John Courtney Murray was a Jesuit theologian, author, editor, and educator whose great lifework, a creative reinterpretation of Roman Catholic church-state theory, was deeply influenced by profound reflection on the nature of the American experiment. Murray’s scholarship and proposals, highly controversial in Roman Catholic circles in the mid-1950s, were subsequently vindicated by the Second Vatican Council in its “Declaration on Religious Freedom.”
Born in New York City, Murray joined the Society of Jesus in 1920 and was educated at Weston College, Boston College, Woodstock College, and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, from which he received the doctorate in 1937. Murray then served as professor of theology at Woodstock College for the next thirty years, until his untimely death of a heart attack in 1967. During that period Murray was also the editor of the prestigious quarterly, Theological Studies, and worked as religion editor of the Jesuit weekly, America, in the mid-1940s.
A man of wide and deep learning, Murray was the embodiment of the classic Christian humanist, but with a distinctively American flavor. At ease in a library pouring over ancient and medieval theological texts, Murray was also at home with his good friends Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, with the staffers of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (where he sometimes lectured), and with the members of the many governmental agencies and commissions who sought his counsel on issues ranging from nuclear weapons to selective conscientious objection. A man who did not suffer fools gladly, Murray was nonetheless, according to all accounts, a charming companion and steadfast friend in whom—as his eulogist, Walter Burghardt, S.J., put it—“an aristocracy of mind was wedded to a democracy of love.”
Murray did not leave an extensive corpus of published works; his métier was the essay, a form in which he wrote with singular elegance. But commentators at the time, and since, have judged Murray’s 1960 book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, to be the single most influential Catholic reflection on American public life ever published. We Hold These Truths is emphatically not “for Catholics only.” Its central premise—that the American democratic experiment could not be sustained without a “public philosophy” capable of disciplining the natively pluralistic public discourse of the republic—was (and is) shared across a considerable spectrum of public life. So, too, was Murray’s concern that no such “public philosophy” existed and that, in its absence, the public square would be filled with all manner of reckless agitations. More controversial at the time, although perhaps less so now, was Murray’s brilliant attack on the anti-Catholicism of the “new secularists,” like Paul Blanshard. Murray’s proposal—that the American “public philosophy” reflect the categories and style of reasoning of Thomistic epistemology and natural law theory—was generally disregarded in the intellectual climate of the 1960s and 1970s. And yet, a generation later, the Murray proposal has been revived by a number of Protestant as well as Catholic scholars, generally neoconservative in their political orientation.
Murray also had a tremendous if indirect influence on international life through his work in creating a Catholic defense of religious liberty as the first of human rights. Absent Murray’s historical and theoretical work in the 1940s and 1950s on the Catholic theory of church-and-state (which sought to disentangle the Church from its principled preference for the altar-and-throne arrangements of the European ancien régime), it is unlikely that the Second Vatican Council would have given such prominence to the religious liberty issue. The Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” subsequently became the key text in Pope John Paul II’s defense of human rights throughout the world and in the Polish pope’s endorsement of democracy as the political system most likely to secure those rights under modern conditions. The impact of that papal teaching can, of course, be discerned throughout central and eastern Europe, in Latin America, and in east Asia. In that sense, then, John Courtney Murray can be considered one of the prophets of the revolution of 1989 that brought down Soviet communism.