Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Longtime (now retired) Catholic University of America theologian Fr. Joseph Komonchak has worked extensively but quietly on the thought of American Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ over several years. Some of us with interests in Murray have known about Komonchak's work and his valuable efforts to locate Murray's thought amid other theological developments in the mid-twentieth century, and previously unknown writings by Murray were unearthed by Komonchak in various archives. See "The Crisis in Church-State Relationships in the U.S.A.," Review of Politics 61 (1999): 675-714; and "A Common Enemy, A Common Cause," First Things (October 1992) (criticizing the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause decisions in Everson v. Bd. of Education and McCollum v. Bd. of Education).
Fr. Komonchak has now posted to a blog site the fruits of his many years of research on Murray. I won't try to summarize the many interesting dimensions of Murray's thought Komonchak offers there, but one highlight for me is the manuscript of a series of lectures Murray delivered at Loyola College (Baltimore) in 1940 on "The Construction of a Christian Culture." At one point, Murray said:
For three centuries men have chipped away at Christian truth, doubting, denying, destroying, rebelling. But the hoped-for result has not come about: the liberation of man, his achievement of full humanity. Every thoughtful writer today is agreed that the age of "humanism" has dehumanized man, the age of individualism has depersonalized him, the age of liberalism has enslaved him. Hence my first premise is that we have definitely reached a time to stop denying and affirm, to stop destroying and construct, to stop murdering ourselves and others, and begin to live.
What emerges from Komonchak's labors is a more complete and complex account of Murray. Those who have flipped through Murray's We Hold These Truths (1960) might come away thinking "the Murray Project" was merely baptizing American constitutionalism in the waters of Catholic political thought. There is some of that in Murray, to be sure, but Murray was also a more trenchant (and pessimistic) cultural critic and sophisticated theologian than that caricature gives us. Those interested not just in Murray himself but more generally in the last century of Catholic social thought owe a debt of gratitude to Fr. Komonchak, who concludes with this introduction to the material on his site:
The first batch of essays tells of the early writings of John Courtney Murray soon after he returned from Europe after having completed his doctoral studies in Rome. He was already intensely interested in what he would come to call “the spiritual crisis in the temporal order.” This is evident in two sets of lectures he gave in the early 1940s in which he lay out the doctrinal and theological grounds for the Church’s mission and activity in society and culture. The crisis was rendered more acute by the outbreak of the Second World War, and Murray was among those who thought it possible, indeed necessary, for Catholics to engage in inter-religious cooperation for believers to meet the crisis and to be able to take part in the restoration of order once the War was over. This proposal was not welcomed by many Catholic churchmen and theologians, and Murray had to engage in lengthy conversations, in published articles and in private conversations, to defend his position against the charge that it would lead to religious indifferentism. Many Protestants also were reluctant to cooperate with Roman Catholics who were, as they believed, ready, should they become a majority, to deprive them of their religious freedom.
From both sides, then, Catholic and Protestant, the issue of religious freedom became critical, and this explains why, beginning in the mid-1940’s, Murray turned his attention to that subject and began the series of publications that would lead him again into controversy, make him subject to high Roman censure, and end with his vindication at the Second Vatican Council. Whereupon, as he put it right after the Council, Catholics could “get on to the deeper issue of the effective presence of the Church in the world today”–which was, of course, the passion that first inspired him.