Recently a Catholic said to me that the Pope is the most intelligent person in the world, to which I laughed.

Pope Benedict is often regarded as the pre-eminent theologian in the Church, and was considered as such even prior to becoming Pope. If any Catholic knows what he/she is talking about, it should be him.

But if Pope Benedict is the best intellect that the Catholic Church has to offer, then the Catholic Church has a serious problem. So in this series of articles I am going to demonstrate the lack of intelligence exhibited by the Pope through offering a commentary on one of his sermons.

I could have chosen instead to analyse his historical-theological writings (such as his recent trilogy on the life of Jesus), but a discussion of his academic works would be rather scholarly in tone because it would need to cover the finer points of Church and textual history. It is also true that Pope Benedict is more circumspect in his statements in his published works (intended for fellow scholars) than he is when addressing the everyday laity.

Put it this way, when he writes as a scholar, he writes as Joseph Ratzinger – theological academic. When he speaks to his flock, he speaks as Pope Benedict XVI – defender of the faith. As Pope he adopts quite a different mode (and standard) of intellectual engagement that is more reckless in substance and dumbs down the issues and ideas being raised. It is the Pope that I am dealing with here.

I have picked the first sermon I found when I Googled the terms ‘full transcript’ ‘pope’, and ‘homily’, so I have not in any way been selective in picking out this sermon. In other words, it is probably not one of his worse sermons. In fact, he probably put more effort into preparing this particular one, given that it was spoken to 60,000 attendees packed into the Yankee Stadium in New York on April 20, 2008 during his US tour. The full transcript of the sermon can be found here.

The Pope’s sermon followed this reading from the Gospel according to John (14:1-12):

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

The Pope said the following:

“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, 

In the Gospel we have just heard, Jesus tells his Apostles to put their faith in him, for he is “the way, and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). Christ is the way that leads to the Father, the truth which gives meaning to human existence, and the source of that life which is eternal joy with all the saints in his heavenly Kingdom. Let us take the Lord at his word! Let us renew our faith in him and put all our hope in his promises!”

In the verse being referred to by the Pope, Jesus has responded to a question from Thomas about how the disciples might know the way once Jesus is gone, to which Jesus has answered that “no one comes to the Father except by me,” and then proceeds to explain that the Father dwells within him and through his acts, so that to know the Son is to know the Father. This is an exchange that is specific to John’s gospel and not found in the others, which is not unusual for John, who most biblical scholars surmise authored his gospel later than the other gospel writers and had a tendency to restructure, embellish and add to what was found in the other gospel traditions.

Pope Benedict does not care to admit the dubious historicity of the passage. In fact he tells us to “take the Lord at his word!”, as if Jesus really said it. This is not mere naivety, because the Pope as a religious scholar should know better. He is deceiving his listeners, who unfortunately do not know any better.

The Pope has also failed to explain what the verse means, treating it as if its meaning is self-evident. Is it mere faith in Jesus that leads to heaven, or is it following his example? Catholic theologians have debated, and continue to debate, this a great deal themselves ( for example, see here). It raises an acute theological problem as to whether non-believers (such as people who are not taught Christianity) would go to heaven or not. Until the Vatican II reforms, it was Church doctrine that they would not, but the Vatican II council (in CCC847) reversed this view and stated that it is through Christ-like acts that one goes to heaven, even if one has never been exposed to Church teachings. The Pope has simply scooted around the complexity of the verse, and left his listeners none the wiser as to the complexities of the issues surrounding Scripture on this point.

Pope Benedict is maintaining a great deception to his audience, which is to pretend that the New Testament is clear in its meaning and that the Church has an absolute understanding of it. Pope Benedict’s personal crusade against relativism was a trademark of his ministry. However, it is absurd to postulate that clear interpretations are possible from Scripture, as the variety of denominations that have emerged attests, as well as reversals made by the Vatican II council. In Part 2 of this article series I will examine the next part of Pope Benedict’s homily addressing religion and freedom, where the Pope further dumbs down the issues and misleads his audience.