For someone who was arguably the most prominent Catholic intellectual in the United States during the first half of the 1960s, Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, quickly vanished from the scene after his untimely death in 1967. A new generation of Catholics who imagined, As one of them once said, “We know so much more than Murray,” picked up academic fad after academic fad, lowering the monetary intellectual value of Catholic thought about public life. Reading back the spending of America and Commonweal today in the years immediately following Murray’s death is to descend into a realm of fever and stink: far from the cool and dry atmosphere of public conversations about public goods that Murray campaigned for and that he was embodied.
John Courtney Murray’s forgetting lasted nearly twenty years, and I hope I don’t get arrogant if I say I helped bring it to an end. In 1987 I published Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, which contained a long, central chapter on “The John Courtney Murray Project.” More or less simultaneously, Richard John Neuhaus (to whom I introduced Murray’s thoughts) published The Catholic Moment, in which Murray played a prominent role. Those who had previously dismissed Murray as impossible passé now thought they’d better try to revive Murray for the progressive Catholic project (an intention Murray would have found risky if not offensive). So the debate over Murray and his legacy was ongoing and has not settled down since.
In the course of the debate at least a few points were clarified, in particular the influence of Father Murray on the drafting of Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom. The adoption of Dignitatis Humanae by an overwhelming conciliar majority in 1965 was in some ways the culmination of Murray’s life; and it must have been extraordinarily satisfactory for the man whose superiors the Jesuits had banned its publication in ecclesiastical affairs for a number of years, the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Paul VI. to have concelebrated as an honored peritus (theological adviser) of the Second Vatican Council. Dignitatis Humanae was hailed in the United States as the major achievement of the American bishops in the council, and Murray was seen as the intellectual father of the declaration.
In the decades following Vatican II, however, Murray’s role in shaping Dignitatis Humanae has come more clearly into focus. His articles on the political theory and the theory of the Papal State of Pope Leo XIII. Certainly played an important role in the 1940s and 1950s in making room for Catholic development of the doctrine on religious freedom. But through Murray’s own (subtle) testimony immediately after the council, the personalistic reasoning that underpinned Dignitatis Humanae in its final form was produced by hands other than his. Hence, it is now probably more accurate to think of Murray as the intellectual grandfather (or even great-uncle) of Dignitatis Humanae than his ancestors.
But when Murray’s role in Vatican II has been clarified, other aspects of his thinking and legacy have become quite mixed up and not infrequently misrepresented.
Thus Murray implied Catholic social thought and political theory to John Locke, who was (wrongly) understood as the thinker most responsible for an unsubstantiated American republic. Others somehow imagine that Murray, who was allegedly out to make Catholics “acceptable” in a country that has long been shaped by anti-Catholic bigotry, created the conditions for the possibility of Catholic politicians like Ted Kennedy, Robert Drinan, SJ, Barbara Mikulski, and Joe to campaign for abortion Biden and Nancy Pelosi. Then there is Murray, the presumed forerunner of today’s “progressive” Catholicism. Professor Patterson beats these and other caricatures down nicely. At the same time, Patterson highlights, for a new generation, the importance of Murray’s recovery of the “Gelasian Dyarchy” as an antidote to the restorative fantasies that too many of those who describe themselves as “new integralists” have: a small cadre who appears to be promoting what me bad politics and worse ecclesiology. These debates will no doubt continue. And I hope that on the 60th anniversary of the publication of We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposal in 2020, some of the combatants, and the Murray Phobes in particular, will actually go to the trouble of reading Murray carefully, which some seem to not have done.
As one of the agents of the Murray Restoration, however, I am becoming less and less interested in these internal conflicts than in Murray’s continued importance as a clear thinker of American democracy and its discontent. As this dissatisfaction has grown worse, even non-Doomists must ask themselves how the American democratic experiment will renew and revitalize itself in orderly freedom, Murray’s warnings from more than half a century ago and his analysis of the roots of a possible collapse of the American political culture today strikes me as remarkably forward-looking and worth thinking about.
The most conspicuous, even threatening, sentences in We Hold These Truths follow immediately after Murray analyzed the “dissolution” of the original “American consensus” or public moral culture under several malevolent influences: the effects of an Okhamite theory of freedom. Willpower mediated through Benthamite utilitarianism and Jamesian pragmatism; the scientific revolution and the rise of empiricism; and the theological disorder of American Protestantism. This decline in public moral culture, with its inevitable consequences for political culture and politics itself, is quite advanced, warned Murray. Then came the voice of Murray, the prophet who loved the best in the American experiment but feared its foundations would collapse, with potentially dire public results: “Perhaps the long-begun resolution could one day be accomplished. Perhaps one day the noble, multi-story mansion of democracy will be dismantled and brought to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is not a mansion, but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny can be forged. “
Whether Murray’s recipe for American, and indeed Western, democratic reform – a restoration of the natural law tradition of moral thought as a public grammar for pluralistic society – can be realized (especially in cultures that have given up any notion of the realities of human nature) is one of them most urgent questions of our time.
Here is, in two sentences, the definitive, and in my opinion irrefutable, answer to the allegation that John Courtney Murray was an uncritical celebrant of the American Democratic Experiment. On the contrary. Murray knew that the United States was an idea or “proposition” nation: a community built not on the ancient foundations of blood and soil but on the basis of a shared commitment to certain truths – truths he, a good lawyer of nature who had believed was inscribed in the world and in us; Truths we could know by the exercise of reason; Truths known to reveal our duties as individuals and as citizens. But Murray also knew that a nation “so designed and so committed” would not last long if the moral and intellectual foundations that allow self-government for the common good collapsed. if the “truths” on which the American Democratic Experiment relied for its tensile strength were no longer upheld.
In this analysis, John Courtney Murray, one of my intellectual heroes, anticipated the social doctrine of my other great intellectual model, Pope John Paul II. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul’s most developed social encyclical written in 1991 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of modern Catholic social teaching, the Polish Pope wrote about a tripartite “free society” of the future, a society made up of three interlocking and mutual composing societies puts together interactive parts: a democratic politics, a free or market-oriented economy and a lively public moral culture. And in the judgment of John Paul II, public moral culture was key to everyone else. For the lack of a vital, culturally transmitted and socially recognized social ethic – a broad-based, culturally affirmed fidelity to the truths about human dignity and the true meaning of freedom, which we can recognize through reason (or in liveliness) Judeo-Christian Cultures, both by revelation and by reason) – the tremendous human energies unleashed by free politics and free economy would be undisciplined and therefore could not produce true human flowering or social solidarity. I suspect John Courtney Murray would have vigorously agreed.
Interestingly, as a young priest professor, John Paul II directed seminars in philosophy at Lublin Catholic University in the late 1950s (the years when the essays that make up We Hold These Truths were originally written). He guided his students through a close reading of the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who was hardly a prominent figure in Polish intellectual circles of his time. It was as if the two priests, Professor John Courtney Murray of Woodstock Theological College and Professor Karol Wojtyła of Lublin, suspected the same thing and at about the same time: while Marxism posed a serious threat to the West because its ideas were serious military threat, the even greater threat in the long run of history would be utilitarianism. It would require another peritus of the Second Vatican Council, Joseph Ratzinger, to mark where utilitarianism (bearer of metaphysical nihilism, epistemological skepticism and moral relativism) would lead: to a “dictatorship of relativism” in which enforced Established state power, a relativistic “ethic” was imposed on the entire society.
This warning, formulated in 2005, was suggested by Murray in his 1960 picture of the “tool shed where the weapons of tyranny can be forged” and by John Paul II in Centesimus Annus that democracy and moral truth are closely linked, anticipated that “a democracy without values will easily become overt or thinly camouflaged totalitarianism”.
Therefore, today in 2020 we cannot say that we have not been warned. And one of the first to sound the alarm was John Courtney Murray, who knew that reducing the idea of democracy to a set of functions and institutions would mean the death of democracy. Whether Murray’s recipe for American, and indeed Western, democratic reform – a restoration of the natural law tradition of moral thought as a public grammar for pluralistic society – can be realized (especially in cultures that have given up any notion of the realities of human nature) is one of them most urgent questions of our time.