By all odds, the distinguished intellectual landmark in the project of integrating Catholicism and Americanism is “We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition,” a collection of essays published in 1960 by the theologian Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray. Deploying the resources of his much-loved natural law, the book marked the highest point yet reached in the effort to show and celebrate the compatibility of the Catholic Church and American liberal democracy.
As such, Father Murray stands as the capstone of a line extending from Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, and the Irish-Americans who launched the Knights of Columbus, to princes of the Church like Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore and Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York.
“We Hold These Truths” concludes on this ringing note: “If there is a law immanent in man — a dynamic, constructive force for rationality in human affairs, that works itself out, because it is a natural law, in spite of contravention by passion and evil and all the corruptions of power — one may with sober reason believe in, and hope for, a future of rational progress. And this belief and hope is strengthened when one considers that this dynamic order of reason in man ... has its origin and sanction in an eternal order of reason whose fulfillment is the object of God’s majestic will.”
Here was Father John Courtney Murray’s great vision for America. Yet even as he wrote of it, he was painfully aware that the time for realizing it might well have passed.
He was born Sept. 12, 1904, in New York and joined the New York province of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1920. After studying classics and philosophy at Boston College, he taught for three years at a Jesuit school in Manila, then returned to the U.S. In 1933, he was ordained a priest.
Following ordination, he was sent to Rome to study theology at the Gregorian University, receiving a doctorate in 1937. Next he was assigned to teach at the Jesuits’ seminary in Woodstock, Maryland. In 1941, he was also was named editor of the Society’s journal, Theological Studies. He held both positions until his death of a heart attack in New York on Aug. 16, 1967.
Church-state issues were much on Americans’ minds in the late 1940s and 1950s. The growing size and influence of the Catholic Church revived ancient suspicions about Catholic intentions among many non-Catholics. These new tensions found expression in the founding of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (now, simply Americans United) as well as Supreme Court decisions raising a “wall of separation” — an expression not found in the Constitution — between government and religion. In 1949, a controversialist named Paul Blanshard published “American Freedom and Catholic Power,” a best-selling broadside against the supposed Catholic threat.
In this overheated environment, Father Murray began writing on church-state matters and publishing the results in Theological Studies. His views attracted the attention of other, more traditional Catholic thinkers, especially Msgr. Joseph Fenton and Father Francis Connell, CSSR, of the Catholic University of America and, eventually, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Vatican’s Holy Office (predecessor of today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith).
Now the priest’s superiors instructed him to seek the approval of Roman censors before publishing anything else on church and state; in 1955 he was told to stop writing on the subject entirely. But five years later “We Hold These Truths” made its appearance.
When the Second Vatican Council began in 1962, Father Murray wasn’t invited to be there, but Cardinal Spellman of New York remedied that at the council’s second session the following year. From then on, the American theologian played a large role in shaping Vatican II’s groundbreaking declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.
Jesuit Father Francis Canavan, a political scientist who knew Father Murray, makes the important point that both he and the Vatican II document grounded their argument for religious liberty not just on conscience but on “the dignity of the human person.”
Father Canavan writes: “Murray’s doctrine on religious freedom is thus based, not on the subjective rights of conscience but on the objective natural goals of civil society, and he [Murray] thought that the American institutionalization of religious freedom was compatible with that doctrine.”
John Courtney Murray is often linked with John F. Kennedy, and some profess to see his hand in Kennedy’s famous speech in September 1960, at the height of the presidential campaign, assuring an audience of Protestant ministers that if he became president his religion would not get in the way of what he thought best for the country. Soon after Kennedy’s victory, Time magazine featured the Jesuit on its cover. But he was no Kennedy fan, and in a published commentary on Dignitatis Humanae called the exaltation of subjective conscience a “perilous theory.”
Power of natural law
Appearing in 1960, at one of the darkest moments of the Cold War, “We Hold These Truths” was in part a paean to the Catholic-inspired natural law tradition that its author believed undergirded the United States in its struggle with Soviet communism. As such, the volume presents a highly sophisticated Catholic voice amid a chorus of fierce anti-communism that included such other notable Catholics as Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and President Kennedy himself.
Father Murray’s distinctive contribution lay in his ardent advocacy of natural law and what he saw as its indispensable contribution to organizing the public order and the conduct of human affairs in a manner congenial to the American founders’ ideal of ordered liberty. He was far too intelligent, however, to imagine that his enthusiasm for natural law was widely understood and shared by the intellectual and political elite of secular America. On the contrary, he wrote in “We Hold These Truths,” by now “its [natural law’s] dynamic had run out,” replaced by a regrettable “impotence” to serve as a source of public policy.
Even so, Father Murray did not despair. Convinced of the latent power of natural law, he held that America had only to return to its 18th-century natural law roots in order to tap this source of intellectual and moral vigor.
In the 47 years since his death, this vision has been kept alive by a group of American Catholic intellectuals who can be called Murray disciples — men such as Michael Novak, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel and Robert George.
According to Patrick Deneen, an associate professor of constitutional studies at Notre Dame, for these thinkers, “the task ... is [to] restore the basic principles of the American founding — limited government in which the social and moral mores largely arising from the familial and social sphere orient people toward well-ordered and moral lives.”
A second group of Catholic thinkers, represented by theologian David Schindler and philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, thinks otherwise. Deneen says this “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible thanks to natural law. “Rather, liberalism is based on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism” grounded in the individualistic conception of the human person and the social order to which that view gives rise.
This argument is likely to continue. And however it turns out, there’s no ignoring the fact that American secularism is today profoundly opposed to the Catholic Church on a growing number of issues.
John Courtney Murray saw this conflict hardening back in the 1950s. “The tradition of reason, which is known as the natural law, is dead,” he wrote. “The ethic which launched Western constitutionalism and endured long enough to give essential form to the American system of government has now ceased to sustain the structure and direct the action of this constitutional commonwealth.”
Written on the cusp of a cultural revolution that shortly would sweep aside so many old values, these words can be seen now as something resembling an epitaph for the vision that had once persuaded their author that the Catholic Church was fundamentally at home in America.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.