Libraries & Spaces
Sermon delivered by
The Reverend John Courtney Murray, S.J.
St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
February 15th, 1953.
All our serious thinking today is done against the background of the stern encounter that history is presently witnessing. I use the phrase, "stern encounter," because recently there has been running through my mind the famous prophetic text of Cardinal Newman: "Then will come the stern encounter, when two real and living principles, simple, entire, and consistent, one in the Church, the other out of it, at length rush upon one another, contending not for names and words or half-views, but for elementary notions and distinctive moral characteristics." Newman spoke of the conflict as yet to come. Doubtless its paroxysm is yet to come. But in essence the conflict has been going on for twenty-three centuries, since the time when Socrates engaged the Sophists. Socrates against the Sophists, Origen against Celsus, Athanasius against Arius, Thomas Aquinas against Averroes, the Fathers of the Council of Sens against Marsilius of Padua, or a dozen other historical clashes—always, under whatever differences, it has been fundamentally the same encounter of opposing principles. They rush upon one another today—and with new fierceness.
I am not thinking solely of that ominous "war" upon which we have bestowed the strange epithet, "cold," even though great fires of intellectual passion animate its waging. This is the presently most spectacular, historically so far climactic, manifestation of the ancient conflict between contrasting elementary notions of man and between cultural systems with distinctively opposite moral characteristics. However, I would rather draw attention to another phase of the same encounter.
One could miss its sternness, because the shock of it is hardly audible. When there is conflict between major political philosophies, and between great states which incorporate them, the din is heard in the streets of the world—especially when, as in our case, the antagonists make part of their argument through the mouths of field artillery. However, the encounter of which I would speak makes no such uproar. There is no more noise to be heard than that which attends the inner process of disintegration which may go on within some great tree of the forest, until it is left standing, a hollow shell, the easy victim of some winter gale.
I use this analogy because I have in mind some words of a wise man of our generation, Lord Halifax, spoken about a year ago on the campus of one of our greatest American universities. He said: "If our social order today shows signs of disintegration, this is, I believe, less through the destruction of war than through the slow attrition of its religious and cultural foundations, and through the impact of intellectual forces which have created a vacuum, without themselves having the capacity to fill it." This statement is suggestive.
Surely the encounter between the forces of vitality and the forces of decay within the living organism is pitilessly stern. Equally stern—even sterner than the material test of arms—is the fateful encounter presently joined between the constructive spiritual forces that laid the foundations of our American society and the erosive, corrosive intellectual forces of which Lord Halifax speaks.
What are these forces? I think I shall describe them sufficiently for our purposes here by saying quite simply that they are the forces of human pride—the pride which declares man to be independent of God. In the past many men have indeed made the assertion that they could reach the truth apart from Him who is the Truth, and live without Him who is the Life, and appoint for themselves a path under no guidance from Him who is the Way. But have not the prideful intellectual forces of our latter day risen to a new boldness? Have they not said that the time has come for the spirit of man alone to brood over this disordered world of ours, as in the Christian story the Spirit of God once brooded over the primeval chaos? Have they not further said that the spirit of man, out of its inherent energies and its acquired sciences, can bring order out of chaos, set the curb of reason upon the impulses of violence, bring freedom to the enslaved, and accomplish the work of justice which is peace? Have they not added that, if there is no hope for man in man alone, there is no hope at all; for the myth of Christianity has crumbled under criticism, the fiction of a Church of Christ has dissolved amid a clamor of discordant claims, and God, if He is not dead, has become (in Laplace's famous words) a hypothesis which we no longer need.
I think these prideful assertions and negations have been made—often not clearly or flatly, often indirectly, often only by implication or omission. Furthermore, I am of the opinion that their endless quiet repetition in a thousand quarters has dune a work of slow attrition upon the religious and cultural foundations of our society. A vacuum has been created, where once there was the living substance of an ancestral faith.
To shift the metaphor, I believe that Arnold Toynbee was right when he spoke of "a portentous modern western act of truancy." The truancy began, he says, "when the 'clerks' repudiated their clerical origin—and in the same act cut our western culture off from the possibility of drawing nourishment any longer from the sap of the tree of spiritual trying to shift the rising edifice of our western civilization from a religious to a secular basis."
If this be so, do we not see clearly drawn the lines of a formidable encounter, in which the stakes are high indeed—nothing loss than the fundamental direction and the essential quality of our American society? The first article in our historic religious creed has been that God is the Creator. This article has founded a belief in man as the image of God, and therefore a belief that man mysteriously shares in the creative power of God. But this belief in man's creativeness has been qualified by the further certainty, that no exercise by man of his creative powers can be enduring and beneficent, unless it is put forth under God, and in the direction of His creative purposes.
To us here in America this religious belief has been more then a law for our private lives. By original consent of our people it was erected into a political principle, a guide in the creative political task which we historically undertook. True enough, there has been among us considerable scepticism about the validity of the ancient warning, "Unless the Lord build the city, they labor in vain who build it." Just as there has been among us a too facile belief that the city we have built conforms in all respects to the divine specifications. Nevertheless, there has been an impressive measure of enduring humble consent to the original American proposition that even for our political salvation it is in God that we trust.
This invisible ground of our trust has unshakably supported us in our hours of national crisis. We set our feet firmly upon it today. Our hope today is that America may somehow do creative deeds that will help bring order out of confusion, and somehow do redemptive deeds that will help set man free from manifold tyrannies. But we have publicly acknowledged that no such deeds can be done by men or governments, save in dependence on the creative power of God and in alliance with His redemptive purposes.
This is good. Good too is your presence this morning. By it you testify that the American legal system finds in the sovereignty of God, and in the moral order that reflects His eternal Reason and Will, its basic norm, its fundamental precept, its initial legal hypothesis—to use the language of Kelsen but in a sense beyond that of Kelsen himself. All this is significant for the outcome of today's stern encounter on the battlefield of the spirit. But you will agree that it does not decide the issue.
For the issue is prominently intellectual* The slow attrition of the religious and cultural foundations of our political life and our legal system has been wrought by forces that are intellectual. If they are to be successfully countered, they must be encountered on their own ground. This means a work of intelligence. It means therefore a prior confidence in intelligence as a faculty in man able to go beyond the empirical, able to accomplish a work of philosophical reflection upon experience, able to articulate the length and breadth of human experience into ideas, able then to give these ideas a strength of organic structure that will make them resistant to all corrosive forces, able finally to clothe these ideas in the language of passionate intuition that will burn them into the soul of our own people and the people of the world.
Perhaps 1 should give one example of this work of intelligence. I take it that in our dealings with the peoples and governments of the world we still aim at the goal stated by Woodrow Wilson in his Mount Vernon speech in 1918: "What we seek is the reign of law, based upon the consent of the governed, and sustained by the organised opinion of mankind." This is a lofty purpose, a just and noble ideal. But the question is, what does it mean? Think of the problems that this statement raises. There is the first problem, "What is law?" Quid ius? Over a hundred years ago, when the intellectual confusions of our modern world were beginning to thicken, Emmanuel Kant said that the jurist is likely to stand before this question, "What is law?", in the same embarrassment that the logician feels when he is asked, "What is truth?" Perhaps the question is embarrassing today too. In any event, it is a real question.
There are other questions. How is law possible? Why is legal experience an essential part of human experience? How does it differ from other forms of human experience—from moral experience, for instance? What is the criterion of distinction between the moral and the legal? Is there a point of intersection between the moral order and the legal order and what and where is it? Does law embody moral values, or does its value consist simply in the fact of effective command? What are the respective parts of political history, sociology, and legal philosophy in the evaluation of law and legal experience?
Tough questions—all of them. Then there is the "liberal" question, how is law related to the will of the people, to the consent of the governed? Is law identical with its own effect, simply a juridical formulation of social fact? Is it the result of organized opinion or also its cause? There is the Marxist question, how is law related to the mode of production in material life? More importantly, there is the human question, how is law related to the existential ends of the human person? Perhaps climactically, there is the famous puzzle which astonished Pascal: "It is odd, when one thinks of it, that there are people in the world who, having renounced all the laws of God and nature, have themselves made laws which they rigorously obey."
All these questions, and others too, are raised by the statement that our national purpose is "the reign of law." As far as I know, none of these questions has yet been answered adequately. Moreover, reflection on them is no mere academic exercise, a pleasant task for the hour of leisure. In the circumstances of today's stern encounter, it is a matter of life and death that these questions be answered. I believe that the clarity and steadiness of our national purpose in domestic and foreign affairs today will be measured in no small part by the depth of our philosophic understanding of all that we mean by "the reign of law."
The idea is central in our intellectual patrimony. And as one explores the whole constellation of ideas that cluster round it, one is led back to the very sources of our culture—Greek, Roman, Germanic, and above all Christian. One is "led back," I say. But in that manner of creative return to the past which is the condition of a renascence. Renascence is what we need today, in mind and spirit. And never in history has there been a renascence, apart from an effort of intelligence to make vital contact again with the sources of our human heritage. Out of the luminous, life-giving depths of that heritage we crew the statement of our national purpose—the reign of law, which alone gives substance to liberty, and the continual rebirth of liberty, which alone gives human quality to the reign of law. Therefore in the depths of that heritage, further illumined by our own later experience, we shall find the light of philosophic understanding that will enable us newly, creatively to articulate our purpose today to ourselves and to the world. And out of this philosophic understanding will come energies to sustain our purpose through all the vicissitudes of today's stern encounter with forces which understand neither liberty nor law.
In the threatening circumstances of this encounter we need all the new weapons which modern science can put into our hands. But we more urgently need all the old ideas which ancient wisdom laboriously assembled into a patrimony for our minds. This therefore would be my substantive plea this morning—for a renascence of ancient understanding in the light of the experience of today; for a renovation, unto the purposes of the present, of the intellectual heritage with which the past has endowed us; for a regeneration of those energies of the mind which yesterday won battles for the reign of law in an order of freedom, so that they may scatter the enemies of today.
It is a human thing I plead for—a work of intelligence. But the question is, whether this work can be accomplished by man alone. I believe not. Renovation, regeneration, rebirth—these are Christian words that describe the Christian grace, which comes of faith. It is then appropriate that this plea for a rebirth of intelligence should be followed by the next act in the Sacrifice of the Mass—the act of faith.