The Pope takes on Foucault

The Pope’s new book, written under his ecclesiastical title and his personal name of Joseph Ratzinger is called Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. It has been reviewed in Commonweal and on this St. Benedicts’s Day (Ratzinger’s papal name) it might be worth pointing out the significance of this book.

Some excerpts from the review below.

Writing under his personal name as well as his ecclesiastical title, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, offers here the first half of a two-volume work whose stated rationale is twofold. His Jesus of Nazareth is to be, first, a work that “goes beyond historical-critical exegesis so as to apply new methodological insights that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible.” It is to be, second, “an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8).” “It goes without saying,” Ratzinger adds in his foreword, “that this work is in no way an exercise of the magisterium…. Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.”

“[Karl] Rahner and I lived on two different theological planets,” he said to one interviewer.

Despite [Rahner’s] early reading of the fathers, his theology was totally conditioned by the tradition of Suarezian scholasticism and its new reception in the light of German idealism and Heidegger. His was a speculative and philosophical theology in which Scripture and the fathers in the end did not play an important role and in which the historical dimension was really of little significance. For my part, my whole intellectual formation had been shaped by Scripture and the fathers and profoundly historical thinking.”

Ratzinger pays surprisingly generous tribute to the historical-critical exegesis that the Roman Catholic Church condemned for two hundred and fifty years, starting with Père Richard Simon in the seventeenth century and continuing until Divino afflante spiritu in the middle of the twentieth century. More surprising still, and more encouraging, his proposal for a reconciliation of historical-critical with theological exegesis bears at least prima facie comparison with the postmodern critical dethronement of the individual author in favor of the larger “author-izing” power of (though the phrase is not used in English departments) the church of literature. At a few provocative moments, Ratzinger’s theology of the Word is consonant with the literary theory of a Wolfgang Iser, the influential creator of “reader reception theory,” or a Michel Foucault, who famously dismissed the author as “the ‘dead man’ in the game of writing.”

Wittingly or not, Ratzinger talks a version of their critical language in a few passages like the following:

One could say that the books of Scripture involve three interacting subjects. First of all there is the individual author or group of authors to whom we owe a particular scriptural text. But these authors are not autonomous writers in the modern sense; they form part of a collective subject, the “People of God,” from within whose heart and to whom they speak. Hence, this subject is actually the deeper “author” of the Scriptures. And yet likewise, this people does not exist alone; rather, it knows that it is led, and spoken to, by God himself, who-through men and their humanity-is at the deepest level the one speaking.

All this sounds promising enough. All the more regrettable, then, that once Ratzinger begins to engage the actual text, he seems unable to relinquish a cripplingly precritical understanding of the relationship between history and literature.


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