“A resounding success”: new review from the Catholic Historical Review

The autumn 2015 issue of The Catholic Historical Review includes a new review of my book, Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II. Here’s the full text of that review, written by Thomas O’Brien, associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University.

This reviewer was both intrigued and skeptical when the author claimed in the introduction that “this is a theological adventure story” (p. xxiv). It is difficult to imagine the quiet, scholarly, and scrupulous John Courtney Murray as the subject of an “adventure” in the more common understanding of the term. Nevertheless, by the end of this concise and readable account of Murray’s life, Hudock’s characterization is convincing. Those who have worked with the Murray corpus for decades are all too familiar with Donald E. Pelotte’s authoritative biography, and many might have questioned the need for another historical survey of Murray’s life and work. However, this book represents a substantially fresh perspective on Murray’s archival record from someone who was not a contemporary. It is a contextual reading of Murray from the vantage point of several generations removed from the events described and from the controversies that arose around Murray’s work in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

For this reason, one could argue that this book has the advantage of understanding Murray and his work from a sufficient historical distance, and for this reason, the controversies and scandals of those eras have much less influence on the way the story is told and the way the theology is interpreted. Although the book does not claim to be breaking new ground in Murray research, it is a treasure trove of information about Murray and his opponents, especially Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, Redemptorist priest Francis Connell, and Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Hudock excels at reconstructing the conversations on both sides of the Catholic religious-liberty issue—before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. It is particularly illuminating when it reviews and analyzes the personal journals and confidential correspondence of those immersed in these conversations.

So, although the author is forthcoming that the purpose of the book is not to introduce new archival information on Murray’s life or offer a novel interpretation of Murray’s work, it nevertheless presents  he reader with a remarkably lucid introduction to the life and work of the most influential American Catholic theologian For this reason, the book might be used with students and other uninitiated readers to give an overview of Murray’s life and career, and introduce the various theological themes and controversies that were the hallmarks of his life’s work.

The weaknesses of the book are minor in comparison to the previously mentioned virtues. One shortcoming is the thin treatment of Americanism regarding how it both deeply influenced Murray and dogged him as a convenient condemnation of his work. The dismissal of Murray by his opponents via the category of Americanism was personally vexing for Murray, and he expended a great deal of time and effort trying to demonstrate that the Church, in many ways, had always tacitly endorsed what he called the American proposition.

Overall, the book is a resounding success at offering the Murray neophyte a current, lucid, and extremely well-written overview of Murray’s life and work. It also offers the seasoned Murray scholar a fresh interpretation of Murray within the context of mid-twentieth century American Catholic theology and its impact on the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council.

 

This is exciting and gratifying. I also happen to agree with the criticism mentioned in the penultimate paragraph. My thanks to Professor O’Brien for his gracious words.

 

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