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The Pope, what a surprise, insists in his new book that the Virgin Birth is a core Christian belief: ‘This is,’ he says, ‘a scandal for the modern spirit’

Mary, says Newman, symbolises not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church, who have to draw the line between truth and heresy. This Pope is one of them

By on Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Pope Benedict XVI holds a copy of his book The Infancy Narratives (Photo: CNS)

Pope Benedict XVI holds a copy of his book The Infancy Narratives (Photo: CNS)

The Holy Father’s third and final meditation on the life of Christ, The Infancy Narratives (which he describes as being “not a third volume, but a kind of small ‘antechamber’ to the two earlier volumes”) has now been published, in time for Christmas. I have only just begun reading it (I have it so quickly thanks to my Kindle, how did I ever live without it?) but I can record from the secular press that Pope Benedict is being widely reported, with apparent amazement, as saying that the Virgin Birth is actually true. Jesus’s Virgin Birth and his Resurrection from the dead, writes Pope Benedict, are the two moments in the Gospels when “God intervenes directly into the material world”. In other words, both are events which actually happened: they are history and not myth. “This is a scandal for the modern spirit,” the Holy Father notes, since in today’s world God is “allowed to operate on thought and ideas but not on matter”. But for just this reason, he adds, Mary’s virginity is a “test” and a “fundamental element” of the Christian faith.

Absolutely. Ever since I was converted to the Christian religion in my early 30s after a lifetime of atheism, I have firmly believed (by which I mean known) that the infancy narratives were true, and that the notion that these were stories which were a kind of meditation on faith, so they could not be literally true as well, was meaningless. There is no necessary dichotomy between meditation and historicity: that very simple fact is conveyed most beautifully by the sublime sentence in Luke’s gospel which also reveals, surely, the evangelist’s source as being Our Lady herself: “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

Similarly, it has always seemed to me one of the most transparently bogus propositions of liberal Protestant biblical criticism that since the fourth gospel is a great meditation on the meaning of the faith, it is therefore much less historically to be relied upon than the synoptic gospels. It’s quite clear that John is presenting his gospel as a historical record whose truth is to be believed in, and not as a meditation. That it is that, too, is the product of John’s sublime spiritual and literary genius: but he ends the gospel (ch 21) by declaring that he is “the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down” and … ”that his testimony is true”. He also records (20: 30-31) that “Jesus did many … miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” We are to believe, because it is true that these things happened.

Similarly with the Lucan infancy narratives. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke ii. 19). As vicar of St Mary’s, Newman preached one of his greatest sermons on this text (to which of course he returns in The Development of Christian Doctrine), in which he insists that simply knowing the historic narrative of God’s interventions in human history is not enough: they are to be pondered, ingested, truly understood:

“… Mary’s faith did not end in a mere acquiescence in Divine providences and revelations: as the text informs us, she ‘pondered’ them. When the shepherds came, and told of the vision of Angels which they had seen at the time of the Nativity, and how one of them announced that the Infant in her arms was ‘the Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’, while others did but wonder, ‘Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’. Again, when her Son and Saviour had come to the age of twelve years, and had left her for awhile for His Father’s service, and had been found, to her surprise, in the Temple, amid the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions, and had, on her addressing Him, vouchsafed to justify His conduct, we are told, “His mother kept all these sayings in her heart…

“Thus St Mary is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing.”

This passage from Newman’s sermon continues with the following, which I cannot help applying to the present Holy Father, a more recent great ponderer in his heart on the events surrounding our Lord’s birth. For, Newman thinks that it is not enough simply to immerse ourselves in the sublimity of this wonderful story; and neither does Joseph Ratzinger, a man of transparent simplicity of faith but also of great subtlety of mind and at the same time heroic pugnacity of spirit faced by the dangers of aggressive secularity, not only outside the Church but within it, too. The faith is to be both pondered and fought for: “And thus”, says Newman, Mary “symbolises to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate, and weigh, and define, as well as to profess the Gospel; to draw the line between truth and heresy; to anticipate or remedy the various aberrations of wrong reason; to combat pride and recklessness with their own arms; and thus to triumph over the sophist and the innovator.”

Thus, too, Newman himself; of whom, surely Pope Benedict (who knows his writings well and has acknowledged their influence) more and more shows himself to be one of his greatest successors as a defender of the faith, one who notably triumphs over the sophist and the innovator as well as being a true model of simple faith.

  • JabbaPapa

    You are omitting Free Will for no good reason at all.

    Including God’s — you’re also falsely assuming that God and Christ are two.

    We need a more realistic, subtler understanding of how God operates

    Unless and until God Himself provides us with one, this is just wishful thinking…

  • JabbaPapa

    Matthew has Mary and Joseph originally being from Bethlehem

    This is not true.

    Matthew is entirely silent on any part of Mary and Joseph’s lives prior to the Incarnation story.

  • JabbaPapa

    No I’m not speculating

    Yes you are — you are introducing elements NOT found in the text of Matthew to support your reading of it.

  • JabbaPapa

    St Thomas Aquinas made it quite clear; If a Catholic denies just one of
    the defined doctrines of the Church he is no longer in communion with
    the Catholic Church.

    If that were true, then this very statement of your own would put you out of communion, because it constitutes a formal heresy…

    Actually, the denial needs to be formal, conscious, willful, and deliberate for the loss of Communion to occur. Simply being mistaken about the contents of doctrine, as you are in the above quote, and therefore unintentionally denying the proper doctrine is insufficient to lose the state of Ecclesial Communion, provided that this is accompanied by regular Mass attendance.

    In fact, he is in a state of heresy and needs to reconcile back to the Church if he wishes to be saved from his sins

    I’m not sure who “he” is supposed to be (the Pope ? Archbishop Müller ?), but to publicly calumniate either of these men as you have done would be a mortal sin, wouldn’t it.

    … chips on shoulders, and beams in eyes, and so forth …

  • JabbaPapa

    Saint Augustine was under no requirement to believe a doctrine which, at that time, had not yet been proclaimed as part of the Deposit of the Faith.

    We, on the other hand, have a requirement to reject his particular opinions on this question.

  • JabbaPapa

    John also doesn’t believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem

    You are fantasizing — as usual.

  • JabbaPapa

    Answer — Nowhere.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I think most people think that “literally true” means that it really did happen.  For example someone who believes in the Virgin Birth believes that it really happened.  That her pregnancy was the result of an intervention by God and not as a result of intercourse with a man.  Of course it all signifies much much more but emphasising what it signifies is not an excuse for pretending that it did not happen in reality.

    You seem to be suggesting that “literally true” is something fictional described in literature when you talk about Tolkien.  Allegory can be a fictional story to illustrate a truth but it does not make the story literally true in ordinary parlance.  

    Overall your comment seems to be suggesting that the infancy narratives can be regarded as mere allegory.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Where does St Augustine deny the Virgin Birth?  Wikipedia says the contrary:
    Although Augustine did not develop an independent Mariology, his statements on Mary surpass in number and depth those of other early writers.[91] Even before the Council of Ephesus, he defended the ever Virgin Mary as the Mother of God, who, because of her virginity, is full of grace.[92] Likewise, he affirmed that the Virgin Mary “conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever”.[93]

    viz: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Here you go again.  I do not think anyone who believes in the physical truth of the Virginal Birth is denying its significance.  You seem to want the significance without the event.  But why should ignoring the significance be a denial of the event?

  • Lewispbuckingham

     That’s another story ! It has been the tradirion of the Church from the earliest time that Mary had no other children, and this tradition should be taken seriously, but it is not an article of faith. There is no evidence that Mary did have other children – the use of the word “brothers” in the Gospels is a usage like that of Aboriginal Australians today, who refer to all close male relatives as “my brother”.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     No.; To boil it down to essentials, they used ancient traditional and Scriptural metaphors to explain the reality of a truth that they had personally experienced and knew to be true – that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.They were addressing different audiences and had to take different approaches with each. You don’t explain astro-physics the same way to a seven year old, a cab driver and a Ph.D. student !

  • JabbaPapa

    To boil it down to the essentials, you are making up out of thin air some theories about the Gospel texts that are based on no evidence whatsoever, but only on your own blinkered prejudice.

  • JabbaPapa

    the Gospels are simply compilations of traditional mythologies stretching back 5 millennia and more

    Another load of revionist/fantasist cobblers …

    These 18th-19th century theories are well past their sell-by date, and they do not withstand the rigours of contemporary philology and scientific research into the origin of the texts.

  • Potablepaj

     Sorry. Expressed myself carelessly. Most posts here are addressing a virgin birth – but I think they are really addressing virginal conception. There is no scriptural support for a virginal birth – and St Jerome’s examples about brothers etc meaning cousins scramble at the very margins of normal Greek usage – practically every usage in the first and second centuries means siblings, not cousins. Jesus had a family.

  • Jon Brownridge

     I would think being a Christian involves believing in and living the Gospel message of love and peace, and practicing the Christian virtues. Without this “one is simply not a Christian”.

  • Jon Brownridge

     I knew you wouldn’t like that, Jabba. Sorry, but seriously, Tom Harpur is not 18th-19th century. The Pagan Christ has opened up some questions that need to be sincerely addressed. His research is sincere and he believes in what he writes. If he is wrong, we need some solid rebuttal to his arguments. “A load of old cobblers” doesn’t quite do it for Tom, whom I know personally, by the way.

  • Jon Brownridge

     You need to read LaVerdiere’s work. The Resurrection is not about dead bodies coming to life. It is much, much more profound than that.

  • JabbaPapa

    hmmmm, the tradition prior to 19th century was that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage.

    Makes ten times more sense to me than any of this other hand-waving …

  • JabbaPapa

    And ? I never said that these 18th-19th century theories had no credence among far too many of our unhappier contemporaries — indeed, if they didn’t, why would I have even bothered denouncing them ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Love of God comes before all of these, as they proceed from that love of God.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    La Verdiere at: http://www.zoominfo.com/people/LaVerdiere_Eugene_3638689.aspx

    “Whatever resurrection means in the New Testament,”LaVerdiere says in the April 1977 interview, “it is not the resuscitation of a body, and it is not the reanimation of a corpse.?.?.?. The resurrection of Jesus is not a restoration to a former state of life but a transformation into a new way of being.”If Jesus had merely been resuscitated, he would just have been brought back to the same life of the historical Jesus. Hewould still be a male Galilean Jew, who spoke Hebrew, had a certain color hair, certain color eyes. “If he’s those things,”LaVerdiere explains, “he’s not other things.”

    I would take this as meaning that La Verdiere is saying that Christ’s body was not “merely resuscitated” but glorified into a new state of being i.e. his body was physically resurrected but changed at the same time.  This is the orthodox teaching of the Church surely?

  • Jon Brownridge

     Good point.

  • Teitan2017

    I’m terribly sorry; but I think you missed it. The Pope – as a private theologian – clearly denies the historicity of the Gospels in asserting that elements such as the “animals” and the “Magi” can be dispensed with; without injury to the Catholic faith, which insists on the Divine inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture – even in VATICAN II – ! [Non solum: "veritates salutis" SED: "...veritates, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturae libri veritatem, quam
    Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter,
    fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt."]

  • Carl Grillo

    I’m sorry, Bill, but I think you missed it. The Pope – as a private theologian – denies the historicity of the Gospels in asserting that elements such as the “animals” and the “Magi” can be dispensed with without denying the Divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Sacred Scriptures; and without doing injury to the Catholic faith. He might as well jettison the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ into the historical dust-bin of “theophany” and “theologumena.” He insists upon upholding the Council; yet he denies it in practice. [Ergo, NON SOLUM: "veritate salutis" SED: "Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri
    debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturae libri veritatem, quam Deus
    nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et
    sine errore docere profitendi sunt." (cf., Dei Verbum, 11)]

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Carl Grillo and Teitan2017:  I think you have missed what Dr Oddie said which is that the Pope merely said that the donkeys etc are not specifically mentioned in the New Testament which is correct.  What is mentioned is that there was no room at an inn and Christ was laid in a manger.  One can surely safely assume that the inn had a stable where undoubtedly guests would have parked their donkeys just as modern hotels often have garages where cars are parked.

    If we are wrong perhaps you could quote the text where the Pope denies the historicity of the animals and the Magi.

  • Sweetjae

    NO! You are wrong.We are not doing a guess work, the Church’s teaching and approved private revelations about angels give us an understanding about them.

  • Sweetjae

    I agree with you not Jabba the hut below.

  • Sweetjae

    Again I agree with you not Jabba the hut’s arrogant reply.

  • Sweetjae

    “Another load of revionist/fantasist cobblers”, why, don’t you like your own medicine?

  • Sweetjae

    Though Matthew is silent however, the Scripture (Luke) and Tradition is NOT and  described Joseph as being from Nazareth prior to the Incarnation story.

  • Sweetjae

    He already refuted the SSPX for their accusation against him  as merely, “provocations..not very intelligent ones”. I strongly agree with the Archbishop.

  • Sweetjae

    “well-informed” for their own self good?

  • Sweetjae

    Some of his theology were taken out of context again by you and the SSPX to smear the good Archbishop. Read his refutation to these accusers in a traditionalist website called “Rorate Caeli” .

  • Sweetjae

    “Your view of Scripture is un-Catholic”…wow, look who’s talking?