Public Arguments: Murray After 26 Years

Much outstanding work has been done by the greatest minds of our century to bring to light the true character of modernity to clarify the nature of its break with premodernity and to propose new and better ways of relating them to each other. With rare exceptions, theologians, who have a vital stake in the matter, have yet to familiarize themselves with this work and learn how to use it…. Only when this task is accomplished will Catholic theology be able to recover its lost equilibrium.

—Ernest Fortin, Crisis, May 1991

May is the month of Catholic social thought, and in this issue we honor the hero of an earlier generation, John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-1967), not so much by praising him as by picking up some of his arguments—as in the articles by Francis Canavan and Russell Hittinger. With very few exceptions, Murray being one, Catholic scholars have been remarkably absent from the public disputes, especially in the law schools, in which public understandings of crucial propositions are worked out. Partly as a consequence, aggressively secular interpretations of liberty, religion, the person, and human destiny have come to dominate U.S. courts, especially the Supreme Court. Better public arguments are needed—and will find a forum in this journal.

Meanwhile, every two months at the American Enterprise Institute, some 30 participants in a “Murray Seminar” meet over dinner to discuss the acute problem of working out a Jewish-Christian justification for the “propositions” that undergird the free society. We argue about the many conflicts between the traditions of “natural law” (ancient, medieval, and contemporary) and “natural rights” (Hobbes and Locke) that have never yet been resolved. Many contemporary perplexities hinge in the balance, as Ernest Fortin warns.

Presentations have so far been made by Georgetown’s Walter Berns and William Gould, Rabbi David Novak of the University of Virginia, and David Schindler, the editor of the American edition of the international theological journal Communio.

Murray’s Achievement

It has become apparent that many today have only a fuzzy sense of who John Courtney Murray was and what he did. A friend of Clare Boothe Luce, Murray would have appreciated hearing her say that he, like others, would get one tagline in the history books. He, perhaps, would have been pleased to learn that his might fittingly say: At the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, he wrote the American Proposition into the Constitution of the Roman Catholic Church.

Born on 19th Street in New York City in 1904 of a Scottish father and Irish mother, both Catholic, and ordained a Jesuit priest in 1928, educated in philosophy and theology at Boston College, in Rome, and at other European universities, and having taught for three years in the Philippines, Murray spent most of his life as professor of theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Woodstock, Md., where from 1941 on he was for many years the editor of the most prestigious Catholic theological journal in the U.S., Theological Studies. Most of his writing was in that journal and others. Indeed, We Hold These Truths is essentially a collection of his papers; like Irving Kristol more recently, it is rather as an essayist than as an author of books that his literary reputation was made. His more scholarly essays on church and state, on the difference between the Continental and the American political traditions regarding religious liberty, and the like, lie for the most part still buried in journals.

Nonetheless, following World War II, Murray was frequently invited to ecumenical or secular debate on public policy, constitutional questions, nuclear policy, limited war, etc. Often his companions in debate were Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Sidney Hook, John Dewey, and other eminences gathered by the Fund for the Republic and other institutions.

Among other American Catholic theologians, Murray was an often embattled scholar. He was locked in often furious rhetorical battle with the editors of American Ecclesiastical Review, Monsignor Joseph Fenton and Father Francis Connell, two of my own teachers at Catholic University during 1958-60. I well remember how acerbic they could be about him, particularly Monsignor Fenton, although usually under the guise of humor. The AER clung to the tradition of the preceding hundred years or so in which the orthodox “thesis” held that in the ideal arrangement the Catholic Church would be granted a privileged recognition by the state, even though other religions could be tolerated; meanwhile, in the “hypothesis” of actual situations such as that of the United States, present arrangements could be tolerated, although Catholics in principle should prefer the “thesis.” Murray’s work attacked this position head-on.

Murray held that the American arrangement was actually closer to the Catholic ideal, and that the more recent tradition of “thesis-hypothesis” had a shallow and false foundation, both from the historical and from the theological point of view. The AER group held Murray’s view to be unorthodox. Murray held their view to be conventional but shallow and wrong historically, politically, philosophically, and theologically.

It goes without saying that the implications of this dispute were profound and sweeping. It involved the entire self-understanding of the Catholic Church in the political sphere. It had dimensions that involved scholarly disputes in at least four fields: history, political theory, philosophy, and theology. Murray was at his best in disentangling each of these threads and prosecuting sustained scholarly arguments in each of them, one by one and together. From the point of view of Rome in the years following World War II, given the instabilities in a host of nations during that time, the issue raised by Murray was extremely important and potentially inflammatory. Among the disputants, acrimony and bitterness were plainly on the rise. The Church was locked in a life-and-death struggle against communism, not only in Eastern Europe but in Italy, France, and throughout the West. In about 1952, word was passed to Murray’s Jesuit superiors in Rome that Murray should back off, and he was accordingly asked to withdraw from public disputation. He did so and in fairly good spirit. He had considerable confidence in the intellectual case he had built up over the years. He bided his time.

The Vatican II Compromise

He did not have long to wait. In 1958, the new Pope John XXIII summoned all the bishops of the world to a Second Vatican Council scheduled to convene in 1961. Murray was eventually invited (by Cardinal Spellman, no less) to attend the Council as a theological advisor, and was soon put to work drafting a proposed Declaration on religious liberty. The soon-to-be Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, had already submitted a statement to the preparatory commissions urging that a deepening of the traditional view of the human person, with special emphasis on the inalienable liberty and responsibility of the person, should be made the basis of all the documents of the Council. Wojtyla grasped the importance of such a step forward for the peoples behind the Iron Curtain, but also its implications for the whole of Catholic teaching on the philosophy of man. Murray was in favor of an institutional arrangement like that represented in the U.S. First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law…”), but he opposed the sort of philosophical-theological definition of the question favored by many of the French bishops, some Germans, and others.

During the last days of the Council, Pope Paul VI intervened personally to make sure that time was allotted for the Declaration of Religious Liberty. The final text represented an uneasy compromise between Murray’s insistence on merely keeping the state from coercion and the European insistence on a theological warrant for speaking of “natural rights.” Its passage by an overwhelming vote was widely thought to have vindicated Father Murray and brought much credit to the American Catholic Church. But it also vindicated Bishop Wojtyla’s efforts to make unmistakably explicit the key interpretive thread of all the Council’s work, from the Constitutions on the Church, the Church in the Modern World, and the Liturgy, through the Declarations on Ecumenism and Religious Liberty itself. (See Rocco Buttiglione, “Wojtyla and the Council,” Crisis, February 1993.)

Theologically, Wojtyla was probably correct that a coherent theory of the human person runs through several key documents, although only implicitly. But Murray did not think it wise to define religious liberty in terms of a philosophy and theology of the person, however profound. (For what would happen when some, inevitably, refused to accept that philosophy or theology?) Religious liberty, he believed, is a civil arrangement worked out in political history—a very good one, much to be admired, a work of practical wisdom at its best—rather than a deduction from rationalistic premises. It is an achievement of political practice, rather than of speculative theory.

He feared utopianism, absolutism, and non-historical rationalism. The American arrangement had grown from the rich soil of civil experimentation, political argument, and adjustment to consequences, as well as from intuitions rooted in the philosophy of natural rights. Lockean philosophy, for example, had not sufficed to bring religious liberty of the First Amendment sort to Great Britain or (before 1791) to her colonies. Beyond Locke, the Americans had the disparate experiences of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Northwest Territories to draw upon. By philosophical deduction from a concept of the human person, no matter how rich, one could not draw nearly enough premises to construct an edifice as rich in wisdom as the Constitution. To philosophy and theology one needed to add arguments from political science (the notions of state, society, church, etc.) and political experience. The argument, Murray liked to say, proceeds by convergence from four or more modes of inquiry, not merely by deductive logic along one track.

Murray argued, further, that this more complex mode of argument cohered better with the philosophical tradition favored by the Catholic Church, that of practical wisdom rooted in historical experience, as developed by Aquinas (and others) from the early reflections of Aristotle. No one more than Murray had provoked the Vatican Council to confront these issues, and his influence there was formidable, but on this point he did not prevail. He continued to believe, nonetheless, that the approach taken by the Council would produce ambiguities that future generations would have to address.

For the Catholic Church understands itself as having an obligation to reflect on the faith given to it, not only in tranquility but also in the heat of the battles of daily history, and thus to develop its teaching both in depth and in application. Its God is not only the God of Revelation but also the Creator and Governor of the universe and Lord of history. So it tries to learn from nature and history, even in trying to comprehend the faith transmitted to it. In principle, Murray believed, it could and should learn from the American experience, just as it had once taken lessons from the culture and institutions of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, Paris, and other civilizations. Its sustained reflection on the faith, amid the painful lessons of history, is potentially self-correcting. In this sense, the effort of John Courtney Murray to derive new paths for Catholic self-understanding from American institutions were not in principle misguided, whatever degree of inadequacy may be found in his actual execution. If he did fail in part, others may do better.

It was significant to Murray, for example, that in 1783 the Vatican petitioned the Continental Congress for permission to install a U.S. bishopric, and received the reply that in spiritual matters the Congress had no jurisdiction. This decision came as a happy surprise to the Vatican. For the first time in centuries, the Catholic Church experienced real freedom from the secular state to teach and to work as it saw fit, without either privilege or constraint.

No False Gods

Moreover, the “anthropology,” so to speak, of the American Framers came eventually to seem remarkably analogous to Catholic views—by no means identical but remarkably congenial, as compared to the views of the radically anti-religious, anti-clerical, aggressively atheistic parties on the Continent. The opening paragraphs of The Federalist, for example, appealed to the capacity of human beings for reflection and choice. Later passages appealed to the setting aside of passions and prejudices, to the reaching of sound judgments for the sake of the public interest and the general welfare, and to the importance of reasoned argument. The classics of Greece and Rome were frequently appealed to by the Framers, both to exhibit useful modes of reasoning and to provide examples of human depravity and nobility. To those blessed with a traditional Catholic education, including Greek and Latin, the world of the Framers evoked many echoes of classical wisdom, Greek theory, and Roman practice.

But unlike the “utopic theorists” of the Continent, the Americans retained a firm sense of the fallibility and weakness of man. They were engaged in a great social task: constituting a republic, securing the general welfare, providing for the common defense, and securing “private rights and public happiness.” The Framers were far more than the mere “possessive individuals” of C.B. MacPherson and other critics of Anglo-American civilization. The founding documents of the land explicitly recognized the Creator and his laws, and early figures (and late) spoke familiarly of a “gracious Providence” and the undeceivable judgments of “the Almighty.” Presidents who spoke of “the better angels of our nature”—and the worse angels, as well—were instantly understood by a moral and God-fearing people. The American people, though of many persuasions of conscience and often wholly unchurched, were by European standards remarkably pious and even churchgoing. Their moral habits were the admiration of travelers from many lands. John Bright and other European writers thought them the most virtuous people on earth, and the most fitting for self-government. Many worse soils the Catholic Church had certainly encountered in its long history.

Moreover, while it is quite true that when Hobbes or Locke spoke of “laws of nature” they were employing both an epistemology and an ontology radically at variance with the several traditions of natural law discourse that competed in the Catholic tradition, including those embodied in the tradition of English common law, Hooker, and Blackstone, and a careful mind could discern certain points of contact as well as others of severe disagreement. And, in any case, in order to become an American citizen, no person, Catholic or otherwise, had to undergo a test of philosophical or theological conformity. If (as some Straussians argue) Locke was no serious Christian or at least no adequate representative of the Catholic understanding of the philosophia perennis and the full heritage of Christian faith, no American was bound to be a philosophical Lockean. To swear loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, no one had to bow down before false gods or to accept a philosophy to which his or her conscience could not give free consent.

Articles of Peace

Nor did American religious tolerance require the acceptance of philosophical relativism or theological indifferentism, strictly understood. To be sure, as the most severely orthodox regularly warned, American experience inevitably posed the danger of practical indifferentism. But no society had ever escaped that danger; the formally baptized of Europe were often even more conspicuously indifferent to religion. Indeed, a powerful empirical argument was soon made—as early as Tocqueville—that the European establishment of religion was even more deleterious to true piety than a regime in which religion and liberty were, for the first time, on the same side.

Furthermore, by withholding from the state the power to repress conscience, information, or ideas, the American people retained for themselves the right to supply whatever philosophical and theological argument they thought fitting for their understanding of the Constitution of the United States. Atheists were free to understand it in terms of atheist philosophy, Baptists in terms congenial to their religion, members of the Anglican Church in their traditions, Jews in theirs; nor was the same right withheld from Catholics. Their duties as citizens required all to swear allegiance to the Constitution and to obey its laws. These duties did not impose on all a uniform and obligatory philosophy, theology, and creed. This is the point that Murray insisted on: The Constitution is a statement of law, not a statement of theoretical theology or philosophy. To assent to it is to consent to articles of peace, not to a philosophical manifesto of obligatory opinion. At the Vatican Council, Murray insisted on a parallel point: The Council ought to support institutions that protect religious liberty rather than to try to make obligatory on all cultures and peoples one single definition of the concept of religious liberty and its component philosophical parts. The human mind, he knew, is fertile in philosophical positions and much in love with speculative disputations. Better to discern and defend workable institutions of religious liberty than to argue interminably over how to define it.

In political practice, Murray held, the virtue most to be admired is practical wisdom, not speculative brilliance. More than mere pragmatism, practical wisdom pursues the ideal of hitting the mark truly in the matters in its purview—for the long term as well as the short. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution, he held, were not merely pragmatic but wise; they judged human beings truly and did, indeed, build for the ages. As it did to the Catholic bishops meeting in Baltimore in 1883, it seemed to Murray that the Framers built “better than they knew” and “as if guided by Providence.” References to the guidance of Providence in American affairs will be found three times in The Federalist itself.

A Very Practical Wisdom

Among the underlying convictions of the authors of The Federalist, as well as of the Declaration and the Constitution, these four may be singled out:

(1) that God, understood as Creator, Providence, Lawgiver, and Governor of the universe, is and has been active in the history of this republic

(2) that all men are capable of giving deliberate consent, being by moral training capable of sober reflection and reasoned choice; and that this is what is meant by self-control (“Confirm thy soul in self-control”)

(3) that in taking responsibility for their own actions, humans are capable of distinguishing good from evil and the true from the false; and that thus in the use of their liberty they need to be vigilant, lest they choose the false or the evil, rather than the true or the good

(4) that, rather than acting from self-control and a right use of reason and liberty, humans often act from passion and from evil or unworthy motives; and that, therefore, institutional checks and balances, as well as auxiliary precautions, are needed to preserve the republic from self-destruction.

Whether or not such convictions were shared by John Locke I leave to Lockean scholars to determine. That they are within hailing distance, to say the very minimum, of Catholic philosophy and theology has seemed clear to many of the Catholics Tocqueville met on his journey to this country, to Lord Acton, to Chesterton, to Murray, and to a great many others.

But there is also a deeper point, which Tocqueville at least hinted at, and Murray made rather more explicit; viz., that one day this republic, assigned by Providence a special role in the late-modern (and post-modern) era of human history, might desperately need and well benefit by a philosophical and theological defense of its basic institutions by its Catholic citizens, on the strength of their own special inheritance, as developed in the light of the American experience.

The American experience has in some important ways helped to alter the self-understanding of the Catholic Church. If American institutions were in many ways shaped by Protestant traditions in the past, it is not impossible that they will be influenced by proven virtues of Catholic thought in the future. Nowadays, it seems, such convictions as the four listed above are not easy to defend in public in most schools of philosophy, in the habitual locutions of the evangelical churches, or in the political deliverances of the National Council of Churches; but they do have roots and resonance in the traditions drawn upon by followers of Murray and other kindred spirits.

Is There a Better Theory?

Permit me to raise a question. In asking it I suppose that there is no one religion, theology, philosophy, or even political theory (not even Locke’s) that binds the conscience of each and every American citizen. I suppose, further, that in swearing allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, philosophically inclined citizens form for themselves an understanding of the propositions to which they give assent in justifying this allegiance. They render unto themselves, and also to the public, an account of the truths they hold that coheres intelligently with the epistemology, metaphysics, political philosophy, and ethic to which they subscribe.

My question is, then, as follows: Since there are manifest “problems” (to use the term of Walter Berns) with the arguments in these respects provided by John Locke, is it conceivable that there is a better philosophical account for the fact that American institutions have proven their value over a considerable period of time than that provided by John Locke? Are we not invited, nay, obligated, to try to work out a philosophy that does at least as much positive good as that worked out by John Locke, while both as theory and as practice correcting some of Locke’s deficiencies?

For philosophy, especially political philosophy, is not the sort of inquiry that stands still. Locke is not the alpha and omega of political philosophy. He himself claimed to be going beyond his predecessors. Indeed, our Framers spoke frequently of “a new science of politics” that through long experience and hard reflection had become available to them in their time. Nothing commands us to rest satisfied that all the progress made by them exhausts the obligations of the human mind to further inquiry. In fact, the experience of the past two hundred years clearly informs us that quite serious problems remain in American political philosophy. Shall we not, each in our way, address these with as much creativity as lies in us?

I take it that “the Murray project” is one such attempt. Given this nation’s remarkable religious and philosophical pluralism, no one such project is liable to persuade all, and certainly not in a single generation. Moreover, while paying due honor to Murray, I am certainly prepared to admit that Murray himself never satisfactorily completed the task that he began. But this failure, too, if failure it may even be called, does not exempt the rest of us from trying to do better.

Herewith, then, let me announce without shame and with proper humility “the Novak project.” I hold that the American proposition can be articulated in terms theologically and philosophically acceptable to orthodox Catholics, other Christians, and Jews—more than that, in terms dear and beloved to the same. No doubt, other articulations are also possible, and no doubt, as well, the terms dear to orthodox Catholics, other Christians, and Jews will not be congenial to, or will even be repudiated by, citizens of other persuasions. This new articulation may be found to be incompatible with certain subsidiary arguments of Locke, particularly in epistemology and metaphysics. Moreover, since many of the Framers (but not all) were demonstrably anti-Catholic, and even in certain instances heterodox from a Christian point of view (as when, e.g., Jefferson accuses even St. Athanasius of heresy), this new articulation will not in all respects be limited to the express beliefs of some of the Framers.

Such limitations, in the nature of the case, are no more fatal to this project than to any other. Unanimity of consent is no criterion of validity. Not even God’s revelations through Moses and Jesus are invalidated by that test. No philosophy ever has been, or can be, invalidated by that test. The most we are entitled to is an argument sturdy enough to be treated with respect by other serious inquirers into the same materials. The most we can expect is a truly civil argument, pursued with mutual seriousness and respect for canons of evidence.

This Is Deism?

I do not wish to claim, for example, that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian. But neither was he heterodox in all respects. Concerning slavery, for example, he wrote words to which orthodox Catholics, other Christians, and Jews easily give assent:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

Much of the writing about the Framers and their philosophy has been done by scholars who are not themselves believers and who have been working under a methodology that regards propositions expressing orthodox Jewish and Christian faith to be as empty for those who uttered them as they are for themselves. For this reason, I do not trust writers who dismiss Jefferson as a “Deist” while not attending to his expressions of quite particular Jewish and Christian commitments: to God as Creator, Providence, and Governor of the universe, Governor even of history. Sometimes he writes of trembling before the God of justice; at other times of Providence; and at others, admittedly, as an ancient Stoic might have written:

I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

On the spectrum between Protestantism and Enlightenment, Jefferson placed himself at the Enlightenment extreme; thereby, he richly earned—and reciprocated—fierce opposition from the Reformed Christians of New England. By contrast, a reader of today who approaches Jefferson’s work expecting to find in him a pure non-believer or a contemporary secularist will be astonished by the Protestant character of much of his thought. Jefferson may have had little sympathy for the dissident Calvinism that had inspired more than two million evangelicals to seek refuge in America from the Established Church of Britain (Jefferson’s communion); and he may not have liked the Calvinist preachers of his time, except for their very good service to the cause of Independence and the Revolution. Nonetheless, when he is called a “deist” (to distinguish him from those Protestants who took their idea of God from the Bible rather than from reason), that term must be used with care.

For the God Jefferson reached by way of reason seems to be very unlike the God of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, and remarkably like the God of Protestantism—Anglican perhaps, of “the middle way,” but with not a little touch of the fierce justice, almighty power, and capacity for vengeance of the evangelical sort, on the one hand, and of the kindly Providence that extends His care to particular nations and individual persons in their immediate perplexities, on the other. If this is deism, the God of Jefferson’s deism has an American address in a fashionable Protestant neighborhood.

In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson speaks of the American people, “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—”. In the very next paragraph, Jefferson offers his summary of what he deems to be “the essential principles of our Government.” A number of these principles are new to history, at least in the practical institutional form given them by the Constitution, including “freedom of religion; freedom of the press” and others. But there is none that has not proved its worth by the tests of history, that is, the tests of practical wisdom in the arena of trial and error.

These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

Nothing in this “creed of political faith” is contrary to the religious faith of orthodox Catholics, other Christians, or Jews. It is quite true, nonetheless, that no earlier regime, whether under Catholic, other Christian, or Jewish auspices, had shown the practical genius to achieve such institutions. Practical political creeds do not flow merely by logic from prior religious commitments. They are achieved, rather, by concrete and usually hard-won experiments. Thus, in reviewing the history of laws about religious freedom in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson observes carefully how things have worked out under various experiments: “Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported…” (Query xvii).

Many others besides Jefferson were eventually able to draw this inference; Tocqueville drew it, too, and predicted that its lessons would not be lost upon the confessional regimes of Europe. America was in the vanguard. But its practical wisdom has persuaded many far beyond America, among them was Karol Wojtyla, then Bishop of Krakow, and one of the promoters of the Declaration on Religious Liberty at Vatican Council II.

Jefferson believed in the power of truth to impose itself on the human mind by the sheer and (as he described it) irresistible weight of evidence. In this, his arguments for religious and intellectual liberty are virtually identical to those of the great historian of liberty, Lord Acton. At first reading, indeed, not many will be able to discern whether the following passage is from Acton or from Jefferson:

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that the Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitation, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone….

The passage is, of course, from Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” It goes on to attack impious men, civil or ecclesiastical, who have “assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others….” Acton, too, considered such a coercive imposition by ecclesiastical authorities the greatest sin of the Christian churches, especially but not only the Catholic church, in the age of absolute monarchs. And in this, Acton had the historical support of the great Jesuit Francisco Suarez, whose attack on absolutism (1607), having been burned on the steps of St. Paul’s by order of James I and having been widely circulated in Europe, especially the Lowlands, was almost certainly known to Locke.

A Clear and Present Danger

Let me summarize this overlong case. I take it as established that there are certain profound deficiencies—”problems”—in the work of Locke and probably, as well, of the Framers. In human affairs this could hardly have been otherwise. But I am not willing to abandon the American Constitution, nor do I glimpse the imminent prospect of anything better. As a work of practical reason, it still stands superior to any theory yet offered in its justification and defense. From that, I do not think we are entitled to conclude that such a theory is beyond our striving—much less beyond our obligation to seek. Sound theory, slowly capturing the free consent of our citizens, would by itself constitute no sure defense of the Republic. But it would certainly be of assistance to that defense in the future, not least in the important field of ideas. Nor would it seem to be sufficient, in the present and foreseeable state of things, to rest content with muddling along. Too many bad ideas, now not easily challenged at their root, are abroad in the land. The project of self-government depends to a large (and sobering) extent on the soundness of the ideas by which responsible citizens guide their choices and actions.

Allow me to conclude by sketching one threat to the Republic, from an admittedly fringe movement that, having grown up in the pre-Vatican Council Catholic Church, has detached itself from that church, the Lefebvrists. In a recent newsletter emanating from Winona, Minnesota, the following attack on Murray’s contribution to Vatican II appears:

Michael Davies’ latest book, The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty, shows clearly the part played by the compatriots of the Founding Fathers in the fatal establishing of the principle of religious liberty within the Catholic Church at that Council. Its “Declaration on Religious Liberty” is Americanism infecting the Universal Church. The result is that to defend the Faith anywhere in the world today, a priest must fight the ideas of the Founding Fathers….

The problem, in a few words, is that when men found a republic (as they do today all over the world) not just on the practice but on a principle of religious freedom, they are obviously putting the interests of their republic above the interests of any one religion, otherwise that religion would have primacy in their republic, as today Islam has primacy in Mohammedan republics. Now men are social as well as individual animals. Hence in a republic of religious liberty, a man may be a pious Catholic individually, but all the social institutions of his interreligious State are preaching to him that his Catholicism is of secondary importance. At this point he may try to split his politics from his religion, but that is no more possible than to split man from God. So one of two things must happen: either his liberal politics contaminate his Catholic religion, which is how the American bishops at Vatican II ended up ‘converting’ the Catholic Church to the American way, and which is why USA freedom is after all not so good for the Faith; or by the light of his one true Faith he condemns his country’s religious liberty and sets out seriously to convert his fellow countrymen.

There is, in short, an alternative to Murray, whose proponents run roughshod over crucial distinctions. I wish I could say that theirs are isolated voices. Alas, I have seen gathering evidence of growing disaffection with the enforced secularization currently being imposed on the religious people of the United States.

The forces of aggressive secularism today, not least in our own intellectually confused Supreme Court, are rapidly driving many deeply religious Americans away from the new construction that the Court since 1947 has been putting in the place of “Congress shall make no law….” The fault lies not in the Constitution. It lies in the Court—and beyond that, in the law schools. The intellectuals are subverting the Constitution, rendering it hostile to religion. (See the article by Russell Hittinger, below.) What, then, shall we say to the scores of millions who came here, in person or through their ancestors, seeking freedom to exercise their religion in public as in private, since that religion is public as well as private? Shall we tell them that they have consented to the U.S. Constitution on false premises? That it does not protect the public exercise of their religion? That they must guard their faith, like a flickering candle, only in private, as if in Communist and other aggressively atheistic states?

Our Constitution depends on the consent of the governed. Should that consent be withdrawn, the Constitution itself would be in danger. The Court proceeds on its current destructive path at hazard to us all. And mischievous ideas can only be driven out, as the great Newman taught us, by the power of sound ideas.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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