Michael Sean Winters reviews a new book on John Courtney Murray, the man whom many believe is responsible for warming up the Roman curia and the magisterium to America’s version of political liberty. In his first part, Winters highlights the real change that took place at Vatican II on a theological assumption that Rome had defended longer than any other Christian communion:
Hudock quotes from a 1948 article in Civilta Cattolica that stated:
The Roman Catholic Church, convinced, through its divine prerogatives, of being the only true Church, must demand the right to freedom for herself alone, because such a right can only be possessed by truth, never by error. As to other religions, the Church will certainly never draw the sword, but she will require that by legitimate means they shall not be allowed to propagate false doctrine. Consequently, in a State where the majority of the people are Catholic, the Church will require that legal existence be denied to error, and that if religious minorities actually exist, they shall have only a de facto existence, without opportunity to spread their beliefs. If, however, actual circumstances….make the complete application of this principle impossible, then the Church will require for herself all possible concessions…..
This is a decent emblematic statement of the received position. The preferred arrangement, known in theological jargon as the “thesis,” was legal unification of Church and State wherever Catholics were in the majority. In countries like Murray’s United States, the “hypothesis” of Church-State separation could be accepted given the circumstances. The double standard was obvious to all, but trapped inside a closed theological circle, the authorities in Rome, with plenty of assistance from conservative Catholic theologians in the U.S., simply persisted in saying the double standard was appropriate, because truth had rights that could never be extended, in principle, to error.
As hard as it may be for boomer and millennial Roman Catholics to believe, Murray’s positive reading of American political liberty got him in trouble with the bishops:
That same year, 1948, Murray gave a paper at the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting in which he criticized the “thesis-hypothesis” approach. He noted, correctly, the rights inhere in persons, not in propositions, and so the claim that “error has not rights” was meaningless, that “if it means anything, it means that error is error; but it is hardly a ‘principle’ from which to draw any conclusions with regard to the powers of the state.” Murray also introduced an historical analysis of the issue, arguing that the current teaching was rooted in the experience of the Middle Ages, in which Church and State were “coextensive and united,” membership in the one was essential to membership in the other, and in this context, deviation from Church doctrine really was understood as a threat to the common good of society. . . .
Attacking a “received opinion” made Murray enemies on both sides of the Atlantic and Hudock relishes telling the cloak-and-dagger, better to say ferriola and quill, struggle that ensued. The reader is introduced to Francis Connell and Joseph Fenton who would not only oppose Murray in theological journals, but use their extensive contacts with Roman authorities to place Murray under a cloud of suspicion. Hudock ably recapitulates Murray’s ideas as they developed, which may be the best contribution the book makes. But, despite Hudock’s comments in the introduction to the effect that this is a story both contemporary conservatives and liberals can celebrate, on nearly every page of the tale, Murray is the good guy pitted against the various bad guys. To be clear, some of Fenton’s shenanigans really strike the modern reader as underhanded, although it is clear that Murray was also pushing the less powerful levers of ecclesiastical power to which he had access as well. The author might have delved more deeply into what motivated Connell and Fenton.
In the second part of his review, Winters unintentionally shows the bind in which Roman Catholic bishops have operated since Vatican II. Is political freedom good or is it destructive?
Murray favored a political-historical argument for religious freedom that was more accessible to unbelievers and relevant to the work of lawmaking in the modern world. Among European bishops and theologians (Yves Congar, for example) there was a preference for a more scriptural-theology approach. Murray explained privately that the text produced in March [by the Europeans] dialed to “do justice to the political-social argument” and that the Europeans were “over-theologizing” the concept of religious freedom.
Hudock does not cite which scriptural and theological arguments the Europeans wanted. Nor does he explain why the difference of opinion was important – at the time, and even more, subsequently. Murray wanted the Church to embrace the negative conception of liberty, freedom from, that is at the heart of the American constitutional framework. But, the European theologians perceived the difficulty here. A formal freedom was not the contentless, free market of religious ideas Murray claimed it to be, but rested on an ontological prioritization of freedom over truth. As well, the dualism he suggested between the temporal and the spiritual was too absolutized, and while it might work in a country in which the Christian moral framework largely held sway through democratic means, it was ill-equipped to use the power of the State to achieve the common good if that framework atrophied.
Murray was asked about this difference at a colloquium at the University of Notre Dame after the Council concluded its work. He admitted that the document “skated around” the difficulty of whether or not the Church can embrace a negative conception of liberty. But, the ice was thinner than Murray imagined and the skating would not last for long. As we have seen in our own time, and despite his argument to the contrary, an immunity from government coercion can be strengthened or weakened by civil law for which a negative conception of liberty has no answer. That is what the fights over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act are all about.
No one said church-state relations in the modern era would be easy. Nor did Protestants ever think that an infallible magisterium would figure those relations out. That’s why pastors are called to a different and higher work.