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We Held These Truths

I take my title from that given to an essay of John Courtney Murray printed by America magazine exactly one week after his death. The editors no doubt gave it that title to memorialize his passing. But by 1967 it was already clear that Murray’s fundamental ideas had passed as well.

Nothing from Murray’s famous 1960 book endured even ten years. It’s common to suppose that Murray’s book made a lasting contribution, because it set down in a popular forum themes that were later adopted only a few years later by the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Liberty. But look more closely.

We Hold These Truths did two things. First, it set down what Murray took to be the necessary consensus on which the unity in the American republic was secured—a body of ostensible truths which Murray, following Lincoln, called “the American Proposition.” Second, it defended an interpretation of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment as mere “articles of peace” and “good law,” which foster the good of concordia, “civic peace,” rather than, notably, as embodying any kind of liberal doctrine which would imply a Jeffersonian wall of separation.

A Faulty Peace

It was a curious combination, the first part truth, the second a kind of pragmatism. Yet one can see why it was wildly popular with Catholics, who were assured that their patriotism could be unalloyed, and with Americans more broadly, who could be confident of the support of the 35 million Catholics among their countrymen, belonging to an apparently solid Church, in the ongoing battle, at that time, against worldwide communism.

But the book was, as it were, false from the moment it was printed. Adopting the words of Hume, we might say it should have fallen stillborn from the press. Charitably, we might describe the book as aspirational rather than deceptive or self-deceived, but its aspirations had a very slim basis indeed.

Consider the second part, on religious pluralism. James Patterson rightly points out that John F. Kennedy took himself to be following Murray, in his contemporaneous “Address to Southern Baptist Leaders” in Houston, and the American public thought so too. But Kennedy there strenuously held out for an “absolute separation of church and state … where no … church school is granted any public funds.” That is, he used the very language which for Murray signaled aggressive secularism, in support of a policy which Murray in his book described as the greatest injustice and offense against religious pluralism obtaining in the country.

It’s not that Kennedy, absurdly, can be held up as an interpreter of Murray—it’s rather that pragmatism, rather than doctrine, has no interpretation except what turns out in the event. These “articles of peace” were apparently so obscure or fragile, that subscribers to them had no idea how to rely on them to their own advantage. If what Murray would call a war gets continued, without expressions of protest especially from non-Catholics, then there were no “articles of peace” after all.

Looking back we can see now that what Murray regarded as the correct relationship of church and state in the matter of public schools had no chance of being observed until 60 years later with Espinoza v. Montana’s rejection of the Blaine Amendments. But this points to perhaps the greatest reason for the falsity of Murray’s book: he writes as though the matters he is concerned about will be settled by generous popular conviction (Murray’s “consensus”), whereas in fact, as we can plainly see, they were to be decided over the following decades by the outlook of a rather narrow class of intellectuals, expressed by the Supreme Court.

If we are honest, we will admit that “articles of peace,” even in the service of concordia, provide no stable basis for religious liberty. Certainly liberals will not be satisfied with construing any liberty as a mere modus vivendi, as Rawls referred to it. But neither were “articles of peace” ultimately satisfactory to Murray, who found himself only a few years later arguing against his own view, as it were, at the Second Vatican Council, insisting now that the right to religious liberty was inherent to human beings given their dignity as rational creatures. Where this effort seemed to lead him, I will say in a moment.

Shifting Threats

But let’s turn to the first part of Murray’s book, “The American Proposition.” One might have thought, given the allusion to Gettysburg, that that proposition, or the main one among several, was “all men are created equal.” But not so. “The first article of the American political faith,” Murray says, “is that the political community, as a form of free and ordered human life, looks to the sovereignty of God as to the first principle of its organization.” He says this time after time. Or one might say, for Murray as regards the Declaration, it’s the first word in “created equal” which is the source and foundation of limited government: God rather than equality.

From a fascinating essay of 1946, “How Liberal is Liberalism?” it is clear that Murray arrived at his idea that “the first principle of ethical reason” (as he put it) is “the sovereignty of God over the human conscience,” from—astonishingly—a reflection on the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX in light of the Second World War. Subsequent history, he thought, had proved Pius a prophet, since a straight line could be drawn from 19th century European “sectarian liberalism” (the label which Murray takes approvingly from Carlton Hayes) to totalitarianisms of the 20th century: each man as a god, seeking a freedom found only in the “general will,” and eventually therefore divinizing the total state:

there is a certain pathos felt now on reading what he wrote in Quanta Cura, the encyclical which accompanied the Syllabus: “When religion is separated from civil society, and the teaching and authority of Divine revelation are repudiated, even the very notion of justice and human rights is clouded in darkness, and lost; and in the place of true justice and right based on law is substituted material force.” Seventy-five years after those words were written, the United Nations were waging a titanic war, supposedly for justice and human rights, against the threat of a new order that would be imposed by material force on a darkened world. And in the midst of the war, men of good will—Catholics, Protestants and Jews—united in writing a Pattern for Peace, whose first point asserted the sovereignty of God and of the moral law over nations and states and international society. This, in substance, was the assertion of the Syllabus. But in 1864 it went unheeded.

Equally astonishing, up through 1953 at least, Murray thought sectarian liberalism was no longer a serious threat: “The cause for which the Church—alone and without allies—fought in the nineteenth century has become today the cause of all men of good will,” he writes in that same essay, and, again, in the series of articles on Leo XIII cited by Patterson : “The classical type of Liberalism, nineteenth-century style, which is repeatedly reviewed and refuted in the pages of Leo XIII, is today no longer much of an issue. The march of events and ideas has left it behind.”

For an interpreter, the salient question becomes: How could Murray have written a book expressing relative confidence, when an honest assessment of American culture then, as even he saw, justified no such posture?

Rather, communism is the sole and far more serious foe: “The Communist refusal to meet this moral demand, and the positive Communist aggression against the universal laws of human sociability, really make the Communist an outlaw from society, international and national, even when he physically stands within its bounds.” Note that the “moral demand” which the Communist rejects is the “human patrimony and the consensus it founds”—that is, precisely the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God and the consequent limitation of government which was meant to be passed on through “the American Proposition.”

“Was meant to be passed on”—as it is the public philosophy of the Founders, deemed by them the necessary foundation for our republican institutions. Murray was surely right about that. And he explains it all gloriously. And yet when he wrote We Hold These Truths he was aware that that consensus had just about vanished, or at least it was highly unstable. Patterson points out this fact about Murray but perhaps does not give it sufficient weight.

The Generation of the Third Eye

Let’s briefly collect the evidence: He observes that the Declaration’s proposition is no longer self-evident to anyone. None of the available public philosophies can support it as genuinely “true”—neither positivism, pragmatism, nor marxianism. In American society, there is an increasing restlessness about whether those who enjoy freedom really are free—as conformism, the bureaucratic mentality, and banal consumerism all seemed to threaten. As for the universities, who have the main responsibility to transmit our patrimony, they no longer support the American Proposition and haven’t for a long time. Moreover, the coming generation, “the generation of the third eye” as it was called, for its self-preoccupation, is “on the brink of impotence and nihilism.”

Murray in his book actually links the two phenomena, accusing higher education of destroying civilization:

This is perennially the work of the barbarian, to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived, and to do this not by spreading new beliefs but by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed, so that finally what you have is the impotent nihilism of the ‘generation of the third eye.’

No one can claim he did not foresee the tumult of the cultural revolution which might quickly render his thesis moot.

For an interpreter, the salient question becomes: How could Murray have written a book expressing relative confidence, when an honest assessment of American culture then, as even he saw, justified no such posture? The best and indeed the only answer was that Murray looked upon America’s “35,000,000 Catholics” (he liked to write out the figure) as the stewards of that tradition, and surely they would be stable and unshakeable, because the Tridentine Church was. We Hold These Truths was his rallying cry to them, to take up the banner.

And this hypothesis would also explain why, lamentably, Murray seemed to suffer a kind of intellectual collapse, as many others did, with the arrival of the Second Vatican Council. In his “Toledo Talk,” his advisory memo to Cardinal Cushing on birth control, and a handful of other papers from 1967, he shows himself deeply unsettled by what he takes to be the turn to subjective experience and historical consciousness of the Council. Highly influenced by an essay of Bernard Lonergan, “The Transition from a Classicist World-View to Historical Mindedness”—where that transition is celebrated, and said to be endorsed by the Council—Murray comes to assert such nonsense as “Truth is an affair of history and is affected by all the relativities of history. Truth is an affair of the human subject.” He rejects the “simplistic cult of certainty” which he discovers in the rigid “classicism” of the past. He is obviously unsettled by the Council’s failure to condemn communism, and its somewhat sympathetic attitude to atheism. But then: add that the right to religious liberty has now been construed as an inherent right, never relinquished, and one can understand why Murray’s fellow Jesuits, at least, immersed in “historical mindedness,” will not easily find resources for fostering unity of belief in their universities, or even in the Church.

Murray in 1967, it appears, had already jettisoned the tenuous classicism of his 1960 book. His aspirations would not be revived until “the generation of the third eye” had passed on, until the arrival of the era of Reagan, Wojtyla, Thatcher—and Neuhaus, Weigel, and Novak—when once again, like Murray, the mystery of iniquity of the Second World War was taken by conservatives as the providing the key to the politics of the age. They recognized that the evil of those years was so great and so important that it should remain a reference point for centuries, not decades. Liberals had never ceased thinking in these terms, seeing in any appeal to authority, order, or community a return to Fascism, as Rusty Reno has taught us in Return of the Strong Gods, and as such, the liberal approach to moral order remains inadequate.

Murray had held those truths, indeed; maybe some of us still do.

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