Some weeks ago I was asked about a remark attributed to Pope Francis by that journalist he talks to from time to time, Eugenio Scalifari. According to Scalifari, the pope said that the resurrection of Jesus did not actually happen as a physical event. This was one of those conversations with the 90-plus-year-old journalist who neither records nor takes notes of his "interviews." So (1) who knows what Francis actually said? (2) who knows what Francis actually meant? (3) who really cares, unless something more definite is known about (1) and (2)?
So much for that. But my correspondent had searched for something like "does the pope believe in the resurrection?" and had turned up something more serious, albeit happily more obscure. The web site of a self-described "reformed, Calvinistic, conservative evangelical publisher" based in Edinburgh, "Banner of Truth," asserts that Benedict XVI clearly denies the resurrection. A look around the site reveals that it also pushes old-school anti-Catholicism: Far From Rome Near to God: Testimonies of Fifty Converted Catholic Priests. So it's not surprising that in an article called "Does the Pope Believe in the Resurrection?" Matthew Vogan says the answer is no:
In Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger explicitly denies the resurrection of the body.
There are a number of things wrong with the piece, beginning with the fact that Vogan's reliance on that book makes his premise, as stated in the title, false. Introduction to Christianity was written in 1968 by Joseph Ratzinger as a theologian, almost forty years before he became pope. The statements in question are not those of "the pope." That may seem a trivial and evasive distinction to the ignorant and/or hostile, but as any reasonably informed person knows, it is an essential and crucial one. Perhaps Vogan sees in this a possible objection to his claim, as he goes on to assert, without proof, that as pope Joseph Ratzinger "continue[s] to deny...the Church's official teaching" by means of a "Jesuitical distinction that he makes between his official and private views." How Vogan knows what Benedict XVI's private views are is not explained. I think he just assumes that in 2005 Ratzinger thought exactly as he had in 1968.)
Vogan justifies this statement by a hostile (unsurprising), uncomprehending (a bit more surprising), and selective (unacceptable) series of quotations from the book.
Theological controversy must be one of the areas in which it is most true that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I realized many years ago, after sticking a cautious toe into the waters of theology, that I was not, never would be, and did not wish to be, a theologian. What I recognized then and have since only become more fully aware of is how much there is to know, and how little I know. In other words, I have a pretty good sense of what I don't know. I don't understand all of what Ratzinger says in Introduction. And I can even agree with Vogan so far as to find certain statements in the book dubious.
Accordingly, I'm not going to go into any sort of deep theological effort to defend Ratzinger and refute Vogan. I am not, for instance, going to argue about the true meaning of the Greek word soma. (I always back away slowly from that guy with a year of New Testament Greek under his belt who wants to tell me what the text really says.) All I want to do here is point out that Vogan has ignored clear statements in Introduction regarding the truth of the Resurrection which contradict his principal assertion.
To a fair-minded reader, which Vogan obviously is not, it's apparent that what Ratzinger is doing is an attempt to understand the Resurrection, not to deny it. That attempt seems intended for the kind of 20th century mind which is inclined to view it as mere legend, physically impossible and obviously false. I don't necessarily think the attempt is successful. But that is pretty clearly what it is. In part, it's an attempt to understand I Corinthians 15:50:
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
There could hardly be a more clear statement that the resurrected body is not simply a reanimation of the body as we know it in this life. But it seems to be principally Ratzinger's statement of that fact which causes Vogan to accuse him of denying the resurrection altogether. Ratzinger makes an attempt to reconcile St. Paul's assertion with the even stronger assertion of the truth of the resurrection. I emphasize the latter because an intelligent and fair reading of the relevant chapters of Introduction make it clear that Ratzinger affirms that truth. Whether or not his approach is satisfactory or not is another matter.
Vogan supports his assertion ("...explicitly denies...") by the unfortunately tried-and-true method of selective quotation and disregard of context. It is true, for instance, that Ratzinger says that the resurrected Christ is not the same material being that he was before. But Ratzinger's commentary on that point is a page or two long and is very plainly only a re-statement of what is obvious to anyone reading the New Testament accounts: that the resurrected Jesus lives in a new and mysterious mode, seemingly not subject to the laws of nature, but not a "ghost," a mere apparition, either.
Among his pieces of evidence that Ratzinger denies the resurrection, Vogan includes this partial quotation:
...the essential part of man, the person, remains . . . it goes on existing because it lives in God’s memory.
Yes, that seems to be, at minimum, open to the charge that it denies a real resurrection. But the next sentence does away with that ambiguity:
And because it is the man himself who will live.... [my emphasis]
This is essentially the same idea that many saints and mystics have expressed: "everything exists through the love of God," said Julian of Norwich. But then I suppose Vogan might say that she did not have the benefit of a reformed religion.
More significant is Ratzinger's lengthy summation of the chapter on the resurrection of Christ himself:
The Resurrection narratives...testify to an approach that did not rise from the hearts of the disciples but came to them from outside, convinced them despite their doubts and made them certain that the Lord had truly risen. He who lay in the grave is no longer there; he--really he himself--lives. He who had been transposed into the other world of God showed himself powerful enough to make it palpably clear that he himself stood in their presence again, that in him the power of love had really proved itself stronger than the power of death.
Only by taking this just as seriously as what we said first does one remain faithful to the witness borne by the New Testament; only thus, too, is its seriousness in world history preserved. The comfortable attempt to spare oneself the belief in the mystery of God's mighty actions in this world and yet at the same time to have the satisfaction of remaining on the foundation of the biblical message leads nowhere; it measures up neither to the honesty of reason nor to the claims of faith. One cannot have both the Christian faith and "religion within the bounds of pure reason"; a choice is unavoidable. He who believes will see more and more clearly, it is true, how rational it is to have faith in the love that has conquered death.
This is a contradiction of Vogan's claim that Ratzinger "asserts that it was really a matter of personal experience." It is in fact an affirmation of the opposite.
Introduction to Christianity is a somewhat difficult book, written as a series of university lectures. I've always thought there was meant to be a hint of humor in the title. Approaching it in search of stones to throw at the Catholic Church is of no use to anyone, not even, or especially, the one doing the searching.