With its English-language release on May 15, North American readers will encounter for themselves the full novelty of Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth.
At some 350 pages of closely-printed text in the English edition, it will require extended and serious reflection to adequately digest its contents.
But before readers grapple with the substance of the book, there is the simple fact of the book itself: Why did the Holy Father choose to write it?
Such a thing has never been done before. Pope John Paul II published one interview book and three partial memoirs while he was pope — but as rich as they were, none were major theological works. And he only got around to book-writing after 15 years as pope, having filled a long shelf with magisterial documents.
Benedict has made this book the first priority of his pontificate.
Sources who were with Benedict on his first papal vacation in July 2005 confirm that he spent almost the whole day, save for an afternoon excursion, at his desk writing. Most assumed that he was working on his first encyclical, but when asked to confirm that, the Holy Father replied that the encyclical could wait — he was striving mightily to finish this book, which he had begun in 2003.
In the foreword to Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict states that after his election as pope, he devoted all his “free moments” to the project. But popes do not really have free moments; the burden of the office is so great that the pope simply must decide on what he will spend his time.
That Benedict decided to devote so much time to this book is therefore a deliberate pastoral decision.
There is a simple enough answer: The Holy Father enjoys writing theological works and is the best there is at it, just as John Paul realized early in his papacy that there was no one better than he at staging evangelical events — whether his epic apostolic voyages or the World Youth Days. Perhaps Benedict knows that he writes accessible theology, particularly of a Scriptural kind, better than anyone else in the Christian world. And if Providence has seen fit to make him pope, perhaps that is what Providence wants the pope to do.
The fact that Joseph Ratzinger is Pope will mean that millions of people will now be exposed to the brilliance of his mind on the subject at the center of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ.
Pastorally speaking, that will have a greater impact than any encyclical he might write.
There remains, though, another novelty in this book.
It is written in the Holy Father’s private capacity — itself a novel concept. The book in fact is signed “Joseph Ratzinger — Benedict XVI,” and the Holy Father stresses that this is a private work, not a magisterial act. Why that is the case becomes clear even in the first few pages of the book, as Joseph Ratzinger raises issues with the work of several generations of biblical scholars.
Longtime Ratzinger readers will recognize the direct manner in which he criticizes what he judges to be erroneous trends in theology. It is difficult to imagine a pope, using his full magisterial authority, engaging in such vigorous corrections of the work of biblical theologians, so he has adopted an innovative pastoral strategy.
Benedict clearly believes that the figure of Jesus Christ needs to be rescued from a Scriptural scholarship that has lost its way, but he will do that in the voice of Joseph Ratzinger, amplified by the office of the papacy.
There are two specific purposes which Ratzinger/Benedict had in mind in writing this book: The first is that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth must be encountered within the whole unity of Scripture and the Church’s tradition. Anyone who has taken a biblical course recently knows that the techniques of contemporary scholarship leave the big picture behind in their examination of more and more specific texts isolated from their context.
History and literary criticism come to the fore, and the grand themes of revelation and theology recede. A typical seminarian today doing an entire course of John’s Gospel and epistles would likely spend more time on Greek linguistic particularities than on John’s theological vision. And he would remain completely ignorant of the fact that, say, St. Augustine had preached volumes of sermons on those very texts.
“At this point we get a glimmer, even on a historical level, of what inspiration means: The [Scriptural] author does not speak as a private, self-contained subject,” writes Ratzinger/Benedict. “He speaks in a living community, that is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, or even the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work.”
“This already suggests the second aspect I wanted to speak about,” he continues. “Neither the individual books of holy Scripture nor the Scripture as a whole are simply a piece of literature. The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject — the pilgrim people of God — and lives within this same subject.”
Ratzinger/Benedict wishes to lead readers to encounter Jesus of Nazareth in the context of the Church’s tradition, which stretches back to the first revelation of God to Abraham. His book therefore is a profoundly ecclesial and pastoral act, even if presented in a personal capacity.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
served as the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.