Was John Courtney Murray right? A Postscript

After initially intending to complete this series in three parts (Part I, Part II, Part III), it appears that it may be useful to tie up any remaining loose ends with an overview of the propositions put forth in the Declaration on Religious Liberty of Vatican II, followed by Fr. Murray’s own reflections dated the year after its promulgation. (Note: A bibliography follows.)

First, a recap of the salient issues beginning with a brief outline of the Church’s traditional teaching which states the following:

  • Man enjoys religious liberty on the individual level, not properly considered a “right to err” (as all rights come from the God who is truth); but rather as freedom from coercion.
  • Though he may not be coerced, man has the duty to seek the “true religion” and to adhere to it once found; it is “namely, the Catholic faith, the one established by Jesus Christ Himself, and which He committed to His Church to protect and to propagate” (cf Immortale Dei – 7).
  • Freedom from coercion is not a license to practice and propagate religious falsehood in the public arena (which can do harm to society); rather, such things can either be tolerated or suppressed by the legitimate public authority as necessary in service to the common good.
  • The Catholic Church, by the merits of Her Founder, “is a society eminently independent, and above all others, because of the excellence of the heavenly and immortal blessings towards which it tends” (Pope Leo XIII – Officio Sanctissimo).
  • Christ is King, therefore, “everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely, God, the sovereign Ruler of all. ‘There is no power but from God’” (Immortale Dei – 3).

Vatican II largely adopted Murray’s ideas on church-state relations in the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, departing from the traditional teaching via the following propositions:

  • No one is to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs (even those that are false and opposed to Christ), neither privately nor publicly, within due limits as the “public order” may demand (cf DH 2).  
  • This freedom to publicly disseminate and practice even the false religions is founded on the dignity of the human person, in his very nature; i.e., the suggestion being that this so-called “right” to lead others away from God comes from God Himself (ibid.).
  • The Church, therefore, calls upon States to recognize this broad-based religious liberty as a “civil right” (ibid). In short, the freedom once insisted upon by the Church as uniquely Her own is now demanded of States as “the Constitutional right of all men and communities,” even those that oppose the reign of Christ the King (cf DH 13).
  • The State transgresses the limits of its power if it attempts to inhibit “religious” acts (DH 3).

In the year after the Second Vatican Council closed (1966) Fr. Murray wrote, “Dignitatis Humanae is a document of very modest scope. [It attempted] to show that a harmony exists between religious freedom in the juridico-social sense, and Christian freedom in the various senses of this latter concept as they emerge from Scripture and from the doctrine of the Church. The Declaration merely suggests that the two kinds of freedom are related; it does not undertake to specify more closely what their precise relationship is.”

To his credit, Murray doesn’t attempt to exaggerate the Declaration’s heft; rather he tells us that it only goes so far as to “suggest” that a harmonious relationship exists between the Council’s novel treatment of religious freedom on the one hand, and the well-established papal magisterium of the previous centuries on the other. More noteworthy still is his candid admission that the Council didn’t even venture to substantiate this “suggestion” by addressing “what their precise relationship is.”

“The Declaration,” Murray continues, “does not undertake to present a full and complete theology of freedom.”

Based on these reflections alone it would appear that Murray – the chief architect of Dignitatis Humanae – imputes far less doctrinal weight to the document than many of his contemporaries seem eager to do. 

Furthermore, Murray’s statements are a stunning indication that the document’s authors – living and working in those heady conciliar days during which all things seemed possible and all things “new” were just assumed to be “improved” – proceeded undaunted in spite of an awareness that the theological principals upon which their assertions are presumably founded were not as yet fully developed.  

So why did the Council neglect the due diligence of first constructing a solid theological foundation?

“This would have been a far more ambitious task,” Murray tells us, even going so far as to admit that establishing harmony between the Council’s conclusions and the traditional teaching “would have been a far more satisfactory method of procedure, from the theological point of view.”

According to Murray, the Council deliberately chose not to do so for the five reasons quoted below, followed by a reflection on each by the present writer.   

“1. The Declaration is the only conciliar document that is formally addressed to the world at large on a topic of intense secular as well as religious interest. Therefore, it would have been inept for the Declaration to begin with doctrines that can be known only by revelation and accepted only by faith.”

This is yet another stunning admission! It suggests that the Council went about drafting Dignitatis Humanae under the self-imposed restriction that it dare not present an argument of such great “secular” concern within the framework of the Catholic faith and Divine Revelation.

Is it not, however, the Church’s very mission to do precisely this on all matters? Furthermore, is it not the voice of Christ that should resonate in the decrees of every ecumenical council in such way as to call out to those wandering in the desert of falsehood, that they may come to be nourished by truth at the bosom of the Church? As such, is not every conciliar decree in some sense addressed to the world at large, even if not explicitly so?

“2. What the world at large, as well as the faithful within the Church, wants to know today is the stand of the Church on religious freedom as a human and civil right. It would be idle to deny that the doctrine of the Church, as formulated in the 19th century, is somewhat ambiguous in itself, out of touch with contemporary reality and a cause of confusion among the faithful and of suspicion throughout large sectors of public opinion.”

Setting aside the richness (and none-too-subtle arrogance) of the accusation that the traditional teaching is “ambiguous” and causes “confusion,” one cannot help but wonder to what extent, if any, Murray and company attempted to reconcile the traditional doctrine with “contemporary reality” before simply setting about replacing it with something new. His reflections on the process of debate leading up to the Declaration (which will be quoted shortly) indicate that it was perhaps very little.

“3. The theological structure of the argument, as proposed above, would give rise to historical and theological problems which are still matters of dispute among theologians. There is, for instance, the problem of the exact relationship between Christian freedom and religious freedom. There is, furthermore, the whole problem of the development of doctrine, from Mirari Vos to Dignitatis Humanae personae.”

Once again, Murray plainly admits that the theology that presumably anchored Dignitatis Humanae to the sacred deposit of faith was “a matter of dispute” as the Council met (and so it remains today).

Based upon this, it would seem that the propositions put forth in the Declaration amount to little more than what we might call “credit card theology” as its authors chose to immediately lay hold of the doctrinal innovations they desired, but with no firm intention of paying the theological debt until later.

Evidently, they just assumed that someone would eventually come along with the capital necessary to settle the debt, but here we are more than 45 years hence and still it remains unpaid. And at what cost! 

“4. Christian freedom, as the gift of the Holy Spirit, is not exclusively the property of the members of the visible Church, any more than the action of the Spirit is confined within the boundaries of the visible Church. This topic is of great ecumenical importance, but the discussion of it would have to be nice in every respect, and therefore impossible in a brief document.”

Note well the degree to which a fear of offending non-Catholics held sway in the process of debating Dignitatis Humanae. This sense of apprehension (apparently driven by a distorted notion of ecumenism) seems to be what led Murray and his supporters to shy away from explicitly acknowledging the exclusive rights of Christ the King and the hard truth (or “good news” depending on one’s outlook) that the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts are present in the Catholic Church alone.  

“5. Christian freedom is indeed asserted over against all earthly powers… It is, however, also asserted within the Church… and it is also the basis of prudent protest when the exercise of [ecclesial] authority goes beyond legitimate bounds… Hence the Declaration is at pains to distinguish sharply the issue of religious freedom in the juridico- social order from the larger issue of Christian freedom. The disastrous thing would be to confuse the two distinct issues. Obviously, the issue of Christian freedom [within the Church itself]—its basis, its meaning, its exercise and its limits—will have to be clarified by free discussion, conducted carefully and patiently in a sustained dialogue between pastors and people over many years. However, this dialogue will be the more successful now that the Declaration has settled the lesser issue of the free exercise of religion in civil society.”

Several things stand out here. First, one notices a contradiction as Murray plainly admits in one breath that the theology that presumably forms the foundation for Dignitatis Humanae remains undeveloped, yet in the other breath he declares the matter of religious liberty as articulated therein “settled.” 

Secondly, Murray states (as if giving a nod to Tradition), “Christian freedom is indeed asserted over against all earthly powers,” but it’s important to recognize that this statement is only true provided that by “Christian” he is referring specifically to the Catholic Church and not to every heretical community that calls itself “Christian.”

Lastly, Murray insinuates that it was necessary for the Council to address the matter of religious liberty in society at large while walking on eggshells, as it were, in order to avoid the risk of inviting discord within the more perfect society that is the Church. This should have served as a red flag to the authors.

Is it not true that every authentic service to society (and likewise to human dignity) is by its very nature that which moves all concerned toward a greater degree of unity with the Lord? As such, how could such a service possibly pose a threat to the peace of the Church ad intra?

In any event, Murray gives us a very interesting glimpse into the debate that preceded Declaration’s final form saying, “The [traditional] concept of the common good, and—what is much the same—the concept of the purpose of society, had been advanced in the first two conciliar schemata.” (The “schemata” to which Murray refers are the preliminary outlines that dictated the overall scope and direction of the conciliar debate; ultimately forming the content of the document itself.)

“Neither of them was acceptable,” Murray reflected, “given the notion of society and government adopted in the Declaration from the doctrine of Pius XII. In this doctrine the common good itself and the purpose of society require the fullest possible free exercise of all human and civil rights, and government has the primary duty, not of limiting, but rather of promoting the freedom of the human person as far as possible.”

God bless Fr. Murray for his candor! Remarkably, he is telling us that the conciliar process was essentially inverted as the schemata were altered, twice no less, to downplay the Tradition in order to “grease the skids” for the outcome desired!  

In referencing Pope Pius XII, Murray is referring to DH 13 which footnotes an address that the Holy Father gave to Italian jurists (entitled, Ci Riesce) wherein he said of the traditional doctrine, “There never has been, and there is not now, in the Church any vacillation or any compromise, either in theory or in practice… No other norms are valid for the Church except the norms which We have just indicated for the Catholic jurist and statesman.”

It truly is nothing short of breathtaking to discover how soundly the very document to which the authors of Dignitatis Humanae claim recourse refutes their propositions! A full reading of Ci Riesce, which I encourage you to undertake, makes it crystal clear that Pope Pius XII was determined to remove all doubt as to his intention to reaffirm the enduring nature of his predecessors’ teachings; the same that rendered the first two schemata “unacceptable” in the eyes of Murray and his conciliar supporters.   

In conclusion, perhaps the most useful reflection Murray left us is this:

“It is not necessary to believe that the conciliar argument is the best one that can be made. It did not pretend, in fact, to be apodictic [i.e., a matter of absolute truth necessary to hold]. The Conciliar intention was simply to indicate certain lines that an argument might validly follow. Moreover, the doctrinal authority of the Declaration falls upon its affirmation of the human right to religious freedom, not on the arguments advanced in support of this affirmation.”

Note well that Murray contends that the “doctrinal authority” of Dignitatis Humanae rests not upon the deposit of faith that Pope John XIII had enjoined the Council Fathers to protect as their “greatest concern,” but rather upon the document’s own “affirmation of the human right to religious freedom.”

In other words, the validity of the Declaration’s novelties rests squarely upon the document itself! This is not just poor theology; it’s simple tautology.

Many arguments indeed “might validly follow” including, of course, an argument for the enduring validity of the traditional teaching – yes, even today. On that note, if we accept Murray’s premise that the merits of the Church’s approach to religious liberty must ever be reevaluated in the light of present day circumstances, I think few among us would argue that society, and likewise the Church, has been well served by the conciliar approach.  

Bishop William E. Lori, Chairman of the newly established U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, perhaps summed up the current state of affairs best when he recently said, “When we speak about religious freedom as the first of the freedoms, it’s not to aggrandize the Church, but to uphold the first line of defense for the dignity of the human person.”

One may rightly wonder if it is truly possible (for any of the baptized, but especially for a Successor to the Apostles) to defend the dignity of the human person without “aggrandizing” the universal sacrament of salvation that the Lord has given to us; namely, the Catholic Church. Is this not the Great Commission we are charged with carrying out in every age?

Let’s be honest – we, clergy and laity alike, have largely shrunken away from the duty of calling the world’s attention to the unique grandeur of the Catholic Church for more than four decades now, and this is precisely the glaring shortcoming with religious liberty as it has been invoked post Vatican II; it only seeks to assure that in matters of governance the doctrines and rights of Christ the King and of His Holy Catholic Church are granted the same consideration as the idols and errors of the heathens and the heretics.  

And yet, when godless rulers find it all too easy to dismiss our calls for “conscience clauses” as though the voice of the Church is just one more opinion among many (as happened this week in the United States) can we really be surprised?

After all, isn’t that pretty much all we’ve mustered up the gumption to say for ourselves lo these past forty years?


Pope Leo XIII – Immortale Dei – On the Christian Constitution of States

Pope Leo XIII – Officio Sanctissimo – On the Church in Bavaria

Pope Pius XII – Ci Riesce – Address to Convention of Italian Catholic Jurists

Dignitatis Humanae – Declaration on Religious Freedom – Second Vatican Council

John Courtney Murray’s reflections written in 1966 (available here and here)

(Note: A more comprehensive bibliography can be found at the conclusion to Part III)

Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio has been a columnist for Catholic News Agency since April 2009. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com.