Michael J Baxter

The question is sometimes raised, whether Catholicism is compatible with American democracy. The question is invalid as well as impertinent; for the manner of its position inverts the order of values. It must, of course, be turned round to read, whether American democracy is compatible with Catholicism. The question, thus turned, is part of the civil question, as put to me. An affirmative answer to it, given under something better than curbstone definition of "democracy," is one of the truths I hold. (Murray 1960: ix-x)

So wrote John Courtney Murray in the foreword to We Hold These Truths. It was his way of stating the terms of the central question taken up in the book and announcing his answer to it: the question is whether democracy in the United States is compatible with Catholicism, and the answer is yes. But more than this, it was his way of forestalling two criticisms of the argument he would be advancing in the book.

First, there was the criticism voiced by the Catholic super naturalists, who argued that Murray's endorsement of the separation of church and state contradicted the official Catholic teaching that governmental establishment of religion is the ideal and thus marginalized the role of the church in political life. This criticism was leveled by an energetic and powerful coterie of theologians who had been attacking Murray's innovative arguments in articles and letters to the editors of Catholic theological journals ever since the 1940s, and who, when those efforts failed to deter him, arranged to have his work censored by the Vatican authorities in 1955. Now, only five years later, owing to a change of theological climate in Rome, Murray was again able to air his views in print, this time in a book bringing together ten previously published essays and two new ones, all dealing with one or another aspect of the relationship between Catholi cism and US democracy. But the criticism that he was compromising the church's mission by endorsing the church-state separation had by no means gone away. Hence the assurance, aimed at his traditionalist critics, that the question to be taken up is "whether American democracy is compatible with Catholicism," not the other way around.

This assurance put Murray at odds with a different set of critics who delivered a second formidable criticism of his argument. These were the "secular sep-arationists," as they can be called: those who contended that Murray's call for public discourse based on natural law was an attempt to smuggle a Catholic morality and politics into the operations of government and thus a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Working from a Protestant, Jewish, or atheist perspective, these critics tapped into deep currents of anti-Catholic sentiment that had become a persistent feature of popular culture in the United States, but they also appealed to a longstanding lineage of legal and political thought that went back to the nation's founding, one that regarded any endeavor to shape national policy according to the standards of a particular moral tradition as an attack on the rights protected by the Constitution, especially an individual's right to religious freedom and freedom of conscience. With scores of his essays published and rebutted in the popular press and two decades' worth of papers delivered and rebutted on the lecture circuit, Murray knew well that this view should be identified and dismissed at the outset. Hence the assurance, directed at the separationists, that he is working with "something better than curbstone definition of 'democracy.'"

In affirming the compatibility of Catholicism and US democracy, then, Murray was at the same time refuting two sets of critics - the Catholic super-naturalists and the secular separationists - each of which described this relationship as one of fundamental conflict, though for very different reasons. Having clearly stated his battle plan in the foreword, Murray attempted with the essays in the rest of the book to prevail at key points along the lines of this two-front war, addressing such topics as (in roughly the order they appear) true and false readings of the First Amendment, the nature of public discourse, higher education, state support of religious schools, censorship, the Incarnation, political freedom, communism, the morality of military force, and the proper understanding of natural law. Taken together, these essays present Murray's alternative description of the relation between Catholicism and US democracy, along with a metanarrative designed to show how such seemingly opposed entities are in fact fundamentally compatible.

If the success of Murray's "compatibility thesis" (as it might be called) were measured by the reception of We Hold These Truths, then it would have to be judged as very successful. The book was widely hailed as a milestone in US Catholic thought, so much so that Murray appeared on the cover of Time (although his good friend and publisher of the magazine, Henry Luce, certainly had a hand in that). The cover article, a careful summary of the book's argument, gave the compatibility thesis national exposure. The fact that the book was published in the same year Kennedy was elected president added to the sense that Murray had something momentous to say. Moreover, he inspired a generation of Catholics to engage non-Catholics in open, respectful dialogue on matters political and religious, which in turn created a receptive audience for things Catholic among Protestant and Jewish intellectuals. Murray's life and work thus came to represent the aspirations of an entire generation of Catholic intellectuals.

His scholarly career was in many ways typical for a Jesuit priest in the United States - a B.A. from Weston College (1926), an M.A. in Philosophy from Boston College (192 7), a three-year stint teaching Latin and English Literature in the Philippines, a master's level theology degree from Woodstock College in Maryland (1933), an advanced degree in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome (193 7), then back to Woodstock as professor of theology until his death in 1967 - and his notoriety demonstrated that a classical Catholic education could make a mark on the intellectual life of the nation. This is how he is depicted by most historians of Catholicism in the United States: as an intellectual hero who facilitated Catholicism's coming of age by demonstrating that one can be both fully American and fully Catholic.

Whether or not Murray successfully demonstrated the compatibility between Catholicism and US democracy is a much disputed question. In one respect, he certainly prevailed over his traditionalist critics. Not only did the argument he outlined in We Hold These Truths gain the nearly universal endorsement of Catholic intellectuals in the United States, it also made its way into the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, during which Murray, thanks to the support of Francis Cardinal Spellman, served as a peritus (expert consultant). Indeed, he had a shaping hand in writing the final draft of Dignitatis Humanae, the Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty which officially affirmed the right of the human person to worship in accord with his or her conscience. In so doing, it granted implicit approval to church-state separation, sending the complaints of Murray's Catholic traditionalist critics into oblivion. The fact that the preponderance of Catholic social ethicists in the United States, both liberal and neoconservative, point to Murray as a mentor or model (e.g. Curran 1982; Neuhaus 1987; Weigel 1987) only goes to show the pervasive and continuing importance of his "compatibility thesis."

In another respect, however, this ostensible compatibility has remained elusive. Indeed, the case can be made that it has become even more elusive in the 35 years since Murray's death, especially with the emergence of the practices of abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, divorce, the buying and selling of pornography, and so on, all of which have enjoyed legal protection under the auspices of an increasingly secularized judiciary. Moreover, US society has experience deterioration in civility, public discourse, and a sense of the common good. In response to these developments, Murray would insist that it is therefore all the more urgent to call the nation back to the philosophy on which it was founded, and this is more or less the agenda that his successors continue to take up as their own, in an attempt to finish his project. But as the years go by, and as the nation veers further from that supposed founding philosophy, it must be asked whether or not Murray's compatibility thesis continues to be plausible.

This question is taken up in the concluding section of this essay. As a way of setting the context for that question, I present the broad narrative constituting Murray's compatibility thesis (part II). In the next two sections I sketch out Murray's response to the two criticisms of this thesis, focusing first on the Catholic supernaturalists (part III) and then on the secular separationists (part IV). In the final section (part V), I show that Murray's response to these criticisms reveals intractable tensions in his compatibility thesis.

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