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Monday, December 28, 2009

John Courtney Murray SJ

Listening to that mp3 file (near the bottom of this page) of John Courtney Murray SJ, one of the American Jesuits at Vatican II, made me want to write a little more about him. The Wikipedia page on him is very informative and delves into a subject that is still quite relavent (example: the recent US Catholic Bishops impact on the health care reform bill) .... the separation of church and state.

I first read of Fr. Murray in a 2008 US Catholic article, Catholic dissent -- When wrong turns out to be right. Here's the part of the article that deals with him .....


To cite a far more recent example of responsible dissent, consider the church's reversal of its time-honored stance on freedom of religion-a reversal that occurred over a 15-year period in the 1950s and 1960s. For the greater part of Christian history, it was accepted as absolute doctrine that civil governments had an obligation to officially recognize the church and support it.

Pope Pius IX made the point in no uncertain terms in 1846 in his encyclical Quanta cura and the accompanying Syllabus of Errors: "The state must recognize [the Catholic Church] as supreme and submit to its influence. . . . The power of the state must be at its disposal and all who do not conform to its requirements must be compelled or punished. . . . Freedom of conscience and cult is madness." Catholics were told that they need not openly oppose a government that did not so recognize the church (as in the United States); rather, they should tolerate the existing situation until such time as Catholics formed a majority of the voting population.

Beginning in 1950 Father John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit theologian, argued that the old tradition must yield. In a series of articles in Theological Studies magazine and in public appearances, he contended that the state should not be the tool of the church and has no business carrying out the church's will. Rather, he said, the civil government's single yet profound obligation is to insure the freedom of all its citizens, especially their religious freedom.

"Every man has a right to religious freedom," he wrote, a right that is based on the dignity of the human person and is therefore to be formally recognized . . . and protected by constitutional law. . . . So great is this dignity that not even God can take it away." Murray claimed the old doctrine as enunciated by Pius IX was not an absolute, static thing but a teaching that had been developing over the past 100 years-a development which Murray saw in the writings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII.

The reaction was vehement and instantaneous. The two most influential U.S. Catholic theologians of the day, Fathers Joseph Fenton and Francis Connell, called Murray's argument "destructive, scandalous, and heretical" and engaged in lengthy, published refutations, especially in the American Ecclesiastical Review. Wrote Fenton, "The state is obligated to worship God according to the one religion [God] has established. This is so obviously a part of Catholic doctrine that no theologian has any excuse to call it into question."

Murray did not back down. He continued to develop his dissenting interpretation and respond to his critics' objections. His articles were sent to Rome where they became the subject of considerable concern. In a much-quoted speech in 1952, Cardinal Alberto Ottaviani, the head of the Congregation of the Holy Office, declared (without mentioning Murray by name) that the teaching of Pius IX was as valid now as it ever was, that the state must recognize the church, and that freedom of conscience is an illusion.

Murray was clearly shaken by this clear message to cease and desist. The following year he suffered a heart attack, but after recovery he continued to develop his theory.

By 1954 the Vatican's patience had been exhausted. A Roman censor forbade the publication of an article that Murray had written and considered crucial to his case. Murray's Jesuit superior ordered him to cease writing on the subject. When Murray inquired what he could write about, the superior said he might consider poetry.

During the next four, difficult years Murray did not wear the gag lightly. According to his biographer Donald Pilotte, he attempted to have the banned article published anonymously. But the attempt was unsuccessful, as were several other efforts to keep the debate alive. So for a time he wrote on related but less sensitive matters.

In 1958, when a new pope, John XXIII, was elected, Murray emerged from the closet. He pulled together the thrust of his arguments into a popular book titled We Hold These Truths, whose publication just happened to coincide with the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Public worries in the United States about what Kennedy, a Catholic, might do in office were greatly dispelled by Murray's well-argued contention that religious freedom and separation of church and state were not mere tactics of toleration but valid expressions of a developed Catholic doctrine.

Murray and his book made the cover of Time magazine, and the Kennedy campaign relied on him for counsel concerning touchy church-state issues. Some historians contend that it was not Mayor Richard J. Daley's delivery of the Chicago vote that got Kennedy elected but John Courtney Murray.

Still, top Catholic theologians and Roman officials regarded him as a dangerous dissident. When plans were underway for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Murray was expressly "disinvited" to join the commission of experts, headed by Ottaviani and including Fenton, that was preparing a statement on human freedom. Although he was experiencing chronic heart problems, Murray would not accept the snub. He wrote to the American bishops on the commission, urging them to fight against any rubber stamp of the outmoded Pius IX doctrine. He was, in fact, so persistent that the U.S. bishops finally asked him to assist the commission in Rome.

Armed with all his scholarship, he publicly debated the issues with Fenton and Ottaviani and became a major drafter of the council's Declaration on Human Freedom. In its final form, approved in a vote by the world's bishops, 2,308 to 80, in 1965, the declaration said, "This synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups, or any human power . . . This synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and reason itself." The words reflect Murray's thinking and may very well have been written by him.

He lived only 18 months after that vote, succumbing in 1967 to another heart attack at the age of 62, but his legacy is profound. His friend, Jesuit Father Walter Burghardt, noted on the occasion of his death, "Unborn millions will never know how much their freedom is tied to this man whose pen was a powerful protest, a dramatic march against injustice and inequality, whose research sparked and terminated in the ringing affirmation of an ecumenical council: The right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the church, not in society or state, not even in objective truth, but in the dignity of the human person."

That John Courtney Murray was a dissident is undeniable. That his prolonged dissent was vindicated by the church at its highest level is equally undeniable.


You can read more about him and some of his work at Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ: A compilation of writings by and about Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ.


Blogger Fran said...

Murray was brilliant and far ahead of his time... or maybe very much of his time, who knows how he would be received today?

6:40 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Fran,

Yes, I only just learned about him recently. I have so much to find out about Catholicism still.

BTW, thanks for the kind words over at Mad Priest's :)

12:47 AM  

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