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Robert W. McElroyFebruary 07, 2005
John Courtney Murray, S.J. (Wikimedia Commons)

John Courtney Murray is the most significant Catholic theologian the church in the United States has ever produced. From his birth in 1904 until his death in 1967, Murray occupied a unique role in bringing the Catholic tradition to America’s academic, political and cultural leadership and in identifying the pivotal role the American experiment in democracy could have for the church’s doctrine on society and the state. He was editor of Theological Studies and an associate editor of America; a professor at the Jesuit school of theology in Woodstock, Md., and at Yale University; an advisor to John F. Kennedy during his campaign for the presidency; and the American theological expert designated to participate in the drafting of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom.”

Murray’s writings on religious liberty provided a prism through which the Catholic community could fully reconcile both its doctrinal heritage and its dedication to the principle that no government should seek to restrict or impose religious faith upon its citizens. His piercing and precise treatments of questions ranging from the dangers of secularism to the role of ethics in international affairs to the relationship of law and morality dazzled readers with their insight, breadth and elegance. And his efforts to forge a civil conversation across the religious and intellectual divides that characterized American society after World War II established him as a powerful formative influence in the culture of the United States. It was no exaggeration for Time magazine to designate Murray and Reinhold Niebuhr as the primary architects of a renewed role for religion in American public life at mid-century, a role that recognized the pluralism and freedom of the United States as a source of moral strength and direction.

Lasting Contribution

Yet a century after Murray’s birth, it is easy to view his writings as time-bound—critically important at a vital juncture in the history of Catholicism in the United States, but valuable principally for their historical role rather than their relevance to contemporary questions of theology, culture or politics. After all, Murray’s major writings on the question of religious liberty arose from the now long abandoned Catholic teaching that at times governments in Catholic nations had the right and even the obligation to promote Catholic doctrine at the expense of religious freedom for non-Catholics. And Murray’s death in l967 precluded what could have been a monumental contribution on the role of religious freedom within the life of the church, the facet of religious liberty that is now most in need of clarification in Catholic thought.

Even Murray’s public philosophy, with its classically liberal stress upon freedom, seems in so many ways a product of the 1950’s rather than a basis for contemporary discussion. Murray never recognized the depth of the hold that race has held in American society, nor did his public philosophy grapple effectively with the question of poverty and economic deprivation in American life and the world community. Murray used Catholic principles to critique the materialism and increasing secularism of American society, but his writings often reflected the faith in American exceptionalism and goodness so prevalent in the United States after World War II, a faith that failed to confront the dangers that hubris poses for the world’s leading economic, cultural and military power. Finally, Murray’s public philosophy presupposed a natural law epistemology; today people scoff at the notion of natural law in public discourse. How, then, can Murray’s writings continue to provide a substantial contribution to public theology in the United States?

Five Propositions

Murray framed a series of penetrating questions about the future of the American democratic experiment and, from the Catholic tradition, pointed a direction for answering those questions that is still valid in the present moment. Specifically, he asserted that:

1. The American experiment in democracy rests primarily upon a moral consensus rooted in the transcendent rights of the human person.

John Courtney Murray firmly believed that the distinction between morality and law was crucial to forming a just society, and that most aspirations of morality were entirely outside the realm of law and the state; but he believed with equal fervor that government was an inherently moral enterprise. He rejected the notion that the heart of the American republic lay in a balancing of conflicting interest groups or in the maximization of individual autonomy for its citizens. Murray asserted that American democracy rested upon a religiously informed vision of the dignity of the human person and the role of the community in enhancing that dignity. The founders of the nation, he proposed, had recognized precisely this reality when they affirmed that the basis for erecting the new nation lay in a series of human rights created by God and antecedent to any governmental enactment. It fell to every succeeding generation to recognize more fully the nature and scope of these rights and to renew the moral consensus by acknowledging the transcendent identity both of human rights and the human community.

2. Because the foundation for American democracy is a moral consensus, substantive and civil dialogue within American society concerning the key issues of the day is necessary for democracy’s survival.

For Murray, the term democracy was substantive as well as procedural. It required common understandings of the most basic principles of national life, of the aspirations of the American people, of the way in which specific human rights are exercised. Thus democracy, in Murray’s view, always required substantive national dialogue, civil conversation in the deepest meaning of that term. Murray certainly recognized that this dialogue could take many different forms in practice and that the democratic dialogue of the university setting would differ from that of the union hall or the neighborhood meeting or the newspaper editorial. He believed, however, that depth of civil dialogue was absolutely essential for the success of the American experiment, and that such dialogue could not be presumed, but had to be worked for assiduously in every generation.

3. American culture is warped by an exaggerated dedication to technology and material acquisition, and thus is prey to the increasing instrumentalization of the human person in the name of progress.

Murray’s reading of the religious history of the West convinced him that in every age new threats would emerge to the identity and dignity of the human person, and that human dignity could be protected only if society recognized that that dignity was inviolate because it was rooted in God. Murray believed that American culture was particularly susceptible to the allures of technology and materialism and particularly blind to the ways in which these forces diminish our humanity, by dimming and at times denying the sacred dimensions of human life. This diminishment could be seen in the expansion of economic thinking into all spheres of political and social life, reducing the morality of the great questions of the day to cost-benefit analysis. It was found in the unreflective assent given by American society to the quest for progress in science and medicine without asking about the consequences and costs of that progress in humane terms. It was located in the overwhelming preoccupation of citizens of the United States with the acquisition of ever more material goods and ever greater wealth. Murray believed that unless a fundamental re-examination of America’s cultural priorities was undertaken, the technological worldview and materialism could destroy the American experiment by creating a world of technological and material exquisiteness with a spiritual vacuum at its heart.

4. The primary challenge to religious liberty in America in the present day comes not from government’s establishment of religion, but from encroaching denials of the free exercise of religion.

Murray believed that the great genius of the American experiment had been to establish government on the principle that the state should never seek to advance one religion over another. This principle had been incorporated into the no-establishment clause of the United States Constitution; Murray considered this clause a monumental contribution to the development of democracy in the modern era.

But Murray also believed that the other religious clause of the Constitution, the free exercise clause, was equally essential. Religious liberty was a freedom not only of individual conscience, but of religious action and religious communities in action. The founders of the United States had desired to encourage the flourishing of religion in the new nation as a bulwark to civic-mindedness and civic virtue; in the 20th century religion in the public square was threatened by the expansion of government in American society coupled with the fallacious notion that where government came in, all substantive religious belief and action had to be evacuated. Murray was convinced that this inverted reading of the Constitution, left unchecked, would not only deprive American society and culture of the transcendent perspective so vital to their future, but would in the process rob religious Americans of their right to have anything but a privatized religious faith.

5. American foreign policy must seek to attain the international common good as well as the national interest of the United States.

Murray wrote at a time in which the realist school was dominant in the study and formulation of American foreign policy. Rejecting the prior Wilsonian tradition, realism asserted that every nation, and certainly the United States, must fashion its strategic foreign policy based upon a clear assessment of its national interest, not universalist ideals. While not espousing Wilsonian idealism, Murray utterly rejected realism. He believed that the United States must use its great military and economic power in the world, but he believed with even greater fervor that policy should be formulated with a recognition of both the American national interest and the international common good. Murray held that even in his own day a genuine community of nations existed; hence it was immoral to use the national interest as the primary prism through which to view America’s proper presence in the world. What was needed was a careful integration of the interests of the nation state and the world community, and a moral analysis and policy formulation process that would give due weight to each.

The Promise of Contention

Murray’s five assertions are still needed to reinvigorate American social, cultural and political life today. Only if the foundational element of American democracy is a moral consensus shared broadly can politics produce anything more than ever-widening splits between red states and blue states. Only if political dialogue becomes strategic and community-building rather than tactical and destructive can substantive democracy flourish in the United States. Only if America takes a religiously informed look at the dominance of technology and materialism in our culture will the core of our national identity be founded upon spiritualizing rather than instrumentalizing impulses. And only if our foreign policy can integrate both a dedication to the American national interest and the international common good will America’s immense military and economic power be put to proper use. John Courtney Murray’s writings still constitute an invigorating challenge and support to the American experiment in democracy in the 21st century, because he thought broadly and deeply about the aspirations of America’s democracy and about the long-term bases for their achievement.

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19 years 4 months ago
God knows Monsignor McElroy's tribute to John Courtney Murray celebrates a life to whose influence we all owe much. America and the world are the better for this Jesuit's having lived and having paved the way to interfaith tolerance, despite some glaring exceptions of more recent vintage.

But could we not, factually as well as in charity, dispense with this tiresome kneejerk libel of the laity as supposedly preoccupied with and wallowing in "materialism"? At least until the clergy, and especially our bishops, set a more persuasive example -- for starters, by backing off on a lifestyle that hardly tempts one to credit them with anything like dedication to haircloth and ashes?

17 years 4 months ago
The Feb. 7 issue of America had the expected articles of interest, including a scholarly piece on John Courtney Murray, S.J., and an equally fascinating look at the Index of Forbidden Books (something that I remember largely ignoring in my years at Brooklyn Preparatory and Fordham). Who knew that English was a barbarian language? As such (in the eyes of the “dominant Jesuits and Dominicans”), most works written in English were not examined. Holden Caulfield was safe!

Two other pieces in this issue seized my interest: Phyllis Zagano’s thought-provoking look at the recent decision by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church to restore the female diaconate and, for an analogous reason, the advertisement on page 46 for the Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University.

Dr. Zagano’s article, along with her book on the restoration of the diaconate in the Roman Church, would certainly (apart from language) have met the criteria for the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. If for no other reason, it should be required reading.

The Seton Hall message reminded me that well into the 1960’s, when the only female students at “The Hall” were in the College of Nursing, the university took steps to “protect” their seminarians from the temptation supposedly posed by the nursing students. The library was open to the young ladies only for certain hours, presumably those hours during which the seminarians would be otherwise occupied. Additionally, lunch was supervised by an elderly cleric in a black cape, who carefully but forcefully herded the young women into a designated, single-sex area of the dining hall, muttering comments about “daughters of Satan”—the New Jersey equivalent of segregated lunch counters.

My visceral reaction to the advertisement was wondrous amazement that the stated contact person for the Seminary School of Theology is the associate dean, Dr. Diane Traflet. Irony aside, Bob Dylan (who no doubt would be banned by the Index if the inquisitors could understand him) was right: The times they are a-changing.

19 years 4 months ago
God knows Monsignor McElroy's tribute to John Courtney Murray celebrates a life to whose influence we all owe much. America and the world are the better for this Jesuit's having lived and having paved the way to interfaith tolerance, despite some glaring exceptions of more recent vintage.

But could we not, factually as well as in charity, dispense with this tiresome kneejerk libel of the laity as supposedly preoccupied with and wallowing in "materialism"? At least until the clergy, and especially our bishops, set a more persuasive example -- for starters, by backing off on a lifestyle that hardly tempts one to credit them with anything like dedication to haircloth and ashes?

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