Progress report: John Courtney Murray

It’s been ten days since I posted anything here — the longest pause in quite a while at this blog — because I’ve been spending as much of my free time as possible plugging away on the John Courtney Murray book project. Almost every moment I’ve spent on this project, from the time I began it a couple of years ago right up to today, has been fascinating!

Now, as the end of the project moves into sight, I’m very excited to see what its final form shall be — the entire, remarkable story, told as a coherent narrative. Only in the past week or so have I really felt like I could see that in my mind; now I’m getting it banged out onto the screen (we’d have said “onto paper” not too many years ago). I took a vacation day from work yesterday because I felt like I really needed to spend one big chunk of time focused on the thing (beyond the standard couple of early morning hours before the workday begins, which is my typical research and writing routine).

As I’ve moved through the project, my admiration for Fr. Murray has increased at the same time my skepticism about some aspects of his work also has. Regarding my admiration, there’s no question the guy was brilliant. And faithful. And courageous. These qualities just pour out of the various chapters of his life.

As for my skepticism, I find him to be a little too anxious to canonize an American approach to what it means to live as Christians in society, even if it means twisting some teaching of past popes into a form that those popes would likely have found almost unrecognizable. Far better (it has at times seemed to me) to acknowledge that not every word that comes from a pope’s pen or mouth is valid for the ages, than to try to fit those words onto a theological procrustean bed in the name of doctrinal continuity.

The result of his life’s work was an important, admirable, and necessary development of Catholic doctrine, but it also came at the expense of failing to address American culture and society in a prophetic mode (the route chosen, for example, by his contemporary, Dorothy Day).

In addition to all this, I have also been rather captivated by the “supporting actors” in his story — Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Msgr. Joseph Fenton, Fr. Yves Congar, and others. How interesting to watch “from afar” his interactions with them, their reactions to him and his to them, how the interplay between these personalities became catalysts of church history and even of doctrine. I’m sure professional historians frequently experience in their own work what I have with all of these folks, including Murray — pangs of regret at the barriers that time and space place between me and them, knowing that no matter how many of their letters or journals or books I read, or how many pictures of them I peer at, I’ll never fully know them and understand them as the real people they were. All I can do is sift through the detritus they left behind them and try to shape it into something that hopefully resembles who they were.

Anyway, it’s getting there.

By the way, I’ve noticed that we’re coming up on the fiftieth or sixtieth anniversaries of some big moments in Murray’s life: the day in March 1954 when he sealed his fate with the Holy Office as it considered formally silencing him; the dramatic day of Vatican II deliberations in November 1964 that he called a “day of wrath”; the day in December 1965 when decades of his own work and struggle culminated in a formal doctrinal declaration by the pope and bishops of the globe that he had been right, and that those who criticized and — is it too strong a word? — persecuted him in the name of truth and fidelity were wrong.

I’m sure I’ll post on these moments when the anniversary days come. But in the meantime, if anyone is interested in scheduling a good presentation at a parish or institution to discuss these and other events in Murray’s life, let me know. It would be fun to talk about them with a group.

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