The Coldness of Clarity, the Warmth of Love: The Measure of John Courtney Murray

By Komonchak, Jospeh A. | Commonweal, August 14, 1992 | Go to article overview
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The Coldness of Clarity, the Warmth of Love: The Measure of John Courtney Murray


Komonchak, Jospeh A., Commonweal


Although it is now twenty-five years since the death of John Courtney Murray, it is a measure of his greatness as a theologian that today, when no one reads his contemporaries for much more than historical reasons, Murray's works are still in print, with more publications still to come; articles and books discuss the interpretation of his work; and rival claims are being made to the inheritance of his mantle.

Today they call what Murray tried to do "public theology," a phrase I do not believe was in circulation in his day. He spoke rather of the need to address "the spiritual crisis in the temporal order." His consciousness of the crisis was first awakened as he did doctoral studies in Rome in the mid-1930s, when the long-term effects of World War I, the Great Depression, and the rise of rival totalitarianisms that would lead Europe to its second great cataclysm seemed irrefutable proof of the inability of secularized liberalism to construct a decent human city. Murray's conviction that the roots of the crisis were spiritual and that Christ and the church were necessary to resolve it was nourished by his encounter with European Catholic thinkers. Those were the days when Pope Pius XI was inspiring the laity to undertake various forms of Catholic Action to restore "the peace of Christ in the reign of Christ," when Jacques Maritain was proposing a new Christendom, when Christopher Dawson was publishing his great works on the relationship between religion and culture, when Teilhard de Chardin was trying to reconcile Christian faith and modern science, when Henri de Lubac was exploring the social aspects of dogma in his book Catholicism, when Marie-Dominique Chenu was urging a mission of the church to the working class, and when Yves Congar was outlining Catholic principles for ecumenical conversation and cooperation.

Soon after Murray returned to the United States in 1936, he attempted to do his part. In still unpublished lectures to both Catholic and interfaith audiences he outlined an effort at cultural and social reconstruction based on the central Christian dogmas of the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the redemptive Cross of Christ. When he became editor of the new Jesuit journal, Theological Studies, he organized a series of articles urging what was then called "interreligious cooperation" so that the task of postwar reconstruction would not be abandoned to secularists. He proposed a new vision of a theology for the layman that aimed at training a Catholic elite whose faith and life would be directed toward the redemption of society and culture.

Murray had to defend these efforts, on the one hand, against Catholics who feared the danger of indifferentism more than the threat of secularism and, on the other, against Protestants put off by their fears of a Catholic desire for cultural and political hegemony. When the latter fear proved powerful enough to lead to the growth of what he called a "new Nativism," visible in such organizations as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Murray turned to the work for which he became most famous, a rethinking of Catholic teaching on church and state and religious freedom. Beginning in 1948, a series of historical and systematic essays argued that the American solution to the problem of church and state was both a legitimate embodiment of Catholic principle and a political experiment quite distinct in its assumptions and provisions from the ideological liberalism condemned by nineteenth-century popes. In 1953, when his views began to echoed in Europe, Murray was publicly criticized by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, whose Holy Office in 1945 took a series of measures that were to lead to Murray's forced withdrawal from that controversial arena.

Murray continued to work on what he always thought was the central issue, however - the relation of religion with the public order. He tried to find in the natural-law tradition a common ground on which believers could cooperate in the struggle against a secularization of American culture.

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