What Joe Biden (and all American Catholics) owe Jesuit John Courtney Murray
It is not a coincidence that a prominent U.S. Jesuit, the Rev. Leo J. O’Donovan, former president of Georgetown University, will deliver the invocation at the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the second Catholic president in the history of the United States. In the past few years, particularly during the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Society of Jesus has been the most important and visible reserve of intellectual and spiritual power for global Catholicism.
But it can be seen also as a déjà vu moment in American presidential history. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, received crucial help from the most important American Jesuit of the 20th century, John Courtney Murray, in order to overcome the “finger of suspicion” against Catholics in politics—as Kennedy put it in his speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston on Sept. 12, 1960. In this historical context, the election of Biden owes something to Murray, as does the whole Catholic Church—in the United States and elsewhere.
But Murray and his work are no longer as well known or as popular among Catholics as they used to be.
Murray has been subject to a polemical traditionalist narrative that sees in the tumultuous 1960s—the Second Vatican Council included—the beginning of the church’s adaptation to secular liberalism and the end of the true Catholic Church. But we should also not pretend that the criticisms against Murray come exclusively from extremist reactionary circles. In the last two decades especially, there have been other voices, intellectually and ecclesially more responsible than the traditionalists, that have criticized Murray’s public theology.
Murray has been subject to a polemical traditionalist narrative that sees in the tumultuous 1960s the beginning of the church’s adaptation to secular liberalism.
For some, the Murray still worth reading is not the theologian of Vatican II on religious liberty, but the Murray of the 1940s—on “Christian culture,” as Charles Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., said in a speech in 2019, when he was archbishop of Philadelphia
At this juncture in American political and religious history, when the dangers to the public order of the conflating of religious ideology and ethno-nationalism have become apparent, Murray has something to say for the Catholic Church trying to recover a sense of itself in the public square.
In the autumn of 1964, Murray was called—after almost a decade of silence imposed by the Vatican because of his scholarship on the relationship between church and state—to advise the Second Vatican Council as a peritus on the drafting of what became in December 1965 the conciliar declaration “Dignitatis Humanae” (“Declaration on Religious Freedom”). The conciliar shift from teachings of Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” (1864) and Leo XIII’s “Immortale Dei” (1885) to the teaching of Vatican II in favor of religious liberty would not have been possible without Murray and American Catholicism. Murray’s work showed the value of an inductive approach to the status of the church in a world of religious and moral pluralism.
Murray understood the importance of framing the Catholic reception of the American Constitution and the relations between church, state and society in terms of peace. In his most important book, We Hold These Truths (1960), the year of Kennedy’s election, Murray stated that the teaching of the Catholic Church on religious liberty is compatible with the American model of religious liberty, one that holds no distinction between true and false, good and bad religion: “One may not, without moral fault, act against these articles of peace,” he wrote. The American solution is not an article of faith, but “articles of peace in a pluralist society.”
Our societies have become more pluralistic and more secular, while political identities have often become more strongly linked to religious belief.
One of Murray’s most important contributions that is lost on the defenders of a new integralism is the principle of the distinction between state and society, and the conviction that the state is limited in its role toward society. “State is distinct from society,” he asserted, and “government submits itself to judgment by the truth of society; it is not itself a judge of the truth in society.”
In the present moment, Murray’s assumption must be revised: Our societies have become more pluralistic and more secular, while political identities have often become more strongly linked to religious belief. At the same time, Murray’s distinction between government and society is still key for the survival of the church in a pluralist world. Integralism assumes the effectiveness of a state-sponsored official religion on society; but our societies are becoming more pluralistic—a fact, no matter if one considers this situation as optimal, suboptimal or catastrophic.
Murray was no naïve relativist. In a 1961 essay, “What Can Unite a Religiously Divided Nation?” (republished in January 1962 in the periodical The Catholic Mind with the title “The Return to Tribalism”), Murray talked about the need for the church “to complete itself, not ecclesiastically, mind you, but socially, by creating an ambience, an environment that could be called a Christian society.” There is for Murray no denying that a political society is normally incomplete without some spiritual bond of unity: “Secular society must have some spiritual substance that underlies the order of law, the order of public morality and all other orders and processes within society. And if there be no such spiritual substance to society, then society is founded on a vacuum; and society, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum and cannot tolerate it.” Murray called for an American culture that respects religious differences. Those differences “are not to be transcended in the name of some common secular democratic faith and they are not to be reduced to some religious common denominator.”
At the same time, Murray saw, already in the early 1960s, the threat of tribalism—a tribalism created by the need to confront communism: “The tribe cannot deal with the stranger in any other terms or by any other means except those of force and violence. The ideal of the tribe, of course, is the ideal of the warrior. The tribe is essentially a war-making group.” Murray warned that “the real enemy within the gates of the city is not the Communist, but the idiot.”
A generation of Catholics has been trained to think exclusively in terms of “non-negotiable values”—a notion that has been intellectually and spiritually a disaster.
Here there are remarkable echoes of Pope Francis’ concept of a “technocratic paradigm” in the encyclical “Laudato Si’.” Murray defined “contemporary idiocy” as “technological secularism”: “The idiot today is the technological secularist who knows everything. He’s the man who knows everything about the organization of all the instruments and techniques of power that are available in the contemporary world and who, at the same time, understands nothing about the nature of man or about the nature of true civilization.”
In his 1961 essay against tribalism, Murray called the nation to rise “above the level of a tribal unity, above the unity of the war-making group”. How to do this? With the resources of a modern paideia:
If all these resources of reason are assembled and employed, they will together be able to lift our nation above the level of a tribal unity, above the unity of the war-making group. They will be able to lift it above the level of the sheerly mechanical unity, the unity of a sheerly technological order, and at the same time, they will make no pretense to fashion among us a religious unity. Their goal will simply be a civil unity; their goal, if you want to use the other classical expression, will simply be the creation of civic peace. But they will be able to constitute us in our proper identity as a people temporal, existent within the liberal tradition of the West, a tradition that is at once rational and liberal, and liberal because rational. This, my friends, is no mean goal.
The relationship between church and state throughout the world today is very different from that of the times of Vatican II, but Murray has something to say to a Catholic community where the focus on the issue of culture—often shaped as “culture wars”—has not united but divided both the nation and the church in ways that often seem beyond repair. It may be true that “Father Murray got the story of American Catholics wrong,” as Dr. Michael Baxter stated in America in 2014. After all, we have discovered many uncomfortable things about our national and religious identities in the last few years. It is also possible that the critics of Murray get the current Catholic understanding of the relationship between church and state wrong.
The events of the last few months show that American Catholics must contribute to rebuilding—even within the Catholic Church—an ethos and a theology of participation in the public square. The culture wars emerged from contentious issues of life in the 1970s and 1980s, but over time they have also encouraged an attack on the very idea that the church can live in a multicultural and multireligious society. Calls to Catholics to unite in democracy do not always find much fertile ground now, after years of cheap skepticism about the careful distinctions required of Catholics in a constitutional democracy.
A generation of Catholics has been trained to think exclusively in terms of “non-negotiable values”—a notion that has been intellectually and spiritually a disaster, and on occasion a goad to extremism. The Catholic Church in the United States will begin to heal itself when it accepts the need to think in terms of healthy secularity—not only in the relationship between church and state, but also in the relationship between religious ideology and the reality of a world that is and will remain plural.
More from America: