- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI offers a personal meditation on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in his first book as pontiff by criticizing the “cruelty” of capitalism’s exploitation of the poor but also decrying the absence of God in Marxism.

In “Jesus of Nazareth,” released yesterday, Benedict touches on themes that have begun to emerge in his two-year-old papacy: the spiritual weaknesses of modern materialistic life, in which people seem to think they can do without God.

And the pope indirectly dismissed the fictional depictions of Christ such as found in the “The Da Vinci Code,” which theorized that Jesus married, had children and never rose from the dead.

The book also points to a concern of Benedict’s from his days as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when he sought to stem support for “liberation theology” — the theology of salvation as liberation from injustice, popular in Latin America.

Benedict stresses that the book, which he began writing in 2003 when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is an expression of his “personal search for the face of the Lord” and is by no means an official part of Roman Catholic Church doctrine.

“Everyone is free, then, to contradict me,” he says.

Benedict — a prolific theologian well before he became pope — sets out to give a thorough examination of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ public ministry to arrive at the foundation of the Christian faith: that Jesus is God.

“What did Jesus truly bring, if he didn’t bring peace to the world, well-being for all and a better world?” Benedict asks. “The answer is very simple: God. He brought God.”

The 448-page book is expected in bookstores in German, Italian and Polish on Monday, the pope’s 80th birthday. The English-language edition is set for release May 15 and translations are planned for 16 other languages.

It is the first of two volumes: Rizzoli, the book’s Italian publisher, said a second volume exploring the birth of Christ, His crucifixion and resurrection is planned.

“Jesus of Nazareth” covers several key points of Jesus’ public life and ministry, including an entire chapter on the sermon on the mount, in which Jesus praises the poor, the meek and the hungry in the Beatitudes. Benedict then reflects on how the sermon is relevant in today’s world.

“After the experiences of totalitarian regimes, after the brutal way in which they trampled on men, mocked, enslaved and beat the weak, we understand anew those who hunger and thirst for justice,” Benedict writes.

“Confronted with the abuse of economic power, with the cruelty of capitalism that degrades man into merchandise, we have begun to see more clearly the dangers of wealth and we understand in a new way what Jesus intended in warning us about wealth.”

Benedict continues that message in another chapter on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, and the need to love one’s neighbor. In it, the pope decries how the wealthy have “plundered” Africa and the Third World, both materially and spiritually, through colonialism.

He criticizes the lifestyles of the wealthy, citing “victims of drugs, of human trafficking, of sexual tourism, people destroyed on the inside, who are empty despite the abundance of their material goods.”

Rich countries continue to do harm to the Third World by giving aid that is purely technical in nature, he says in the book. “This aid has set apart religious, moral and social structures that existed and introduced their technical mentality in the void.”.

In another chapter, however, Benedict sharply criticizes Marxism, saying it excluded God from life.

“Where God is considered only a secondary greatness that you can temporarily or permanently put aside for the sake of more important things, those important things fail,” he writes. “The negative outcome of the Marxist experience demonstrates that.”

But despite Benedict’s praise of Jesus’ social justice teachings, it would be wrong to conclude that Benedict was endorsing the view of Jesus as a “social reformer” as he is often portrayed in “liberation theology,” said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, archbishop of Vienna and friend of the pope.

Cardinal Schoenborn referred to Benedict’s tough stance on “liberation theology” during a Vatican presentation of the book, saying: “The innumerable fanciful images of Jesus as a revolutionary, as a moderate social reformer, as the secret lover of Mary Magdalene etc. … can be calmly deposited in the ossuary of history.”

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