A hell of a story: John Courtney Murray

It was 52 years ago this week — December 12, 1960that 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.

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2 thoughts on “A hell of a story: John Courtney Murray

  1. Hello from Dublin,
    I liked this post very much.
    I have been interested in Fr. John Courtney Murray for many decades. As a very young man, in Boston, back in 1962 (September ?), I recall him being pointed out to me at some sort of opening of a library at which Cardinal Cushing was officiating. Afterwards, there was a soiree at which I found myself sitting beside Fr. Murray (!). He was interested in my being Irish and young, etc. I distinctly remember his hearty laugh at the following exchange:-
    Cardinal Cushing gave a short talk and mentioned the excitement in Rome at the talks on the imminent Vatican Council [I recall he also mentioned the impressive arrangements in the Vatican for eating/sleeping/washing, etc!]. There were a number of elderly (to me) ladies also present who had, I presume, funded the library. One asked the Cardinal about the Council and expressed some worry at all the talk of drastic changes about to take place. Her companion added that she also felt that the talk of changes in the role of nuns/women in the Church was getting out of hand and raising expectations; “would there be married priests; would there be women priests”, etc, or words to that effect. The Cardinal calmly responded to all this obvious concern in his nasal toned South Boston accent. His reply went something like the following: My Dear Ladies, There will always be a developing Church, so you should not be too concerned about the great changes coming from us Cardinals attending this Second Vatican Council. But be assured, sometime in the future there will be a Third Vatican Council…to which the Cardinals could possibly be bringing their wives. [There were gasps around the room, but before anyone could regain their breath and after a few seconds during which he, in his mischievous way, surveyed the people present for the impact of what he had just said, he immediately added…] And rest assured that, surely, there will also be a Fourth Vatican Council to which the Cardinals will probably bring their husbands…at which Fr. Murray broke out laughing and clapped his hands in appreciation of the Cardinal’s humour – as I youthfully understood the sense of the exchange at the time.
    But, over the years since then, that little event and exchange has echoed in my head many, many times over…
    Kieran McGovern,
    Dublin, Ireland.

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