The Imprimatur of Happiness
Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
by Joseph Murphy
Ignatius Press, April 2008
236 pp., $16.99
For the better part of his 82 years, Pope Benedict XVI has dedicated his life to serving Christ and his church — as priest and pastor, as theology professor and author, as archbishop of Munich-Freising and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as the Roman Catholic Church's chief shepherd. What, if anything, has unified his thought throughout these years?
In Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI, Monsignor Joseph Murphy, an official in the Vatican Secretariat of State who studied theology at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, proposes that what ties Benedict's theology together is an emphasis on joy.
Consider Benedict's diagnosis of our existential plight. As he sees it, modern man is, above all else, unhappy. Modern anxieties, Murphy notes, produce "boredom, spiritual lethargy, and a sense of meaningless" that make life almost insufferable. The American phenomenon of the "man-child" — the 20-year-old professional who works by day and parties by night with no plans to settle down — and Europe's plummeting birthrates and low religious practice support Benedict's claim. Searching for joy yet blind to the point of living, we retreat from reality.
Murphy pays particular attention to Nietzsche, to whom Benedict returns repeatedly. In his first encyclical letter as pope, Benedict summarized the Nietzschean mindset: "Doesn't the church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the divine?"
Nietzsche's attack on Christianity's "slave morality" paved the way for modern rejection of objective standards of goodness, truth, and beauty. But by making ourselves the measure of everything, we have lost a shared measure of anything. Having shrugged off Christ's yoke and with it our moorings to God's truth and goodness, we know of no excellence for which to strive, only arbitrary tastes and their pointless pursuit: the "escapist pleasure of the consumer economy" and the "exploitation that increasingly marks human relationships." What was to be our liberation has become our enslavement.
But we need not remain slaves forever. As Benedict sees it, we can regain joy by participating in love—both giving and receiving. Thus, Benedict invites modern man to rediscover his lofty vocation as a beloved child of God, for "one cannot become wholly man in any other way than by being loved, by letting oneself be loved." This divine love cannot be a noble fiction meant to keep us from despair; as Benedict writes, "Only when love and truth are in harmony can man know joy." The question, then, is whether the gospel is true.
From here Benedict launches his fight against the "dictatorship of relativism." While many commentators focus on relativism's moral and political implications, Benedict probes its spiritual consequences. Modern scientific rationalism has so neutered reason that, though useful for solving technical questions, it is impotent to address major questions about life's origins, meaning, or destiny. As Benedict puts it, "[K]nowledge of the functional aspect of the world … brings with it no understanding of the world and of being," since what is immaterial "cannot be approached with methods appropriate to what is material." The scientific method can never establish or discredit Christianity, he argues, "because the kind of experiment demanded — pledging one's life for this — is of quite a different kind."