John Courtney Murray, SJ: The Man JFK Didn’t Understand

Scholars regularly link the election of John Kennedy with the work of Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ. By winning the nation’s highest office, Kennedy is said to have proved once and for all that Catholics were fully American and that Catholicism and the American proposition were not fundamentally at odds. As a Newsweek writer remarked, “Murray demonstrated in theory what John F. Kennedy demonstrated in practice: that Americanism and Roman Catholicism need no longer fear each other.”

Indeed, Murray’s only book, We Hold These Truths, was published in 1960, just months before the election. A scholarly and nuanced work, this book, in sociologist John Murray Cuddihy’s view, was to become “the public, Catholic legitimation of the bid” that Kennedy was making. Furthermore, Kennedy’s most dramatic pronouncement on church and state—his speech in Houston before a group of Protestant ministers—has often been associated with Murray. Before the speech was delivered, one of Kennedy’s aides, Theodore Sorensen, read it over the telephone to Murray for his input. In Garry Wills’s rendering, Sorensen read the speech to “Fr. Murray, its doctrinal father, for a final blessing.”

In reality, Kennedy and Murray had little in common and had little contact with each other. They inhabited different worlds and differed sharply on certain political questions. One person who knew them both well was John Cogley, who worked with religious issues for the Kennedy campaign in 1960. When interviewed in 1968, Cogley admitted that there had been a “little myth-making” about the Kennedy-Murray relationship. He recalled that when Bobby Kennedy asked him to join the campaign in September 1960, “Fr. Murray strongly advised me against going to Washington or having any part in the campaign whatsoever … to have nothing to do with ‘those people,’ as he called them.” Cogley explained that Murray “leaned towards the Republicans” in his views and felt that Kennedy was a “lightweight.” He said that Murray had voted for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and again in 1956.

There were other reasons for Murray’s distrustful attitude. On the church-state questions on which he spent so many years reflecting, Murray was an advocate of cooperation between civil and religious institutions. He was especially troubled by the rise of secularism in postwar America and wanted Catholics to work with other believers to combat it. Kennedy, on the other hand, called for the “absolute” separation of church and state during his campaign for president and seemed to have little interest in religious matters. Indeed, in some respects Kennedy embodied the secularist outlook that Murray was so intent on opposing.

White Knight

In 1946 Kennedy embarked on his political career, announcing his candidacy for a congressional seat in Massachusetts. Well known for his brave service on a PT boad in the South Pacific, he easily won the primary. In November, a Republican tidal wave swept Massachusetts and most of the rest of the nation, yet Kennedy emerged unscathed. His landslide victory attracted national attention.

As a congressman, when church-state issues arose, he dutifully supported the stands taken by the Catholic bishops. On the hotly contested topic of aid to religious schools, he not only supported the bishops but sponsored a bill in 1949 providing bus rides, health services, and nonreligious textbooks for parochial school students. This proposal was a response to a Supreme Court decision, Everson v. Board of Education (1947), which had called for a “wall of separation between church and state” but allowed some limited forms of aid to parochial schoolchildren. Kennedy’s bill never made it into law, but the effort gained him the gratitude of the Pilot, the newspaper of the Boston archdiocese. The Pilot‘s editors hailed him as a “‘White Knight’ who fought valiantly in the interests of large groups of citizens who are merely asking for their just share.”

Murray’s Rise to Prominence

As Kennedy was gaining fame in the postwar years, so too was John Courtney Murray. Ordained in 1933, he received a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in 1937 and then began teaching at Woodstock College, the Jesuits’s premier school of theology. In 1941 he was named editor of Theological Studies, a newly established Jesuit scholarly journal. Over the next decade he would contribute a series of articles to the journal, which would gain him many followers and not a few detractors in Catholic circles.

The first question that Murray took up was interfaith cooperation. He argued that Catholics could and should work with other believers on political, social, and cultural matters. Provided that interfaith organizations avoided theological topics, he felt that they could play a critical role in the struggle against secularism. Following his own advice, he joined the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the largest interfaith organization of the day.

By 1946 Murray had begun to explore a more sensitive topic: church-state relations. It was his contention that the traditional Catholic teaching on this subject was alienating many non-Catholic Americans. The view that Catholicism should be the established church in countries where Catholics were in the majority and that it should be afforded full religious liberty in countries where it was a minority had been reaffirmed by Msgr. John Ryan in 1940 in an influential textbook on religion and politics. Murray labeled this two-pronged theory “disjunctive” and hoped to supplant it with one principle that would apply to Catholics in all countries.

Battling Blanshard

While Murray was making overtures to people of other faiths, many Protestants were not proving terribly receptive. In 1947, after the Supreme Court in Everson allowed states to provide bus rides to parochial school students, an angry group led by Methodist bishop Bromley Oxnam and journalist Paul Blanshard came together to form Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The group advocated a strict separationist position on all church-state questions, but its special concern was to make sure that parochial school students did not receive any form of public assistance.

In 1948, Oxnam, Blanshard and their allies were much encouraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCollum. In this case, the Court outlawed an Illinois released-time program that enabled priests, ministers, and rabbis to come to the public schools and provide an hour of religious instruction each week.

To Murray and the Catholic bishops, the Court was moving in an alarming direction. In a statement released in the fall of 1948, the bishops lashed out at the Court:

Within the past two years secularism has scored unprecedented victories in its opposition to governmental encouragement of religious and moral training…. In two recent cases, the Supreme Court of the United States has adopted an entirely novel and ominously extensive interpretation of the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment. This interpretation would bar any cooperation between government and organized religion which would aid religion.

The bishops concluded with an exhortation to Catholics to resist the “judicial ‘establishment of secularism’ that would bar God from public life.”

Murray was every bit as troubled as the bishops but he did not lay the blame simply upon the Court. In a 1948 address to the National Federation of Catholic College Students, he denounced the justices’ rulings: “The Court’s doctrine is radical, rigid, sweeping, and its implication could be disastrous.” He then noted, however, that the Court was reflecting the values of many Americans: “If secularism has been victorious in the Court, it is essentially because it had been previously and widely victorious in society.” He urged the students to do all in their power to fight secularism on their campuses.

Murray’s struggle with secularists escalated in 1949, when Paul Blanshard published American Freedom and Catholic Power, an anti-Catholic polemic that quickly climbed the bestseller charts. Blanshard charged that Catholicism was an authoritarian organization that was incompatible with democratic institutions. He viewed the Church’s school system as divisive and warned that Catholics were waiting for the right moment to impose their faith on the rest of America.

Blanshard’s book could not be ignored, so Murray set about drafting a reply. Dubbing Blanshard a “new nativist,” Murray noted that Blanshard was attacking the Church on secular grounds. As opposed to 19th-century nativists who condemned Catholicism for its superstitious and idolatrous practices, Blanshard depicted the Church as a totalitarian and un-American institution.

Roman Troubles

With tensions rising at home over parochial school aid and diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Murray again took up the question of Catholic teaching on church and state. As he started to work on this project, a unique opportunity presented itself. He was invited to become a visiting professor of philosophy at Yale University for the 1951-52 academic year. Passing on the news of the offer to his provincial, he asked to be allowed to accept it in order to promote Catholic teachings and refute the views propounded by Blanshard and other secularists. The provincial agreed, and Murray went to New Haven in the fall of 1951. The first priest-professor ever at Yale, Murray, in one historian’s words, “shattered all precedent—and some prejudice” during his short stay.

Returning to Woodstock in 1952, Murray wrote a series of essays for Theological Studies that argued that church-state separation had taken very different forms in America and Europe. While in Europe church-state separation was often motivated by rabid anticlericalism, in America it was intended to protect the religious freedoms of a pluralistic population. Emphasizing this difference, he then suggested that Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII had European contexts in mind when they had issued statements critical of church-state separation.

Murray’s claims troubled two leading theologians at The Catholic University of America, Msgr. Joseph Fenton and Fr. Francis Connell, CSSR. They were not at all convinced by Murray’s arguments and warned that he was relativizing a key Catholic teaching. In 1953 Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office, weighed in on their side. A few months later, Pope Pius XII issued an ambiguous statement on religious liberty. Murray took the papal pronouncement to be a rebuke to Ottaviani, Fenton, and Connell. In 1954 he came to Catholic University and said as much in a public lecture attended by Fenton. Word soon got back to Ottaviani, who in turn contacted Jesuit officials in Rome. Murray was then notified by his superiors that all of his future writings on church and state would have to be approved by Roman censors before they could be published. This arrangement must not have been workable, for in July 1955 Fr. Vincent McCormick, SJ, an American Jesuit in Rome, directed Murray to stop writing altogether on church-state questions.

The Junior Senator

While Murray found himself under a cloud in the mid-‘50s, Kennedy went from success to success. In 1952 he successfully ran against the popular Republican senator, Henry Cabot Lodge. Once in the Senate, Kennedy began to distance himself from the Catholic hierarchy. A difficult issue arose in 1953 when President Eisenhower nominated Harvard University’s president, James Bryant Conant, to be ambassador to West Germany. Conant was an implacable foe of parochial schools. Statements such as these had infuriated the Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, and had convinced him that Conant was a Blanshard-style bigot. When the confirmation vote was held, Kennedy voted for Conant, but then remarked that if Conant had been nominated for an education post, he would have voted against him. He was similarly conflicted on the question of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. In 1954 he declared his support for the idea, but changed his position two years later.

In 1956 Adlai Stevenson was expected to seek a rematch with Eisenhower. Speculation centered on whom he would choose to be his running mate. Kennedy and two other senators, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, were eager for the position.

Kennedy had a number of obstacles to overcome. The biggest issue was Kennedy’s religion. To address this question, Sorensen arranged for an article to appear in Look entitled, “Can a Catholic Become Vice President?” The author argued that a Catholic might in fact strengthen a ticket, especially in the northeastern states. Connecticut’s Democratic state chairman, John Bailey—a Kennedy ally—drafted a memorandum in the summer of 1956 that made the same claims. The “Bailey Memorandum” was widely circulated among party activists.

Stevenson was rumored to be interested in a Catholic running mate as well. When the time came at the convention to announce his choice, however, he announced that he would leave the decision to the delegates. After a bruising fight, Kefauver narrowly beat out Kennedy for the nomination.

Higher Goals

Kennedy was sorely disappointed by this defeat, but he soon recovered and began to set his sights on a greater target—the presidency itself. He knew that he would have to address the religious issue more systematically to win the election. In 1958 one of Kennedy’s Catholic aides, Ralph Dungan, contacted Murray. Dungan invited him to Washington for lunch and asked him how Kennedy should handle the subject. It was probably Dungan who asked Murray to write an article about how Catholic politicians should view the First Amendment.

Murray agreed and produced a draft of a paper that he called, “Unica Status Religio.” In the essay, he expressly defended the First Amendment, calling it a “‘good law,’ one which the Catholic statesman should uphold.” His defense of the First Amendment was intertwined with a critique of classical—or, in Murray’s term, “disjunctive”—church-state teaching.

Murray sent the essay on to Fr. McCormick in Rome. He enclosed a detailed letter along with the article explaining the unusual circumstances that had prompted him to write:

The occasion is the bid being made made by Mr. Kennedy for the Democratic Presidential nomination. His office approached me indirectly some time ago on the question of a statement to be made on the perennially troublesome question: Can a Catholic support, in principle, the religion clauses of the Constitution? More recently Kennedy has decided not to make a statement unless he is forced by circumstances. However, it may still be necessary; and the idea is to do better than Al Smith did.

McCormick was not persuaded. The article touched on the very points that he had warned Murray not to explore. Consequently, “Unica Status Religion” never appeared in print.

A Catholic in 1960?

Since the Murray article came to naught, the Kennedy campaign decided to deal with the religious issue more directly. In the fall of 1958, Kennedy spoke with a reporter from Look, Fletcher Knebel, who had written a favorable piece about him in 1956. In the interview, Kennedy took pains to demonstrate his credentials as a strict separationist. He now claimed to be “flatly opposed” to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. As for aid to parochial schools, he had become an adamant foe:

There can be no question of Federal funds being used for support of parochial or private schools. It’s unconstitutional under the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court. I’m opposed to the Federal Government’s extending support to sustain any church or its schools.

For many readers the most striking statement was Kennedy’s suggestion that religion was a private matter that could never take “precedence over an officeholder’s oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts—including … the strict separation of church and state.”

Knebel’s article appeared in March 1959 and attracted considerable attention—most of it negative. Catholic diocesan papers were sharply critical. The Baltimore Catholic Review declared that he had gone “overboard to placate the bigots.” The editors of America and Commonweal were similarly distressed. A number of Protestant writers were alarmed as well. Martin Marty, a Lutheran minister and associate editor of Christian Century, remarked that Kennedy appeared to be “spiritually rootless and politically almost disturbingly secular.” Indeed, one of the few commentators to defend Kennedy was Paul Blanshard. The Look interview having backfired, Kennedy would have to wait for another day to tackle the religion issue.

In January 1960, Kennedy, now 42 years old, announced his candidacy for the presidency. The candidate’s first test occurred in April when he faced Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary. Kennedy won there but did not do well in most of the Protestant districts. A stiffer test awaited him in May in West Virginia, which was 95 percent Protestant. At campaign stops, Kennedy brought up his war record and that of his elder brother and then deftly linked their military service with the religious issue: “Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy … and nobody asked my brother Joe if he was a Catholic or a Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber to fly his last mission.”

In the days leading up to the primary, the Kennedy campaign spent heavily on advertisements and hammered away at the same themes: a vote for the handsome young senator was a patriotic gesture and an expression of religious tolerance. At the same time, voters were assured that the candidate was committed to the strict separation of church and state. The strategy paid off: Kennedy garnered 60 percent of the vote and Humphrey tearfully pulled out of the race. As the Democratic Convention neared, Kennedy was clearly the front-runner. When the delegates voted, he was able to obtain a majority on the first ballot.

In his acceptance speech, Kennedy reminded the delegates of his longstanding support for the public school system and the “complete separation of church and state.” He ended on an upbeat chord, calling on his listeners to join him on the “New Frontier.”

Murray’s Truths

While Kennedy was campaigning avidly in 1960, Murray too was attracting national attention. He decided to write once more on church and state matters without seeking the permission of his religious superiors. In the spring, We Hold These Truths appeared and received favorable reviews. The book included both theoretical and practical essays about church and state. In his theoretical chapters, Murray claimed that America was a pluralistic society divided into four disparate camps: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and secularist. For all Americans, the First Amendment’s clauses amounted to “articles of peace” that enabled them all to coexist. Murray wanted more than mere coexistence, though. He hoped that Americans would rediscover the natural law and use it to enter into a civil discourse with one another.

In the second section, Murray set his sights on current issues. The first question that he took up was parochial school aid. Here he took a position diametrically opposed to that of Kennedy. In a chapter entitled “Is It Justice?”. Murray argued that justice required that public funds be shared with parochial schools. He again took to task the Supreme Court for its recent rulings, especially the McCollum case. In place of strict separationism, he called for accommodation between church and state.

Preaching to the Ministers

In the fall of 1960, Kennedy and Johnson faced the sitting vice president, Richard Nixon, and Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts Republican whom Kennedy had defeated in 1952. To beat them, Kennedy and his staff knew that he would have to answer the religious question once and for all. In early September, a group of 150 Protestant ministers calling themselves the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom (NCCRF) forced the issue. Led by Norman Vincent Peale, the clergymen released a statement that raised the age-old charge that Catholics had dual loyalties. They feared a Catholic president would feel beholden to Church leaders on a host of questions, including parochial school aid, birth control, and diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Murray was annoyed by the group’s pronouncement and decided to respond to it. He declared that Peale and his colleagues had demonstrated that nativism was alive and well in America: “The brutal fact becomes increasingly clear. The ‘oldest American prejudice,’ as anti-Catholicism has rightly been called, is as poisonously alive today as it was in 1928, or in the 1890s, or even in the 1840s. Its source is the same, political and religious ignorance.”

He was careful, however, not to make any reference to Kennedy or Nixon in his statement. Kennedy, for his part, realized that he had to provide his own answer the NCCRF’s charges, and so he agreed to speak in Houston to an association of Protestant ministers. As this speech would be televised to the nation, several top aides started working full-time on the text. James Wine, a former National Council of Churches official, and John Cogley, who had just joined the campaign, contributed to it, but the chief architect seems to have been Ted Sorensen, who was a strict separationist. At Cogley’s urging, the passages in the Look interview that had annoyed many Catholics were not repeated.

As the time for the speech grew near, Sorensen decided to contact Murray. Sorensen later acknowledged that he decided to call Murray because he wanted to forestall another Catholic backlash: “In the hopes of avoiding any loose wording that would unnecessarily stir up the Catholic press, I read the speech over the telephone to the Rev. John Courtney Murray, SJ” Murray did not appreciate being drawn into the campaign in this manner. Years later he recalled:

It may be that I did suggest some changes but I cannot remember what they were. I told Sorensen at the time that it was unfair to ask me for an opinion just on hearing the speech on the phone, but he was standing by the side of a plane just about to take off for Houston… At that, I should say that Kennedy was far more of a ‘separationist’ than I am.

With the speech ready, Cogley prepared sample questions for Kennedy to prepare him for the question-and-answer period. Aware that the senator was not “theologically sophisticated,” Cogley did his best to coach him.

The speech that Kennedy delivered was short and to the point. It stressed themes that he had mentioned many times before. First he asserted that there were many more pressing issues in the campaign, such as the need to fight communism and strengthen the space pro-gram. Then he announced that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” He went on to remind his listeners of his “declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican [and] unconstitutional aid to parochial schools.” Interspersed with this separationist rhetoric were lines similar to those that he had employed in West Virginia. He spoke of visiting the Alamo and seeing the list of the casualties and not knowing “whether they were Catholic or not. For there was no religious test there.” Finally, this time he made certain not to say that his religious views did not matter. Instead, he said that if his constitutional duties and his religious obligations came into conflict, he would resign the office.

Kennedy delivered the speech expertly and deftly handled the questions afterward. Indeed, he was so successful that the campaign made tapes of the speech and sent them to supporters across the country. After the speech it was the Nixon campaign that started pleading for a moratorium on religious quarrels.

The presentation also was well-received by journalists. Several Protestant journals such as Christian Century, which had been critical of Kennedy, softened their tone after the speech. And this time, there was no criticism from Catholic quarters. In fact, Commonweal credited him for his forthright statements but stopped short of endorsing him. While Murray, many Catholic editors, and numerous prelates still entertained misgivings about him, they kept their silence this time.

The Houston speech and the debates with Nixon that followed gave the Kennedy campaign the final burst of momentum that it needed. In November Kennedy and Johnson defeated the Republicans by a razor-thin margin. While a variety of factors contributed to the Democratic victory, the Catholic vote was certainly critical. Many Catholics who had voted for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 returned to the Democratic fold in 1960. And while a majority of Protestants supported Nixon and Lodge, Kennedy and Johnson were able to pick up about 40 percent of their votes.

Nothing but Wreckage

A month after the election, Time put Murray’s picture on its cover. Most of the article described Murray’s views on church and state and his thoughts about what the future would hold for the country if he was excited or inspired in any way by Kennedy and his New Frontier, he wasn’t letting on. Neither was there any indication from him that Kennedy’s election represented a milestone of any sort for American Catholics. Instead, Murray offered a dark vision of the state of the nation.

The author of the profile, Douglas Auchincloss, said that “Murray sees his native America entering a new era of ‘post-modern man’ in a sorry state of ideological disarray.” While claiming that the Founding Fathers believed in natural law, Murray believed that most Americans had long ago jettisoned it for pragmatism and relativism. His hopes were minimal: He wanted people of different philosophies to enter into a civil dialogue. But he was doubtful that even this was doable because he felt that different groups in America had such varied vocabularies and assumptions. Perhaps Murray’s most revealing comment came when he was driving Auchincloss and another reporter to Woodstock College. After Auchincloss’s colleague apologized to Murray for “wrecking his schedule,” Murray replied, “What of a little wreckage? There is nothing but wreckage around us today.”


  • John F. Quinn

    John F. Quinn is Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Father Matthew's Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth Century Ireland and Irish-America (2002). He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1992.

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