Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Second Look at Murray

Martin E. Marty
Teacher, advisor, friend, and friendly critic Martin E. Marty sent me an email a few days ago in response to my post about the first North American Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. My post included critical comments about John Courtney Murray (1904-67), a principal (maybe THE principal) Jesuit theologian in America in the middle decades of the twentieth century. After receiving a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, he taught for thirty years at the Jesuit theologate in Woodstock, Maryland. He also served as an associate editor at one of my favorite magazines, America, and as editor of Theological Studies, the most reputable scholarly journal of Roman Catholic theology in North America. Given these credentials and responsibilities, he was the best choice to serve as the Roman Catholic essayist at that first dialogue in Baltimore. The topic was "The Status of the Nicene Creed as Dogma in the Church."

I was critical of the fact that Murray's essay stresses the role of the Roman magisterium in the formation and defense of Catholic dogma, so much so that perhaps finally the Church's teaching authority is placed, at least in practice, above the Scriptures and their authoritative application in the life of the church. Lutherans have historically come at this issue in a different way, one that stresses the self-authenticating witness of the Scriptures to their dogmatic content in service to the gospel.

Marty reminded me that on other fronts Murray "was agent of the religious liberty schema which, many argue, admits that the church had been wrong and was now changing!"

That aspect of Murray's contribution to American Christian/Catholic theology needs to be underscored. (Aside: If the church could be wrong with respect to its teaching about religious freedom, could it also be wrong on other matters?! That, of course, is a Lutheran question that I couldn't help raising.) Most of Murray's essays in the 1940s and 50s focused on the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the state, especially in its North American setting. That he was doing "something new" in this area--and offering sober criticism of earlier Catholic approaches to religious liberty--led many Catholics and non-Catholics to take notice, including the editors of Time magazine, who put him on the cover of their December 12, 1960 issue.

For his views on religious liberty, Murray came under fire from Catholic traditionalists and heresy hunters, including the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose responsibility is to discipline Catholic theologians when they take positions against official (and even non-official) church teaching. The Church's magisterium at that time could not see any compatibility between the U. S. Constitution and Roman Catholic theology and practice. And this was the case at least up until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), where Murray's voice and influence on the Council's final version of its document on religious liberty would be significant.

Prior to the election of President John F. Kennedy, many Americans, and not merely Catholics, debated whether or not there was a compatibility between American religious freedom and Catholicism. If elected to a government position, wouldn't an American Catholic's ultimate obligation be to a foreign power, namely, the Pope? How could one be ROMAN Catholic and American at the same time? To the American majority in the early centuries of the American experience--that is, to the Protestants--Catholicism was perceived as a threat, especially as Catholicism continued to grow and grow numerically. On many occasions some states sought to curb the activities of Roman Catholics. In my home state of Oregon, for example, the citizens there sent an initiative to the state legislature that then passed it as a law that required all children to attend public schools through the eighth grade. The anti-Roman Catholic sentiments behind this 1922 law, whose real purpose was to close all Catholic parochial schools in the state, were not very well concealed. The chief sponsors of the law had been the Klu Klux Klan. Anti-Catholic bigotry was also in play during the 1928 presidential campaign of New York governer Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major political party and whose Catholicism was attacked by his opponents. The smears against him were certainly a factor in his defeat.

Facets of this American anti-Catholicism were explored in the first installment of the television documentary "God in America," airing this week on most PBS stations. A forerunner to Murray in 19th-century America was Bishop John Hughes, highlighted in the documentary. He argued that America's religious freedoms also applied to the Roman Catholic Church. He helped to make the case that indeed democracy and Catholicism were compatible. Roman Catholics used the U. S. Constitution, too, in the wake of the 1922 Oregon law, and eventually the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the Oregon law was unconstitutional because it interfered with the free exercise of the Catholic faith. By the time that Kennedy ran for president, the country had shifted on political issues related to Catholicism and it was not as big a factor as it had been in 1928. Today one hardly hears any longer the historic anti-Catholic, bigoted statements against Catholic politicians. Part of the reason for this is the fact that Catholics are a sizeable portion of the population, but another factor is this change in political attitudes about Catholicism.

John Courtney Murray had a big role to play in this shift. He argued that there is a theological basis for religious freedom that not only coheres with liberal values of democracy (e.g., tolerance of others, basic human rights, respect for the rule of law, liberal constitutional government) but which also is consistent with the teachings and beliefs of Roman Catholicism (for example, the individual's right of conscience, free persons need religious freedom). See, for example, his very influential book, We Hold These Truths, published in 1960, which was widely read in the context of the Kennedy campaign. Five years later he published another important work, The Problem of Religious Freedom (reprinted in John Courtney Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, ed. J. Leon Hooper [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1993]. In this work he affirms the validity of religious freedom as "a legal institution, a juridical notion, a civil and human right." Correlatively, he also affirms "the validity of constitutional government, within whose structures religious freedom in the sense explained, finds its necessary place" (ibid., 146).

Having watched now the first two nights of the PBS documentary, I can't but think that what Roman Catholics went through in the first three centuries of the North American "experiment" is at least partly akin to what Muslims are going through now in our country. Not only are the principles of religious freedom once again in need of thorough discussion and application (e.g., the proposed Muslim center in New York City), but it seems that the Muslim community itself and the American public as a whole could benefit from the voices of Hughes and Murray. Granted, the numbers of Catholics immigrating to America in the 19th and 20th centuries were vastly higher than is the case with the number of Muslim immigrants today, and the political context is different in the wake of 9/11 from anything that was on the horizon in 19th-Century America, but the same question is being asked by many, "Is Islam compatible with American liberal democracy?" Where is the Muslim Murray or the Muslim Hughes? I, for one, would celebrate the day that the portrait of such a person appears on the cover of Time or Newsweek.

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