John Courtney Murray (1904–1967)

2012-08-07 04:06:26

Murray, a Roman Catholic priest, was the lead author of Dignitatis Humanae (DH), the Declaration on Religious Freedom. DH was promulgated by an overwhelming majority of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops at the close of the Second Vatican Council in Rome in December 1965. In contrast to the church’s preconciliar teaching that only Catholics should possess the right to public worship, DH recognized every human person’s right to religious freedom. Murray provided the argument that persuaded the bishops to abandon the traditional claim that only true religion (that is, Catholicism) had rights. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution profoundly influenced Murray and the content of the declaration.

John Courtney Murray (1904–1967)Murray was born in New York City on September 12, 1904. He entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1920 and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1933. He was professor of theology at Woodstock College in Maryland from 1937 until his death in 1967. He died of a heart attack in a taxicab in New York City on August 16, 1967.

Intercredal Cooperation and Indifferentism

During the 1940s, Murray’s writings addressed the difficult problems associated with intercredal cooperation, the collaboration of Catholics and non- Catholics in the work of social justice. Some Catholics feared that such cooperation encouraged religious indifferentism—that is, the belief that religions are equally true. Indifferentism was unacceptable because the church taught that Catholicism was the one true religion. Murray caused some controversy within the church with his argument that individuals of different faiths can cooperate for justice while agreeing to disagree about theology.

Separation of Church and State

This early analysis of religious pluralism and cooperation led Murray to study church–state questions. The separation of church and state posed special problems for American Catholics. The church taught that the one true religion should be the established religion. Moreover, the Roman pontiffs had vigorously condemned the separation of church and state in Europe. Before Vatican II, Catholics were taught to tolerate the nonestablishment of Catholicism but to aspire to establishment. In other words, they could accept the First Amendment’s separation as a matter of expediency but should prefer an established Catholic Church (like Spain’s) as a matter of principle.

Murray creatively challenged the ban on separation in a series of scholarly articles published in the 1940s and 1950s. He set the church–state debate in historical context by arguing that the popes’ condemnation of European liberalism should not extend to the American setting. In Europe, separation of church and state had restricted the freedom of the church. In contrast, in the United States, separation of church and state protected religious liberty. Hence, Murray argued, American Catholics should not merely tolerate the First Amendment, but instead accept it enthusiastically, as good law that promoted freedom.

Murray’s conclusions were too controversial for the church. In 1955, Vatican officials ordered him to cease writing about church and state, and a major article on that subject was withdrawn from publication.

In the United States, however, Murray’s views were celebrated. In 1960, his book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, received significant attention. John F. Kennedy’s aides consulted with Murray before the presidential candidate gave his famous speech espousing separation of church and state to Baptist ministers in Houston. Murray appeared on the cover of Time magazine after Kennedy’s election; the priest and the president had demonstrated in different ways that Catholicism was compatible with the U.S. Constitution. The president, however, who opposed federal aid to religious schools, was a stricter separationist than the priest, who supported it.

Religious Freedom

Within the church, Murray’s ideas faced continued opposition. When Pope John XXIII convened the church’s bishops to the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, Murray was absent, disinvited by his opponents. Eventually, the American bishops secured Murray’s presence as an expert at the Council’s Second Session in 1963. He then collaborated with Father Pietro Pavan, of the Lateran University in Rome, to draft the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

After the Council ended, Murray explained that the ‘‘development of doctrine’’ had been the ‘‘sticking point’’ for many Catholic bishops and theologians. They believed that the church could not change its teaching, that only the true religion had the right to religious freedom, and that erroneous religions had no right to public worship. Murray ingeniously developed an argument that protected the church’s claims to truth while allowing it to recognize the religious freedom of non-Catholics.

Murray’s solution was legal and political, not theological. He explained that the human right to religious freedom is rooted in human dignity, not in truth. Because every person possesses human dignity, everyone has the right to religious freedom. Moreover, that legal right must be recognized and defended by the government.

Murray described the individual’s right to religious freedom as a double immunity from coercion and from restraint. First, the government may not coerce the individual conscience into belief. Second, it may not restrain the individual from the practice of religion. Although the Catholic Church had accepted that first immunity from coercion before Vatican II, the second immunity, from restraint, was the new concept that Murray persuaded the bishops to adopt at the Council. Murray attributed the second immunity to the First Amendment. Hence, the American experience of religious freedom persuaded the international gathering of bishops to change the teaching of the Roman Church.

Selective Conscientious Objection and Contraception

Murray devoted his last years to numerous topics of social concern. He was one of only two participants on an advisory commission to President Lyndon Johnson to endorse the right of selective conscientious objection. Murray also voiced support for the Papal Birth Control Commission members who recommended a change in the church’s ban on artificial contraception. He supported the decriminalization of contraception and, drawing parallels to his work at the Council, argued that contraception was a matter of religious liberty in a pluralistic society.

Murray’s lucid analyses of social questions remain influential among many American Catholics, who continue to assert his relevance to current debates about religious pluralism.


References and Further Reading

  • Love, Thomas T. John Courtney Murray: Contemporary Church–State Theory. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
  • Murray, John Courtney. We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960.
  • ———, ed. Religious Liberty: An End and a Beginning. New York: Macmillan Co., 1966.
  • ———, trans. ‘‘Dignitatis Humanae (The Declaration on Religious Freedom).’’ In The Documents of Vatican II. Walter M. Abbott and Joseph Gallagher, eds. New York: America Press, 1966, pp. 674–698.
  • ———. Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles With Pluralism. J. Leon Hooper, ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993.
  • ———. Bridging the Sacred and the Secular. J. Leon Hooper, ed. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994.
  • Pelotte, Donald E. John Courtney Murray: Theologian in Conflict. New York: Paulist Press, 1975.

See also Catholics and Religious Liberty; Establishment Clause (I): History, Background, Framing; First Amendment and PACs; Free Exercise Clause (I): History, Background, Framing