Louie Verrecchio
Was John Courtney Murray right? (Part 2)
By Louie Verrecchio
January 8, 2012

Having presented an overview of traditional Church teaching in Part 1, we resume our examination of religious liberty in Part 2 with a look at the John Courtney Murray school of thought.

The first thing a careful examination of Fr. Murray's arguments reveals, is that he takes great liberty (no pun intended) in his treatment of the traditional teaching. He does so, however, in such a way that the casual observer may either miss it altogether, or may perhaps just consider it so subtle as to be irrelevant to the overall discussion. In reality, Murray's presumptions are profoundly bold, and they deserve intense scrutiny because they serve as the very foundation upon which he will build his entire case for religious liberty as adopted at Vatican II.

"The political criterion, whereby the issue of the possibility of intolerance or the necessity of tolerance is to be decided, is the public peace," he wrote of the traditional teaching in a 1964 article (published the year prior to Dignitatis Humanae).

In truth, the criterion for State tolerance of religious error most often articulated in the papal magisterium to that point is not the "public peace" (or "public order" — a phrase Murray also tends to employ in this context) but rather the "common good," and the difference between the two is substantial. Murray, in fact, admitted as much by noting in the very same article that there is indeed a "distinction between the common good and public order."

"The common good," Murray rightly maintained, "includes all the social goods, spiritual and moral as well as material, which man pursues here on earth in accord with the demands of his personal and social nature. The pursuit of the common good devolves upon society as a whole, on all its members and on all its institutions, in accord with the principles of subsidiarity, legal justice, and distributive justice."

By contrast, he continued, "Public order, whose care devolves upon the state, is a narrower concept," which according to Murray includes "the public peace, public morality, as determined by moral standards commonly accepted among the people, and justice, which secures for the people what is due to them."

Now let's examine these propositions more closely.

First, note well that Murray begins his treatment by recasting the criteria for the tolerance of religious error from the "common good" to what he plainly admits is the "narrower concept" of "public order." Remarkably, he offers precious little justification for this unilateral decision to alter the traditional teaching, but alas, that is precisely what he does.

Secondly, he fails to address the contradiction between his insistence that the purposes of the State belong in a category apart from the "common good," the pursuit of which he clearly acknowledges as being the very purpose of society and "all its members and on all its institutions" which presumably includes the governing institutions of the State. Contradiction aside, Murray once again makes a unilateral decision to simply recast centuries-held Catholic teaching.

Lastly, his assertion that "public morality" is but a construct of "commonly accepted moral standards" is so entirely irreconcilable with Catholic thought that one can hardly be surprised that it is a central tenet of secular humanism! And yet, this too forms an integral part of Murray's foundation.

In essence, we can see already that the very basis for the "updated" brand of religious liberty conceived of by John Courtney Murray and adopted at Vatican II, (namely, one that calls on States to grant religious freedom as a constitutional civil right without distinction between truth and falsehood) first and foremost requires the substantial removal of God from society, from its moral standards and from its governance; i.e., it rejects the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Fathers invoked the "common good" in the traditional treatment of religious liberty deliberately. Though the phrase is often misused and misunderstood today as pertaining to the temporal order alone; e.g., as having to do with things like economic prosperity, access to natural resources, education, healthcare and the like, in Catholic thought it encompasses both temporal and spiritual realities.

There is but one ultimate good that is common to every man, and that is union with God — He from whom all good things come. The Church, therefore, has always concerned Herself with both spiritual and temporal realities, carefully placing each in its proper perspective.

Pope Leo XIII summed up this synthesis very succinctly in Rerum Novarum, saying, "Neither must it be supposed that the solicitude of the Church is so preoccupied with the spiritual concerns of her children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests... By the fact that she calls men to virtue and forms them to its practice she promotes this in no slight degree. Christian morality, when adequately and completely practiced, leads of itself to temporal prosperity, for it merits the blessing of that God who is the source of all blessings (cf RN 28).

Having unilaterally redefined some core constituents of the traditional teaching, for example as articulated by Pope Leo XIII, Murray then insists on placing what remains in the context of an "historical problematic" that will presumably neuter whatever remains once placed in the modern setting.

Pope Leo XIII, as Murray tells it, was not so much concerned with the exclusive rights of truth and likewise of Christ and His Church; rather "his central notion was 'the freedom of the Church'" considered in a much broader context.

In other words, Murray wants us to believe that Leo XIII, if alive today, would alter his teaching such that provided the Church is afforded the freedom that She requires, the State is under no particular obligation to discern religious truth from religious error, nor is the State expected to exercise what traditional teaching called the "care of religion."

At this it may be timely to note that some "conservative" Catholic commentators have buttressed Murray's innovations by setting up a straw man argument centered on the "competency of the State" in matters religious.

George Weigel, for instance, during an appearance on EWTN (The World Over — 5/1/2009) said, "A State that could say that Christ is King is a State that could say that Charles III or George VII or whatever is king... or Oprah Winfrey is queen."

He concluded, therefore, "The State is incompetent to make theological judgments," the implication being that the State ought to remain utterly silent with regard to Christ's Kingship, as though it should have no concern whatever for religious truth.

Weigel's intellect is considerable, but this line of reasoning is sophomoric at best. It does not logically follow that a State that is able and willing to recognize and act upon the objective truth of Christ's Kingship is thereby granted license to invoke its authority to proclaim falsehood. It is likewise foolish to summarily draw the conclusion that the State should therefore concern itself with purely secular matters apart from those properly religious. (Those living in the United States, Weigel included, know all too well what this brings.)

States historically do, in fact, at times assume a competency that is not their own by adopting religious falsehood; e.g., as witnessed in the Islamic theocracies of the world. The remedy for this and for any other form of falsehood is truth; it is certainly not religious indifference. That is what moved Pope Leo XIII to state, "So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as something beyond its scope" (Immortale Dei — 4).

In any event, the important thing to recognize before we move on is that "scope" as Leo XIII invokes it does not hint at granting competency to the State at all. Indeed, the Church has always maintained that She is the uniquely competent custodian of religious truth.

Returning now to Murray's arguments, we cannot help but discern what looks like a subtle attempt to make of "freedom" an absolute that somehow exists apart from its Divine source and the obligations thereto.

"Freedom is the first property of the Church; and freedom is the first claim that the Church makes in the face of society and state" Murray writes. He then goes on to quote (out of context) Pope Leo XIII, "'This freedom is so much the property of the Church, as a perfect and divine work, that those who act against this freedom likewise act against God and against their duty.'"

Again, Murray makes some remarkable claims that demand a closer look.

The very proposition that the Church is best conceived as a collection of "properties" such that one is "first," and presumably another is "second" and so forth, is far less than compelling ecclesiology, but abiding by Murray's idiom just the same, if pressed to identify a "first property" of the Church one would most certainly have to say that it is the eternal Son of God in the flesh, the Person of Jesus Christ; not some secular notion of freedom.

Furthermore, the "first claim that the Church makes" wherever She goes is not "freedom" as Murray supposes, it is that She is the "Body of Christ," and that Jesus who is Lord of all established Her as the unique, universal sacrament of salvation. It is by virtue of this objective and primary truth that She can lay claim to eminent freedom. This, my friends, is Catholicism 101; it goes directly to the very nature and mission of the Church.

The freedom to which Murray refers can only be properly understood as that which fully belongs to the Church alone simply because it is the property of the Lord; He who is the truth in all its fullness. It is, in other words, a freedom that is uniquely absolute; one that transcends all human attempts to constrain it. This is a singular privilege to which the Catholic Church alone can lay claim, and more than that — She must assert this privilege in Her teaching (regardless of whether or not stubborn men, or godless regimes, will accept it) in order to carry out the Great Commission given to Her.

In any event, Murray attempts to legitimize this elevation of freedom to absolute status apart from the Church's unique divine institution by quoting paragraph 13 of the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on the Church in Bavaria, Officio Sanctissimo, and there are several problems that must be noted, not the least of which is his faulty translation.

The Encyclical was originally written in Italian, wherein the operative phrase states with regard to the liberty (or freedom) in discussion that it is "essenziale alla Chiesa, all'opera perfetta e divina;" that is, "essential to the Church, to that institution (opera) perfect and divine." Indeed, this is how the Holy See renders this phrase in English.

Again, we are dealing with subtly, but make no mistake; it is noteworthy. In Murray's version ("This freedom is so much the property of the Church, as a perfect and divine work...") it appears that the adjectives "perfect and divine" apply to "freedom," whereas the Italian original text, as the Holy See's translation, much more clearly indicates that "perfect and divine" refers to the Church.

Remember — Murray is attempting to make the case that Pope Leo XIII was not primarily interested in singling out the Catholic Church and the unique claim to freedom that stems from Her divine institution; rather, he wants us to believe that Leo XIII, if ruling today, would ultimately be content to assert a more broad-based notion of freedom, one that the Church would be content to share with other, necessarily false, religions.

Let us assume in charity that Fr. Murray unintentionally misinterpreted the text, but let us not overlook the central error evident here and elsewhere in his reasoning; namely, he elevates "freedom" to the status of absolute (or perhaps more accurately lowers it to the status of the purely secular) as though in matters religious it exists apart from that divine perfection that dwells in the Catholic Church alone.

In any event, just two sentences later in Officio Sanctissimo, Pope Leo writes of the Church that She "is a society eminently independent, and above all others, because of the excellence of the heavenly and immortal blessings towards which it tends."

This alone renders Murray's argument unsustainable, and a full reading confirms no hint whatsoever that this doctrine is subject to change based upon historical circumstances.

Once scrutinized, Murray's arguments considered thus far have failed to demonstrate that Tradition contains the seeds of a doctrine that would ask no more of the State than the kind of broad-based religious freedom that would simply guarantee the Church an ability to compete in the marketplace of hearts and minds alongside the false religions of the world.

We will conclude in Part 3 with a look at what John Courtney Murray called "the decisive proof" that religious liberty as taught in centuries past is subject to radical change at the hands of historical circumstances.

© Louie Verrecchio


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