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. 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.