It was 52 years ago this week — December 12, 1960 — that Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. (The cover article is here.) He was in the midst of living a story that is both fascinating and dramatic.
Murray had, over the previous decade and a half, found himself advocating a theological approach to religious freedom that was quite different from what he called “the received opinion” within the Church. But what he called the received opinion was seen by many influential Catholic figures as simply the teaching of the Catholic Church and so not to be questioned by one of its own theologians (particularly during the decade of the 1950s).
This had culminated, in 1955, in Murray being silenced, forbidden by his superiors within the Jesuit order, under pressure from Rome, to write or publish on the topic. “You may write poetry,” Murray’s superior had told him when Murray asked about the boundaries of the order. (He was able, however, to publish in 1960 a collection of previously published essays not specifically on the topic of religious freedom. This became the landmark book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, which garnered him the Time coverage.)
But the reigning pope, Pius XII, had died in 1958, and his successor, Pope John XXIII, had already, by the time of the Time cover, announced his intention to convoke the Second Vatican Council. While history records the Council as the moment of Murray’s stunning vindication, neither he nor anyone else within the Church of the time knew it yet in December 1960.
Nor could they have reasonably suspected it. When the Council opened in October 1962, many highly regarded theologians were there as periti (theological experts and advisors) of the bishops who gathered, and many of them would have a powerful influence on the Council’s work. Among the periti was Fr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, who had since 1948 nearly made a career of criticizing Murray’s work on religious freedom. Fenton was called to Vatican II as peritus to one of the most powerful men in Rome, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office (known today as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Murray, on the other hand, was not even invited and stayed home.
How Murray eventually ended up at the Council (a full year later), and how that Council ultimately resulted in the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, is another fascinating part of the story and (it is probably not an exaggeration to say) an epochal moment in Church history.
The upshot is that Murray’s work was not only not (in the judgement of the Council) contrary to Catholic teaching — as Fenton and Ottaviani insisted it was — but accepted as an authentic development of the tradition that was both faithful to what had come before and attentive to modern understandings of personhood, freedom, and rights. That this could or would be the case was, on December 12, 1960, when Murray’s face appeared on the cover of Time, still far from clear to many watching or participating in this controversy.
I’m working on a book on John Courtney Murray these days, to be published, se Dio vuole, in spring 2014. The more I go about my research, digging into archives, perusing personal letters and diaries of Murray, Fenton, and others, and uncovering for myself some of the nearly unknown historical record on all this, the more I find it all to be, quite frankly, a hell of a story. More here, I’m sure, in the months ahead.