approach to Christianity. An interesting note: his thesis was rejected the first time it was presented due to his contradiction of the beliefs of a member of the board presenting it, and a poor typing job. He was given the opportunity to revise it and re-present it, only to have the board turn on each other debating his central arguments. He was, of course, ultimately allowed to pass. History could have taken a much different path had he been rejected again.

One thing I had read a while back, but forgotten, that the book brings out is that Bavarians do not really consider themselves German. Having had independence from greater Germany for much of history, they don’t feel as as strong a connection with the rest of the nation. (Religious difference likely exacerbate this: Bavaria tends to be very Catholic, especially when compared to the Protestantism of much of the rest of Germany.) Bavaria was one of the most anti-Hitler regions of Germany, as it wasn’t until Hitler was given dictatorial powers that there was much of a Nazi presence in Bavaria, and even then it tended to be “softer” than in the rest of Germany, while still quite deadly to those who openly opposed Hitler, and there were quite a few Bavarians who met their end this way.

This book serves as both a useful introduction to Pope’s theological views and his many theological books and a reminder that we can’t understand the person Joseph Ratzinger if we think of him as German. He’s not: he’s Bavarian as this book amply shows and explains. It’s a great way to get to know our “German Shepherd.”

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