John Courtney Murray entered the Society of Jesus in 1920. He was ordained a priest in 1933 and received his doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1937. Afterwards, he assumed the Jesuit theologate at Woodstock, Maryland, where he was a professor of theology until his death. Additionally, Murray edited the magazine America and the journal Theological Studies.
While Murray's academic specialties were the theology of grace and the Trinity, his major contributions were in public theology, especially concerning church, state, and society. His prevailing theme was the compatibility of American constitutionalism and Roman Catholicism. Indeed, according to Murray, freedom's catalyst in the West was the church's claim of independence from the state. The principle of limited government follows closely upon the recognition of this claim; consequently, large areas of human activity and experience are given the legal and moral space in which to flourish apart from the state. As he states, “The dualism of mankind's two hierarchically ordered forms of social life had been Christianity's cardinal contribution to the Western political tradition.”
The specifically American contribution, then, was to establish this principle by means of a written constitution. In his words, ““The American thesis is that government is not juridically omnicompetent. Its powers are limited, and one of the principles of limitation is the distinction between state and church, in their purposes, methods, and manner of organization.” Further, this thesis “asserts the theory of a free people under limited government, a theory that is recognizably part of the Christian political tradition, and altogether defensible in the manner of its realization under American circumstances.”
Murray's public theology troubled his ecclesiastical superiors, who restricted his freedom to write and lecture throughout the 1950s. His ideas gained a measure of vindication, however, upon his invitation to the Second Vatican Council, where he made crucial contributions to its statement on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.