Monsignor Joseph Murphy
An interview with the author of Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI

Monsignor Joseph Murphy, a native of Ireland, received his S.T.L. degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He has taught in colleges and seminaries, written articles for several publications, and is currently an official of the Secretariat of State at the Vatican. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Monsignor Murphy about his recently published book, Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press, 2008). An excerpt from the Introduction to Monsignor Murphy’s book can be read here.

Ignatius Insight:What was the genesis of your book? What do you hope readers will learn and better appreciate about the theological work of Pope Benedict XVI?

Monsignor Murphy: Joseph Ratzinger’s writings have fascinated me for a long time. As a seminarian, I became familiar with such works as The Ratzinger ReportIntroduction to ChristianityTo Look on ChristMinisters of Your Joy, and Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. From that time, I was impressed by the extraordinary clarity and depth of Ratzinger’s thought, and his ability to diagnose the problems of the current situation, engage in dialogue with contemporary ideas, and offer a way forward, drawing on the perennial riches of the Christian tradition.

The book came about in this way. When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope I was immediately struck by the content of his first homilies, which offered a thought-provoking and inspiring presentation of the Christian message. In particular, I was intrigued by his emphasis on joy and decided to take a closer look at his writings to get a better understanding of what he meant by it. I initially found what I was looking for in an article entitled “Faith as Trust and Joy—Evangelium”, which was his contribution to Bernhard HŠring’s Festschrift, published in 1977. The article itself was later reprinted in Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius Press, 1987). Subsequently, on reading other texts, I noticed that joy is very much present in throughout Ratzinger’s work and that it arises in connection with all the key themes of the Christian faith. It seemed to me that this was exactly the kind of message that people today, with all their questions and problems, needed to hear again. Also this way of presenting the Christian message could serve to overcome the indifference or discouragement which afflict many members of the Church, and rekindle their enthusiasm and love for the faith.

I hope that the readers of Christ Our Joy will enjoy it as much as I did writing it! I tried to show that even though Pope Benedict, because of his other heavy commitments, never had the opportunity to develop a systematic presentation of the Christian faith—the closest he comes to it is in Introduction to Christianity—there is something like a complete vision of Christianity in his various writings, that joy is central to that vision, and that this manner of presenting the Christian message is particularly appropriate in today’s circumstances.

Ignatius Insight: For many people, especially those who know little about Benedict XVI except what they have read or heard via the secular media, associating “joy” with the Holy Father might be surprising, even strange. What would you say to those who might be puzzled by this association? How is joy a part of Benedict’s theological vision?

Monsignor Murphy: While certainly criticisms could be made of some media presentations of the Pope, which are often little more than caricatures, it should also be pointed out that it is thanks to the media and, in particular, to television, newspapers and news magazines that many people have come know the Holy Father better, particularly in such high profile events as the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the inaugural Mass of the Pontificate and Pope Benedict’s recent pastoral visit to the United States.

I can well imagine that for people who have become used to a certain one-sided image of the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, associating the word “joy” with the Pope might well appear somewhat surprising. However, I would simply invite them to listen to what he has to say and read some of his writings. They will find that his thought is actually very hope-filled, encouraging and inspiring.

Rather than saying that joy is part of Pope Benedict’s theological vision, I would say that joy characterizes both his thought and, more generally, Christian life itself, which after all is a life in the Holy Spirit, in the “Spirit of eternal joy”, as the Pope calls him. Authentic joy is bound up with the Christian faith in its entirety and it flows from living that faith to the full. In the article I mentioned above, the Pope shows how joy presupposes inner harmony and serenity, and these in turn arise from the experience of being loved with a love that is true and unfailing. Only God, who reveals himself in Jesus Christ, can provide this true and unfailing love. As Ratzinger’s friend, the German philosopher Josef Pieper, puts it, only God can truly say to us: “Yes, it is good that you are, that you exist”.

Ignatius Insight:What are some aspects of joy found in Benedict’s work that might be new or surprising to readers? What are some other essential qualities of Benedict’s thought that are interrelated with joy?

Monsignor Murphy: Joy is of course a central Biblical theme, and so Christianity and joy must be closely associated. For example, in the intimacy of the Last Supper, Christ says to his disciples: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11). Christianity is not about imposing heavy burdens on people, nor is it an oppressive system of do’s and don’ts. Rather, it is the path to freedom and to true joy. Hence, the Holy Father’s emphasis on joy is simply in keeping with his desire to communicate what is essential to Christianity, what it is really all about.

In this regard, there are some aspects of Pope Benedict’s thought that readers may find new or at least thought-provoking. For example, many people, when they hear about the Church, automatically think of her institutional aspects, structures and personnel. However, the Pope places the emphasis elsewhere; for him, the Church is, among other things, what I referred to in the book as the servant, guardian and teacher of joy. He alludes to this idea, for example, in Introduction to Christianity, where he says: “Only someone who has experienced how, regardless of changes in her ministers and forms, the Church raises men up, gives them a home and a hope, a home that is hope—the path to eternal life—only someone who has experienced this knows what the Church is, both in days gone by and now.” (2nd ed., Ignatius Press, 2004, p. 344).

The Pope often cites French Catholic authors in his writings and there are similar ideas about the Church in Georges Bernanos’s great novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, which, incidentally, teaches us a lot about the nature of Christian joy, despite the novel’s initially somewhat somber appearance. In one well-known passage, for example, the curŽ de Torcy describes the true nature of the Church and tells his younger colleague, the curŽ d’Ambricourt: “Joy is in the gift of the Church, whatever joy is possible for this sad world to share” (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2002, p. 20).

An important question, which the Pope addresses in his writings, is whether there can be joy in the face of suffering and death. A merely superficial joy cannot withstand these difficult realities, which bring us face to face with the fragility of our lives and the question of ultimate meaning. However, Christian joy is something much more profound. It springs from knowing that the God of love is close to us in all the circumstances of our lives and, as the saints teach us, it is this that enables us to face illness, suffering and death with serenity, confidence and hope. Ultimately, it is Christ’s victory over sin and death that makes it possible for joy and suffering to co-exist.

Ignatius Insight:Benedict has often been portrayed as “triumphalistic” and “rigid”, and yet isn’t the case that his life’s work has been marked by a deep and serious dialogue with other religions and belief systems? What stands out to you the most about Benedict’s writings about secularism, modernity and skepticism?

Monsignor Murphy: Anyone who has ever met or read Pope Benedict would see just how wide of the mark it is to describe him as “triumphalistic” or “rigid”. His theology is marked by a willingness to engage in dialogue, and he is very well informed about the questions posed by contemporary culture and theological debate. In this regard, those who wish to get a better idea of what the Pope is really like would do well to read the first chapter of Fr. Vincent Twomey’s recent book Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (Ignatius Press, 2007), where Twomey, who wrote his doctorate under Professor Ratzinger’s direction, gives us an interesting description of his former teacher’s method of conducting seminars, which were characterized by open debate and respect for the views of others.

The Pope has discussed other religions and belief systems on various occasions, especially in recent years in such works as Many Religions—One Covenant (Ignatius Press, 1999) and Truth and Tolerance (Ignatius Press, 2004). In his writings on these subjects, as well as on secularism, modernity and skepticism, what emerges very clearly is the emphasis on the primacy of truth, without which joy is simply not possible. It is interesting that in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, he stresses that by fidelity to God and to his revealed law, man “comes to experience himself as loved by God and discovers joy in truth and in righteousness—a joy in God which becomes his essential happiness” (no. 9). Man is made for the truth and cannot avoid posing the ultimate questions about meaning, about life and death, about his origins and destiny. In all cultures and religions, we find attempts to answer these questions, and there is no doubt in Ratzinger’s mind that Christianity can engage in fruitful dialogue with the world religions on the basis of this common quest for answers and also on the basis of the knowledge about human existence and morality which transcends national, cultural and religious boundaries.

Ratzinger stresses that modern skepticism and relativism, by ignoring the truth-claims of religion and the fundamental human insights about the deeper questions of life, pose a grave danger for man since they risk leading him into a vacuum devoid of meaning, which would prove fatal. Truth is necessary to lead us out of alienation, but if there is no possibility of knowing the truth, man is left without meaning and direction. However, man has an unquenchable thirst for truth, love and meaning; he needs them in order to live. In this context, Christianity reassures us not only that truth and meaning exist but that these are in fact personal and are ultimately to be identified with the God who is love. Ratzinger puts it very strikingly in Introduction to Christianity: “Christian faith lives on the discovery that not only is there such a thing as objective meaning but that this meaning knows me and loves me, that I can entrust myself to it like the child who know that everything he may be wondering about is safe in the ‘you’ of his mother.” (p. 80).

Ignatius Insight:Benedict XVI and John Paul II are continually compared to one another—sometimes fairly (and understandably), sometimes not. What key similarities and differences do you see in their theological works?

Monsignor Murphy: It is clear that Benedict XVI and John Paul II are very different as to temperament, spirituality, background and theological approach. However, they are also very complementary. Pope John Paul was of course more of a philosopher, initially trained in the Aristotelian and Thomist traditions, which left a lasting mark on his thinking. His interest in the human person and in the reality of human love, sexuality and marriage led him to integrate his early philosophical education with the more personalistic insights of phenomenology, thus producing a very interesting and original synthesis of his own, the fruits of which we find in Love and ResponsibilityThe Acting Person and Theology of the Body. His love for the theatre and his indebtedness to the Carmelite spiritual tradition also contributed to the formation of this great pastor, thinker and man of prayer. Pope John Paul has left a large corpus of writings which will require considerable time to absorb. Among them his teaching on ethical questions, social doctrine and anthropology (the theology of the body) undoubtedly holds a special place and has yet to be fully integrated into the life of the Church and her members.

Pope Benedict’s background is rather different. His spirituality is deeply influenced by the liturgical movement, as is clear from his writings on liturgy and his manner of celebrating the Eucharist. His theology has a strong Biblical and Patristic note. It owes much to the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine, and to medieval authors like St. Bonaventure. Even though Pope Benedict’s thought is less explicitly philosophical than that of Pope John Paul, it does pay close attention to the questions raised by the Enlightenment and by the thinkers who shaped modern culture. Pope Benedict is also a remarkably clear teacher, with a gift for expressing profound ideas in a very simple way, and so it is no wonder that the many people who attend his Angelus and General Audience talks pay close attention to what he has to say. While he certainly has an interest in moral and social issues, Pope Benedict, in keeping with his own academic background in the area of fundamental and dogmatic theology, has tended to devote more attention to the central articles of the faith, to the dialogue between faith and reason, and to the liturgy, as is clear from his encyclicals on love and on hope, and his very beautiful work on Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, the teachings of both Popes, in their complementarity, provide us with an extraordinarily profound understanding of the riches of the Christian faith.

Ignatius Insight: In Christ Our Joy you emphasize how Joseph Ratzinger, in his Christological writings, focuses on both the Incarnation and the Cross. Why is this significant and how does it relate to other aspects of his work, especially soteriology and ecclesiology?

Monsignor Murphy: In the Christological section of Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger mentions that, broadly speaking, there have been two major approaches to the mystery of Christ, one which concentrates on the mystery of the Incarnation and the other on the Cross. An approach based on the Incarnation tends to focus on the being of Christ, who is both God and man. The interlocking of God and man, so to speak, appears as the truly decisive factor. This approach is in keeping with the old Patristic adage “what is not assumed is not saved”, which proved immensely helpful in the formulation of the early Christological dogmas. The risk of a unilateral Incarnation-based approach to the mystery of the redemption is to produce a static, optimistic view of man, in which sin plays at most a secondary role.

The other major approach, stressed by St. Paul and in later times by the Reformers, is based on the Cross, and stresses the victory of Christ over sin and death. The risk here is to produce an anti-world interpretation, which sees Christianity as a “constantly appearing breach in the self-confidence and self-assurance of man and of his institutions, including the Church” (Introduction to Christianity, p. 230).

An adequate Christology, and consequently an adequate soteriology and ecclesiology, must somehow embrace both approaches, without reducing them to a facile synthesis. It must pay due attention to the unity of Christ and his saving work. The “being” of Christ, which is the focus of the Incarnation-based approach, is also “doing”. This means that it is intrinsically connected with his saving activity, which is the focus of the approach based on the Cross. Christ’s being is in reality “actualitas“; it is a stepping beyond oneself, an exodus. His being is not a static resting in himself but the act of being sent out, of being son, of serving. In short, his “being” is “doing” and his “doing” is “being”.

This interesting way of connecting the Incarnation and the Cross is intimately bound up with Ratzinger’s notion of person, which stresses the importance of relatedness: the person is “from” someone (ultimately, God), and “for” others. The more a person abandons himself “for” the other, especially for the other who is God, and the more he moves away from himself towards the other, the more he comes to himself and fulfils himself. Jesus Christ, in giving himself, “is the one who has moved right out beyond himself and, thus, the man who has come completely to himself” (Introduction to Christianity, p. 235).

All of this has consequences for our understanding of the Church and Christian life. The piercing of Christ’s side shows that his existence is now completely open: “now he is entirely ‘for’; now he is truly no longer a single individual but ‘Adam’, from whose side Eve, a new mankind, is formed” (Introduction to Christianity, p. 241). The blood and water which flow from Christ’s side point to the basic Christian sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and thus to the Church, which is the new community of men and women. To live as a new creation, to be fully part of the new community, means to live like Christ, in a community of relationships, in a spirit of giving oneself for the other. All of this is made possible by Christ’s saving work, which we receive into our own lives through the sacraments.

Ignatius Insight:In writing about the Blessed Mother, Ratzinger has often focused on her being the Daughter of Zion. What is the importance of that and how does it relate to the theme of joy?

Monsignor Murphy: In 1977 Joseph Ratzinger published a short but profound book on Mariology, Daughter Zion (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1983), in which he identifies the Daughter of Zion theme as one of five Old Testament strands of thought which were taken over by the New Testament and by the later Christian tradition, especially by the liturgy, in order to understand better the person of the Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation. The other strands are (1) the figure of Eve; (2) the barren women who eventually bear a child: Sarah, Rachel, Hannah; (3) the great salvific figures of Esther and Judith; and (4) personified Wisdom.

For Ratzinger, the Daughter of Zion has particular significance. In Old Testament thought, this figure comes to represent Jerusalem and indeed Israel as a whole. Israel, the chosen people, enjoys a covenant relationship with God, which is based on God’s love, mercy and grace. The covenant itself is seen more in terms of a marital relationship than as a political or legal arrangement. In this context, especially in the prophetic writings, Israel is often described in feminine terms as woman, virgin, beloved, wife and mother. In the New Testament, Mary is seen as the true Daughter of Zion, in whom God takes up his dwelling, so much so that she becomes the Mother of God, the Theotokos.

The connection with joy is already clear in the prophets Zechariah and Zephaniah, who urge the people, the Daughter of Zion, to rejoice because God is victorious and present in the midst of Israel. Israel can rejoice because her hope is sure, since it is solidly founded in God’s saving work, his consoling presence and his promises. However, in Old Testament times, the promises await fulfillment.

The hope of Israel is realized in the Virgin Mary, who is to be the mother of the long-awaited Savior, and it is significant that when the angel Gabriel addresses her, he does so in a manner which recalls the Daughter of Zion prophecies: “Rejoice!” This is why Pope Benedict constantly emphasizes that Christianity, which really begins with the angel’s words to Mary, is an invitation to joy. Mary is at the same time the Daughter of Zion and the true Israel, in whom the old and new covenants, Israel and the Church are inseparably one. Mary teaches us what the Church is to be, namely, God’s dwelling place. She also teaches us to place our trust in God in an attitude of complete openness and self-giving. In doing so, she indicates where we will find true joy.

From all of this, we can understand the place of Marian devotion in Christian life. As Joseph Ratzinger puts it: “Marian devotion is the rapture of joy over the true, indestructible Israel; it is a blissful entering into the joy of the Magnificat and thereby it is the praise of him to whom the daughter Zion owes her whole self and whom she bears, the true, incorruptible, indestructible Ark of the Covenant.” (Daughter Zion, p. 82).

Ignatius Insight: You often refer to Introduction to Christianity, widely considered an essential work by Joseph Ratzinger. What are some other works by Ratzinger/Benedict that you think are at the core of his large body of theological work?

Monsignor Murphy: In many ways, Introduction to Christianity is the closest Joseph Ratzinger came to producing a theological synthesis, even though it is incomplete and there are significant developments in later writings. It has to be remembered that Introduction to Christianity was first published forty years ago (in 1968), yet it remains an extraordinarily fresh work and a classic of modern Catholic theology. Introduction deals with the question of faith and belief in the modern world, before commenting in an original way on the contents of the Apostles’ Creed. As my book aims to present Ratzinger’s approach to the main elements of Christian belief, it is only natural that I quote and refer to it quite frequently.

It is a pity that Ratzinger’s doctoral thesis, People and House of God in St. Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church, has never been translated into English. It is important for a better understanding of the genesis of Ratzinger’s thought as contains the basic insights on the Church in her inner nature and in her relationship to the state that he develops in his later writings. Ratzinger’s HabilitationsschriftThe Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, is important for his thinking about salvation history and about the distinction between eschatology and utopia.

Regarding Ratzinger’s strictly theological work, one would also have to mention Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, which is intended as a manual for students of theology, although it is quite original in its presentation. As to other areas of theology, much of his thought is developed in a series of articles published in various journals or collections. These were often republished in books such as his important volume on fundamental theology, Principles of Catholic Theology, his recently republished meditations on the Trinity, The God of Jesus Christ, his more recent works on ecclesiology among which I would count Church, Ecumenism and Politics, and Called to Communion, his collection of articles and meditations on the Eucharist, God is Near Us, and his volume of articles on religious pluralism, relativism and faith, Truth and Tolerance. Regarding Christology, apart from the relevant chapters of Introduction to Christianity, one would have to mention his interesting attempt at developing a spiritual Christology, Behold the Pierced One, and, above all, his most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth. His liturgical writings are also very significant and already proving quite influential. In this regard, his liturgical trilogy must be mentioned: The Feast of FaithA New Song for the Lord and, above all, The Spirit of the Liturgy.

For readers unfamiliar with the Pope’s thought, an easier introductory approach could begin with his short autobiography Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, which explains the context for much of his earlier work, and his three book-length interviews, The Ratzinger ReportSalt of the Earth and God and the World.

Ignatius Insight:What do you think is the place of Joseph Ratzinger in 20th century theology? What are some aspects of his work that will likely to have a significant influence on theological studies and writing in the years to come?

Monsignor Murphy: It is very difficult to prognosticate how Joseph Ratzinger will be seen in the history of 20th century theology. Now that he is Pope, many who were unfamiliar with his work previously will want to know more about his thinking. His theology is less speculative than that of Karl Rahner or Bernard Lonergan, and, largely because of his other commitments, he did not produce a monumental synthesis like that of Hans Urs von Balthasar. His thought has a lot in common with that of ressourcement theologians, like Henri de Lubac, who did much to recover the rich heritage of the Fathers and prompt a greater appreciation of the complexity, subtlety and variety of medieval thought beyond the simplifications of a large part of the manual tradition. With regard to medieval thinkers, it is true that Joseph Ratzinger is more influenced by Augustinianism and by its continuation in the Franciscan tradition found in St Bonaventure than by the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, whereas de Lubac devotes more attention to the latter. Also Ratzinger’s thought has a very strong Scriptural component, as can be seen in Introduction to Christianity and even more so in Jesus of Nazareth.

I am of the view that Pope Benedict’s approach to doing theology is likely to have a strong influence. In the introduction to Christ Our Joy, I outlined some of the characteristics of his theology, mentioning among other things that it is very Scriptural, profoundly rooted in tradition, especially in the Fathers, and is also both pastoral and spiritual. While the necessary distinctions must be made between Pope Benedict’s personal theology and his Magisterium, we do find something of his theological approach in his official teaching. At present, following a number of General Audience talks on the Apostles and the early Church, recently published by Ignatius Press [Jesus, The Apostles, and the Early Church], the Pope is engaged in a very interesting series on the Fathers of the Church, in which he explains the key aspects of their thought and gives some indication of their relevance to contemporary debates. I believe this is likely to encourage theology students to delve into the riches of the Patristic writings and this is sure to benefit both theological reflection and preaching in the future. As a result, we can hope for a more reflective and spiritual style of theological writing, which draws on Scripture and tradition, while being sensitive to the questionings of our contemporaries.