My Brother, the Pope

brother pope








Written by Msgr. Georg Ratzinger

(Ignatius Press, 2011)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

* This review originally appeared in the first issue of the CRB: Lent, 2014

This was one of the more exciting releases of 2011. However, with Benedict’s resignation on February 28th of the following year, the book received less attention than it deserved. When Cardinal Ratzinger released his Milestones in 1998 (covering the years of his life from 1927 to 1977), it was a most excellent book, but one, alas, that left a gaping hole of curiosity behind it. It was hoped that a second volume would follow, to cover his years as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Of course, others had provided snap shots of that phase of his life – primarily his enemies, though: Küng, Häring, and Curran, to name a few. Interest in the life of the man only grew after his ascension to the papacy, but by then readers of Milestones were resigned to the fact that a second volume was likely never to be written. In 1997 he had requested ‘retirement’ from the doctrinal congregation from John Paul II, and to take over the far less prestigious, but, to him, more pleasant task of running the Vatican Library. That would have been an opportunity for a great deal of writing! But, of course, that never happened, and so his fans had to take solace in his other writings, like his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, and the studies of his life and thought by various theologians, like Aiden Nichols’ and Vincent Twomey’s. None of these had the same charm of Milestones, though. How could they? When it came to light that his brother, Msgr. Georg, whom we all knew as the unassuming, supportive brother of the great theologian-pope, was writing a book about his brother, excitement grew. If your experience is like mine – like that outlined above – then you will want to read this book back-to-front, starting with those parts not dealt with by Milestones. Of course, Georg offers a lot of additional information about the period that Josef had already covered in Milestones, so it too is definitely worth reading. Nevertheless, the final forty or so pages are the best.

family The book was not written by G. Ratzinger, but was dictated by him to Michael Hessman, and so is a bit of a hotchpotch of direct narration, narrator-provided background information and quote from the Pope Emeritus. Occasionally you have to remind yourself who is speaking. Despite this, even in translation, it bears the distinct character of a holy, elderly German priest, whose tendency to understate things is reminiscent of his great brother too. A particularly funny passage relates to the time of the election: “Throughout that evening and then again well into the following afternoon the telephone rang nonstop, yet now it did not matter to me at all. I simply did not answer. “Nuts to you”, I thought to myself!” (p. 231) There are some very interesting passages that relate to the brothers’ seminary formation together, but generally speaking Msgr. Georg knew very little about the inside story of the controversies surrounding the great theologian. He had no desire to know. Yet he was deeply attached to his brother. I would like to think that I shall be as attached to my brothers at 70 as they were and are to each other.Benedict XVI, Georg Ratzinger This is not propagandistic in the least, which air some of the literature about John Paul II has. There are no superlatives in this book; at least there are none from hand of Msgr. Georg himself. In fact, upon occasion, I found myself wanting to exclaim, “Don’t you know that your brother was a theological genius, and that is why he was made professor, bishop, Prefect of the SCDF, and then pope!” That, however, is not Msgr. Georg’s style. Instead we get, “He was always conscientious and bore every responsibility that was imposed on him to the best of his ability.” (p. 251)

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Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God

Written by Paul Copan

(Baker Books, 2011)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


* This review originally appeared in our Lent 2014 Issue  – ed.

When I taught biblical history I became haunted by the realization that the course should be stripped down and simply become an apologetics for the strange things that occur in the Old Testament. Teaching the context in which these many strange events occur is fine, but hardly sufficient to ally the monstrosity of some of them to the modern reader. Courses like ‘biblical history’ try to do too many things simultaneously, and, thus, I wonder if they thereby accomplish any of them. Apparently I am not the only person on this wavelength, and was glad when I came across Copan’s Book.

There is a saying that the history of philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato (sometimes Aristotle is added). Over the years I have come to believe that modern apologetics is but a series of footnotes to C. S. Lewis. And that’s fine. That simply means we should read more Lewis. This book quotes him more than once,

Of course, Copan throws in something that you won’t really find in Lewis: an astute awareness of the biblical context. And that is required in a book such as this. Even though he’s not a biblical scholar, Copan seems to have a handle on the subject, and quotes liberally from the right sources.

I was most interested to see what he would do with the sacrifice of Isaac (Gn 22:1-14) – a pet of mine, having keenly attended to Augustine’s and Kierkegaard’s interpretations of that story. If we take it as a test case, I would say Copan passes with flying colors. Historical context plays a part of his interpretation. Nevertheless, he doesn’t dismiss the moral gravity of the situation on the grounds that back then “everybody was doing it.” We expect more from God than that.  On the other hand, the grammatical context does play an important role in Copan’s analysis. He puts us in the literary mindset of the original readers. He points out the significance of the name of the mountain on which the sacrifice was to take place – Moriah – which means, among other things, provide, which hints at the fact that God is going to provide some solution to this grave moral problem. (p.48) And he tells us about the grammatical link between the original call of Abraham and this current text (p. 45), which, again, hints to the fact that God has something in store. He tells us that both Abraham and the reader were expecting some kind of deus ex machina, for God to “pull a rabbit out of his hat,” in so many words. After all, Abraham tells his servant that both of them will return from the sacrifice. (p. 48) Of course, it’s still a test – and isn’t there something strangely sick in that? No, says Copan. Such was the faith of Abraham, such were the number of assurances God had provided to Abraham by this point. I mean, more can be said than Copan has, but his solution is a pretty good one. For the record, he takes Augustine’s position. Abraham knew that even if was supposed to kill Isaac God would immediately raise him back up. Still, it’s not a perfect solution.

Copan also deals with the problem of God’s jealousy and seeming narcissism, the strange laws of Deuteronomy, the questions of misogyny, slavery, polygamy, and ethnic cleansing. This is a list that includes all of the things that have concerned Christian readers of the Old Testament since the early days. How he deals with the dietary laws (ch. 8) is quite interesting, as is his account of the harsh law of lex talionis (“eye for an eye”). (ch. 9) As for his chapter on misogyny (ch. 10), he states quite plainly that the Old Testament “spells out the ideal of male-female equality,” even though “laws regarding women in Israel take a realistic approach to fallen human structures in the ancient Near East… Do we see examples of oppressed women in the Old Testament? Yes, and we see lots of examples of oppressed men as well.” (p. 102) Copan lines up the passages that show the equality of the sexes (p. 103) and those that are “potentially embarrassing.” (pp. 104-9) His explanations here are generally quite satisfying. Given the nature of the subject matter, in some cases Copan’s interpretations cannot rise above the level of hypothesis. Of course, that’s nothing new in biblical study.

I was also especially interested in the subject of the ‘ban’ (herem), a subject we tend to refer today as ethnic cleansing. We are referring here to God’s command to destroy the Perizzites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites, etc. (see Dt. 20:16-18) I have seen this ostensibly horrible thing explained away in a lot of unsatisfying ways. Copan devotes a full three chapters (15-17) exploring this issue. He comes up with a lot of valuable insights. He doesn’t exhaust the topic, but if you can get a handle on what he says about the issue, you’ll be an asset to the Church.

In general, while reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking that a ‘critical’ or ‘skeptical’ approach to this subject is as irrational as that of the fideist. Assuming that the Old Testament is unjustifiable is as ahistorical as the assumption that it is altogether morally unproblematic. Even for someone who does not believe that this is the actual word of God, a benefit of doubt has to be extended to the authors and to the nation that functioned as the subject of these books. It is unscientific, I think, to believe that all pre-modern notions are unnatural and merely sponsored by self-interest. I think it is better simply to recognise the genius underlying the Old Testament, whether you are willing to grant that it is the word of God or not. Israel was a special nation. Surely their book would reflect this!

Would I recommend this as a part of an undergraduate course? Absolutely. It would not be sufficient as an introduction to the Old Testament, of course, but it would make a valuable point of focus for scholarly discussion.

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Voyage to Alpha Centuari

Written by Michael O’Brien

(Ignatius Press, 2014)

Reviewed by Hannah Corkery


 * This excellent, thoughtful review appeared in our very first issue last winter. – ed.


I must confess that I am a reluctant and unexperienced reader of literature that falls under the label of science fiction. In fact, my only prior experience would probably be Orwell’s 1984, C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra (Voyage to Venus), and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

What struck me as I began reading Voyage to Alpha Centauri was the common formula by which these novels abide — which does perhaps say more about the limitations of our human nature and imagination than about the stories themselves. Any attempt to present a narrative set in the future of our universe presents the uncomfortable contradiction of writing outside reality-as-we-know-it, while having nothing but our own experience of reality to draw on. Moreover, all the aforementioned books present mankind collectively at his worst: driven by a search for complete knowledge, eager for discovery, in an environment that has become globally tyrannical, and entirely restrictive of the individual’s freedom. Yes, man is fallen, and our fallen nature makes us prone to evil, but I am skeptical about the pessimistic future of globalisation and control that these overblown science fiction plots present.

So begins O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri. The World Federation rules earth’s society with an increasingly evident iron fist. Science has developed to the point of creating the Kosmos, a giant space shuttle capable of transporting 677 individuals on an expedition to the newly discovered planet Alpha Centauri. One such individual, our protagonist, is Dr. Neil Ruiz de Hoyos, a Nobel Prize winning scientist whose theoretical work as a physicist enabled the building of the spaceship. The majority of the story is told through his journal entries, which foregrounds the narrative of his personal development against the background of the science fiction plot.

Although the prose sometimes drags and the message wavers on the brink of didacticism, Journey to Alpha Centauri is a gripping story with moments of truth, illuminated through the characters’ dialogue and scenes expertly painted. It is in re-reading parts which particularly stood out to me that I am able to appreciate this novel more fully. Some excerpts near the beginning bear new fruit in light of the whole; those that most appealed to me were Neil’s encounters with beauty and reflections on love early on in the novel. The entire novel documents the character on his progressive struggle to understand love and beauty, yet it was these earliest scenes of Neil’s confusion which I found to be the most evocative.

Early in his journey Neil refers to love — which he never fostered — as a “pandora’s box of illusory images and misinterpretations.” (p.13) While unable to acknowledge love at first, Neil perceives beauty, which eventually leads him to this realization. On first beholding the Kosmos, he reflects on her beauty as “radiant wholeness, balance, harmony,” and the contradiction between her beauty, a mimeses of creation, and her power. Neil’s reflections offer the reader a powerful exploration of beauty as the reflection of love. This is not something that Neil has discovered yet, but his momentary reflections present this truth with clarity to the reader.

That Neil’s opposition to love begins to crumble is evident through a number of moving tableaus that present the friendships he establishes aboard the giant spaceship. He writes in his journal of this change of heart, noting that love must be a sort of fruitfulness — recognizing the need to bear fruit and create something out of oneself. (p.61) Neil relates these thoughts to the subject of the space exploration: “We seek to spark our own global imagination, to experience vicariously the thrill of discovering the unknown other, be it an empty planet or an inhabited one.” (p. 63)

Neil’s encounters with the “other” through the friends he makes on the journey to Alphas Centauri are central to the corresponding personal journey occurring. The reader does not complete Neil’s personal journey with him, leaving him at the climax of his struggles. Although resolution is reached through the story’s conclusion, I was not completely satisfied leaving Neil as we do. Perhaps the closure I sought in the end of the story was more present in the center of the story:

O my elusive lamp of knowledge

Your flame by a throats soft flute

Reveals my soul’s plight;

Darkness is around me now,

And I within it sealed

Yet may I bring forth my light

As seed locked within soil

Will break the surface of the field

And bear its golden fruit.       (p. 83)

This is the text of a poem Neil receives from an old friend with whom he becomes re-acquainted. Encapsulated within the poem are the critical questions that Voyage to Alpha Centauri explores: What is knowledge? What makes life sacred? How does one effect change and bear fruit? It is the exploration of these questions that unifies the plot, and the hope embodied here which suggests the final stages of the protagonist’s journey.