During Advent and Christmas I read Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. This is the last installment on his three part book on Jesus. The first part covered Jesus’ public life, the second his Passion and Resurrection, and this final, shortest portion the accounts (in Matthew and Luke) of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and early life.
The book is a pleasure and a source of insight, as I have come to expect from this pope. Here we encounter a sober, wise, and humane man who has spent many years reflecting on the Gospels. Part of the benefit of the book comes from the particular insights Benedict suggests that those of us who are not scripture scholars have never thought of. But the other part is just the sense of being in the presence of a fine mind coupled to a generous and serious character.
Here is one passage I found striking right from the beginning (it’s actually on the first page of the Foreword):
I am convinced that good exegesis involves two stages. Firstly one has to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through their text in their own day — the historical component of exegesis. But it is not sufficient to leave the text in the past and thus relegate it to history. The second question posed by good exegesis must be: is what I read here true? Does it concern me? If so, how? With a text like the Bible, whose ultimate and fundamental author, according to our faith, is God himself, the question regarding the here and now of things past is undeniably included in the task of exegesis.
That expression — “the here and now of things past” — leapt out at me. I thought: “Isn’t this why a faithful Catholic cannot be, at the deepest level, an adherent of contemporary progressive liberalism?” This is not to say that Catholics cannot agree with contemporary liberals on any number of policy questions or specific issues, regarding, say, care of the poor, tax policy, or the need to go the extra mile to avoid war when possible. But to be one or the other — a Catholic or a contemporary liberal — seems to involve such a huge difference in mindset that it would really be impossible to be both.
The faithful Catholic must live in light of the past, must respect the “here and now of things past,” in a way that contemporary liberals seem disinclined to accept, and much inclined to reject with contempt. For the Catholic, events of fundamental importance, and teachings of fundamental and eternal importance, were revealed in the past, a past to which we must always look if we are not to lose our way. This does not mean that we must ignore the present and the future, or that we should try to live exactly as did the early Christians. But certain of the “things past” always have an authoritative claim in the “here and now,” no matter how many centuries have passed. How far this way of thinking is from the contemporary liberals’ confidence in progress, from which they so often derive a disdain for the past, a sense that the older a teaching is the less relevant, and probably the more erroneous, it must be.