Pope Benedict XVI

Two reviews of his latest book plus a review of two earlier books

Jesus of Nazareth

By A. N. Wilson
The Sunday Times, May 20, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Jesus of Nazareth
By Pope Benedict XVI

From the supposed "Rottweiler Pope" comes this gentle exposition of a simple idea: namely, that the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are one and the same, and that faith in Jesus Christ is reasonable. The Pope's book is, he writes, a personal search for "the face of the Lord".

The first scholars to dare investigate the historical Jesus came up with the idea, originating in Germany in the 19th century, that the Jesus of the Gospels was "not yet the Christ". They claimed it was only later theology that made him the Christ. Ratzinger, by contrast, sets out in this book to demonstrate that the central contention of the Catholic faith — Jesus was both God and man — was told to the disciples by the Man of Nazareth himself.

Nobody has ever offered a completely convincing explanation of Christian origins. Surveying the extraordinary and life-changing nature of the material in the written Gospels, the author of this book rejects the idea that it came out of the collective consciousness of a nascent church. Another theory, the one preferred by our author, is that Jesus himself preached about his unique relationship with the father because he was what Catholicism says he is, true God and true Man.

The Pope defines the word Gospel as "not just informative speech, but performative — not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters the world to save and transform".

There is a dogged impressiveness about the Pope's exposition of scene after scene from the Gospel, a reading that finds it more logical to worship the Christ of Faith in the Gospels than to invent the vestiges of some Jewish prophet who had his words distorted by some later theological genius.

Jesus of Nazareth

By Geza Vermes
The Times, May 19, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Jesus of Nazareth
By Pope Benedict XVI

Blind faith in the literal truth of the Gospels ended, and enlightenment began, in the late 1800s. For more than a century, the German liberal Protestant practitioners of the "quest for the historical Jesus" engaged in the analysis of the Gospels qua ancient religious texts. Their search produced two diametrically opposite portraits: Jesus, the liberal teacher of exalted Jewish morality, and Jesus, the herald of the imminent catastrophic onset of a new world, the Kingdom of God.

After the First World War, Gospel research restarted under the inspiration of the German school founded by Rudolf Bultmann. He believed that the study of "the life and personality of Jesus" was doomed because the earliest Christian sources were interested only in the faith of the church. Around 1950, a new attempt to retrieve Jesus was launched in Germany by Bultmann's pupils. The second quest went on for some 20 years without much success. It coincided with the years of Joseph Ratzinger's theological studies.

The 1970s and 1980s introduced the third quest. By then, the dominance of German professors came to an end. They were replaced by British and American scholars concerned with the discovery, partly associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Jewish Jesus. The literary landmarks of the new era were Jesus the Jew (1973) by your reviewer and Jesus and Judaism (1986) by E. P. Sanders, both professors at Oxford.

Turning to the Pope's book, its ten chapters cover the career of Jesus from his baptism to Peter's confession and the Transfiguration, with full chapters assigned to the gospel of the Kingdom, the sermon on the mount, the Lord's prayer, the parables, images in John's Gospel and a few titles of Jesus. It is a haphazard mixture of life and doctrine. The Pope obeyed the rules of historical criticism only if they confirmed his traditional convictions.

For a scholarly critic, one of the most disturbing aspects of the book is the absence of reference to texts that in some way contradict Benedict's cherished beliefs. For instance, he finds in the Gospels scores of allusions to the divinity of Christ. Yet, try as you may, nowhere will you read in this "Gospel according to Benedict" that Jesus refused to accept the title "Good Master" on the grounds that it would implicitly suggest that he possessed a divine quality.

I must protest against the reiterated papal claim that the divine Christ of faith — the product of his musings — and the historical Jesus — the Galilean itinerant healer, exorcist and preacher — are one and the same. In the absence of a stringent linguistic, literary and historical analysis of the Gospels, especially of their many contradictory statements, the identification is without foundation.

Conscience and Reason

By Jeremy Lott
The Washington Times, May 19, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

On Conscience
By Joseph Ratzinger

The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion
By Joseph Ratzinger

On Conscience collects two talks that Cardinal Ratzinger delivered to American bishops at the National Catholic Bioethics center in 1984 and 1991. In both speeches, he tried to address an error that he perceived in how we think about conscience. The existing model, he argued, was to view conscience as "the bulwark of freedom in contrast to the encroachments of authority on existence."

Cardinal Ratzinger told the bishops about a faculty discussion from when he was a university professor in Germany. One professor created a reductio ad absurdum using Nazi true believers. If we should follow our conscience above all else, he said, then we "should seek them in heaven, since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience."

"Since that conversation," Cardinal Ratzinger explained, "I knew with complete certainty that ... a concept of conscience that leads to such results must be false. Firm, subjective conviction and the lack of doubts and scruples that follow from it do not justify man."

He went looking for a conception of conscience that didn't pit the morality of conscience against the morality of authority. Finally, he decided that conscience has to work like language, from both within and without. One has the innate ability to speak, but it has to be learned by observation, imitation and interaction with others. So it is with conscience: If one thinks of it as only an interior, almost occult, guide to life, he is likely to go badly wrong.

The Dialectics of Secularization records an exchange between German philosopher and neo-Marxist Jurgen Habermas and Cardinal Ratzinge at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria in January 2004.

Habermas: "In my view, 'weak' suppositions about the normative contents of the communicative constitution of socio-cultural forms of life suffice to defend a non-decisionist concept of the validity of law both against the contextualism of a non-defeatist concept of reason and against legal positivism."

Cardinal Ratzinger came out ahead in the exchange, but only because the audience could understand him. When speaking about universal human rights, Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that "Islam has defined its own catalogue of human rights, which differs from the Western catalogue." And China "is asking whether 'human rights' are merely a typically Western invention."

AR  (2007) The pope is a good thinker. If it were not very unlikely for practical reasons, I could imagine enjoying a serious conversation with him.