VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI offers a personal meditation on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in his first book as pontiff, criticizing the "cruelty" of capitalism's exploitation of the poor but also decrying the absence of God in Marxism.
In "Jesus of Nazareth," released yesterday, Benedict touches on themes that have begun to emerge in his 2-year-old papacy: the spiritual weaknesses of modern materialistic life, in which people seem to think they can do without God.
The book also points to a concern of Benedict from his days as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when he sought to stem support for "liberation theology" -- the theology of salvation as liberation from injustice, popular in Latin America.
Benedict stresses that the book, which he began writing in 2003 when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is an expression of his "personal search for the face of the Lord" and is by no means an official part of Roman Catholic Church doctrine.
"Everyone is free, then, to contradict me," he says.
Benedict -- a prolific theologian before he became pope -- sets out to give a thorough examination of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' public ministry to arrive at the foundation of the Christian faith: that Jesus is God.
"What did Jesus truly bring, if he didn't bring peace to the world, well-being for all and a better world?" he asks. "The answer is very simple: God. He brought God."
The 448-page book is due in bookstores in German, Italian, and Polish on Monday, the pope's 80th birthday. The English-language edition is set for release May 15 and translations are planned for 16 other languages.
"Jesus of Nazareth" covers several key points of Jesus's public life and ministry, including an entire chapter on his sermon on the mount, in which he praises the poor, the meek and the hungry in the Beatitudes. Benedict then reflects on how the sermon is relevant in today's world.
"After the experiences of totalitarian regimes, after the brutal way in which they trampled on men, mocked, enslaved, and beat the weak, we understand anew those who hunger and thirst for justice," Benedict writes.
"Confronted with the abuse of economic power, with the cruelty of capitalism that degrades man into merchandise, we have begun to see more clearly the dangers of wealth and we understand in a new way what Jesus intended in warning us about wealth."
Benedict continues that message in another chapter on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, and the need to love one's neighbor. In it, Benedict decries how the wealthy have "plundered" Africa and the Third World, both materially and spiritually, through colonialism.
He criticizes lifestyles of the wealthy, citing "victims of drugs, of human trafficking, of sexual tourism, people destroyed on the inside, who are empty despite the abundance of their material goods." In another chapter, Benedict sharply criticizes Marxism, saying it excluded God from life.
The book is the first of two volumes: Rizzoli, the book's Italian publisher, said Benedict is expected to write a second volume exploring the birth of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection.