John Courtney Murray

September 10, 2019 in Inspirational Jesuits

John Courtney Murray, author of arguably the most controversial document to arise from Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, was vital in articulating the Church’s defence of the right of everyone to religious freedom.

Born in New York City in 1904, Murray was educated at a Jesuit high school in Manhattan, and in 1920 he decided to enter their novitiate, at the age of sixteen. At Boston College he studied philosophy and classics, graduating with a master’s degree in 1927. From here he travelled to the Philippines where he taught Latin and English literature at Ateneo de Manila University.

Returning to the United States in 1930, Murray attended Woodstock College in Maryland studying theology and was ordained a priest three years later. After pursuing further study in the Gregorian College in Rome, where he completed a doctorate in sacred theology, Murray came back to Woodstock College in 1937, this time as a faculty member, teaching Trinitarian theology. Four years later he assumed editorship of the Jesuit journal, Theological Studies, and retained both positions, professor and editor, until his death.

Despite the scholarly focus on his studies and his chosen subject matter, Murray found himself drawn into relevant and topical discussions of the time. In 1943 Murray drafted the Declaration on World Peace on behalf of US Catholic bishops which put forward ideas of postwar reconstruction and of moral bases shared by more than one faith; this release was issued by Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leaders simultaneously. He is best known, however, for his work on the relation between church and state, particularly with regard to his own country of the United States.

For countries who did not hold Catholicism as their established religion, Church teaching at the time was for Catholics to instill Catholic values within the legislature of the country. Some considered this notion to be at odds with the liberties put forward in the first amendment and with the pluralistic secular approach of the United States. Through the forties and fifties, Murray published articles challenging this view with regard to America, holding that the constitution was protecting the rights of American Catholics as well as other religions and should be promoted and praised.

For the Vatican Murray’s views were far from doctrinal teaching and in 1955 he was compelled to stop publishing on the subject of church and state. In America his thoughts were regarded far more favourably by many; with the publication of his 1960 book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, he gained widespread acclaim, attracting the attention even of the then Senator John F. Kennedy, whose aides consulted with Murray on how to approach and elaborate his own position as a Catholic running for president to the public.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. Overlooked for the first session, Murray was invited to attend the second session in 1963. It was for this that he drafted what would become the hugely important work, Dignitatis humanae, a statement outlining the Church’s support for the protection of religious freedom. While maintaining that absolute truths could only be found through Catholic teaching, this work states that the right to religious liberty is inherently rooted in one’s human dignity, and is therefore possessed by everyone.

Dignitatis humanae was one of the most significant outcomes of Vatican II and remains a point of contention for some who disagree with the changes made at the council. Following the council Murray continued to participate in debate on relevant social issues. In 1966 he was asked to participate on an advisory commission to President Lyndon Johnson that reviewed Selective Service classifications, where he endorsed the rights of conscientious objectors. Murray suffered a major heart attack and died in 1967, at the age of sixty two.

Also, see Irish Jesuit Gerry Whelan’s interview » on the importance of Courtney Murray in relation to the Catholic Church’s teaching on Church and state.