True Faith and False Freedom: On John Courtney Murray (Part III)


At the conclusion to Part 2, we weighed certain of Murray’s arguments in favor of an historically nuanced understanding of the traditional teaching on religious liberty. We will begin Part 3 with what he labeled the “decisive proof.”

Murray goes on to quote the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, extracting from it what he deems “the decisive proof” that Pope Leo XIII, using this as his guide, was less concerned with the prospect of the Church being “dethroned from its historic status of legal privilege;” asserting instead that was he mainly concerned with assuring a political and juridical system that assured the freedom of the Church, as other religions, in service to human dignity.

“The basic line of battle [for Leo XIII]was drawn by Proposition 39 of the Syllabus” Murray writes. This Proposition condemns the error that maintains thatThe state, inasmuch as it is the origin and source of all rights, possesses a power of jurisdiction that knows no limits.”

Murray maintains, “Proposition 39 of the Syllabus was also [concerned with]the destruction of the essential dignity of man, which resides in his freedom. Leo XIII did not greatly attend to this aspect of the matter; it did not lie within his historical problematic. However, by his central emphasis on the freedom of the Church he… opened the way to a widening of the question, thus stated, to include the issue of the freedom of the human person and the issue of religious freedom as a legal institution within a system of constitutional government…”

A close examination reveals yet another flaw in Murray’s approach; namely, he elevates human dignity to the status of absolute, independent of the divine Source in whom all dignity rests.

The “essential dignity of man;” i.e., the very essence of man’s dignity, does not lie in his freedom as Murray insists; rather, it lies in the call to communion with God in whose image and likeness he is created. (See, for example, Gaudium et Spes – 19, which reads, “The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God.”)

Having already labored to elevate “freedom” to the status of the absolute, human dignity as Murray presents it here is a static, unchanging condition that does not exist in degree. This, however, is not the case. Human dignity can indeed be perfected as one’s union with God is perfected. “This dignity is rooted and perfected in God” (Gaudium et Spes – 21).

I won’t belabor the point any further than to call your attention to Baptism. Clearly, while the unbaptized person possesses the inherent dignity of one created in God’s image, the person in whom the likeness of God is restored by sanctifying grace, through Baptism, possesses a degree of dignity that is infinitely greater by virtue of the indwelling of the Trinitarian life.

Moving on, Murray falsely identifies freedom as something of a primary resident characteristic of man apart from God, when in fact it is a property that flows from the Divine. It, like human dignity, is likewise possessed in degree according to the relative perfection of our communion with God. That is why the Church alone can lay claim, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, to being “a society eminently independent, and above all others,” for She alone is the Mystical Body of Christ.

To further his claim that historical circumstances alone are enough to justify altering the traditional teaching, Murray turns his attention to Pope Pius XII, whom he claims “read the signs of the times and discerned two that gave direction to his doctrine and pastoral solicitude. The first was totalitarian tyranny on the Communist model. Now the threat was not simply to the freedom of the Church in the traditionally Catholic nations of Europe; the new threat was to the freedom of the people everywhere. An ideology and a system of rule were abroad, ‘which in the end rejected and denied the rights, the dignity, and the freedom of the human person.’”

Here, Murray gives the appearance of quoting Pope Pius XII, however, the footnote in his article calls the reader’s attention to the Encyclical, Divini Redemptoris, which was in fact promulgated by his predecessor, Pope Pius XI.

Substantively, this is of little matter with regard to the point that Murray is attempting to make – a proposition summed up by the claim, “Pius XII abandons completely the Leonine notion of government as paternal,” as though a sense of paternalism alone inspired the “care of religion” as opposed to the divinely imposed obligation to truth.

Murray’s purposes are very clear – to establish a sort of dichotomy between Leo XIII and Pius XII as it concerns the constitution of States, their rights and their duties, so as to substantiate the claim that the traditional teaching is part of an ever-evolving proposition based not upon absolute truths but upon changing circumstances, the composition of governments among them.

It must be noted that Murray bases his assertion at least in part on the rather facile generalization that the Leonine view of government is essentially “paternal” in the first place. This, however, is so incomplete a summation as to represent but a caricature.

It is more accurate to say that the Leonine teaching, which is biblically founded and abundantly clear, is that the rights and duties of the State are similar to those of the individual citizen in that they derive from, and are ordered toward, the One Father of all who is God Almighty. Provided this fundamental truth is duly acknowledged in the way the affairs of the State are conducted, the Church traditionally allows for the existence of many different forms of government (monarchies, democracies, etc.); some of which may arguably be more “paternal” in nature than others.

As Leo XIII wrote, “The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State” (Immortale Dei – 4).

Murray continues, “The freedom of the Church as the community of the faithful is not the sole object of the Church’s concern. The freedom of the human person in his belief in God is also to be recognized and protected against unjust encroachments by legal or social forces. Pius XII accepts this wider problematic of religious freedom. Among the ‘fundamental rights of the person,’ which are to be recognized and promoted by the juridical order of society, he includes the ‘right to private and public worship of God, including also religious action of a charitable kind.’”

By “this wider problematic,” Murray is suggesting  that in response to the repressive regimes that trampled human rights in Pope Pius’ day,  the freedom that the Church had traditionally asserted for Herself alone was then at least implied on behalf of even the false religions in service to the human person. The exercise of “freedom” in the practice of falsehood, however, is more properly understood in a Catholic sense to be a misuse of freedom, and far from a service to the human person, such is in fact detrimental to his dignity.

To make his point, Murray is quoting, and rather selectively so, from the 1942 Christmas Message of Pope Pius XII.

The Holy Father’s comments therein do not in any way reflect tension between his own thoughts and those of his predecessors. In fact, even though the historical circumstances have indeed changed in their details over time (as they always will), the “problematic” itself, as Murray calls it, has not changed (or “widened”) in its essence at all.

Pius XII elucidates the perennial problem thusly:

“Today, as never before, the hour has come for reparation, for rousing the conscience of the world from the heavy torpor into which the drugs of false ideas, widely diffused, have sunk it.”

One clearly sees that among the fundamental concerns common to both Leo XIII and Pius XII are the “false ideas” that the latter decried as having been “widely diffused” to the detriment of mankind in his day, the same which his predecessors had deemed subject to State restriction (or toleration) as the demands of the common good may so dictate, in contrast with the doctrines of the Church that are always and everywhere freely proclaimed.

Murray would have us believe that the Holy Father is at once decrying the regrettable results of those “false ideas, widely diffused” while simultaneously suggesting that their diffusion is a “fundamental personal right.” It should surprise no one to discover that no such contradiction is evident in the text.

The writings of John Courtney Murray that we have examined thus far are by no means all that he had to say on the topic of religious liberty. We have, however, availed ourselves of much of the foundation upon which his arguments must either stand or fall.  At this I would simply encourage you to consider all that we have covered in this series of articles, going more deeply still as you are able, while pondering the question at hand, Was John Courtney Murray right? To that end I have included a bibliography of relevant resources at the conclusion of this article from both the Holy See and from the works of Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Given that the Second Vatican Council largely adopted Murray’s propositions, this critically important question concerns as well the text of Dignitatis Humanae itself. I do realize that many readers may feel a bit uneasy at the very notion of questioning whether or not the conciliar text can withstand scrutiny by the light of Tradition, and to those I would simply offer the following.

The Holy See has made it clear that an “examination and theological explanation of individual expressions and formulations contained in the documents of Vatican Council II and later Magisterium is open to legitimate discussion.” (See Vatican Information Service – Communique Concerning Society of St. Pius X – September 14, 2011.)

Make no mistake, Dignitatis Humanae is one of the primary documents of the Council that not only deserves, but demands such scrutiny. Note as well, that the Holy See includes as subject to this examination the “later Magisterium;” i.e., that which attempted to explain the conciliar decrees to the faithful.

This is no small matter! As an indication of just how important this is with regard to the topic of religious liberty, I will conclude by calling your attention to the regrettable situation in which the Catholic Church finds itself in the United States of America as I write.

Here, the majority of our bishops – like many others the world over – have in good faith adopted with vigor the language and the approach laid out in Dignitatis Humanae. As such, they have ceased in overwhelming measure to proclaim the Social Kingship of Christ, His unique privileges, the unique privileges of His Church, and every citizen’s and every ruler’s duty toward Him.

The end result? Rather than condemning out of hand objective evils like abortion-on-demand and contraception repackaged as “healthcare,” our shepherds have largely been reduced to begging a godless Administration for “conscience clauses” and a seat at the table beside heathens and heretics as though we must content ourselves with adopting a policy of “Have it your way, but let us have ours as well.” This is not intended as an indictment of our shepherds, per se; but rather an indictment of the “updated” notion of “religious liberty” introduced at Vatican II and its predictable results.

As I’ve maintained from the outset, this is perhaps the most pressing issue of our day, both for the Church and for the world at large. For the love of God, don’t shy away from the challenge that lies before us! You may perhaps even consider engaging it an obligation.

Difficult though they may be to face, ask the hard questions, boldly holding them up to the light of Tradition for clarity, praying the Holy Ghost to bestow wisdom and understanding upon you, your loved ones, and especially those who are charged with leading the Bride of Christ – the Church Militant – on this journey toward Heavenly perfection.

Resources for Study

Pope Pius IX – Syllabus of Errors

Pope Leo XIII – Immortale Dei – On the Christian Constitution of States

Pope Leo XIII – Libertas – On the Nature of Human Liberty

Pope Leo XIII – Officio Sanctissimo – On the Church in Bavaria

Pope Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum – On Capital and Labor

Pope Pius XI – Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio – On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ

Pope Pius XI – Quas Primas – On the Feast of Christ the King

Pope Pius XII – Ci Riesce – Address to Convention of Italian Catholic Jurists

Pope Pius XII – Christmas Message of 1942

John Courtney Murray, S.J. – Published and Unpublished Works – Georgetown University Collection

Dignitatis Humanae – Declaration on Religious Freedom – Second Vatican Council



About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.