Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
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No. 33 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program January 1991

by Brian W. Harrison


        A quarter-century after the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, at the end of Vatican Council II, Fr. John Courtney Murray's theses regarding what he called the "public care of religion" by the civil power1 have assumed a new importance in the light of the painful rupture in the Catholic Church which took place at Ecône, Switzerland, on June 30, 1988.2 Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre has made it clear during recent years that the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae (or what he takes to be its teaching) is one of the principal obstacles to reconciliation with the Holy See. And Murray, as is well-known, was one of the most important periti involved in drafting the conciliar Declaration. This essay, which will consider certain aspects of Murray's theology in relation to that of Vatican II and Catholic tradition, should be seen in the light of the call issued by Pope John Paul II in the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei (July 2, 1988) immediately after the excommunication of Lefebvre and those whom he illicitly consecrated as Bishops: the Pope asked for a deeper study of these controversial aspects of Vatican II's teaching, "so that the Council's continuity with Tradition may be made as clear as possible."3

        So influential was Murray as an architect of Dignitatis Humanae that there has often been a tendency almost to identify his own theses on Church and State with the teaching of the Council itself. In the English-speaking world during the first decade after Vatican II, this tendency was powerfully reinforced by Murray himself, through the medium of Walter M. Abbott's ubiquitous, best-selling edition of the Council documents. Murray was not only the principal translator of the Declaration on Religious Liberty for this edition; he also provided it with an introductory essay and very copious explanatory footnotes.4 This and similar publications in other languages, often by Jesuit scholars, have contributed to a widespread impression that the conciliar Declaration represents a significant departure from traditional Catholic doctrine.

        In the present essay no attempt will be made to enunciate a complete or general argument for the essential continuity of Dignitatis Humanae with the traditional doctrines.5 There were basically two issues, closely-related but distinct, in the controversy between Murray and his conservative critics before and during the Council: first, the question of special State recognition or 'establishment' of Catholicism; and secondly, the question of State repression of public religious manifestations on the part of non-Catholics. The first of these legal dispositions does not necessarily imply the second, but the second clearly presupposes the first. In any case, we shall not deal at all in this essay with the second issue - that of religious liberty as such. The present observations will be limited to some critical reflections on Murray's thought regarding the first and more general issue - the foundational principles of Church-State relationships. It will be argued, first, that Murray's attempts to reconcile his theses on this issue with traditional Catholic doctrine were unsuccessful; and secondly, that while earlier drafts of the conciliar schema on religious liberty reflected these theses very closely, subsequent amendments which were incorporated into the final, definitive text (amendments which Murray seems to have overlooked in his explanatory footnotes in Abbott's edition of the documents) prevented the Council from endorsing these unorthodox aspects of Murray's thought. If these arguments are valid, then at least one major preoccupation of 'traditionalist' Catholics in regard to Vatican II will be seen as unfounded. At the same time, one plank will be removed from the platform of many dissenters at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum: those who (like Fr. Charles Curran6 ) welcome Dignitatis Humanae's alleged contradiction of earlier Church doctrine, on the grounds that the Council thereby set a precedent for the kinds of doctrinal "reversals" which they advocate in other areas of Church teaching. One hears the argument, for instance, that since an Ecumenical Council, no less, has now contradicted the doctrine of encyclicals by Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII, it is vain to appeal to the authority of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae in the attempt to sustain the immutability of the traditional teaching against contraception. The fact that this conclusion is clearly valid if the premise is correct should serve to underline the gravity of the question at hand. Nothing less than the credibility of the Roman magisterium, and hence that of the Catholic Church herself, is at stake here.


        John Courtney Murray's controversial views on this matter are conveniently set out in several succinct propositions in his comments on Dignitatis Humanae in Abbott's edition. By virtue of such a highly strategic location, they have now been assimilated by thousands of English-speaking seminarians, priests, religious, and educated Catholic laity as accurately representing the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church's Twenty-First Ecumenical Council. In commenting on article 13 of the Declaration, for instance, Murray says:

The Church does not make, as a matter of right or of divine law, the claim that she should be established as the "religion of the state." Her claim is freedom, nothing more.7

        The first sentence here is probably too ambiguous, as it stands, to be evaluated formally in terms of its orthodoxy. The expression "religion of the state," especially in view of the quotation marks used by Murray himself, might in itself be taken to mean nothing more than one particular historically-conditioned form of civic or state recognition of Catholicism's unique truth: that is to say, the kind of concordat which has been a feature of relations between the Holy See and various predominantly Catholic nations during the last two centuries. It is only relatively recently that the exact phrase "religion of the state" has been commonly used. And it would of course be correct to deny that divine law requires a particular type of legal document with certain set phraseology.8 However, Murray's second sentence quoted above makes it clear that he is not making a relatively trivial observation of this sort. What he wants to deny is that divine law requires states or governments to acknowledge any kind of special legal status for Catholicism by virtue of its unique truth; all that the Church can demand from the State as a right given by God, according to Murray, is "freedom, nothing more."

        This kind of affirmation about what divine law does or does not require is clearly 'doctrinal' in nature: if true at all, it is a universal and immutable truth. This is important, because at times, especially in his pre-conciliar writings, Murray was rather more tentative about such matters. In We Hold These Truths, for instance, the essay "Civil Unity and Religious Integrity" insists that the author, as an American Catholic, accepts the principle of "separation of Church and State" as expressed in the First Amendment, "only as a law, not a dogma." It is "not invested with the sanctity that attaches to dogma, but only with the rationality that attaches to law."9 In adopting this position, Murray has no difficulty in showing that it is in perfect harmony with what the Popes up to that time had consistently recognized: that in a religiously pluralist society such as the United States, this benign form of separation of Church and State is a useful practical arrangement, conducive to freedom and peaceful coexistence between those of differing faiths.10 Murray did not claim that this type of constitutional arrangement ought necessarily be adopted in all other countries, including predominantly Catholic ones. If he thought that, he did not say so. Rather, he confined himself to the observation that the experience of privilege in such countries, "especially in Latin lands," has often provoked enmity and persecution by way of reaction,11 and that in America, "By and large ... it has been good for religion, for Catholicism, to have had simply the right of freedom"12 - that is, the same freedom as the other religious denominations.

        By the end of 1964, however, after two years of intense debate at Vatican Council II had still not produced the long-awaited Declaration on Religious Liberty, the climate had changed. Frustration and impatience were running at a high level in the ranks of the more liberal theologians and Bishops, as a result of the Pope's decision not to overrule the Council's standard procedures so as to permit the latest draft of the religious liberty schema to be put to the vote (and in all probability promulgated) by the end of the 1964 session.13 It was in this atmosphere of mounting tension that Murray's most polemical work on Church and State, "The Problem of Religious Freedom," was published.14 In this lengthy article the Jesuit theologian set out to provide a tour de force - a comprehensive rebuttal of his conservative Catholic critics - so as to pave the way for a rapid victory in the Council's final session in 1965.

        In this essay Murray does in effect maintain that the essential American formula - freedom for the Church, but no substantial legal or juridical privileges - should now be the norm everywhere, even in predominantly Catholic countries. His position is that even a merely nominal 'privilege' in such countries is never morally obligatory (that is, required by God): mere freedom is always sufficient for the Catholic Church:

The fact of the religious unity of a particular people in the Catholic faith does not make obligatory the legal institution of establishment, as if a situation of legal privilege were a Catholic constitutional ideal.15

        Moreover, Murray now affirms that if, in a mainly Catholic culture, there is any constitutional privilege for the Catholic Church, it must not be more than merely nominal. It may not impact legally on the lives of citizens; and the State, in acknowledging such a purely titular "privilege," may not claim to be discerning or recognizing the religious truth of Catholicism, only the sociological fact of its local predominance. Thus, for all practical purposes, such a regime would be virtually indistinguishable from the American model. This is clear from the following passage:

Furthermore, out of respect for historical custom, where it exists, it is not inappropriate or contrary to religious freedom that the people of a particular nation should declare their common allegiance to the Catholic Church in some sort of constitutional document. This declaration has no juridical consequences; it has the value of a statement of fact.16

This rejection of any kind of Catholic "establishment" which would have "juridical consequences" is an implication of another closely related thesis which Murray enunciates succinctly in his remarks on Dignitatis Humanae in the Abbott edition. Commenting on article 6 of the Declaration, Murray assures us that, according to Vatican II,

government is forbidden to assume the care of religious truth as such ... or the task of judging the truth or value of religious propaganda. Otherwise it would exceed its competence, which is confined to affairs of the temporal and terrestrial order.17

        Once again, the first sentence here is perhaps too ambiguous in itself to be given any formal 'theological note.' It would be quite correct to deny civil authority the right to "judge" the truth of religious affirmations, or to assume the "care of religious truth," if by that we simply mean that lay officials or politicians may not usurp the magisterial role of the Pope and Bishops by presuming to decide authoritatively what is or is not compatible with Catholic faith or morals. However, Murray wants to include here a denial of the age-old Catholic thesis that those who hold political authority (either the juridically sovereign citizen body in a democracy, or the juridically sovereign monarch in an autocracy) are in principle not only able (like all rational human beings) to discern the unique truth of Catholicism, but are obliged in principle, by virtue of man's social nature, to reflect this discernment in appropriate ways, in the exercise of their official functions.18

        That Murray does in fact intend to deny this traditional Catholic thesis is clear not only from the next sentence in his commentary on Dignitatis Humanae, where it is said that the "competence" of government "is confined to affairs of the temporal and terrestrial order," but from more ample statements of his position in "The Problem of Religious Freedom." He asserts that in "the constitutional tradition" (the tradition with which he personally agrees),

no public official is empowered, by virtue of his public office, to inquire into the theological credentials of any religious body, and to decide whether it exists iure divino, whether its doctrine and polity are in conformity with divine revelation ... The Erastian doctrine that the public powers are the arbiter of religious truth ... is not only contrary to Christian doctrine but also contrary to political principle.19

        This passage makes clear Murray's failure to make the distinction, explained above, between the kind of religious judgment which is the special competence of the Church's leaders and that which pertains in principle to the human race as such. The first sentence in the above quotation certainly excludes the idea that the Catholic Church as such can and should be recognized by public authorities as existing "iure divino." But the second sentence shows that Murray confuses this idea (which is straightforward traditional Catholic doctrine) with "Erastian doctrine" (which, as he says, is unorthodox, insofar as it usurps the rights of the Pope and Bishops and sees government as a generalized "arbiter" of all religious truth). By rejecting as "Erastianism" both types of religious discernment on the part of public authority, Murray throws out the baby with the bathwater.

        A little further on in the same essay Murray not only implies once again that civil authority is incompetent to recognize the truth of Catholicism, he also asserts that government may not put into effect any decisions received from the Church's Magisterium (a procedure which clearly would not usurp any function of the latter):

The public powers are not competent to make theological judgments. Nor may their action be instrumental in the public enforcement of theological judgments made by the Church.20

        So far we have been concerned simply to expound two controversial theses of Fr. Murray, which are almost like two sides of the one coin: that the Catholic Church, by divine right, can demand only freedom, not recognition of her unique truth, from political authorities; and that these authorities in turn are not competent to recognize this unique truth, much less to allow any legal or juridical effects to flow from such recognition. In the course of our exposition we have stated that these theses are not in harmony with traditional Catholic doctrine. It will now be appropriate to justify this criticism by reference to pertinent pronouncements of the Church's Magisterium.

        In fact, such pronouncements have always been well-known to both sides in the dispute. In the Encyclical Quanta Cura, Pius IX condemned the view that "human society should be constituted and governed ... without making any distinction between the true religion and false religions."21 The Pope affirmed that this "evil opinion," along with others specified in the Encyclical, must be "absolutely held (omnino haberi) as reprobated, denounced and condemned by all the children of the Catholic Church."22 The contradiction between Quanta Cura and Murray's view (that government recognition of the true religion is not a requirement of divine law) could scarcely be more emphatic or more explicit, given that Pius IX insists that the condemned error attacks

that salutary influence which the Catholic Church, by the institution and command of her Divine Author, ought to exercise even to the consummation of the world, not only over individual men, but nations, peoples, and sovereigns.23

Leo XIII is scarcely less emphatic. He affirms in the Encyclical Immortale Dei that "it is not lawful for the State, any more than for the individual, ... to hold in equal favour different kinds of religion."24  Indeed,

it is a sin in the State ... (to adopt) out of many forms of religion ... that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in the way which He has shown to be His will.25

        To make it crystal-clear that he is talking about divine law here, Pope Leo asserts at the beginning of Immortale Dei that the principles expounded therein represent

the necessary growth of the teachings of the Gospel. We deem it, therefore, of the highest moment, and a strict duty of Our Apostolic office, to contrast with the lessons taught by Christ the novel theories now advanced touching the State ... so that one and all may see clearly the imperious law of life which they are bound to follow and obey.26

        More recently Pope Pius XI, in instituting the Feast of Christ the King with the Encyclical Quas Primas, expressed his hope that, through this new enrichment of the Church's liturgy,

Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honour and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, Who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected, and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for His kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.27

        How did John Courtney Murray interpret these declarations of the Magisterium, which were often adduced against him by his critics prior to and during Vatican II? At the general hermeneutical level he called attention to profound philosophical differences between his school of thought and that of such critics - differences which he said made attempts at dialogue "abortive." The two contrasting views, he said,

do not confront each other as affirmation confronts negation. Their differences are at a deeper level - indeed, at a level so deep that it would be difficult to go deeper. They represent the contemporary clash between classicism and historical consciousness.28

        In evaluating the earlier pontifical declarations, says Murray, the scholar who possesses this "historical consciousness"

asks the question ... is not the historical context of the document and its doctrinal, polemic, and pastoral intentions to be considered, with the result that particular assertions may be regarded as historically conditioned and therefore subject to further development in what concerns their manner of conception and statement, under altered circumstances and with the rise of new questions which affect the perspectives in which the truth is viewed.29

        In contrast to this "historical consciousness," the "classicist" mentality which Murray rejects (he claims that both its "archaism" and its "anachronism" are "now forbidden" in the light of Pope John's "fuller acceptance" of this century's "altered historical context"30 ) is a misguided attempt (we are told) "to adhere or return to the synthesis or systematization of a prior age, which is judged to be simple and more pure."31 This "classicism" admits that Leo XIII, for instance, "did indeed speak within a historical context"; however it thinks "that his utterances transcended the context" and insists (mistakenly, it would seem, in Murray's view) that

What matters is what he said - the propositions that he put down on paper. These propositions stand forever, true, certain, and immutable.32

        One is tempted to reply to Murray's polemic - the various pejorative "isms" with which he labels his opponents - with other labels. The kind of "historical consciousness" which seems to cast doubt on whether some propositions can transcend their historical context seems perilously akin to historicism or relativism. And if the view that "What matters is what (Pope Leo) said - the propositions that he put down on paper" is to be stigmatized by Murray as a regrettable "classicism," this seems to suggest that the real object of his regret may in fact be none other than the perennial philosophy - the basic principles, insights and procedures of human reason itself. Pius IX, as we saw, "put down on paper" the absolute assertion that unique recognition of the Catholic Church by the political community is an obligation flowing from the "command of her Divine Author," valid "even to the consummation of the world." The perennial philosophy (along with ordinary common sense) would conclude from this that if Fr. Murray affirms (a hundred years later, but still well before "the consummation of the world") that in fact there is no such perpetual, divinely-imposed obligation, then the 19th-century Pope and the 20th-century theologian cannot both be right. Their respective affirmations stand in clear and ineluctable contradiction, from which it follows that Murray should admit that his thesis really constitutes dissent from this and parallel affirmations of the 19th-century Magisterium, and is not just a "further development in what concerns their manner of conception and statement."33

        Murray attempts to meet this kind of criticism as follows:

The Second View (i.e. the view of Murray and his sympathizers) may urge the issue, citing the assertion of Pius XII that Boniface VIII's doctrine of the sun and the moon and the two swords was historically conditioned and is today archaistic. In reply, the First View (i.e. that of the "classicists") changes the subject, raising the issue of the doctrinal authority of papal encyclicals, with appropriate citations. This issue is important, but it would seem to suppose an answer to the prior question. Again the parties fail to join in dialogue.34

        Perhaps we can revive the dialogue on this point here and now. In the 1955 allocution to which Murray refers, Pius XII did not in fact say that Pope Boniface's statement was "today archaistic," but he did say that "This mediaeval conception was conditioned by its era."35 Pius XII was commenting on the affirmation of Boniface VIII in 1303 that:

just as the moon has no light except that which it receives from the sun, so also no earthly power has anything which it does not receive from the ecclesiastical power. ... all powers ... are from Christ, and from Us as the Vicar of Jesus Christ.36

        Pope Boniface made this statement not as supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians, but only to the envoys of the German king, Albert of Habsburg; so even the most ultramontane Catholic should have little difficulty in granting that a papal utterance of that category might simply be erroneous.

        But why does Murray fault his critics for "changing the subject" when they now raise the issue of the relative authority of different kinds of papal utterances? The "prior question" for which he says this issue "would seem to suppose an answer" is the question (just posed by Murray himself) as to whether "particular papal assertions may be regarded as historically conditioned and therefore subject to further development .. under altered circumstances." His train of thought seems to be that his conservative critics, out of deference for Pius XII's authority if for no other reason, ought to admit an affirmative answer to this question; but that since this admission damages their case, they normally prefer to evade the point by "changing the subject."

        But does it really damage their case? The expression "historically conditioned" (whether used by Pius XII or by other writers) is generally a kind of euphemism, and a rather vague one. We use it to intimate politely that, although a certain respected belief or affirmation from the past is understandable in its historical context, it is now to be seen as erroneous, or at least inadequate. But the difference between "erroneous" and merely "inadequate" can be all-important. No Catholic who follows the perennial philosophy should have any difficulty in admitting that even ex cathedra definitions may be "historically conditioned," in the sense that they may prove to be inadequate for the needs of a subsequent age, because of the way their teaching was originally expressed. However, he will not admit that such definitions were erroneous in what they express, because he believes that they are infallibly true. But in the case of minor papal utterances such as the statement of Boniface VIII under consideration, our perennial philosopher will be prepared to admit the possibility of the kind of "historical conditioning" which includes downright error, not just inadequacy. It follows that, since the truth or error of certain universal doctrinal propositions made by Pius IX and Leo XIII is really the point at issue here, the pertinent question to raise at this juncture is precisely that of their authority - that is, how 'major' or 'minor' they are in comparison with that of Boniface VIII, which Murray saw fit to introduce into the discussion. It is he, not his critics, who seems to be evading the central issue here - by focusing undue attention on the conveniently vague notion of "historical conditioning."

        In any case, it is relevant to ask the further question as to what, in Murray's view, are the "altered circumstances" which he thinks justify such a different approach from that of the pre-conciliar Popes. Again and again, throughout the essay we are considering, we find recurring appeals to what Murray calls mankind's "growth in personal and political consciousness." According to Murray, the fundamental premise of the view he advocates is that

the nature of man is a historical nature, whose rational exigences manifest themselves progressively, under the impact of the continually changing social-political context, and in response to the growing personal and political consciousness.37

        On the basis of this premise, and taking note of the "signs of the times," Murray tells us that the view of Church-State relations accepted by himself and many other modern Catholics

presents itself as the contemporary stage in the growing understanding of the tradition. This understanding cannot be found in ecclesiastical documents of the nineteenth century. It was brought into being by a dynamism proper to the twentieth century, the growth of the personal and political consciousness, first noted by Pius XII and more fully developed in its implications by John XXIII.38

        The concept of "growth" - in this context a metaphor taken from biology - means, of course, change, and more specifically, change towards maturity or perfection - change for the better. But whether the widespread twentieth-century understanding of Church and State really is superior to that of the nineteenth-century Popes is precisely the point a issue. This superiority needs to be demonstrated, not merely asserted or insinuated. Of course, on the basis of a certain philosophy of history - belief in the inevitable progress of mankind - twentieth-century ideas are by definition superior to those of a century earlier, just as a fifteen-year old boy is by definition, or by the exigencies of nature, more mature than a five-year-old. Murray's assertions often seem to presuppose some such philosophy of history; but at other times he admits that "history" can carry mankind downwards as well as upwards, in terms of the quality of political life. He maintains, for instance, that "the medieval conception of kingship" embodied a basically sound constitutional tradition of limited government, and laments the fact that by the 19th century, "the tradition had been obscured by history - by the decadence of the constitutional tradition after the quattrocento," leading to the rise of absolute monarchies.39  But if that is true, then it cannot simply be assumed that the 20th century's change in "consciousness" represents "growth," rather than "decadence," in relation to the teaching of the 19th-century Popes.

        Moreover, Murray tends to talk of "the twentieth century" and "contemporary man" as though everyone, or practically everyone, now thinks as he does about Church-State relations. But this is simply not true. Large numbers of traditionally-minded Catholics disagree emphatically, not to mention the great majority of the world's hundreds of millions of Muslims, large numbers of Hindus, Buddhists and Jews (in regard to the State of Israel) and many adherents of other religions and ideologies. That is, for a very considerable proportion of the contemporary human race - possibly even the majority - it is far from axiomatic that government, in our own time, is incompetent to recognize and favour some particular religion or world-view over others. Murray does indeed admit that the State's "incompetence" in religious matters is not "some sort of transcendental principle, derivative from some eternal law," but he immediately adds:

The exact formula is that the state, under today's conditions of growth in the personal and political consciousness, is competent to do only one thing in respect of religion, that is, to recognize, guarantee, protect, and promote the religious freedom of people. This is the full extent of the competence of the contemporary constitutional state.40

        However, shorn of its rhetorical appeal to "growth" (a word which carries question-begging overtones of inevitable progress or improvement) and of its implied statistical appeal to a non-existent consensus amongst "contemporary man,"41 Murray's argument amounts to little more than the claim that the universal Church should endorse his view of the State's very limited religious role mainly because at present this also happens to be the view of a great many other people - especially in the liberal, secularized societies of Western Europe and North America. But that kind of claim, of course, does not sound nearly so imposing and irresistible42 as a demand which is said to arise inexorably from something as august as a "growth in consciousness of contemporary man."

        In his attempt to show that today's Church need not adhere to certain "propositions ... put down on paper" by earlier Popes, notwithstanding their apparent gravity, Murray does not lean exclusively on general hermeneutical principles which appeal to man's "historical nature." He also presents a more specific argument, claiming that,

after full assent has been given to the traditional papal condemnation of separation of Church and State as a matter of Catholic duty, there is still room for an unprejudiced examination of the American concept of separation, because this latter concept is different in point of political principle from the concept condemned. ... the American "state" is not the Continental "state"; this is the root of the difference.43

        The "Continental State," Murray explains, was a European product of the Renaissance and Reformation era, and was essentially paternalistic, deciding which world-view was most suitable for the illiterate masses who formed the great bulk of those whom it governed. We are told that, at heart, Leo XIII was (like Murray himself) basically only concerned to uphold the freedom of the Church from State interference. That was his "central notion."44 However, given the prevailing "Continental"" notion of what the State is - a notion he himself took for granted - the Pope felt bound to insist on 'establishment,' that is, privilege, for the Church as the norm, because that seemed to be the only practical means for assuring her freedom. The only alternative, under contemporary European conditions, was the kind of "separation" between Church and State which tried to impose some rival ideology, and thus amounted to harassment or even persecution of Catholics.45 Murray then completes his case by arguing that the limited American 'state' is so different from this authoritarian Continental model that it can safely be "separated" from the Church without endangering her freedom.46 Therefore, he concludes, constitutions based on the American model of "separation" do not really conflict with Leo XIII's deepest intentions, only with the superficial reality of what he actually said.

        This argument might seem plausible enough, until we begin to look for solid evidence that the only real end which Leo XIII had in view was in fact the freedom of the Church. Since Murray admits (at least tacitly) that the "paper propositions" of this Pontiff tell against his thesis, the onus of proof clearly rests with him to show that they are nonetheless no longer normative for the Church a hundred years later. It must be stressed that what Murray needs to prove is that this defence of the Church's freedom was the only end which Pope Leo had in mind when he insisted on state establishment of Catholicism as the correct or normative situation. But all that Murray actually does is present evidence that this freedom of the Church was Leo's "central concern," his first priority, in the contemporary struggle with Continental liberalism. He tells us:

One could begin to appreciate its centrality by counting the number of times that the phrase, or an equivalent of it, appears in his writings (some eighty-one times in sixty documents). ... Freedom is the first property of the Church; and freedom is the first claim that the Church makes in the face of society and state: "This freedom is so much the property of the Church, as a perfect and divine work, that those who act against this freedom likewise act against God and against their duty."47

        Murray then goes on to cite a number of Leonine texts which do indeed condemn very forcefully all forms of State interference with the Church's free activity,48 telling us that "(the) decisive proof" of his own thesis "results from an understanding of the structure of Leo XIII's controversy with Continental sectarian Liberalism...."49 But the most that these texts could possibly "prove decisively" is that attacks on the Church's freedom were the most immediate and most urgent problem that Leo had to face in his confrontation with hostile regimes. In none of them is there the slightest hint that state establishment of Catholicism is to be valued only, or even mainly, insofar as it is a safeguard against such attacks.50 To argue that, since the freedom of the Church from oppression was Pope Leo's "central concern," his insistence on state recognition of Catholicism's truth as the norm was only "historically conditioned," and not permanently binding, is quite simply a non sequitur. It is no more logical than arguing that, since the defeat of Japan and Germany was the "central concern" of the American government in the early 1940s, its simultaneous efforts to promote (say) public health and improved agricultural methods were merely "historically conditioned" interests which arose as part of the war effort, and need not be pursued by subsequent governments - as if high standards of health and agriculture were valuable to a nation only to the extent of their (real or imagined) efficacy in helping to defeat armed foreign aggression.

        Murray's thesis also depends, as we have seen, on the premise that Leo XIII did not appreciate the difference between the "Continental" state and the American state, and would not have found fault with the benign form of Church-State "separation" practised in the latter if he had understood it better. But Pope Leo was surely not so politically ignorant as this theory supposes him to have been. Indeed, his Encyclical Longinqua (1895) on Catholicism in the United States, demonstrates both that he well understood the difference between the two types of constitution in question, and that he nevertheless rejected the idea (later revived by Murray and others within the Church) that the American model of "separation" - full freedom but no privilege - is all that the Church can ever claim from the State as a matter of divine law. Leo XIII said to the U.S. Bishops:

For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation ... is free to live and act without hindrance. Yet, though all this be true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced. The fact that Catholicity with you is in good condition ... is by all means to be attributed to the fecundity with which God has endowed His Church ... but she would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.51

        It is important to note here that Pope Leo mentions lawfulness as well as expediency as a criterion for evaluating different models of Church-State relationship. Too often it is assumed that the Church's traditional quest for unique recognition on the part of the State has been motivated exclusively by the real or imagined benefits for the Church and her members which are thought to flow from such recognition. On this assumption the case for 'establishment,' even in predominantly Catholic countries, would be convincingly refuted if it could be shown (and perhaps it can be shown) that judging by the practical experience of many centuries, the Church herself usually tends to enjoy better health, both spiritual and temporal, in constitutional situations like that of the U.S.A., where she is not established as the 'state religion' and simply enjoys freedom of operation, unhampered by tiresome links to the temporal powers.

        This assumption, however, is a serious misunderstanding of the traditional doctrine. As we have already seen, the great papal encyclicals on Church and State insist - contrary to Fr. Murray's thesis - that civic recognition of Catholicism as the true religion is an immutable precept of divine positive law. And God has imposed this obligation not primarily in the interests of the Church herself (her freedom, prosperity, security, or whatever), but because it arises inexorably from the social nature of man, the universal sovereignty of Christ, the rationally demonstrable truth of Catholicism,52 and above all, the First Commandment. None of these truths, clearly, can be seen by Catholics as mere "historically conditioned" opinions. The best refutation of Murray's thesis (i.e., that Catholic 'establishment' was basically understood by Pope Leo XIII as a mere means for securing the Church's freedom) comes from Leo himself, in a passage from Immortale Dei wherein he not only asserts that, but also lucidly explains why, this civic recognition of the true religion is an obligation of divine law:

The State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness ... bind also the civil community by a like law. For men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, not less than individuals, owes gratitude to God. ... Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice - not such religion as we may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only true religion - it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So too it is a sin in the State ... to adopt out of many forms of religion ... that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will.53

        It is clear from this and other key affirmations of the Church's magisterium that, according to her doctrine - not just a historically conditioned policy - the civic community's recognition of Catholic truth is primarily a duty which it owes to God, not just to the Church: a duty which therefore obtains quite independently of whatever benefits or burdens for the latter might in practice result from its fulfilment.

        Some further clarifications would seem appropriate at this point. Murray's denials that government is "competent" to "assume the care of religious truth," to "inquire into the theological credentials of any religious body," and so on, are obviously correct if we understand them in a certain sense. No one in his right mind has ever suggested that the attainment of political office automatically brings with it, ex officio, some kind of special infusion of heavenly or theological wisdom, so that, as a generally applicable practical rule, we ordinary citizens, and indeed, ministers of religion, in any country whatever, ought to submit questions of religious doctrine to the "magisterium" of princes, presidents or bureaucrats, and humbly allow our consciences to be formed by their sagacious decisions. However, Murray's way of stating the issue fails to make clear two important distinctions.

        The first is the distinction in Catholic doctrine between one type of "theological judgment" which is the special competence of the Church's Magisterium, and another type which is not. To the Pope and the Bishops alone belongs the task of judging authoritatively whether specific ideas and practices are, or are not, compatible with Catholic faith and morals. But the responsibility for deciding whether Catholicism as such is true lies with all humans, as rational beings: one should not tell a non-Catholic that he ought to believe in the Immaculate Conception simply because the Pope, as "competent authority," has defined it to be true; one should present him with rational evidence - what are called the "motives of credibility" for the truth of the Catholic religion as a whole, as a 'package deal' which includes papal authority, the Immaculate Conception, and many other things.

        The second distinction which Murray's treatment of governmental "competence" in the sphere of religion fails to make clear is that between being "competent" in the sense of being skilled and reliable ("Dr. X is a very competent physician"), and being "competent" in the sense of being legally or morally responsible for doing something. Being competent in the second sense (being the "competent authority" as regards this or that) is of course quite compatible with being totally incompetent in the first sense - totally unskilled and totally unreliable. Not every office-holder is worthy of his position.

        If we keep in mind these two distinctions, the traditional Catholic doctrine regarding the religious duties of political authority does not sound nearly so preposterous as it might seem from Murray's presentation of it. It is not that government can be a "judge of religious truth" in the sense of usurping the role of the papal and episcopal Magisterium; only in the sense of recognizing that role as divinely-instituted, and thus conforming human law to the law of God under its guidance. Nor does ascribing "competence" to government authorities in this field imply that in reality politicians and rulers can in any way be relied upon to carry out consistently even this limited religious "judgment" (recognition of the true religion). It simply means they have the objective obligation to do so, regardless of how dismal their general level of performance may be in practice. Thus it is with our obligations at the individual level. God obliges, and with the help of grace enables, the human race to avoid mortal sin. Yet in general we show ourselves totally inconsistent and unreliable in fulfilling this primordial obligation.

(to be continued - see Living Tradition No. 34)


1. Murray, J. C., The Problem of Religious Freedom (PRF) (Westminster, Maryland, Newman Press, 1965), p. 94. (This essay was originally published in Theological Studies, vol. XXV, no. 4, December 1964, pp. 503-575.)

2. This happened to be the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Pope Paul VI.

3. Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio, Ecclesia Dei (2 July 1988), section 4b.

4. Cf. Walter H. Abbott (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II (New York, Angelus Books, 1966). Page xi of the Preface mentions that Murray translated the Declaration on Religious Liberty for this edition. His introductory essay, translation, and extensive footnotes are found on pp. 672-696. The note on abbreviations (p. xiv) points out that in all documents in this edition, the unofficial footnotes "are the work of the commentator (whose name is at the end of the essay introducing the document)."

5. The present writer's position in this regard is to be found in Religious Liberty and Contraception (John XXIII Fellowship Coop., Melbourne, Australia, 1988). In the U.S.A. this is available from Catholics United for the Faith, 827 N. 4th Street, Steubenville, Ohio 43952 ($12.00 plus postage).

6. Cf. Fr. Curran's remarks to this effect in his press conference of March 11, 1986, published in Origins (N.C. Documentary Service) March 27, 1986, p. 666.

7. Abbott, Documents, op. cit., p. 693, n. 53.

8. Cf. Murray, The Problem of Religious Freedom, pp. 91-91.

9. Murray, J. C., We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960), p. 49.

10. Ibid., pp. 72-76

11. Ibid., p. 74.

12. Ibid., p. 76.

13. Cf. Matías García, S.J., "Análisis Histórico," in La Libertad Religiosa: Análisis de la Declaración "Dignitatis Humanae" (Universidad Pontificia de Comillas: Editorial Razón y Fe, Madrid, 1966), pp. 68-69.

14. Cf. note 1 above for publication details.

15. Murray, PRF, p. 99. (This and all other references in this article to The Problem of Religious Freedom are to the Newman Press edition.)

16. Ibid., p. 96.

17. Abbott, Documents, op. cit., p. 684, n. 14.

18. Cf., for example, Leo XIII, Immortale Dei (1885), nos. 6, 35; Pius IX, Syllabus (1864), no. 77; Pius XI, Quas Primas (1925), no. 32.

19. Murray, The Problem of Religious Freedom, p. 39.

20. Ibid., p. 42.

21. Pius IX, Encyclical Letter on Liberal Errors, Quanta Cura, 8 December 1864, no. 3.

22. Quanta Cura, no. 6.

23. Quanta Cura, no. 6 (emphasis added).

24. Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on the Christian Constitution of States, Immortale Dei, 1 November 1885, no. 35.

25. Immortale Dei, no. 6.

26. Ibid., (emphasis added).

27. Pius XI, Encyclical Letter on the Feast of Christ the King, Quas Primas, 11 December 1925, no. 32.

28. Murray, The Problem of Religious Freedom, p. 89.

29. Ibid., p. 88.

30. Ibid., p. 101.

31. Ibid., p. 90.

32. Ibid., p. 88.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., pp. 88-89.

35. Pius XII, Allocution to the 10th International Congress on Historical Sciences, 7 September 1955: AAS 47 (1955), p. 678.

36. Ibid.

37. Murray, The Problem of Religious Freedom, pp. 87-88.

38. Ibid., p. 100.

39. Ibid., p. 101.

40. Ibid., p. 41.

41. Ibid.

42. Cf. ibid., pp. 103-104.

43. Murray, J. C., "Leo XIII: Separation of Church and State," in Theological Studies, vol. XIV, no. 2 (June 1953), p. 185.

44. Murray, The Problem of Religious Freedom, p. 61. Also cf. Murray, "Current Theology of Religious Freedom," in Theological Studies. vol. X, no. 3 (September 1949), p. 425.

45. Cf. the following passages in Murray's articles: "Leo XIII: Separation ..." op. cit., p. 168; "Current Theology ..." op. cit., pp. 422-423; "Leo XIII on Church and State: The General Structure of the Controversy," in Theological Studies, vol. XIV, no. 1 (March 1953). pp. 12-13; and "Leo XIII: Two Concepts of Government," in Theological Studies, vol. XIV, no. 4 (December 1953), p. 561.

46. Cf. Murray, "Leo XIII on Church ..." op. cit., pp. 20-21; also We Hold These Truths, op. cit., pp. 69-71.

47. Murray, The Problem of Religious Freedom, pp. 61-62.

48. Ibid., pp. 62-63.

49. Ibid., p. 62.

50. Cf. Ibid., p. 63.

51. Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on Catholicism in the United States, Longinqua, 6 January 1895, no. 6 (emphasis added).

52. Vatican Council I, teaching against fideism, solemnly defined that externally accessible evidence, and not merely inward or private experience, rationally establishes the divine origin of Christian revelation. Cf. Denzinger-Schönmetzer 3009, 3033, 3034.

53. Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, no. 6 (emphasis added).

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