John Courtney Murray reflects on America

I just finished reading John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Along with most of the other things Murray wrote it’s available online. He was a serious, intelligent and reflective man, and he deals with important issues, so the book’s well worth reading. I don’t have time now for a full-scale discussion though, only for a few notes.

To give a very brief summary of overall impressions, it seems to me that overall Murray’s positions are much like those of Catholic neocons except less pro-capitalist. Like the neocons he thinks liberalism, Americanism and orthodox Catholicism are a good match. It seems to me things have moved on and demonstrated serious problems with that view, although it’s natural to resist that conclusion because it puts contemporary American Catholics in an uncomfortable position. Murray is particularly concerned with the problem of religious diversity and religious freedom. To my mind, different religions and whatnot can often co-exist peacefully and productively through some sort of modus vivendi, but there’s no super-principle that can stand above the strugggle and guarantee a modus vivendi can be found and specify its proper content. Murray and other liberals seem to me to exaggerate the extent to which something like a super-principle is possible. The result is that substantive judgments get smuggled into the law on the pretext that they stand for neutral principles governing the relationship among differing substantive views.

Since I think the book’s intelligent but also outdated in many of its presuppositions and specifics, it’s natural that I find it a mixture of some things that seem very old-fashioned and others that seem very up-to-date. Some of the old-fashioned things:

  • The book came out in 1960 as a compilation of earlier pieces. As a pre-Vatican II Catholic, Murray was able to speak with confidence from a Catholic perspective because for him the Church was unquestionably a thing rather than a concept or argument or bundle of tendencies. He unselfconsciously emphasizes Catholic distinctives, treats them as authoritative, and speaks of the “clarity that dogmas require.” He calls contraception a “sexual aberration” and doesn’t like the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Catholic education and its (for him unquestionable) right to public support was a big thing for him.
  • As a pre-60s American Murray could say “There have never been ‘two Americas,’ in the sense in which there have been, and still are, ‘two Frances,’ ‘two Italys,’ ‘two Spains.'” Today in contrast we have the culture war in America while in Europe it all seems settled. Rocco Buttiglione is the closest thing they have to a right-wing Catholic integrist and it’s generally agreed he’s unfit for a prominent position in the EU.
  • Similarly, Murray says “unbelief in America has been rather easy-going,” and sharply distinguishes the American system from “totalitarian democracy.” The description is less believable in an age of PC and sensitivity traning in which a quarter of white Americans hate and fear “fundamentalists” as much as the most anti-semitic 1 percent hate and fear Jews.
  • He speaks of Protestant, Catholic, Jew, secularist as the fourfold division of American religious life. That’s fallen apart totally. Now it’s the secularists (who include much of mainline religion) against everybody else, with the secularists clearly in the driver’s seat.
  • He says that “law seeks to establish and maintain only that minimum of actualized morality that is necessary for the healthy functioning of the social order.” He’s able to take it for granted that practically everybody will agree that means pornography should be censored. It was a different world then.
  • So Murray was able to say that American secularism is very different from Continental laicism because the American proposition puts America under God. “The inner spirit that animates all [the Constitution’s] provisions; I mean the idea that the American is a free man under a limited government whose actions are themselves subject to a higher law which derives from the Eternal Reason of the Creator of all things and is embodied in the very nature of man as God’s creature and image.” Compare that to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 US 833 (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
  • The changes are reflected in formal political philosophy. Ten years before the publication of A Theory of Justice, Murray was able to say, as a sign of the non-ideological quality of our politics, that “in America no … political treatises after the manner of Hobbes and Hegel, Rousseau and Comte, or even John Locke … have been produced.” So the disputes have taken on a much more clearly philosophical and even ontological form since his day.

Some more up-to-date things:

  • Murray speaks of the “impotent nihilism … now appearing on our university campuses,” which had long abandoned what he persists in calling the American consensus. (He thought that consensus still existed in the Catholic community.)
  • He talks of a mutual opacity and hostility due to different styles of inner life, and of “incommensurable … universes of discourse.”
  • He says “we have reached the end of the era that gave itself the qualification ‘modern’,” and explicitly says that modernity is over and that we are “post-modern men.”

So what does he propose, and what’s odd about his proposals?

  • It’s worth noting that he distinguishes liberalism, which he likes, from modernity, which he doesn’t. Liberty includes Aristotelian and Medieval things like limited government, popular participation in government, and the principle that the ruler is under the laws and holds his power with the consent of the people for the purpose of defending justice and freedom. He says Jacobinism is an apostasy from liberalism, which Locke and the Enlightenment presented in a degraded form.
  • He says people have come to see through pluralism, and thought in his time there was a growing demand for a more substantive understanding of natural law because the flaws of Enlightenment understandings had grown so obvious. That’s not the way it’s worked out. Why?
  • A basic problem with his views is that they seem to give the different spheres of life more mutual autonomy than they actually have. He says, for example, that civil society is “formed by men locked together in argument,” almost as if it were a debating club. It would be better to say it’s formed OF men locked together in argument. First you have the society, it would seem, and then you try to make it as civil as possible. So he slights the prerational and historical factors, including the factually-existing religious and cultural presuppositions those things carry with then, that have actually given America whatever unity it’s had. He very briefly recognizes historical, ethnic and similar elements but then seems almost to dismiss them.
  • Since he separates spheres of life so much he is able to take an absurdly limited view of the role of the modern state: “constitutional assemblies, legislatures, and courts … have only a severely limited function, since they can do no more than bring the directive and coercive force of law to bear on the order of external social action—what is called the public order—in the interests of a necessary minimum of public peace.”
  • So it makes some sense for him to buy into the idea that American society can be based on “agreement on the good of man at the level of performance without the necessity of agreement on ultimates.” Does he forget here though that he said the “American proposition” includes the notion of America as a country under God? He seems to overemphasize an aspect of things, our ability to get by in some respects for some period of time without agreement on basics, that too many people are going to overemphasize.
  • As an example of the mutual independence he sees between performance and ultimates, he claims that an American university ought to be in a state of religious conflict, and that students should be able to grow in their religious knowledge there by taking courses from professors with particular substantive religious commitments. Could an educational and scholarly institution whose principle is religious conflict hang together? Has anything of the sort ever existed? Can people agree as a practical matter on what constitutes education and the pursuit of truth who disagree on absolutely fundamental issues regarding the nature of man and the world? It seems very unlikely.

7 thoughts on “John Courtney Murray reflects on America”

  1. On Catholicism and the Capitalism
    It seems to me, Jim, that the reason traditionalist Catholis like myself so often struggle with the matter of capitalism is that it is quantifiably enriching, materially, to the average person. No end of medical and other marvels are made possible by it, and it’s hard to see how a reversal of the present economic regime could be made to work. What you might think of as bowing to the market is in essence a recognition of the nature of things, and as you so often say institutions ought to reflect the Truth, especially as regards human nature. Free market capitalism boils down to allowing people’s actual preferences reveal themselves through the price mechanism.

    If it could be shown that interference in this process is impoverishing, what is a Catholic like me to do? I’m as orthodox as they come, but it seems to me that there’s nothing else going that can offer the same benefits. Naturally, the question arises, “at what cost?” My answer is that I’m not sure how much of our problem right now can be blamed on economic liberty. Rather, the application of market theory to other realms of social life, where it has no business and cannot possibly reflect a dignified understanding of the person—such as the family—seems to me to be the real issue. This and other forms of scientism don’t necessarily flow from the way we order—or refuse to order—the economy, does it?

    I suppose what I’m asking is what, exactly, about a sophisticated understanding of economic efficency conflicts with Catholicism as such? If it is verifiably TRUE, for example, that price controls cause needless shortages and other woes, what is the exact problem with refusing to enact them?

    • I don’t think there’s a grand
      I don’t think there’s a grand replacement for capitalism that society as a whole can adopt. It seems to me that it would be a good thing if institutions like family, neighborhood and religion that are neither bureaucratic nor profit-oriented became stronger. Presumably formal and informal limitations on capitalism could play a role in that but it’s not something government administrators can bring about. And in discussions of capitalism today it’s usually state adminstration that’s the alternative.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. I went to Murray’s website to
    I went to Murray’s website to check the copyright date: 1958.

    I don’t know that much about Murray, but just in reading your summaries it seems to me that his thought represents that complacent, self-satisfied liberalism that buckled under pressure in the 60’s and 70’s. There was nothing there. What were presented as principles were really just attitudes and postures. When crunch time came, it collapsed in a heap.

    Whether this strain of “liberalism” was peculiarly American, I don’t know. We might say its respectability was a necessary precursor to the thuggery that followed.

    • It seems to me the issues Mur
      It seems to me the issues Murray raises and the lines of thought he suggests are more interesting than particular conclusions he reached. Things have changed since his time, and he didn’t see where they were going. Jacques Maritain is another example of someone who at the time was quite favorable to liberalism although by the time Vatican II was over he had come to a very negative view of the direction things were heading. We can’t know where Murray would have ended up if he had lived longer.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • You’re certainly right about
        You’re certainly right about the issues and lines of thought. They could provide a month’s worth fodder for discussion.

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