Cardinal: Pope’s Book Goes Against the Grain

Says Ideas Are Original and Pointed

BENEVENTO, Italy, JULY 22, 2007 ( Cardinal Renato Martino says that Benedict XVI’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” is pointed and sometimes polemical, a “book with salt and pepper” — and sometimes “hot peppers.”

“‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is a surprising book,” said the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in a July 15 presentation of the volume in southern Italy.

“Its observations are acute and go against the grain, and its ideas are original, even provocative,” he added. “The reader is frequently surprised by what the Pope says and his attention is drawn away from what is politically correct.”

The cardinal also called it a “robust” book. “If you will permit the irony,” he said, “it is weighty precisely because it is the fruit of a broad design to explore a few aspects of the figure of Christ in depth.”

The 74-year-old cardinal contended that “‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is very dense in expression and argumentation, but acute — and occasionally pointed — in the things it says. In other words, it also contains a lot of polemics.”

“It is thus,” the cardinal said, “a book with salt and pepper — and in some passages hot peppers — like certain very tasty summer dishes that are cooked here in southern Italy.”

Social doctrine

The cardinal drew attention to the passages in which the book touches on the social doctrine of the Church, noting a place in which the Pope writes: “Purely material poverty is not salvific.”

“This claim really struck me,” Cardinal Martino said, “insofar as it takes aim at all the possible social and sociological readings of the Gospel.”

He added: “The Holy Father maintains that it is spiritual poverty and not material poverty that comes first. So, you cannot take poverty in the sociological sense as the point of departure because, in itself, it does not say anything significant.

“Being materially poor or rather, everyone becoming more poor does not, in itself, carry a message of salvation.”

“It is from spiritual poverty — the Church as the ‘community of the poor of God’ — that the energy to struggle against material poverty is born, which is then redeemed from its materialism,” the cardinal continued.

According to the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, these are “broad indications that aim at many positions that in the past, as in the present, have proposed to follow the opposite path and no longer take God as the criterion of discernment but poverty, sociologically understood.”


Another passage that the cardinal touched on is the dialogue between the Holy Father and the Jewish theologian Jacob Neusner.

“This dialogue,” Cardinal Martino explained, “is one of the most beautiful parts of the book. Christ builds a new community and thus brings about the death the ‘Eternal Israel’ based on the Torah; he brings and end to the family and progeny, bonds of the flesh, he destroys the law of the Sabbath and does not offer concretely realizable social structures but a ‘New Israel,’ bearer of a universal promise.”

Neusner understands that this “claim” can only come from God, but does not renounce the Eternal Israel, the community founded on blood and the law.

Benedict XVI, instead, thinks that Jesus does not destroy the Torah but brings it to fulfillment. “The social doctrine of the Church is born here,” the cardinal observed.

“I was struck not only by the fundamental idea that animates the whole book — which is the necessity of God so that the world can function as world — but also the straightforward acknowledgement that cultures and religions are not bearers of salvation,” he said. “Is this disrespect for cultures and other religions? No. Is it a reassertion of the Christian claim? Yes.”

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