Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selected Writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J.
Edited by J. Leon Hooper, S.J.
Georgetown University Press, 373 pages, $24.95

John Courtney Murray published only three books. The first of these, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), a collection, slightly edited, of previously published articles, remains the main text around which Murray scholars continue to circle. The second, The Problem of God (1964), prints three lectures Murray delivered at Yale during the winter of 1962, and the third, The Problem of Religious Freedom (1964), is a slightly expanded version of an article published during the Second Vatican Council.

Apart from his books, Murray published a large number of essays between 1935 and his death in 1967. They cover a broad range: interreligious cooperation, theology for lay people, religious freedom and church“state relations, the First Amendment, public policy, Christian humanism, Catholic education, and sermons and addresses on spiritual topics. In genre they range from the popular to the meditative to the rigorously scholarly.

Besides his published work, Murray wrote a great deal of still unpublished material”much of it in the well catalogued and much consulted Murray archives at Georgetown University, but much of it existing only in far less accessible places. In addition to many unpublished lectures, this material includes a vast correspondence that remains largely unknown. Murray’s range of correspondents was large, and it was not rare for him to send them lengthy disquisitions. This unpublished material contains much that is useful for understanding the development of Murray’s thought, and it is particularly helpful for information about his wide-ranging reading. (Murray was notoriously uninformative and careless about citations in his published works.)

Surprisingly little has been done to start collecting and editing Murray’s writings, but J. Leon Hooper, S.J., has at last made the first move in that direction. Two years ago he published Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism , which collected two of Murray’s published essays on Vatican II and religious freedom and provided an English translation of an essay previously available only in Latin. Perhaps most usefully, it printed an article that Murray was denied permission to publish in 1955, in which he both concluded his series of articles on the thought of Leo XIII and defended himself against the kind of interpretations that had led the Holy Office a year before to condemn four propositions thought to reflect his ideas.

Now Hooper has published another collection: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selected Writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J. Under five headings (Civil Law: National and International; Christian Humanism; Doctrines at the Cutting Edge; Christianity and Atheism; Ecumenism), it collects twenty-eight essays previously published in widely scattered places, three lectures never published before, the press report of a speech, and a private memorandum. One may be grateful to have all this now in a single volume, but even our gratitude makes us ask why the publication of Murray’s writings does not proceed more systematically and more critically.

As Hooper’s brief introductions make clear, none of the sections in this volume exhaust Murray’s thought on these themes, which he also addressed in several other published essays as well as in still unpublished texts. Hooper seems to have selected these particular essays not only as illustrations of what the preface calls the differentiation and integration of the sacred and the secular but also as evidence for the account of Murray’s development he set out in his earlier book, The Ethics of Discourse: The Social Philosophy of John Courtney Murray (1986).

If one is content with selections from Murray’s works, the idea that guides this collection is not unworthy; one great advantage of this volume is that it forces on the reader’s attention several texts that illustrate the commitment to a specifically Christian humanism that Murray continued to urge even while promoting a civic consensus in a pluralistic society. That in all cases the texts chosen best illustrate the themes can reasonably be debated. I would at times have made different choices, most notably with regard to the section on constitutional law, where only a fairly late text is reproduced while more careful and considered essays, particularly in the context of Supreme Court cases in the late 1940s, are merely cited but not reproduced. (I note also that the bibliography does not include Murray’s vigorous critique of the McCollum decision, first printed in the October 1992 First Things .)

An editor has a right to his own opinions and hypotheses, and Hooper displays his in the generally brief introductions and appended editorial notes. But it is clear from the considerable literature on Murray that has appeared in the last ten years that Hooper’s is only one interpretation of Murray’s development and represents only one of the several evaluations of his project. Apart from brief remarks in the preface to the volume, little account is taken of the contemporary debates. The result is that the volume does not merely collect some useful materials but also advances some particular theses of the editor”with the result, I think, that the collection is too much concerned to read the texts in the light of alleged later developments in Murray’s thought and too little interested in the immediate contexts that prompted the essays.

One of the more interesting debates among students of Murray today concerns his appeal to natural law as the basis for the consensus that he thought necessary for the coherent life of a civic society. This appeal is often criticized on two grounds: first, that his notion of the natural law is too narrowly defined and too optimistically embraced as a solution to the problems of a disintegrative pluralism and an increasingly hegemonic secularism; and second, that his appeal to a purely rational social philosophy is too “thin,” i.e., it sacrifices the power of biblical symbols and doctrinal truths to inspire commitment to the redemption of society and history.

In the early 1940s Murray gave sets of lectures that provided specifically theological motives for Catholic involvement in addressing what he called “the spiritual crisis in the temporal order.” One set was the three lectures on “The Construction of a Christian College” delivered in February 1940 at Loyola College, Baltimore. (Here they are located at St. Joseph’s College; did Murray deliver them twice?) Each lecture probes a central Christian dogma for its cultural implications: the Incarnation grounds a transcendent idea of the dignity of the person, the Trinity discloses true personhood to be relationship within community, the Redemption reveals resurrection to be man’s true destiny and the Cross to require a passage to interiority and to self-sacrifice for others. The exposition of each mystery and its cultural implications is introduced by criticisms of contemporary American culture that are sharper than any that Murray would later make.

One can immediately see the importance of these texts. They reveal that, at least initially, Murray’s interest in social and cultural questions was theologically motivated, and they enable one to place his proposal in the context of other Catholic thinkers who in the 1930s began to think out a new, more discriminating, and more effective Catholic response to the decade’s economic, political, and cultural crises. Teilhard pursued his integration of the faith and the evolving world disclosed by modern science; Maritain talked about a “new Christendom”; Dawson called for a renewed Christian culture; Chenu and Congar sought an incarnation of the Church into milieux from which it had been absent, especially that of the working class; de Lubac explored the social aspects of dogma. The 1940 lectures reveal that Murray was aware of many of these thinkers and their work, particularly of de Lubac’s Catholicism , published only two years earlier.

These lectures survive in typescript in generally good shape, but requiring the work of an editor to note the changes made by Murray himself and to identify Murray’s references. In a footnote at the beginning of his edition of these lectures, Hooper says that he has omitted “about one-fourth of the original text to remove redundancies and material not applicable to our present topic” and that he has “supplied some transitional phrasing, where needed.”

Unfortunately, he has not generally used ellipses to indicate omissions or brackets to identify his own phrases. No notice is given when some of Murray’s briefer paragraphs have been combined in this edition, or of one case in which the sequence of paragraphs has been altered. No notes indicate where Murray himself made corrections in his text or supplied marginal comments. (One of these reveals Murray’s acquaintance with Teilhard de Chardin’s thought.) No effort is made to identify or to explain works alluded to in the course of the lectures.

A comparison of this printed version with the typescript of the lectures in the Georgetown archives suggests that Hooper’s estimate of how much of the text he has omitted is too low: while thirty-five of the 103 paragraphs are dropped from the first lecture and nineteen of eighty-one from the second, a surprising sixty-one of ninety-five paragraphs are omitted from the third (whose argument, I believe, has been mutilated). A few of the omissions might be defended on the grounds of redundancy, but many of the omitted sections pertain to the general theme of Hooper’s volume, representing expansions or illustrations of Murray’s main arguments and indicating the range of his reading. Scholars should be aware that they must still consult the typescript of these lectures.

The particular problem here is that the editing has not been guided by the standards that ought to prevail at the indispensable level of basic research: the provision of the data on which subsequent efforts at interpretation, history, and evaluation must reflect. The more general problem, however, is that no individual or group seems interested in undertaking the task of assembling, editing, and then publishing Murray’s writings in a critical edition. This is not an easy or inexpensive task, nor one that everyone has the patience or skills to undertake. It requires both a complete inventory of Murray’s writings and decisions about the principles with which to organize a complete edition.

My point in urging such a project is the simple fact that much of the basic data for understanding Murray’s thought is not easily available, and the already published texts have been plowed so often that they are in danger of becoming barren. Articles and books on Murray differ mostly on the basis of prior methodological, political, or theological judgments. There are those who defend the appeal to some form of natural law argument and those who want instead a political theology. There are neoconservatives and neoliberals. (I once heard a man say, with something approaching horror: “Murray was more Republican than Democrat; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he voted for Nixon in 1960!”) There are those who wish to carry forward Murray’s project (in the line of Monsignor John A. Ryan) in working out a critical accommodation between Catholicism and the “American Proposition,” and those who are reviving Paul Hanly Furfey’s critique of the “conformism” they see to be almost inevitably involved in that effort.

Before we can settle such debates, serious scholarly work needs to be done. We must assemble critical editions of Murray’s texts, and complete a threefold inquiry: into whatever development in Murray’s thought can be identified, into the development of theological and secular ideas in the United States and in the churches during this century, and into the development of the society and the churches themselves.

Of these three inquiries, the last two obviously depend on the first, which at the present moment, I believe, is the one not being addressed with sufficient comprehensiveness and critical rigor. Until it is undertaken, I do not expect to see the discussion of the “Murray project” or the struggle over the right to wear his mantle escape from present impasses.

Joseph A. Komonchak is the John and Gertrude Hubbard Professor of Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America.

Articles by Joseph A. Komonchak

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