Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Call to Action: John Courtney Murray, S.J., and the Renewal of American Democracy

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Call to Action: John Courtney Murray, S.J., and the Renewal of American Democracy

Article excerpt

Since John Courtney Murray's death in 1967, much has been debated about the who, when, and what of his life: Murray's Catholic identity, his doctrinal reasoning, his theological perspectives, his enemies and friends inside the Catholic hierarchy, and his legacy.* 1 In 2013, J. Bryan Hehir suggested that many of Murray's works often are read not to understand the specific historical moment in which they were written, but rather to identify definitions that can be used in the debates about the great issues of American Catholicism today.* 2 If Murray is still discussed, it is because the importance of his work transcends any interpretation of it.3

In 1969, Emmet John Hughes wrote a first, short biography of Murray for The Priest. After describing Murray's biographical details, Hughes felt urged by an imaginary Murray to ask a precise question: "Where did John Courtney Murray, S.J., live?"4 5 In his view, Murray "lived in the America of many faiths and of free consciences-excited by its pluralism and exasperated by its confusion, convinced of its power and dubious of its purpose." According to Hughes, within all the "confusion," Murray committed his work to the search of the "purpose."3 The outcome of Murray's search is partially but substantially illustrated in his writings collected under the title We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. The volume conveys reflections on the role played by the Catholic intellectual tradition in the articulation of a public philosophy "capable of renewing American democracy."6 But from where did Murray conceive his specific contribution to this renewal? From where did he, as an American citizen and a Catholic intellectual, bring his contribution to the public discussion?

In 1993 Leslie Woodcock Tentler published her essay "On the Margins: The State of American Catholic History," strongly encouraging historians to make American Catholic history part of the national narrative: "We are certainly concerned to know how the American environment affected Catholics. But we seldom ask how Catholics affected American society and culture."7 The "balkanized state" of Catholic history is a symptom of the difficulties still hard to overcome in narrating a history where more than one identity can be represented without one excluding the other. Murray was a symbol of how the American environment affected Catholics in the twentieth century and of how American Catholics contributed to the national character.

Born to a Scottish father and Irish mother, Murray was a son of the newly created suburbs-living in Jamaica Village, Brooklyn, the so-called "Diocese of Immigrants" (see figure 1). Even if he "became a hero and a model during the 1960s,"8 his intellectual and public life started with the publication of his doctoral dissertation in 1937,9 and his stature kept growing during the forties and the fifties.10 As an intellectual, Murray emerged precisely when American Catholicism was on the verge of applying the social, economic, and cultural power acquired during the New Deal into an expression of an intellectual elite. New educational programs, better synergies between universities and professionals, a wider range of donors, new Catholic journals-and the war-gave rise to this ambition.* 11 The cultural movement that emerged from this unprecedented context soon became part of the mainstream religious and secular intellectual environment. Murray was part of it: not only did he serve as editor for the periodicals Theological Studies and America, but he also participated in non-Catholic debates about natural law, interfaith dialogue, the First Amendment, authority, democracy, and even principles of national defense. When he formulated his thesis on public consensus, natural law, and religious freedom, his articles were widely discussed and challenged.12

Murray was a Catholic and an American intellectual. As Hughes observed in the passage quoted above, he felt exasperated by the "confusion" in the United States; he was convinced of the nation's power but remained dubious of its purpose. …

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