Q&A: Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication

I had fun a couple of years ago, just before the release of my book Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching, doing my own quirky little interview with myself about the book on this blog. You can read that here. I decided to give it a go one more time, in these days just prior to the release of Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II. Here goes.Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication 4

Why did you write this book?

About six years ago, I read something about John Courtney Murray and decided I wanted to understand him a lot better than I did. That’s when I found that the best, most recent book about him and his work was published in 1976. That’s Donald Pelotte’s Theologian in Conflict. There are certainly some more recent things, but they’re almost all about specific aspects of his thinking, not narratives that “tell his story” in any detail. And it’s a great story.

Then I realized that there were a lot of information and resources available today that weren’t when Pelotte wrote his book. So before you knew it, I was digging in to a long period of research and writing. And I had a heck of a lot of fun doing it.

Do you have a favorite part of Murray’s story?

I have a lot of favorite parts, both about Murray himself and about several of the other people in the story. I could go on at length! But I suppose if I had to pick just one moment, it’s the image of Murray returning his library books.

It was 1955. After a period of time under Vatican scrutiny (“There are people after my head,” he had written to a colleague), he had just been refused permission to publish an article by the censors in Rome. His Jesuit superiors saw the writing on the wall and told him it’s time to take a break from writing about religious freedom, before you get yourself in serious trouble with the Vatican’s Holy Office. And Murray, with humility and obedience, agreed to it. One of the first things he did was return to the library every book he had related to the topic. It was his concrete way of saying, even to himself, I’m done with this.

It’s not often that returning books to the library carries such a flavor of heroism, you know? (And only a decade later, an Ecumenical Council of the universal Church, in a dramatic act of development of doctrine, enshrined in Church teaching basically the same ideas that he had been silenced for writing about.)

What was the most interesting part of writing Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication?

That might have to be exploring the copious personal journals of Joseph Fenton. Father Fenton was Murray’s main theological “nemesis,” if you will. He kept journals for decades. It’s easy to see him as “the bad guy” of the story, when it’s seen from Murray’s point of view and from the point of view of history. But he was a real person, too, a priest and theologian, who was, we must presume, doing the best he could as he understood God and what God teaches the Church. And as the man chosen to be the personal theological expert to the Church’s primary theological watchdog, Cardinal Ottaviani, at a historic moment in the Church’s life, Fenton must have felt like he was doing that pretty well.

But he ended up so disappointed and bitter about the direction the Council took, and what ended up in its documents, that he left Rome early, not bothering to stick around for its historic closing events. I’d love to have been able to talk with him over drinks as he sat at the airport waiting for his flight back to the United States that early winter of 1965, and at many other times as well. Reading his journals is the next best thing.

So how is this story relevant to us today?

Well, in a lot of ways, for sure. I’ll name one. When the 2014 synod on the family happened in Rome, I had just finished writing this book. I was very struck by the nature of the conversation about a few controversial issues — especially about the possibility of allowed some divorced-and-remarried people to receive Communion at Mass. What struck me was that the reasons voiced by those opposed to the idea were so similar in content and tone to the opposition that Murray encountered from Cardinal Ottaviani, Fr. Fenton, and others. Murray’s proposals were (or seemed, anyway) contrary to long doctrinal and theological tradition. They would confuse the faithful and jeopardize their faith.

Now, there may well be ideas and practices about which that would be true. But the Murray story teaches us clearly that just because someone says that’s the case, or just because that might seem to me to be the case, does not mean it’s the case. Something that seems — even to someone with advanced theological degrees, even to the Church’s highest ranking prelates — contrary to Scripture, tradition, and doctrine might not be. It might just be a new way of looking at problem, a new way of answering a question because we realize we’re able to ask the question from a different direction. And it might be a legitimate development of doctrine.

Are you still getting up at 4:30 am to write?

Yep. I said a couple of years ago that I was doing that with the help of Colbie Callait. These days, it’s more often with Rihanna. That set she did at the Concert for Valor is excellent (at least the first two songs; I love her singing in “The Monster,” too, but can’t stomach Eminem), and then there’s “FourFive Seconds,” with Paul McCartney and what’s-his-name. Good stuff.

How do I get a copy?

Thanks for asking! I know the default approach of many folks today, understandably, is Amazon, and you can get it there, of course, and I’ll thank you if you do. But if you care to make sure more of your purchase goes to supporting the little people who are doing important work, and for whom every bit of revenue means a lot, I’d encourage anyone to buy either directly from the publisher — in this case, Liturgical Press, which is also (full disclosure) my employer — or from an independent bookseller. So you might consider getting it here, here, or through your local bookseller.

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