“Jesus’ teaching is not the product of human learning, of whatever kind. It originated from immediate contact with the Father, from ‘face-to-face’ dialogue—from the one who rests close to the Father’s heart. It is the Son’s word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume I (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 7.
“The mystery, which has been hidden through all ages and from all generations, is now revealed to us.”
— Post-Epiphany Antiphon, Breviary, Mid-morning Prayer.
“The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narrative are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse. Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted. And thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. III (New York: Image, 2012), 119.
With the 2012 publication of The Infancy Narratives, the Holy Father’s account of Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, is complete. The slim third volume of the trilogy covers the Gospel accounts of the birth of Christ in Matthew and Luke. The Birth of Christ is placed within the historical setting of His time, but also within the Jewish background, as well as within the philosophical and cosmological significance of what such a birth means. No one could grasp the full scope of the incarnational event without averring to all the elements that serve to explain the meaning of its reality.
Much of the world is desperately trying to maintain that the evidence for the fact that Christ is God incarnate in this world is not true or intelligible. This dogmatic assumption of the “un-truth” of who Jesus is occurs in order to justify its rejection of Him. This rationalization allows the world to live as it wishes with a clear conscience, or so it thinks. It need not take seriously the cogency of the truth of Christ’s claim. The pope calmly follows the evidence and the reasoning. The fact is, as he shows, that Christ is who He said He was.
In a recent address to the International Theological Commission (December 7, 2012), Benedict spoke of the “prejudice” that argues that “religions—and in particular the monotheistic religions—are intrinsically vehicles of violence, especially because they claim the existence of a universal truth. Some consider that this ‘polytheism of values’ alone would guarantee tolerance and civil peace and would and would be in conformity with the spirit of pluralistic democratic society.”
The net effect of such a view, of course, necessarily means that religion cannot be true and therefore has no place in any public order. This view usually leaves the state in charge with no limit on itself caused by any truth or anything outside its own control. To this self-enclosed view, Benedict responds that “faith in the one God, Creator of heaven and earth, encounters the rational needs for metaphysical reflection, which is not weakened but strengthened and deepened by the Revelation of the mystery of the God-Trinity. …The form that the definitive Revelation of the mystery of the one God assumes (lies) in the life and death of Jesus Christ….”
Two things are said here that cast light on the whole thesis of Jesus of Nazareth. The first element is, to recall what is likewise found in “The Regensburg Lecture,” that revelation of the Trinity is itself directed to metaphysics, in its efforts to know what it can by man’s own powers. The second point is that this Revelation that is addressed to reason is not just any old religion but a specific one, the one that revolves around the life and death of Christ. Every religion may contain some aspect of truth, but no other one reveals Christ, the actual Son of God, to us.
It is because of the nature and understanding of who Christ is in His complete being, man and God, that Revelation addresses itself to reason and does not bypass it. The dogmatic modern (and ancient) view that all religions are false cannot account for the one revelation that is true. Indeed, it seeks to avoid ever having to deal with the evidence that it is. And this truth is what Christianity says it is designed to maintain in the world. It is not presented in any arrogant or haughty fashion. It reports what it has heard and understood from Christ about the Father within the Trinity.
Here, I do not propose to “review” this last book of the trilogy. Previously I have commented on the first two volumes (see here and here and here and here). But I would like to reflect on the significance of the pope’s whole presentation of the life of Christ. It is a remarkable achievement. The work, no doubt, represents a lifetime of study and reflection, as well as of controversy and dialogue.
This whole text was written by a man with the busiest kind of life. It attests to the results that can accrue when a disciplined man sets aside time to do a work that he considers important over and beyond what might be considered his “normal” business, though surely a pope telling us who Christ is must be the “normal” purpose of the Petrine office that he holds. Had Benedict not bothered to write these volumes on Christ, no one would have noticed or thought that he was neglecting his duties either as Prefect of a Roman Congregation or as Pope. The volumes represent the product of scholarly abundance and of the love of a wisdom that needs to be expressed.
First of all, these three volumes are eminently scholarly, yet readable and intelligible. Any one, believer or not, should certainly have them in his library. One does not have to be an academic to understand them. Indeed, one suspects that academics may be the last to grasp what the pope is doing here. He is, in a sense, bypassing the whole world of academia by going right through it. Academics lose much of their aura of autonomy when one of the greatest of academics of any time time is also the pope who explains how things fit together, things that the same academics often wrote and taught did not so fit together.
If we can say that there was such a thing as a “John Paul II Revolution,” it would be that for a quarter of a century one of the most dynamic, manly, intelligent, well-loved, and noble of men was in the Chair of Peter. John Paul II was seen perhaps by more human beings than any man who ever existed. He died in public, as if to say that it was all right to die, something that his successor, Benedict, well explained in Spe Salvi. John Paul was a figure transcending his office by clearly revealing what it was. No one could be indifferent to him; few wanted to be. He could be classified as a unique personality the likes of which would not come again.
Benedict is a different sort. John Paul himself was a major intellect, though that did not seem the most important thing about him. It does seem to be the most important thing about Benedict. Cardinal von Schönborn once remarked that Aquinas was the only man in the history of the Church who was canonized only for thinking. Benedict falls in this tradition, along with Newman, whom Benedict beatified.
Any claim that Catholicism cannot be “true” must stand the test of Benedict’s mind. And when anyone avoids it, he discovers that Benedict has already thought through the veracity of the claim that Catholicism is not true. We see this irony worked out again and again in the volumes of Jesus of Nazareth.
We underestimate the importance of mind to Catholicism. Catholicism is not just another “religion.” It is not, in fact, a natural religion at all. It is a religion, if we want to call it that, the content and origins of which are not human, though, through the Incarnation, it is fully human and stands for what the human, at its best, ought to be. Benedict did not write these volumes as official Catholic doctrine. He had something else in mind. He did publish them under both his name, Joseph Ratzinger, and as Pope Benedict XVI. He wanted to answer the question of what does a pope himself really hold and believe—and why. His answer was that he does hold and believe that Christ was the Son of God incarnate who did dwell among us in Palestine during the time of the early Roman empire.
Now, why would Benedict hold this position? The answer is because this is what is handed down and what the faith teaches. But also it corresponds with the historical and philosophical evidence and facts. These volumes spell out this evidence. Benedict is aware of the long history of scholarship that has tried to argue for a view of Christ that would doubt His existence or that he was nothing but a man or that he was the product of the imagination of the early disciples.
What Benedict shows, I think, is that the arguments against the veracity of revelation as it is presented in Catholicism are intelligible and subject to examination. He reveals that Thomistic side of him that first seeks to state accurately the position against his view. He is not trying to hide, but to find, any argument that Catholics refuse to consider against their view. In every case, he presents a plausible and cogent position about incidents in the life of Christ, about what His teaching meant, and about how the Church understood these matters over the ages. He concludes by affirming that what the Church teaches now is what was taught by the Apostles. But we now see many things drawn out and developed that are implicit in the original revelation and were in fact intended to be drawn out by the Church in its actual living throughout the centuries.
Thus, if there is anything “scandalous” about Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth it is, in this world of skeptical democratic pluralism and diversity, the firm claim that what Christ said of Himself is true and that this truth and the living that accords with it is, in fact, what is the purpose of the Church in our or any time and what is most needed by men even for their own temporal good. But Benedict is also most insistent that men are given free will and that God’s plan for men includes the possibility of God’s revelation being freely rejected with all the consequences for the individual person and for society that the rejection of truth implies.
Looked at from this angle, Benedict’s book is presented as something to be calmly read and reflected upon. We have here no “threats” of hell or condemnations, but we do have a faithful presentation of what Christ Himself implied about those who did freely reject Him. But we also have, as it were, a “feast of intellect,” a magisterial presentation of how things do fit together about the most important issue in any person’s life—“Was Christ who He said He was?” When we put down the last of these volumes, we suspect that since He was who He said He was, our lives and our world are disordered to the extent that they reject the truth that is also the way and the life.