The fascination of this biography, by a German journalist who has interviewed him for two decades, is its evidence for the courage that enabled him to give up the leadership of 1.2 billion Catholics. This first volume (a second due next year), full of detail, doesn’t even reach his becoming a cardinal, let alone pope. Its peculiar interest derives from Ratzinger’s dates and country.
Born in 1927 in Marktl, Bavaria, near to nowhere much, apart from the Austrian border, he grew in years as Hitler grew in power. By 1937, his father, a rural policeman who hated everything Hitler stood for, retired the moment he could, aged 60. The family moved to a leaky old farmhouse in the village of Hufschlag (“hoofbeat”), further south, outside Traunstein.
Being the most distinguished thinker at the Church’s helm in many centuries, Ratzinger has a good story to tell. In outline it runs like this. Science is vital, but the human quest for understanding will never be exhausted by mapping the physical world alone. It isn’t reasonable to suppose that only reason viewed in one narrow way discloses truth to us: a rounded quest for meaning will always include the moral and the aesthetic, while also being open to the numinous. Religion is not on the way out. Instead of resisting a thirst for transcendence, we should focus on how to live with it in ways that promote our flourishing.