How Great Thou Art?
John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation
By Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso
Review Author: Paul J. Weithman
John Courtney Murray, an American Jesuit who died in 1967, is now known as one of the guiding forces behind Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. In his own time, however, Murray was at least as well known as a practitioner of what has come to be called “public theology,” which is public inasmuch as it is concerned with public issues and addresses the educated public rather than the academy alone.
Murray the public theologian was a spectacular success. He was a consultant to Cardinals Cushing and Spellman on political and legal questions, and a friend of Robert Maynard Hutchins, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Clare Boothe Luce. His influence was at its apogee in 1960 when his We Hold These Truths was published, his face graced the cover of Time magazine, and, not merely by coincidence, his co-religionist John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House. The issues he addressed in his public writings ranged from birth control and state aid to Catholic education to foreign policy, jurisprudence, and political theory.
The last decade has seen a revival of public theology. Abortion, pastoral letters by the American Catholic bishops, and Supreme Court cases testing the establishment clause all raise questions about what positions churches should take on public issues and how they can make their case for those positions before the American public. Because of Murray’s conspicuous success and because he himself addressed so wide a range of public issues, the renewal of interest in public theology has generated a renewal of interest in Murray’s thought. Murray’s work has been the subject of study groups, books, articles, and at least one recent major conference.
George Weigel has heralded this flurry of activity as “the John Courtney Murray project.” Much of the work associated with the “Murray project” is an exercise in public theology. But it is questionable whether the work going on under Weigel’s rubric is sufficiently coherent to be called a project.
The activity more closely resembles a research program in the early stages of development, one that has yet to assume discernible structure. There seem as yet to be neither problems that define the field of Murray research nor a consensus on which research problems are fruitful and why. Work on the Murray research program is part recovery of what Murray said and meant, especially in We Hold These Truths. It is part extrapolation of what he might have said, particularly about abortion. It is part lamentation about what he did not say, for example, about economics. It is part analysis of current American problems, drawing on Murray’s remarks about the necessity of a public consensus, with passing references to Alasdair MacIntyre. There is little agreement, beyond a couple of items, on a body of canonical literature that everyone working on Murray is obligated to read and come to grips with.
This lack of structure to the Murray program is not in itself a cause for concern, for many research programs have known even more humble beginnings, but it is worrisome that some conditions necessary for the emergence of a structure seem not to be present.
There is, for example, far less effort than there should be to look beyond We Hold These Truths to Murray’s entire literary corpus, or even to his entire published corpus. Worse, there is little sustained discussion of why Murray is an important thinker whose works continue to merit the attention lavished upon them.
Inattention to this fundamental issue persists because relatively little of the discussion of Murray’s work is the sort of careful and critical examination of his arguments needed to determine which are sound and which are not. More specifically, there is little effort to confront Murray’s arguments with the best current scholarship in the intellectual areas about which he wrote.
Murray consistently located himself in the Natural Law tradition and claimed that the constitutionalism he defended had its roots in the writing of Thomas Aquinas. These assertions require critical examination in light of the best current work on Aquinas’s politics and on medieval political theory generally. To take another example, Murray often referred to the original intentions of Madison and others to buttress his interpretation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. There is, however, very little work that assesses either Murray’s claims in light of recent historical scholarship or his use of such arguments in light of the criticism leveled at original intent jurisprudence. Secular political philosophy was moribund in Murray’s lifetime. It has experienced a remarkable renaissance in the last two decades. But much of the commentary on Murray’s political philosophy unfortunately exhibits only the most superficial acquaintance with that burgeoning discipline.
All too often public theologians read and react to other public theologians and little else. But public theologians serve the public and the Church well only when the arguments they offer can sustain the most rigorous intellectual examination. Unfortunately, much of the public theology associated with the Murray research program is not given the opportunity to prove its merit. Without so careful an examination, the validity of the arguments remains an open question. Without so rigorous an assay, it is unlikely that consensus will emerge within the program about what veins of Murray’s thought it will be most profitable to mine.
Because the field of Murray studies is still relatively uncharted, new books on the subject have the opportunity to chart new pathways and impart some direction where there was none before. John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation is a wide-ranging anthology in which students of the Murray program might hope to find, if not a map, then at least a polestar. Unfortunately, the book captures between two covers the current state of the Murray research program. Few of the essays, for example, refer to any writings of Murray’s not included in We Hold These Truths or suggest that he wrote anything else that might bear on the questions at hand. Indeed, one contributor — Francis Canavan — claims, incredibly, that We Hold These Truths is Murray’s “one published book.” (Murray also published his Thomas More lectures at Yale in book form, under the title The Problem of God.) Some essayists expend a great deal of effort uncritically recapitulating what Murray said. Nowhere is there nuanced and critical engagement with the various forms of secular liberalism against which Murray would have to defend his Natural Law theory were he writing today.
A wide variety of expository styles is found in the book. Parts of David Mason’s essay are so abstract as to be abstruse. John Cort’s essay, by contrast, is chatty and easily accessible. Gerard Bradley adroitly captures the middle ground in the book’s best essay. His piece is at the same time admirably clear and dearly academic.
In his endpiece, George Weigel suggests that public theologians should adopt what he calls a “Murray sensibility” in their approach to public issues. Among the ingredients of that sensibility are a healthy skepticism about popular culture, a commitment to Christian intellectualism, and what Weigel calls “a mature patriotism.” Weigel’s suggestion leaves in doubt, however, what else public theology might draw from Murray. In particular, it leaves in doubt all-important questions about which of Murray’s conclusions are tenable, which of his arguments are sound, and whether his importance is merely time-bound and inspirational. For answers to these questions, Robert McElroy’s postscript to his own book on Murray is more useful than Weigel’s conclusion to this one.
Public theology can play a truly important role only if it bridges public and academic debate. If one end of its long span is grounded on solid scholarship, the arguments it offers will be sound and people clustered at the other end will be well served. When public theology ignores academic debates and academic standards of argument, the whole hangs perilously in the air.
What is true of public theology generally is true of the public theology associated with the Murray research program. Attention to Murray’s work and presentation of his arguments can be justified only by subjecting them to careful scrutiny in light of scholarship outside public theology’s domain. Only then will this inchoate research program gain the definition characteristic of an ongoing project. John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation, though it contains some interesting essays, does not impart to the Murray program any of the direction it so desperately needs.
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