November 28, 2006


To Make Catholics Fit Into America: We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. By John Courtney Murray (Thomas Storck, November 2006, New Oxford Book Reviews)

John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit and Professor of Theology at Woodstock College in Maryland, spent much of the 1950s writing articles whose aim was to overturn the then-reigning Catholic doctrine that, all things being equal, the best situation for Catholics was to live in a Catholic state with an explicitly Catholic government -- a government that was distinct from the Church to be sure, but not separate in the sense that the two powers pursued their own aims without reference to each other. Because of this, Murray got into some trouble with his Jesuit superiors and was prohibited from attending the first session of the Second Vatican Council. But he did eventually attend, and, according to the generally accepted account, Murray's views were then embodied in the Council's decree of religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. But this is not the place to discuss that document. Suffice it to say that Dig­nitatis Humanae need not be understood as reflective of Murray's position, and can be read as consistent with the traditional teaching of the Church.

Although Pope Leo XIII had reminded American bishops in 1895 that "it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church" and that the Church here "would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority," this teaching was never very popular, or even very much known, among American Catholics. Laboring under an inferiority complex and desiring above all to fit in, Catholics in general enthusiastically embraced the messianic nationalism that most often passes for patriotism in the U.S. Murray's dissatisfaction with Pope Leo's teaching seems to have stemmed from that same root, namely, his desire to be a good American above all. And so We Hold These Truths is in the main a book about Catholics fundamentally embracing what he calls the "American proposition." Yes, Murray is nuanced; yes, he writes with more of a sense of theological tradition and of the shortcomings of American Protestantism than the Catholic neoconservatives of today. But at bottom his aim is to explain and justify America as a Catholic project, or at least one that can be made Catholic.

We Hold These Truths is a collection of essays that appeared during the 1950s in various journals of opinion, Catholic and secular. Like most such compilations, it addresses a variety of themes. He deals with the questions of public support for parochial schools, the ethics of nuclear warfare, and our policy toward Communism, both at home and abroad. But a fundamental theme runs through the book, especially the first five chapters and the concluding two: How Catholic thought, and especially the Natural Law tradition, can justify and enrich the "American proposition."

We may question what Murray seems to take for granted -- the assertion that America is a proposition. In the very first sentence of his own Preface, Murray states that it "is classic American doctrine…that the new nation which our Fathers brought forth on this continent was dedicated to a ‘proposition.'" But why this should be so, Murray never says. Why a nation should be more an idea than a place, and why America, more than Spain or Argentina or Australia, should be dedicated to an idea are questions most Americans have never asked. Nor does Murray ask them. He simply accepts that we are as much a proposition as a nation and goes on from there. [...]

This discussion of the Church and the American political tradition leads to Murray's principal error: America is bigger than the Catholic Church. We must unite in a political community whose boundaries are set not by Catholic doctrine but by American tradition. The First Amendment is an "article of peace," prescribing agreement about how we are to act without agreement about ultimate truths. But how can we have anything except accidental agreement unless we agree about ultimates? And where does this lead in the end? Murray writes: "in a pluralist society no minority group has the right to demand that government should impose a general censorship, affecting all the citizenry…according to the special standards held within one group." Although Murray wrote this with regard to censorship, who cannot see here almost the same words that are used with reference to the legal prohibition of abortion or same-sex unions? The Catholic Church, the Universal Church, is now simply a "minority group," and her teachings, guaranteed by the protection of Almighty God, are now only "special standards held within one group." Moreover, Murray's constant appeal to Natural Law means little if the voice of the Catholic Church, the guarantor of both natural and revealed truth, is excluded from a final determination of what is and is not moral. While it is certainly the case that we are in no practical position to insist that Catholic morality -- which is mostly Natural Law -- reign supreme over American political and cultural life, that does not mean that we should simply acquiesce in our status as a "minority group" or admit in principle that American pluralism is either good or inevitable.

Murray's project, then, is to make Catholics fit into America. He is correct that, with Natural Law, Catholics can provide the best intellectual framework for the "American proposition," but he errs when he subordinates the Church to what he sees as a larger project. We become, in the end, simply another "minority group." Murray has reversed Chesterton's dictum that the Church is larger than the world, and has made America the framework within which the Church must act and even understand herself.

Of course, Mr. Murray just anticipated Pope Benedict, the "Tocquevillian in the Vatican." The Church has ultimately had to understand itself within the American proposition, just as Judaism did, and Islam will.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2006 8:37 AM

--Catholics in general enthusiastically embraced the messianic nationalism that most often passes for patriotism in the U.S.--

Messianic nationalism?????

Posted by: Sandy P at November 28, 2006 11:01 AM

nice oxymoron, eh? Messianism is universalism, of course.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2006 11:06 AM

But the natural law is universal, it is for all humanity to follow the law in their hearts. cf. Rom 2:14, 15. This is the messianic part.

The nationalism part is that America is now the power ordained by God which Paul wrote of elsewhere in the Letter to the Romans for the establishment of justice under the natural law.

This is by no means a religious proposition. The right of conscience, or the right to life are not one thing for privileged races and another for the lesser breeds. This is very much what Pope Benedict's Regensburg quote was about.

Now this is the opposite of multiculturalism, but we all knew that.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 28, 2006 12:27 PM

Nations are ethnic. We aren't.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2006 12:52 PM