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The Tablet UK - March 26-2011 (Article about Jose Pagola`s JESUS Book)

The Tablet UK - March 26-2011 (Article about Jose Pagola`s JESUS Book)

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08/03/2011

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MARK DOWD
Brought to book
A best-selling life of Jesus by a Basque priest has been banned inSpain. Spanish bishops accuse José Antonio Pagola of heresy, yethis book is bringing some of the world’s most marginalisedpeople into the Church
H
e could have been forgiven forthinking that Christmas 2010 wasgoing to be especially joyful.Celebrated Basque priest andauthor José Antonio Pagola had just receivedan important endorsement for his best-selling book,
 Jesus: an historical approximation
,from none other than Cardinal GianfrancoRavasi, president of the Pontifical Council forCulture. Ravasi had just commended Pagola’s work in an interview with the Italian paper
 Il Sole 24 Ore
, saying it was a great resourcefor the “non-technical” reader wanting to dis-cover more about the life of Jesus.But on 20 December, Pagola received aphone call from the Bishop of San Sebastián,José Ignacio Munilla, during which he wasinformed that the Congregation for theDoctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome wasgoing to investigate his book after pressurefrom a handful of influential Spanish bishops,including the Cardinal of Madrid, AntonioMaria Rouco Varela. He was now obliged toobserve a respectful silence over the matter,a process that could take up to five years.The book, which was first published in 2007and which has sold just short of 100,000copies worldwide, is now nowhere to be seenon the website of its publisher, PPC – theMadrid-based Propaganda Popular Católica. All copies have been hurriedly withdrawnfrom Spain’s bookshops. There have even beenreports that the conference of Spanish bishopsrequested a certificate of destruction for theremaining 6,000 copies that were selling likehot cakes.This is the most talked about religious bookin post-Franco Spain. The work is the fruitof years of thinking and writing by a man who was rector of the local seminary and went onto become the popular vicar general of theSan Sebastián Diocese for 22 years. Those who know Pagola well say that this book islike none other he has ever written. He wasalmost in a fever when he was working on it.He was on a mission.Pagola had a simple message to convey.God must be understood as, not power, butcompassion. The explosive good news to themarginalised and hopeless, and the eruptionof God’s kingdom in human history, was thecentral message of Jesus, but one that theinstitutional Church was in danger of losingtrack of.Collectively, Pagola sensed that thegroundbreaking radicalism was being lost,so in his book he set out to depict, in clear,accessible layman’s language, as much asthe historical sources allow, a comprehensivepicture of Jesus of Nazareth. Just who washe? What was his contemporary world really like? Why did he want to go beyond complexreligious codes and ritual practices? And why did he end up on collision course withthe local Jewish authorities and the delegatesof imperial Rome?Scholars of the quest for the “historical Jesus”may find little new in the 550 pages. But the book was written for a wider lay readership, which explains why it will soon be available(unless you are in Spain) in Spanish, English,Italian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat andJapanese. So what is all the fuss about?The Church in Spain is polarised. Many  bishops and clerics view the Basque country as a hotbed of dangerous libertinism. Withinthree months of the book’s publication, theBishop of Tarazona, Demetrio Fernández,published a series of criticisms, eventually saying that “the Jesus of Pagola is not theJesus of the faith of the Church”. Others wadedin. Pagola issued a comprehensive response,asserting that his critics were conflating theJesus of history with Christology, which wasnever his intention in the book. Nevertheless,he made concessions and added two newchapters, 14 and 15, “Raised by God” and“Exploring the Identity of Jesus”, both of which would not be strictly necessary in a book lim-iting itself merely to historical sources.But by late spring 2008, the unrest con-tinued among the hard core of critics. Thethen Bishop of San Sebastián, Juan MaríaUriarte, contacted Pagola and warned thatthere was a real possibility of a censure by the bishop’s conference. On 16 June, the Basque bishop seized the initiative and awarded the book his own personal nihil obstatand impri-matur, effectively declaring the book to befree from doctrinal and moral error.Two days later, in what must have been apersonal humiliation for Uriarte, the Spanishconference of bishops blasted back. They accused Pagola of creating a damaging rupture between history and faith, of negating Jesus’own self-understanding of his divine identity and also of denying Jesus’ intentions to foundthe Church as a hierarchical community.By now, Pagola was receiving letters fromagnostics who were rediscovering their faith,and from parishes and base communities inLatin America that were using the book as a vital tool of renewal. There was even a seriesof testimonies from a group of sisters, theOblates of the Holy Redeemer, who had usedthe book in a series of study groups with pros-titutes in the Philippines, Portugal andGuatemala. All this cut little mustard withPagola’s opponents. At stake are some very serious questions,not just about academic freedom and doctrine, but about what can and cannot be written.More than 30 theologians from all over Spainsupported Pagola and took the bishops to taskfor making no references in their criticism tothe Church’s own guidelines set out in a 1993document by the Pontifical Biblical Council.These theologians quote John Paul II:“Catholic exegesis freely makes use of the scientific methods and approaches whichallow a better grasp of the meaning of textsin their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts.” Moreover,they note the words of the present Pope, whoasserts in
 Jesus of Nazareth
the indispensableimportance of the historical-scientific methodas a tool, an appendage towards a deeperunderstanding of the Christ of faith.Pagola’s work is undoubtedly more inclinedtowards the former than the latter. But would we take to task a maths professor who haspublished a hugely popular algebra book by complaining there was little about trigonom-etry or geometry in it? Moreover, Pagola’snew chapters deal extensively with the faithexperiences of those who encounter the risenJesus and how we understand Jesus as “mes-siah”, “Incarnate Word of God”. Would this
José Antonio Pagola, whose book 
 Jesus:an historical approximation
 has split the Church’s hierarchy 
The Church and censorship
4
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THE TABLET
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26 March 2011
 
CATHERINE PEPINSTER
‘Resistance to theexploitation of people had been ledby people of faith
The British Humanist Association(BHA) has found, if not its soul, itsmetier – decorating London buses.Last year, double-deckers toured thecapital with the slogan “There’sprobably no God. Now stop worryingand enjoy your life.” This year it’s “Notreligious? In this year’s census say so.”The organisation has already pre-empted this weekend’s censusand its question on religion with theresults of its own YouGov survey,revealing that 61 per cent of peopleidentified they belonged to a religion(a decline on the 2001 figure) andthe remaining 39 per cent did not.The BHA is one of the loudest voices in the very public debateabout the place of religion in society.Its message is not only that religionshave too much influence but they are in crisis, with declining numbersof believers. But there might be adifferent way of looking at Britain –a way that suggests in reality it issecularism that is in crisis.Last week, a little-publicised eventin the House of Lords producedsome evidence about secularism’sdifficulties, and religion’s ability tothrive. This had nothing to do withthe established role of the Anglican bishops in the House of Lords,although one of the speakers at theevent, Lord Harries, did once sit as a bishop (and now as a peer in his ownright). Rather, contributors to theevent – a seminar on the interaction between faith and politics – providedsome fascinating insights into whatBritain is like, not just at the heart of power but in local neighbourhoods.The event was hosted by theLord’s Speaker, Baroness Hayman, who gave a gracious response toPope Benedict’s address in WestminsterHall last year, when he made a pleafor religious belief to be part of thediscourse of our society. While Lord Harries representedthe more traditional face of Britishreligion – Anglican liberalism – thetwo other speakers, the Chief RabbiJonathan Sacks and the politicalscientist Bikhu Parekh, highlightedhow intertwined the debate overreligion’s place in society has become with multiculturalism and the placeof ethnic minorities.The three took a similar view: thatfaith remains a source of moralresponsibility and altruism. Secularthinkers such as Jürgen Habermasand Tony Judt appear to endorsethis, both having suggested that thecontemporary world lacks a moralnarrative. Yet the continuingreligion-in-the-public-square debatesuggests, rather, that there arecompeting moral narratives, andnone is more contentious than thenarrative about equality.Lord Parekh, with his knowledgeof the Indian sub-continent,suggested that part of the problemstems from Europe’s lack of experience in dealing with equality  because until recently nation states were based on a unity of values. Nowit has to deal with competing values,some emerging out of religionsthemselves – the Muslim woman who wants her hair covered, whichsecular France can’t abide – whileothers emerge from ideas abouthuman rights: the gay couple who want to be married, which theChurches reject as having the same validity as heterosexual marriage.Lord Parekh, however, was notquite correct. Europeans do haveexperience of common values beingchallenged. It was Sixties feminismthat made the personal political, andfeminists remain some of thestrongest critics of institutionalisedreligion, as was evident from themore strident contributors to theHouse of Lords seminar. But it’s theconnection between the personaland faith that really divides thecritics of religion and its supporters. While humanists like those at theHouse of Lords seminar wantreligion to be something private andindividual, believers see it ascommunal – and that has led themto forge creative relationships insome of the poorest parts of Britain,the neighbourhoods that often feelalienated from conventional politics.Maurice Glasman, one of the mostrecently ennobled peers, has yet tomake his maiden speech in theLords. But at the seminar we got aflavour of the passion he will bring toit, when he, a Jew, spoke of the alliancesin East London often forged betweenCatholics and Muslims, that haveled to successful campaigns fordecent working conditions and pay.Resistance to the exploitation of people and the commodification of life, as well as the critique of thecauses of the economic crisis, hesaid, had been led by people of faith.This was solidarity writ large andsecularism, he felt, offered noalternative. That is its crisis. It has been left behind while faith groupshave found a way to empowerthe powerless.26 March 2011
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THE TABLET
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5
content have been included by one who hadtotally “ruptured” the Jesus of history and theChrist of faith?
O
f course, there may be somethingelse going on that has irked the bishops. Pagola does not mincehis words. In an online interviewlast October, he was asked if he would like anopen discussion with Pope Benedict aboutthe contents of his book. Pagola replied: “I would like for Rome to listen to the varioustheological movements that exist today withinthe Church, not only in Europe, but aboveall, I would be happy if the hierarchy woulddare to lead a movement of conversion toJesus Christ and his project of the Kingdomof God. Nothing is more urgent than this inthe Church today.” Which implies that Romeis not listening and that the hierarchy is failingin the task of conversion.In another Pagola book recently published,
 Following in the Footsteps of Jesus
, in only the second paragraph of the book, we find:“The Church celebrates the Risen Jesus as a vine full of life, but it is largely made up of dead branches.But perhaps most difficult of all for the car-dinal of Madrid and other senior figures inthis most clerical of countries, on page 279of the controversial book, we find: “In Jesus’movement all patriarchal authority disappears… No one is above the others. No one lordsit over the others. There is no rank or class.There are no priests, Levites and lay people.There is no place for intermediaries. Everyonehas direct, immediate access to God, theFather of all.”The remaining mystery in all this is howthe Spanish conference of bishops managedto persuade Rome to start a process of inves-tigation, given that not only had Pagola’s ownlocal bishop given the book his blessing, butthat his work is said to enjoy support not justfrom big hitters such as Cardinal Ravasi, butalso the CDF’s very own secretary, ArchbishopLuis Ladaria. It appears that the clinchingencounter may well have been a summer 2010discussion in Rome between Madrid’sCardinal Rouco and Cardinal William Levada,head of the CDF, in which Rouco spoke pas-sionately about the “harm” being done by Pagola’s book.Of course, in the Church there is alwaysthe law of unintended consequences. Although withdrawn in Spain, the PDF version of the book zips around Spanish parishes and com-munities via the click of a mouse. Sales in theUnited States are strong, although the pub-lishers there concede that some conservativeCatholic groups returned copies of the bookonce it became the subject of doctrinal investigation.Those close to Pagola say he has a diary fullof at least 12 months’ speaking engagements.He has just published a commentary onMatthew’s gospel. For this 73-year-old author,a quiet and serene retirement looks to beabout the last thing on the cards.
I
Mark Dowd is a freelance journalist basedin Madrid.

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