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John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation

In John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation, many different viewpoints converge and, with only a few exceptions, further Fr. Murray’s understanding of the essential need for civilized, rational discussion. All but perhaps three of the thirteen essays proceed in the spirit of Murray. The book is divided into three main sections. In the first section, essays by Richard John Neuhaus and William R. Luckey stand out. Neuhaus’ essay, from a purely stylistic point of view, is a joy to read. Writing prior to his “transition” to Catholicism, Neuhaus provides an intriguing comparison of Murray’s concept of Christian dualism (i.e., the recognition of a tension between the immanent and the transcendent, the secular and the sacred, creation and redemption, etc.) with Martin Luther’s equivalent symbol of the “two kingdoms.”

Both men, says Neuhaus, were unyieldingly opposed to any attempt to collapse this dualistic structure of reality, whether in the form of religiously motivated “salvific politics” or in secularist prescriptions for a morally “naked public square.” Luckey’s essay, though less eloquent, brilliantly illustrates the historical development of Catholic doctrine of church-state separation and its historical perversions. Connecting Murray to this perennial argument, by emphasizing his insistence on a social order structured by a “hierarchy of ends,” comprising, but not conflating, both spiritual as well as temporal ends, Luckey shows Murray to be faithful to the Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law perspective.

Two essays in the second part also deserve attention. Robert F. Cuervo lays out Murray’s notion of the American public consensus, or public philosophy. Essentially he states that a society cannot function properly when guided by a mere legal proceduralism. A public philosophy, comprising substantive moral truths, must undergird all policy discussions, for, absent this, governmental policy-making will simply tumble about aimlessly in the changing winds of majoritarian whim. In a similar vein, Kenneth L. Grasso is concerned with the abandonment of true American pluralism, which traditionally manifested itself in pockets of religious difference within a field of moral commonality.

Says Grasso, “our pluralism has been transformed from a religious to a moral pluralism.” This is a dangerous occurrence, for there is “a limit to how pluralistic a society can be while still remaining a society at all.” Republican government, he concludes, depends upon the existence of a healthy civic consciousness that derives from a people united by a common set of moral, though not necessarily religious sectarian, norms.

All should read this book along with Murray’s We Hold These Truths, so that the twin pillars of American order, religious pluralism and moral consensus, need never be threatened.