Murray’s We Hold These Truths: 1960 and Today

William Gould

John Courtney Murray’s justly celebrated We Hold These Truths, published six decades ago, was written with two distinct but related aims in mind. The first was to establish that Catholicism and American democracy were fundamentally compatible, and the second was to elaborate a Catholic remedy for the disorders to which Murray believed democratic regimes (including the American republic) were prone.

In support of the first aim, Murray stressed the enormous importance of the Gelasian principle (“Christianity’s cardinal contribution to the Western political tradition”), which, by introducing a distinction between the sacred and the secular, broke with the social monism of antiquity and made possible the gradual articulation of further political and social differentiations—between state and society, for example—that are so crucial to modern Western Constitutionalism. He further argued that it was during the medieval era that the Gelasian principle first began to bear major political fruit, notably in the struggles between popes and emperors that marked the High Middle Ages, struggles that helped to clarify the respective jurisdictions of the two realms. In addition, Murray characterized St. Thomas Aquinas as “the first Whig”; maintained that scholasticism was “formative of the liberal tradition of the West”; and argued that the democratic idea was already implicit in the medieval period, which recognized both the principle of popular representation and the related principle of the consent of the governed, though of course in modern times these principles enjoyed “an amplitude of meaning never known in history.” And so, modern liberal democracy, as it is sometimes called, was really the fruit of the scholasticism and nascent constitutionalism of the Middle Ages, operating under the inspiration of the Gelasian principle. In short, the American polity was actually the fulfillment of the medieval Catholic political heritage.

Murray recognized of course that the Church of his day still had yet to embrace democracy and that liberalism had been the focus of many papal denunciations. In response, he distinguished between two types of liberalism. The first, prevalent mainly on the Continent, was a virulently secular, anti-clerical type of democratic absolutism that rejected the distinction between state and society, and sought to destroy the Church and replace it with a secular religion of its own. The second, which flourished in the Anglo-American world, was essentially constitutionalist in nature, acknowledged the distinction between society and state, and recognized the Church’s rightful autonomy. Accordingly, Murray held that the form of liberalism prevalent in Europe was actually “a deformation of the liberal tradition” and that it was only to this type that the papal condemnations properly applied, while Anglo-American liberalism, by virtue of having remained faithful to its medieval origins, had proved itself the authentic form of liberalism and the true heir of the Catholic tradition.

Even as he sought to reconcile Catholic doctrine with America’s framework of democratic institutions, Murray was also insistent that Catholicism, for its part, had much to contribute to the health of American democracy. For he was convinced that democratic societies, if they are to remain vital, require the existence of a strong public consensus firmly rooted in sound morality. Furthermore it was Murray’s conviction that free government is not inevitable, but rather a continuous and ongoing achievement profoundly dependent on the existence of a virtuous citizenry, and that, consequently, democratic societies needed to be placed on firm moral foundations if they were to be sustained. Murray also maintained that the American experience furnished an excellent illustration of this insight, for it was precisely because of the traditionally strong moral character of its citizenry that American society had been able to sustain the severe demands of being a free society for so long. Murray feared that this strong moral consensus had unfortunately begun to suffer serious erosion and that its renewal was essential if democracy in this country was to be restored to its former vigor.

Part of the challenge here, Murray believed, lay in the religiously pluralistic character of American society, which by its very nature has a tendency to threaten social unity. But he did not believe this was the principal source of the problem, since religious divisions had always characterized American life, while the unraveling of the consensus was a fairly new development. The main culprit, as Murray as saw it, was rather the recent emergence in America of a militant secular liberalism reminiscent of the kind that had long prevailed in Continental Europe.

Murray saw two dangers in this newly emergent secular liberalism. The first was that secular liberalism’s skepticism about the possibility of discovering objective moral principles and its consequent suspicion of any sort of public consensus led it to propose the ideal of the “open society,” a society that scorned any sort of public consensus in favor of unlimited pluralism, tolerance, freedom of expression, and diversity. In Murray’s view, an open society would invite social atomism and fragmentation, and liberal support for such a society reflected a naïve grasp of the foundations of social order.

The second danger was the obverse of the first. Precisely because of the moral and social fragmentation occasioned by the unraveling of the historic consensus, Murray thought “there was some danger that a false, fallacious, or fictitious unity might be foisted on the American people.” This threat appeared in two forms. The first, a reflection of the Cold War context in which he wrote, was that the American people, uncertain about what they stood for as a people, might embrace “a unity based simply on negation,” that is, a unity rooted simply in their opposition to communism. The second, and to Murray the more serious threat, was that owing to the persistence of religious pluralism, on the one hand, and the disintegrative and atomistic influences of the “open society,” on the other, the American people might be persuaded to adopt “a substitute secular faith” to provide the social unity they were otherwise lacking.

The primary candidate for this unifying secular religion, Murray felt sure, would be “democracy conceived as a quasi-religious faith.” The result would be a political and social monism of the type imposed by laicist liberalism on parts of Continental Europe (what J. L. Talmon called “Totalitarian Democracy”) in which democracy would be acknowledged not only as the basis of our form of government and our social unity, but as the foundation of the American way of life. This democratic faith would be publicly recognized as superseding and “transcendent to all the religious divisions that are unfortunately among us”; so much so that the traditional religious faiths, though still allowed to exist, would “be judged not in terms of whether they be true or false, but in terms of whether they be American or un-American.” And the public school system would constitute “a sort of ministry of the Democratic Church, whose function is to gather up all the flock into the one true fold—the one true democratic fold; and initiate them into the common mind and faith.”

In light of this dire prognosis, Murray proposed the informal adoption of an American public philosophy rooted in the principles of the Catholic natural law tradition that would serve as the basis for a renewal of the national life. This would constitute a restoration of the nation’s historic consensus or public philosophy. And it was precisely here, he contended, that the Catholic community in the United States could make an important contribution. For America’s Catholics were the heirs of the natural law tradition, that tradition of civility and reasoned argument on which the nation had originally been founded. They were thus in a unique position to serve as “a creative minority” in American life, capable of articulating this natural law heritage and fostering its recovery as the animating principle of America’s public philosophy.

With the election of John Kennedy in 1960 and the reforms of Vatican II (including the Declaration on Religious Freedom in which Murray played such an important role), it seemed that much of what Murray had to say was being vindicated. Viewed from the perspective of a full six decades later, however, there is greater reason for doubt.

To begin with, Murray’s synthesis of Catholicism with liberal and American thought seems far more questionable than it did to many at the time. For example, while plausibly arguing that the Gelasian principle and the nascent constitutionalism of the medieval era contributed significantly to the formation of modern democracy, Murray generally ignores the vast differences between medieval times and our own. More fundamentally, he tends to understate the gulf between the traditional Catholic social ethic, with its characteristic emphases on virtue, duty, and community, and that of liberalism, with its characteristic stress on individual rights and personal autonomy. Nor will Murray’s differentiated view of liberalism, for all of its real merit, overcome this difficulty. For despite some important differences, European and Anglo-American liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shared a deeply individualistic conception of political and social life focused primarily on ensuring personal freedom, physical security, and material well-being; rejected the classical emphasis on the cultivation of a virtuous citizenry, placing their hopes instead in artfully designed political and social institutions that would channel humanity’s selfish passions into publicly beneficial directions like commerce, and in a clash of “opposite and rival interests” that would supply “the defect of better motives”; and worked vigorously for the privatization of religion so as to deprive it of any voice or role in public life (think, for example, of Locke and Jefferson). In short, Murray fails to recognize the fundamentally problematic nature of liberalism that critics such as Patrick Deneen have pointed out.

The other striking thing in reading We Hold These Truths all these years after it first appeared is how much America has changed during the past six decades. The moral consensus that Murray was so concerned about trying to restore has suffered much further erosion in the interval since We Hold first appeared. Many issues that were not even on the political radar in Murray’s day, such as debates over abortion and same-sex marriage, now surface prominently in our own. Indeed the subject of abortion does not appear at all in We Hold These Truths; in 1960 the idea would have been inconceivable that six decades hence same-sex marriage would be the law of the land.

At the same time (and not coincidentally), the past several decades have also witnessed (as Murray feared) the growth of an increasingly vocal and influential secularist liberalism. Indeed, of the four main camps or “conspiracies,” Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and secularist, that Murray saw making up the pluralist society of his time, the secularist camp has arguably prospered the most in this period, giving rise to understandable concerns about “a naked public square.” Moreover, America’s racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity has also substantially increased, leading to a growing sense of fragmentation and a seemingly endless culture war. Finally, of course, it should not go unmentioned that while the economic and social status of American Catholics has risen considerably since the time Murray wrote, the U.S. Catholic Church itself has suffered an enormous decline in public regard and prestige as a result of the highly publicized scandals involving sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

In view of the vast changes that have taken place in American society since Murray wrote, the question understandably arises: Is Murray’s work still relevant? Does it have any application to our current situation? In my judgment, the answer is yes. Indeed, I find two aspects of his thought particularly valuable in the current context. The first is Murray’s contribution as a philosopher of consensus; the second is his contribution as a philosopher of pluralism.

Let me begin with Murray’s contribution as a philosopher of consensus. Murray fully grasped the shallowness and impracticality of the liberal ideal of the “open society,” and rightly recognized the fragility of social unity and the need for public consensus. He also correctly saw that opposition to communism, while necessary, could not serve as a genuine public philosophy, that the American people, as a people, needed to know and affirm what they were for and not only what they were against. Consequently, he went about promoting the acceptance of a public philosophy grounded in sound moral principles.

Some features of this pubic philosophy remain relevant to our time. First, Murray believed the Church had a crucial culture-forming role, one of providing society with its spiritual substance. Moreover, contrary to sectarian approaches, the Church needed to be what Martin Marty has called “a public church,” a church that (in Bryan Hehir’s words) “accepts social responsibility for the common good and envisions its teaching role as a participation in the wider social debate.” Of course, the enormous damage done to the Church’s reputation by the sex abuse scandal has doubtless diminished its ability to play a major role here, but one may hope that it has not been undermined completely, and that, over time, as the impact of the scandal becomes less pronounced, that role can expand. At the same time, I believe that Murray, like Tocqueville, would not want the Church to be or to appear to be aligned with any political party or political movement, and that he would be troubled by the close identification of the American hierarchy with the Republican Party that has developed in recent years.

Second, Murray stressed the importance of the natural law tradition, not only because he believed natural law to be true, but because he thought its emphasis on civility and reasoned public argument offered a better method of pursuing public discourse in a pluralistic society than any other available to it. Moreover, the natural law approach furnishes concepts and categories that can facilitate nuanced and sophisticated analysis and judgment concerning complex matters of public policy. Third, there is Murray’s salutary stress on the intimate link between a virtuous citizenry and the preservation of political freedom. As he memorably put it in We Hold, “Part of the inner architecture of the American ideal of freedom has been the profound conviction that only a virtuous people can be free.”

Finally, Murray proposed that the Catholic laity could serve as “a creative minority” in American culture. In the professions they enter, the associations they join or form, the political movements that they attach themselves to, in the neighborhoods where they reside—in all these varied settings committed Catholic laity could bring Gospel values to bear. They could thus provide a communitarian corrective to the excessive individualism that marks so much of our culture by engaging the culture and promoting the principles of Catholic social teaching. In doing so, they would also be offering an alternative of sorts to the political configurations of left and right that are currently dominant in our political culture, providing a political posture that is somewhat culturally conservative by contemporary standards but economically progressive.

Murray’s contribution as a philosopher of pluralism is also important and relevant today. Murray never supposed that restoring the public consensus would be easy. Nor was he under any illusion that America’s religious pluralism was going to disappear in the foreseeable future; on the contrary, he was acutely aware of the depth of the divisions separating this country’s various religious traditions. Consequently, while Murray sought a stronger moral consensus, he was insistent that the institutional autonomy and integrity of these traditional faiths (including, of course, Roman Catholicism) be respected by the state, and he strongly opposed any effort to impose a false unity on the American people, firmly rejecting, as we have seen, the attempt by some liberals to turn democracy into a kind of secular religion, the Democratic Faith. This is reflected in his conception of religious liberty, which places heavy stress not only on freedom of individual conscience, but also on the importance of the institutional autonomy and integrity of religious bodies. Accordingly, were he alive today, Murray would undoubtedly be calling for very robust conscience clauses so that religious institutions would not be compelled by law to act in ways contrary to their principles; so that, for example, Catholic hospitals would not be required to provide contraceptives or to perform abortions.

Furthermore, recognizing that “the civilization of the pluralist society,” as he called it, was a seemingly permanent feature of modern Western life, Murray placed great emphasis on the importance of dialogue, not only to encourage the development of an eventual consensus, but, initially, simply to clarify the nature of the divisions separating the various camps or conspiracies making up American society. He hoped by dialogue to

dissolve the structure of war that underlies the pluralistic society, and erect the more civilized structure of the dialogue. It would be no less sharply pluralistic, but rather more so, since the real pluralisms would be clarified out of their present confusion.

Murray regarded this clarification of differences, this making the divergent points of view of the various contending parties intelligible to one another, as a substantial achievement and a necessary preliminary to future consensus. It was his fervent hope that the various conspiracies making up American society would engage each other in dialogue, initially clarifying their different positions and gradually reaching greater consensus, especially over moral matters.

In a society like ours, marked as it is by so much fragmentation and by such deep political, racial, religious, and cultural divisions, Murray’s call for civil discourse and sincere, respectful dialogue, seems to me to be the only reasonable way forward. After all, no matter who wins the upcoming presidential election, no matter what future Supreme Court decisions are handed down on abortion or other controversial issues, no matter who gets the upper hand in our ongoing culture wars, we will all—including those with whom we fervently disagree—still be sharing the same country. No one is planning on leaving. Civil and respectful dialogue is a lot better than civil war.  

William Gould is Assistant Dean for Juniors at Fordham University.

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