Murray’s We Hold These Truths: 1960 and Today

Mary C. Segers

Sixty years ago, Sheed & Ward published John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, a now-classic book explaining how and why Roman Catholics could be both good Catholics and loyal American citizens committed to religious liberty and constitutional government. The time was ripe for such an exposition, given the 1960 political campaign of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to be elected president of the United States.[1] When his book was published, Murray was the subject of the cover story in the December 12, 1960 issue of Time.

As a Jesuit theologian and seminary professor, Murray’s scholarly interests were religious freedom, church-state separation, and the role of religion in public life. His contribution to public discourse was two-fold. First, he argued in We Hold These Truths that constitutional provisions of religious liberty and church-state separation were articles of civil peace, not theological doctrines. As civil arrangements, they left the church free to worship and did not require the church to assent to falsehood or indifferentism. Moreover, he contended, Catholicism taught as true those doctrines of human dignity, justice, and freedom that were central to the American tradition of equality and inalienable rights. He thus insisted that far from making Catholics bad citizens, Catholicism provided a tradition of moral reasoning that supported the American tradition of liberal democracy and constitutional rights. As J. Leon Hooper put it, Murray was “known, irreverently but accurately, as a key agent in making Roman Catholics safe for America, while also making America safe for Catholics.”[2]

Murray’s second important contribution to public discourse was his work as a major architect of the Declaration on Religious Freedom, one of the last documents to emerge from the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Murray took very seriously the religious pluralism of American society; he valued religious diversity and respected the rights of fellow religionists to contribute their insights to public debate. At Vatican II he argued for religious liberty based on human dignity and the corollary position of religious toleration for non-Catholics. According to the Declaration, “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”[3] We shall return to this caveat “within due limits,” later in this essay.

Given Murray’s considerable accomplishments, which occurred three generations ago, we may properly ask: what is the contemporary relevance of his thought? Is he still relevant and, if so, how? What can we learn from his reflections on religious liberty and church-state relations in the American context? If Murray were alive today, what would he make of our current political situation?

In the sixty years since publication of We Hold These Truths, new issues have arisen—changes that he could not have anticipated and could not have been expected to address. The religious diversity of American society has expanded to include a growing Islamic population in the United States and an influential evangelical Christian presence in the public arena. New bioethical issues have developed concerning the beginning and the end of human life (abortion and physician-assisted suicide). Proponents of religious liberty have wondered if Catholic acceptance of such freedom as a universal human right applied also to the internal workings of the church itself. That is, would religious freedom rooted in human dignity extend also to Christian freedom within the church? Would religious liberty imply toleration within the church of the rights and claims of dissenters?[4]

To provide context, I list here some major events and changes that have occurred since Murray’s death in 1967: second wave feminism; the advent of neoconservatives; Nixon, Watergate, impeachment; the Reagan years; the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall; the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; two long, largely unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the 2008 Great Recession; the election of the first African-American president in 2008 and again in 2012; the political ascendancy of Christian evangelicals in the 1980s and beyond; the social acceptance of gays and lesbians; the legal acceptance of same-sex marriage; the election as president of a real-estate businessman with no public office-holding experience; the deadly coronavirus epidemic; the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing social protest in May, June, and July of 2020.

A major crisis in this cascade of events is the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal (1985–2020) and the resulting loss of credibility by the institutional church (nationally and globally). Twenty dioceses have declared bankruptcy; the cost of settlements over the last thirty-five years is in the billions; and the church has had to devote time and energy to costly litigation and lobbying of state legislatures to protect institutional interests. In the United States, church membership has declined (according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Religious Landscape Study of 2015). More consequential is the loss of trust and confidence in church leaders.

Given these circumstances, is Murray’s thought still relevant and, if so, how? It seems safe to say that, had Murray lived longer, he would have been very busy writing about what he called “the American Proposition” or consensus—that all men (and women) are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Logically, because of his commitment to equal dignity, human rights, and constitutional democracy, Murray would have argued vigorously against racial and sexual inequality and strongly supported the eradication of racism and sexism from American thought, culture, politics, and society.

I suspect that Murray would also have questioned the common linguistic usage of terms such as “fake news” or the “politicizing of medicine and science.” He argued that a philosophy of natural law and natural rights is based upon a worldview grounded in a realist epistemology. He assumed that truth exists and can be discovered through philosophical reflection, rational deliberation, and civil argument. He described his choice of title as follows: “The sense of the famous phrase is simply this: There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth.”[5]

Given his concern with epistemology, I think Murray would be appalled by the denial and dismissal of facts, factual knowledge, philosophical reflection, historical scholarship, medical studies, and environmental research into topics such as climate change. Political and policy decisions must be based on facts and data, as Governor Andrew Cuomo often told New Yorkers at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, not on feelings. Governmental decisions must be based upon factual knowledge in order to provide guidelines to society.

Finally, the current pandemic provides a striking example of the debate about religious liberty in the United States. When it became apparent in March 2020 that the spread of the coronavirus was becoming a major threat to public health, the federal and state governments decided upon a lockdown or forced retreat, a policy of closing most businesses, schools, corporations, theaters, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants and bars, and churches. The scope of the shutdown varied from state to state according to the severity of the epidemic; states in the Northeast and some hotspot cities in other parts of the country (Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago) were most severely affected in the first months of the virus (March through June). Only essential businesses and services were allowed to remain open: pharmacies, hospitals, grocery stores, and liquor stores were considered “essential.” With the nation shut down, the economy came to a halt as many people were dismissed or furloughed.

Anxious to revive a failing economy, President Trump suggested April 12, Easter Sunday, as the target date for a reopening. This proved to be too early, given the enormous threat to public health. However, the widespread cancellation of public religious activities had a palpable impact on church life and community. It also had a major impact on congregational finances; since congregations were not meeting in churches, there were no Sabbath-day collections. Most churches pay 80 percent of their bills with weekly church offerings. Gradually, then, a few pastors (church leaders) began to defy government orders and hold public church meetings. They also filed suits in federal courts.

The situation worsened dramatically when President Trump demanded that states allow places of worship to reopen “right away” and threatened to overrule any state that defied him. The president announced: “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.”[6]

The reaction to President Trump’s announcement was mixed. Some evangelical supporters praised his statement, saying they felt vindicated by his assertion that “churches are essential to our communities.” (Some thought it particularly galling that liquor stores were considered an essential service but churches were not.) Other religious leaders expressed more caution. Bishop Kenneth Carter, who heads the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, said its seven hundred churches would look at reopening sometime after June 15.

Several governors (Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, Gov. J. B. Pritzker of Illinois) indicated they would make their own decisions without regard to the president’s demand. Gov. Pritzker said he would “continue to operate on the basis of science and data” when deciding when it was safe to reopen. The mayor of Chicago (Lori Lightfoot) rejected the president’s call to open houses of worship immediately, saying he had no authority to do so. The New York Times quoted Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale Law School professor and former Obama administration official, who said: “He (the president) could make a statement, and even call it an ‘order,’ but there is no legal compulsion for the state governors to comply.”[7]

How did lay Catholics and Catholic church leaders respond to these pressures? They complied with the restrictions and had to attend virtual, online Masses for four months from March to late June. This meant that they were unable to receive the Eucharist for that entire period (a rather serious matter in the devotional life of most Catholics). Church leaders found themselves balancing the desire to reopen and worship together against the health consequences of moving too fast. They followed government guidelines and began celebrating public Masses in late June and early July.

Scriptural passages provided an important rationale for compliance with government regulations. By far the most important passage cited was the Great Commandment that stresses love of God and love of neighbor as one’s self. This clarified the prescriptions to wear masks and observe safe distancing because these practices were oriented towards protection of others as well as self-protection. Similarly, scriptural passages about prayer could partially compensate for the lack of Holy Communion at virtual Masses. In particular, the following passage may have conveyed a sense of God’s presence: “Where two or three [persons] are gathered together [in prayer], there am I in the midst of them.”

During this pandemic, most Catholic pastors have wisely embraced draconian restrictions on public worship, integrating a Catholic sacramental awareness with an equally strong Catholic commitment to the common good. Murray insisted upon public order and the common good as secular categories transmitted through tradition—as secular ends or aims or purposes pursued by civil government.

Perhaps the most important justification for moral conduct during the pandemic was Murray’s explanation of religious liberty in the Declaration on Religious Freedom enacted at Vatican II. According to Murray, the right to religious freedom may be basic and fundamental, but it is not absolute. It is limited—as in this case. The duty to love God and one’s neighbor can limit what one can freely do. Freedom has limits. Another example of such a limit on one’s religious freedom is the state law that prohibits the handling of poisonous snakes in worship services. The risk of injury or possible death to others is too great to permit this practice. Our religious freedom is “within due limits.”

I hope that this brief review is a convincing account of Murray’s relevance to contemporary political theory and to the study of religion and politics.  

Mary C. Segers is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

[1] Kennedy encountered significant anti-Catholicism during his 1960 campaign, and consulted Murray for advice prior to his “Remarks on Church and State” to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. Kennedy’s remarks lasted 10 minutes and he then fielded questions from these largely Protestant ministers for another hour. Kennedy’s speech is reprinted in A Wall of Separation: Debating the Public Role of Religion, edited by Mary Segers and Ted Jelen (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), pp. 140–143.

[2] J. Leon Hooper, SJ, “John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904–67): Working with God,” Theology Today 62 (2005): 342–51.

[3] “Declaration on Religious Freedom: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious,” in John Courtney Murray, SJ, Religious Liberty: an End and a Beginning (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966), Appendix, pp. 166–167.

[4] See J. Bryan Hehir, “Murray’s Contribution,” in Charles E. Curran and Leslie Griffin, eds., The Catholic Church, Morality and Politics: Readings in Moral Theology No. 12 (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), pp. 5–11.

[5] John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), pp. viii-ix.

[6] Peter Baker, “Firing a Salvo in Culture Wars, Trump Pushes for Churches to Reopen.” The New York Times, May 23, 2020, Section A, Page 1.

[7] Ibid.

NEH Support

The University Bookman has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.