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A Believer in an Age of Skeptics

Benedict XVI was willing to give his entire life to Jesus Christ when most men lived for themselves.

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Pope Benedict XVI leads the Rosary at the Chapel of the Apparitions in Fatima's Sanctuary on May 12, 2010. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2008, the National Catholic Reporter interviewed the New Testament scholar Geza Vermes about Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, in which he, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, defended the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Vermes, a liberal Jewish biblical scholar who had left the Catholic priesthood and entered the academy, told the Reporter that Benedict’s book was “turning the clock back” on biblical scholarship “by several centuries” with its claim that “the Gospels’ Christ of faith is the historical Jesus.”

That sounds radical, but it meant only that the pope was Catholic. To Vermes and other critics of the late pope emeritus, that was the problem.

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Benedict did not believe that Christianity was a pleasant myth that could be used to advance the causes of tolerance and mutual understanding on earth. He did not agree, to Vermes's dismay, with “the majority of Catholic biblical scholars” that “Jesus himself did not make many of the claims that later Christian interpretation would make about his person and his teaching.” He believed, rather, that the Gospels were accurate, and that Jesus of Nazareth actually rose from the dead—not merely “in the hearts of his followers,” but in body and soul, vindicating of His divine claims. 

That belief has implications. Benedict lived his life and structured his theology on the basis of his belief in the reality of Christ as the Son of God. As pope, he preached against the “dictatorship of relativism…that recognizes nothing as absolute.” As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he drafted Dominus Iesus, affirming Christ as the exclusive means of salvation, in accord with the Gospel texts. His Jesus of Nazareth trilogy made a case for the reliability of the Gospels against skeptical historical critics, whose theories had convinced even many nominally Catholic biblical scholars that the Jesus they worshiped was a creation of post-Constantinian Christians with little relation to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. 

In that trilogy, Ratzinger called for “a synthesis between an exegesis that operates with historical reason and an exegesis that is guided by faith," an interpretation of the Scriptures that makes room for historical analysis but never sways from orthodoxy. He responded directly to attacks on the historicity of the nativity narratives that had been perpetuated by popular biblical scholars such as Raymond Brown and gave scandalized Catholics reason to trust the sacred texts.

The books were tremendously helpful to me as I wrestled with doubt. Many Catholics my age will remember Pope Benedict for having liberalized the use of the traditional Mass, and rightly so—I share their gratitude, and took particular solace in the pope’s assertion that what “earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and…cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful." I have had my faith nourished by the reverence and piety of the usus antiquior. But Jesus of Nazareth, and Benedict’s response to historical critics who attack the New Testament, will be counted, I think, among his most significant and enduring accomplishments.

What Bishop Robert Barron has called “beige” Catholicism—the indifferent, relativistic faith popular among many self-identified liberal Catholics—is predicated upon a skepticism or outright denial of the inerrancy of the biblical texts. If the Pauline epistles were forgeries, we don't need to listen to Paul's proscription of sodomy. If the Gospel of Matthew has no connection to words of Christ, we can take Jesus' words about divorce with a grain of salt. If the Gospel of John is not a late-third-century invention of a group of dissenting Jews but a record of Christ’s life with discernible roots in eyewitness testimony—if Jesus really said that no one comes to the Father but by Him—it is difficult to argue that Christians should be indifferent to the conversion of non-believers. It is why Vermes was so scandalized that Benedict had identified “the author of the fourth gospel with the apostle John,” as having “direct apostolic witness for that gospel,” gave credence to Jesus’ most extraordinary claims about Himself, and required of believers assent to radical claims about salvation.

Vermes’s criticisms of Jesus of Nazareth were typical of those levied against Benedict throughout his pontificate: that he didn’t defer to academic theologians, yield to the calls for iconoclasm some deemed the “spirit of Vatican II," or "read the signs of the times." Those criticisms of Benedict were ill-founded, but the last contains a grain of truth. He was a true believer in an age of skeptics, a champion of orthodoxy surrounded by heretics, and a man willing to give his entire life to Jesus Christ when most men lived for themselves. His final words, "Jesus, I love you," were a confident response to the words of the apostle: "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain."

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