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The Search for an American Public Theology: The Contribution of John Courtney Murray
by robert w. mcelroy
paulist press, 216 pages, $10.95 

The Ethics of Discourse: The Social Philosophy of John Courtney Murray 
by j. leon hooper 
georgetown university press, 283 pages, $17.95 

William Lee Miller has called John Courtney Murray “the most important American Catholic thinker of the twentieth century.” It is no surprise, then, that there is a continuing interest in Murray’s understanding of the relation between theological conviction and public life. It is perhaps also no surprise that this interest should involve heated struggles among Catholics of diverse political and ideological persuasions to claim Murray’s mantle. Two recent books on Murray provide a useful occasion for an analysis of the issues at stake in the quest for the historical Murray.

Both of these books make extensive use of unpublished material and thus contribute to a more complete understanding of Murray and his contribution to the discussion of the place of religion in American public life. Those unfamiliar with Murray would do well to begin with Robert McElroy’s readable introduction to the man and his work. McElroy quotes his subject liberally and is for the most part content to let Murray speak for himself. The book nicely captures Murray’s wit and polemical dexterity and serves all in all as perhaps the best available starting place for the study of Murray’s ideas.

J. Leon Hooper’s book, on the other hand, is a reworked doctoral dissertation. While it is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and detailed exposition of Murray’s writings available, the extent to which it will be found valuable will depend largely on the extent to which one finds plausible the hermeneutical grid through which Hooper reads Murray. For reasons that will be explained shortly, I find Hooper’s central thesis—that Murray’s work was significantly influenced by the work of Bernard Lonergan—to be implausible.

McElroy paints the more familiar portrait of Murray as a public theologian rooted in the Thomist tradition. Murray was deeply disturbed with an increasingly secular culture and society, and he sought to create a public theology that would halt “the secularist drift” of modernity. The tone of the book is set in the opening chapter, where McElroy tells us that Murray was far from sanguine about the cultural ethos of the twentieth century. “One of the most consistent and compelling themes in Murray’s writings,” he says, “is the conviction that the modern world faced a moral and social crisis of immense proportions—a crisis that dwarfed the threats to humanity which had been posed in earlier ages.” In succeeding chapters, McElroy lays out Murray’s elaboration of the problems and his proposals for renewal and reconstruction in the cultural, political, and international orders. A concluding chapter—“The Life-Work of John Courtney Murray: Foundations for an American Public Theology?”—is a nicely nuanced “what would Murray say now?” overview that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Murray’s thought for contemporary social, economic, and political problems. In his treatment, McElroy basically tries to split the difference between Catholic neoconservatives and liberals who hope to appropriate Murray for their own political agendas.

Hooper paints a significantly different portrait. While McElroy insists that “the over-arching theme of Murray’s life-work was the conviction that all human values must be subjected to transcendent truth,” Hooper argues that this was an immature conviction that Murray outgrew with the help of Bernard Lonergan. Hooper does admit that for most of his career Murray “clung to the notion of noncontingency of theological affirmations and of the church’s self-understanding,” but he suggests that by the end of his life, with the help of Lonergan, Murray had come to “admit the contingency of the theological propositions that guided church action and thought.”

According to Hooper, Murray’s early thinking was characterized by an ethical individualism that “betrayed the social dimensions of his faith.” And because Murray assumed a “timelessness to the principles which were to govern conscience,” he was also an ethical legalist. Largely as a result of this individualism and legalism, Murray’s early polemics against liberal Protestant and secularist notions of the separation of church and state, and their corresponding justifications of religious liberty, were, according to Hooper, “immoral.” He had yet to learn the “ethics of discourse.”

Not until sometime after Vatican II, according to Hooper, did Murray arrive at a “new consciousness” which was “the result of a final break with elements of his earlier epistemological and ecclesiological theories that blocked what might be called a social spirituality—a conscious recognition of, and interaction with, an historical God.” Murray finally came to realize that “the church’s understanding of itself as a timeless embodiment of Christian truth . . . must give way to a recognition of itself as principally and primarily a community of ongoing historical inquiry and of transforming love.” In short, Murray outgrew his old Thomistic natural law doctrines and came to recognize “the contingency of the theological propositions that guided church thought and action.”

Someone unfamiliar with Murray’s work but acquainted with the classic typology of H. Richard Niebuhr might well conclude that McElroy’s Murray would represent a Christ the Transformer of Culture perspective while Hooper’s Murray would represent a Christ of Culture position. Which raises the question: How can we account for these radically divergent interpretations of Murray?

With respect to the narrower question of McElroy’s Murray versus Hooper’s Murray, the answer is specified, along lines I have already indicated, in a note by McElroy where he says of Hooper’s book that it is “flawed by its erroneous central thesis that Murray was dramatically influenced by the work of Bernard Lonergan.”

Hooper does, I think, establish that Murray was intimately familiar with Lonergan’s work and that at times he resorted to some of Lonergan’s terminology, particularly his notion of “historical consciousness”—a theory which, according to Hooper, advanced the notion of the contingency of all human judgments. But he does not establish that Murray was, as McElroy puts it, “dramatically influenced” by Lonergan, at least not sufficiently to outweigh other influences such as Eric Voegelin, J. L. Talmon, Henri de Lubac, Jacques Maritain, and, ultimately, St. Thomas. And the extent to which he was influenced by Lonergan certainly does not justify the rather bold claims Hooper makes for the mature Murray.

Actually, Hooper himself seems rather ambiguous about the extent to which Murray was influenced by Lonergan’s notion of “historical consciousness.” As early as 1964, in a noted article on “The Problem of Religious Freedom,” Murray was making a distinction—one be clearly did get from Lonergan—between classicism and historical consciousness. However, Hooper concedes that “it was only about 1966 that Murray began to catch on to Lonergan’s notion of ‘historical consciousness’ as a distinct differentiation on human understanding, a new perspective on the contingent and social nature of all human truth claims.” Even then, we are told, an article published in 1967, the year of his death, indicated that Murray “did not have complete control” over Lonergan’s notion because he was willing to assert there that “Leo XIII was a man of ‘historical consciousness.’”

This is not a minor ambiguity in Hooper’s thesis. If Murray, as late as 1967, was willing to call Leo XIII, of all people, a man of “historical consciousness,” then it would seem that anybody could fit the bill, perhaps even those Catholic traditionalists whom Murray opposed at the Second Vatican Council. But that would be nonsense. How is it, then, that Murray could ascribe the term to Leo and at the same time deny it to those traditionalists who advanced Leo’s position at the Council?

The answer turns on Murray’s understanding of Leo’s church-state theory. In brief, Murray thought that Leo could plausibly be considered a man of “historical consciousness” because of the historically sensitive way in which he advocated and defended the Church’s thesis-hypothesis theory. That theory held that the state in principle (thesis) was obliged to recognize the Catholic Church as the true Church and to prescribe worship of God according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Moreover, in principle the state had the right and duty to suppress the public expression of false religion. However, in practice (hypothesis) non-establishment of the Catholic Church and toleration of false religions was permitted when suppression would cause more harm than good. That Murray would claim that Leo, a staunch champion of this doctrine, warranted being called a man of “historical consciousness” is quite remarkable, for it was the thesis-hypothesis doctrine that Murray opposed for most of his intellectual life.

Now, instead of opting for the more plausible claim that Murray’s use of the term “historical consciousness” might be in line with a traditional Thomistic notion of prudence—the virtue of applying immutable first principles to historically variant situations—Hooper chose to ascribe to him a Lonerganian notion of historical consciousness and then declare it “underdeveloped.”

However, the more reasonable interpretation is that Murray believed that Leo’s church-state theory could be defended as a prudential judgment that applied trans-temporal principles to a unique historical situation that no longer held. This was the crux of a series of lengthy articles Murray had written on Leo XIII in the mid-1950s. Since the conditions that Leo had faced in nineteenth-century Europe—notably mass illiteracy and tendencies toward totalitarian versions of democracy—no longer obtained, the so-called “ideal” of a confessional state (the “thesis”) was no longer applicable.

Murray’s understanding of Leo’s church-state theory and his own constructive religious liberty argument are not without their problems. But the significant point here is that Murray could easily enough agree with Leo that some theological and moral affirmations are not historically contingent and still take seriously the notion of historical development and even an idea such as “historical consciousness.” But, of course, he would not necessarily mean by the term what Hooper or Lonergan do. If Murray’s use of Lonergan’s notion of “historical consciousness” is undeveloped as late as 1967, one might fairly wonder whether Murray really came to believe that “one cannot (and should not) aprioristically claim the eternal validity of any political philosophy or rights theory, or, for that matter, of any ethical theory regarding social reality, familial structuring, common moral affirmations, or even the principles of justice themselves.”

Consider, by way of argument, the following moral judgments.

1. Torturing children for fun is wrong.
2. Monogamy is right and polygamy is wrong.
3. Coercing persons into making a public religious confession is wrong.

It would be reasonable to understand (1) as “a common moral affirmation,” (2) as a statement about “a form of familial structuring,” and (3) as a part of a rights theory or a principle of justice. To take seriously Hooper’s rather bold claim, we would have to believe that the “mature” Murray would be perfectly willing to consider these historically relative and contingent propositions. The problem is that there is good evidence that Murray would have considered each of these to be non-contingent either on the basis of natural law or on the basis of revealed truth.

Take #3, for instance. It would be fair to say that this is a proposition that Murray took to be immutably true. It is, incidentally, also a proposition taken to be immutably true even by those Catholic defenders of the thesis-hypothesis doctrine whom Murray opposed throughout his life. For both Murray and his traditionalist contemporaries, the conscience ought never be coerced, although for the traditionalists this did not imply that the public expression of heresy or a false religion could not be proscribed for the common good should Roman Catholics have hegemony within a particular polity.

If we are to take seriously Hooper’s assertions that Murray grew into a stance that took all theological and moral claims to be socially and historically relative, it would seem that Murray could at most claim that coercing persons into making a public religious confession would only be contingently wrong. If a society came to believe that it was not wrong to coerce persons into making public religious confessions against their will (thus making the denial of #3 a “common moral affirmation”), then it would seem that Murray would have to conclude that proposition #3 is true if and only if there is societal consensus on the matter. To borrow a phrase from Richard Rorty, Murray would have to concede that #3 is true if, and only if, his peers let him get away with saying it. Murray would be, in other words, a full-blown relativist or historicist.

So has Murray, according to Hooper, emerged into a full-blown relativist? Well, not quite. “If Murray did indeed relativize all human social judgments of moral value . . . be did not, in his own understanding, abandon any rational discussion of social and ethical values or the possibility of invariance in general or specific moral judgments from one age to the next.” But which is it? Did Murray (1) relativize all social judgments of moral value, or (2) affirm the possibility of invariance in moral judgments? Hooper seems to think that with the help of Lonergan’s notion of the “virtually unconditioned,” Murray found some middle ground and could thus avoid moral and religious relativism. But it is less than clear how this is possible, unless it is the Zeitgeist (rather than, say, the will of God or the moral law) that makes a moral judgment only virtually, rather than absolutely, unconditioned.

And this, not surprisingly, is what Hooper implies. According to Hooper, Murray eventually came to realize that “the very religious truths by which the church understands itself and God are dependent on the emergence of insights and perspectives as these arise in the course of historical development” (emphasis added). This comes perilously close to saying that the Church dances to the tune of the secular Zeitgeist. In that case, Murray would emerge as a nineteenth-century liberal Protestant, a considerable about-face for someone who gained his reputation as a theologian who fought liberals and secularists in an attempt to “reverse the secularist drift.”

Leaving aside the narrower question concerning the extent to which Murray was influenced by Lonergan, we might ask a broader question. How could it be possible for Catholic scholars intimately familiar with Murray’s work to interpret Murray in such radically diverse ways? McElroy suggests an answer, to which I propose an addendum.

One of the most interesting elements of the leading public theologies written over the last decade, McElroy writes, “is that despite their sectarian and ideological diversity, they have almost uniformly drawn many of their central insights from the works of John Courtney Murray.” From the liberal Catholicism of John Coleman and Richard McBrien, and we may now add Hooper, to the conservative Catholicism of Michael Novak, one finds a deep appreciation for the work of Murray.

McElroy credits this largely to the depth and breadth of Murray’s life work. He cites Robin Lovin’s suggestion that public theologians fall in three general categories—those who stress the ordering function of religion in society, those who stress that religion can undergird principles of freedom in society, and those who argue that religion provides the possibility for social justice. The enduring attractiveness of Murray’s work is that it contains elements of all these categories. Murray’s work, according to McElroy, appeals to public theologians from a diversity of ideological perspectives because be integrated these functions in a penetrating, non-superficial manner. But this also means that someone intent on highlighting one aspect of his thought can easily enough do so at the expense of others.

To some extent this can be said of every serious thinker. But it is particularly true of Murray because of a characteristic of his work that is often overlooked. As McElroy puts it, “While Murray was always a systematic thinker he was not a systematic writer.” Murray, be observes, never brought together his writings on the nature of the state and politics in one single place. Even We Hold These Truths, a book that Murray considered merely a “primer on pluralism,” was, for the most part, a compilation of earlier articles. McElroy perceptively notes that although Murray could easily have written a comprehensive treatise on the subject, his work on the state and government only appears in derivative fashion as it applied to religious liberty and within the context of an attempt to construct a public theology that would contribute to the renewal of American society.

McElroy’s observations are right on target. But what needs to be added is that this places a significant burden on the reader intent on deciphering Murray’s own constructive position. Virtually every thing Murray bad to say, particularly on the topic of religious liberty, must be placed within the historical situation that drove him to address the topic in the first place.

To properly understand Murray, then, one must appreciate the extent to which his thought in general and his theory of religious liberty in particular developed within a fairly well-defined polemical context. The latter emerged out of his struggles with both Catholic defenders of the traditional thesis-hypothesis tradition, on the one band, and liberal Protestant and secularist defenses of religious liberty grounded in a strict separation of church and state, on the other.

Murray’s victory against the advocates of the thesis-hypothesis doctrine at Vatican II should not obscure the fact that he was never happy with liberal Protestant justifications of religious liberty, let alone secularist ones. To do justice to Murray’s work, one must carefully consider his quarrel with liberal Protestants and secularists as well as with traditionalist Catholics. And what must be kept in mind is that his rejection of one does not imply the affirmation of the other, although Murray can be and often bas been selectively cited and made to look as if he did not properly distance himself from either.

Because Hooper does not sufficiently appreciate Murray’s arguments against liberal Protestants and secularists, be tends to read Murray as a Thomist shifting his ground in their direction. To a degree, the opposite can be said of McElroy. Because be does not do justice to Murray’s quarrel with traditionalist Catholics, and in fact fails to account for the extent to which his own constructive position emerged out of a double-sided polemic, be tends to downplay the “progressive” side of Murray.

There are, I think, serious lacunae and major ambiguities in Murray’s position on religious liberty as well as in his “public theology.” But the first step toward reading him correctly is understanding his sitz im leben as a Catholic Christian satisfied neither with the traditionalist Catholic theory of church and state nor with what he took to be the liberal Protestant acquiescence in the “secularist drift.” If we keep this situation in mind, we will resist the temptation to create a Murray simply after our own image.

Keith L. Pavlischek teaches in the Philosophy and Religion Department of Northeast Missouri State University. He recently completed a doctoral dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh on John Courtney Murray.