The National Catholic Review
John Courtney Murray
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The issue of religious liberty is of the highest interest to me both as a theologian and as an American. It is, as it were, the American issue at the Council. The American episcopate is greatly pleased that the issue has finally appeared on the agenda of the Council, notwithstanding many efforts to block discussion of it. Through Cardinal Spellman the American bishops made a strong intervention, demanding that the issue be presented to the conciliar Fathers. And all of them are prepared strongly to support, and indeed to strengthen, the text that has been written by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity….

The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity composed its text before Pope John XXIII published his encyclical Pacem in Terris. But the doctrine of the text is identical with the doctrine of the encyclical. The text represents the term of a lengthy development of theological thought in the matter, and the encyclical confirms the validity of this development.

There are, in general, two essential points of doctrine. First, it is asserted that every man by right of nature (jure naturae) has the right to the free exercise of religion in society according to the dictates of his personal conscience. This right belongs essentially to the dignity of the human person as such. Secondly, the juridical consequences of this right are asserted, namely, that an obligation falls on other men in society, and upon the state in particular, to acknowledge this personal right, to respect it in practice, and to promote its free exercise. This is, in a mode of general statement, the heart of the matter.

I think, however, it is necessary to take one further step. And here I speak as an American, out of the Anglo-American tradition of politics, law and jurisprudence. The American constitutional system is based squarely on two fundamental principles: first, man is endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights; second, government and the order of law exist primarily for the protection and promotion of these rights. These principles were clearly affirmed by Pius XII and by John XXIII. However, the American system also enshrines another principle, namely, the incompetence of government as judge or arbiter in the field of religious truth, as also, for instance, in the field of art and science….

This principle, which asserts the incompetence of secular authority in the field of religion, is deeply embedded in the true political tradition of the Christian West. It is also affirmed within the theological tradition of the Church. Leo XIII, for instance, made it quite clear that political authority has no part whatsoever in the care of souls (cura animarum) or in the control of the minds of men (regimen animorum). It is, of course, true that this political principle was obscured in Europe for centuries, largely in consequence of the rise of royal absolutism and the “Union of Throne and Altar.” The true tradition was, however, preserved in the American constitutional system. Absolutism never set foot in America, much to the joy both of the Church and of the American people. Together with my fellow countrymen, both Catholic and non-Catholic, I should like to see this principle asserted in the final conciliar text on religious freedom. It is, I think, essential to the case for religious freedom in society. It completes the theological and ethical arguments by adding to them a sound political argument. And this political principle, namely, that political authority is incompetent in the field of religion, needs particularly to be invoked when there is question of legal limitations to be imposed on the free exercise of religion in society….

In conclusion, I might note that two essential questions face the Council. The first is pastoral and ecumenical. The Church has always fought for her own freedom and for the freedom of her children. The question today is, whether the Church should extend her pastoral solicitude beyond her own boundaries and assume an active patronage of the freedom of the human person, who was created by God as his image, who was redeemed by the blood of Christ, who stands today under a massive threat to everything that human dignity and personal freedom mean. The second question is doctrinal. Is the assumption of this universal pastoral solicitude warranted? Is it grounded in the doctrinal tradition of the Church with regard to human dignity and the rights of man? I think the answer must be affirmative, if only the tradition of the Church is understood to be what it is, namely, a tradition of growth in fuller understanding of the truth.

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John Courtney Murray, S.J., a former contributing editor to America, was instrumental in preparing the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” of the Second Vatican Council. This reflection, sent from Rome during the second sess