Pope Benedict’s New Testament

Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church is making a vibrant  and intellectually rigorous contribution to modern society

Critique Modern Life The Catholic Church

Captivated audience: Pope Benedict XVI on his recent visit to London (PA) 

Eleanor goes to Mass most days. Every day, really, but she feels a little guilty — almost as though it doesn’t count — when she misses the early morning service and has to sneak away from her co-workers to make the noon Mass at St Vincent de Paul’s on West 23rd.

That’s Fr Gerald Murray’s parish, there in the canyons of Manhattan, its 1930s stone façade pushed out to join the line of the buildings on either side, as flat against the sidewalk as a storefront. No portico, no entryway, no playground, no churchyard: this is a building grimly determined to march out and grab for sacred purposes every inch the freehold and the zoning laws of New York allow.

St Vincent’s was a French-speaking parish, once upon a time. Back in the days when the French still went to church. Back in the days when the city needed daily Mass for its transient Parisians and United Nations staff. The main Sunday service is still in French — a few dozen Francophone African immigrants in the pews — but the archdiocese has vague plans to close the parish down. They were active plans, in fact, before a new archbishop, a lot more sympathetic to Fr Murray’s conservatism and pro-life activism, was installed in 2009.

Anyway, Eleanor follows all this stuff: the ins and outs of diocesan politics, the preachers who can be counted upon to deliver orthodox homilies, the priests who can be trusted to perform a Mass with solemnity, significance, and some gesture toward beauty. She’d go to Our Saviour over on Park Avenue for the sermons of Fr George Rutler — now there’s a priest who can be trusted — but it’s another 15 blocks uptown and clear over on the east side, and she doesn’t have time to make the journey there and back in the lunch hour.

So she slips out of the publishing house where she works, copy-editing cookbooks and self-help manuals and the kind of small-print puzzle books that turn proofreaders prematurely grey, to walk through the bustle of Chelsea and sit in Fr Murray’s quiet pews before Mass, reading John Paul II’s writings on the theology of the body or Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth — reading something serious, for that’s what she is: a mildly pretty 23-year-old, a convert to Catholicism while she was an undergraduate studying at the Ivy League college of Dartmouth, and a woman of deep seriousness. 

Almost mad seriousness, in truth. She’s not particularly fastidious in her morality, or, at least, Catholic morality was not the main path for her conversion. It was more  the derived effect of her intellectual alteration, for that’s where her seriousness really lies: a smart young woman who dresses fairly well, who goes to the city’s concerts and shows, who meets men and wonders about marriage, who drinks a little and sneaks a cigarette sometimes with her friends, who works long hours in New York City, and who demands that this world — the universe, creation, life, truth, beauty — makes sense. Who demands that things cohere.

Perhaps this is the best way to make sense of someone like Eleanor. In the public realm of the modern world, the Catholic form of Christianity has come to play a curious role — as though, while Christianity is a faith, Catholicism is an idea. There are a surprising number of these intellectual Catholics out there. That young man Franciszek, for instance: the Polish boy Eleanor met at a conference on religious liberty and thought it might turn into something, but he went back and entered the seminary in Kraków, after all. Or Peter, who converted at Oxford and who, for John Henry Newman’s sake, treks on foot every Sunday from the British Museum to the Brompton Oratory for High Mass.

Or the young classicist Sister John Paul, who gave up her PhD scholarship at the University of Chicago to enter a teaching order in Rome. Or the political theory student Mary Frances, or the aspiring art critic Santiago, or innumerable others. Their faith is real, but that’s just the Christianity part. The Catholicism part is the idea, the coherence that comes from two millennia of working out the philosophical and theological of that faith, with a large set of social, political, and moral consequences.

And that’s what irritates and frightens the hell out of the powers of the world: the newspaper editors and the college professors and the political activists, all of religion’s cultured despisers, all the people who think they have this modern world wired. Faith they can deal with: an illogical remnant of bygone ages, to be admired in other cultures and mocked in our own. But an idea, that’s a problem. An idea can change the world. 

When the European press deluged the world in 2010 with reporting on priestly crimes, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s, the lesson was not just that members of the Church had done great wrong. Lord knows, they had. But most Catholics understood that something in the modern world hates the sheer idea of Catholicism — the alternative and the indictment it poses. Indeed, the feeling that Catholics have is one of being under constant attack, as though someone had declared “Ecclesia delenda est.”

The curious thing is that neither the beleaguered Catholic faithful nor the anxious rejecters of religion are wrong exactly. The public battles over Catholicism during the 50 years since Vatican II have all been finally a clash of ideas about the modern world — and each side, the Catholic and the anti-Catholic, is death to the other. That’s what George Weigel shows in The End and the Beginning (Doubleday, $32.50), the final volume of his magisterial biography of John Paul II. During the Cold War, the Soviets had long been suspicious of Karol Wojtyla, but after his election as pope, Weigel notes, they saw clearly he was “a moral threat to the communist position in central and eastern Europe, to the communist project throughout the Third World, and indeed to the very survival of communism itself.”

John Paul was a philosopher, by training, and Benedict is a theologian — a serious, world-class academic — and though they differ greatly in the personality of their papacies and the focus of their interests, they share something that Pius XII, John XIII, Paul VI, and even the short-lived John Paul I lacked. The four popes from 1939 to 1978 were all fundamentally churchmen: public intellectuals and commentators, yes, but, at root, they were all trained as bureaucrats for the Church. The two popes since were both people who thought first in terms of ideas. They were, in essence, intellectuals, acting on a world stage. They didn’t create the Catholic idea, of course, and neither did they bring into existence the intellectual role that Catholicism is playing today in public debates. It was, rather, a case of the times finding the men it required. 

Or better still, a case of providence: the Holy Spirit guiding the Roman conclave to elect the popes this world most needed.

Of course, the intellectualism is of a particular, studied kind — a deliberate attempt to reintegrate the divided worlds of faith and modern critical thought. You can see it in the entire life of John Paul, whose greatest work may prove to be his reintegration of the Second Vatican Council into the history of the Catholic Church. Too many Catholics — back in the days when he became pope in 1978 — imagined that Vatican II represented a radical break with the past. Some of them wept, and some of them cheered, but whether they were traditionalists on the far Right or spirit-of-Vatican-II types on the far Left, they all seemed to believe that the new Church was no longer in direct continuity with the old Church.

Part of John Paul’s success came simply from the fact that he was able to be a Vatican II Catholic, while drawing deeply on the wells of ancient faith. Remember when the new Catechism of the Catholic Church was completed back in 1992? There were those who insisted that Vatican II had produced only such systematic heresy that no catechism was possible, and there were those who insisted that the whole idea of a systematic statement of doctrine and morals had been abolished by the changes in the Church. But John Paul insisted that this new Catechism was possible precisely because the Church remained one in essence with its past — indeed, that the Catechism was indispensable “in order that all the richness of the teaching of the Church following the Second Vatican Council could be preserved in a new synthesis and be given a new direction.”

A precise parallel is what Benedict XVI is trying to achieve with his new book. In 2007, he published Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, the first volume in his investigation of the biblical account of the life of Jesus. And now he has added the second volume, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (Catholic Truth Society, £14.95) — to a very curious reception. If the first volume produced what the pope himself called a “predictable variety of reactions,” the new volume is already doing much the same.

News reports have concentrated on the flashy but mostly incidental moments in the text. Where the pope rejects the idea that Jesus was a revolutionary, aiming at the political overthrow of Jerusalem’s Roman overlords, for example. Or the passage which seems to gesture at Islamist terrorism: “The cruel consequences of religiously motivated violence are only too evident to us all,” he notes. “Violence does not build up the kingdom of God, the kingdom of humanity. On the contrary, it is a favourite instrument of the Antichrist, however idealistic its religious motivation may be.” Indeed, “It serves, not humanity, but inhumanity.”

Some attention has been paid to the passage where Benedict discusses the need for Christians to “visibly” unite — the Mormon Church’s Deseret News calling it “a veiled call for other Christians to convert to Catholicism”. And then there’s all the notice given to the parts of the book where Benedict affirms the teaching of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) in rejecting the notion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Indeed, in the first instance, “the circle of accusers who instigate Jesus’s death is precisely indicated in the Fourth Gospel and clearly limited: it is the Temple aristocracy.” And then, in the Gospel of Mark:

The circle of accusers is broadened in the context of the Passover amnesty (Barabbas or Jesus): the “ochlos” enters the scene and opts for the release of Barabbas. “Ochlos” in the first instance simply means a crowd of people, the “masses.” The word frequently has a pejorative connotation, meaning “mob.” In any event, it does not refer to the Jewish people as such […] Effectively this “crowd” is made up of the followers of Barabbas who have been mobilised to secure the amnesty for him: as a rebel against Roman power he could naturally count on a good number of supporters. So the Barabbas party, the “crowd,” was conspicuous while the followers of Jesus remained hidden out of fear; this meant that the vox populi, on which Roman law was built, was represented one-sidedly. In Mark’s account, then, as well as “the Jews,” that is to say the dominant priestly circle, the ochlos comes into play, the circle of Barabbas’s supporters, but not the Jewish people as such.

All of this is interesting, of course, but the real effect of this second part of Jesus of Nazareth lies in the technique the pope employs. The pious readers seem to have a little trouble with the scholarly tone of the book, and the scholarly readers have loudly proclaimed their distaste for the pious tone of the book. In the Guardian, for instance, Geza Vermes, professor emeritus of Jewish studies at Oxford, sniffs, “The pope’s treatment of ‘the figure and the words of the Lord’ consists of mountains of pious and largely familiar musings. He provides unquestioning Christians with plenty of solace.” And as for the former Professor Ratzinger’s scholarship, well: “Gospel experts [. . .] may note with pleasure that 200 years of labour has not been in vain and that small fragments of New Testament criticism seem to have penetrated the mighty stronghold of traditional Christianity.”

All that comes to, in the end, is proof that Vermes is still mired in the 1970s. It’s the pope who has successfully managed to move on. It’s Benedict XVI who has succeeded in marrying what the 1970s thought impossible: biblical faith and biblical scholarship. He has mastered and now presents to the world the technique of reading with the tradition of the Church. It’s the historical-critical method, without the pseudo-scientific suspicion that was once thought to be the vital core of the discipline. In fact, such suspicion proved a dead end for much theological work — a false light that led to nowhere. 

Benedict will win no prizes for his prose, but he carries the brighter lantern, and he’s leading the reader toward a place where the work of scholarship and the truth of faith are not defined as oppositional. Watch, for instance, how he turns around the discussion of the Jews that has received so many news reports. “When in Matthew’s account the ‘whole people’ say: “his blood be on us and on our children’ (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’s blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all.”

When read in the light of faith, Matthew means that “we all stand in the need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

John Paul II was always two steps ahead of his critics, escaping the rigid either-or categories into which they tried to push him by finding the new both-and possibilities that come from integrating Vatican II into the long tradition of the Church. Which is precisely what Benedict XVI is up to in his writing. Jesus of Nazareth is a promise that the intellectual life is not divorced from the life of faith and the scholarly pursuit is not the enemy of piety. It’s an idea, in the end — a claim that God exists, that Christ is real, and thus that the world makes a kind of unified sense. That, as young Eleanor so devoutly wishes, things really do cohere.

One sometimes wishes the Vatican itself would get the news of what this pope is doing. From the ginned-up Muslim reaction to a scholarly passage in Benedict’s 2006 Regensberg lecture to the 2010 reporting on the priest scandals, the Vatican bureaucracy has lurched from one mismanaged crisis to another. Perhaps there was some benefit to the old style of pope, who understood how to rule. Neither the last pope nor this one qualify as even vaguely competent managers for the bureaucratic side of the job. 

Of course, John Paul II had an alternative: jetting back and forth around the world, his personal magnetism served as a kind of quasi-Vatican. Simply by the sheer star power of his personality, he carried Catholicism forward. Benedict has proved quite charming in his public appearances, but it is a quieter sort of charm, more a twinkle than a blaze. And when combined with his age (84 this month), his much more retiring nature, and his scholarly interest, he lacks the resources that John Paul II had for projecting his vision before the public eye.

That’s what makes a book like Jesus of Nazareth so important: this is where Benedict is doing his work. The book is the equivalent of John Paul II’s personal appearances, teaching the new vision of a Church in which the best of the modern joins without contradiction the best of the past — all in order to offer the world an idea. A coherent alternative.

From the perspective of Eleanor, sitting in the pews of St Vincent de Paul’s parish, waiting for the noon Mass to begin, it’s all the better that the result is exactly what she loves: a book. A pious thing to read. A smart thing to read.