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Catholics in America – A Creative Minority?

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Reprinted from the EPISTLE


I am glad that the subject has been placed in the form of a question. It is a good question, but what of the answer? Certainly my own answer will not be magisterial; it may be only provocative. Should we say, in answer, yes, no, or maybe? The actual answer will be given by history, and it is most important to acknowledge the supreme factor of the indwelling Spirit of God. God does not furnish blueprints for the future, but they can perhaps be discovered by a diagnosis of present problems, a prognosis of the future.

Toynbee speaks of the creativity resident in minorities. America is made up of minorities. This is a fact of politics, even religiously. Protestantism in this country is a statistical majority; but sociologically there are three minority religious groups. If cult and culture, religion and civilization are closely related, the question of their cultural creativity is put to all three minority groups.

The first creative thing the Catholic minority did was to establish tself in America. This great historical feat, this creative feat, unique in history, has filled 150 years. In the course of it, bishops, priests and people met all the five challenges which Toynbee lists as stimuli to creativity—a hard country, new ground, pressures, penalization, etc. The Church in Europe was immersed in the drama of the conflict between Revolution and Tradition: The Church in America has written a continuous epic, in which there have not been many great heroes but a multitude of courageous men and women.


We are established. We are in a position not to be undermined except by ourselves. The Church in the United States possesses a stable situation in fact and right, and full independence in the exercise of the sacred ministry, a condition which Pope Pius XII noted as the purpose of concordats. We have also social

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stability, a quality of belongingness in American society. Accordingly, no kind of Nativism can really be successful in the United States today. Catholics cannot be challenged as alien to America—alien as "foreign," alien as undemocratic. We cannot deny that anti-Catholicism is the oldest American prejudice. It is held in suspense in our climate, precipitated now and again when special issues arise. But the challenge is not in that sector. The question is not: "Do you belong in America?" We do belong; we do not have any longer to "prove" our Americanism. Rather, the question is: "What are you going to contribute to America?"


Nativism is not a serious threat. Some have taken Blanshard too seriously. We should be tranquilly firm on points of doctrine or of honor, prepared for courteous argument, but not nervously maintaining vigil, rushing to the ramparts at every hostile movement outside the walls.

We are too well established to take seriously such "threats." We are established as an economic middle class. Is there strength in this fact or is there danger? Peculiar to the middle class is the fact that it can betray the Church from within. From its ranks come comfortable people who may consider their Catholicism as conventional.

While we have met the first challenge set before us by history, we must be on guard lest our very success incapacitate us in meeting a new challenge. There must be no complacency in the great edifice of brick and mortar we have built. It testifies to the visible existence of the Church. But the Church exists visibly in order to serve one purpose, the redemptive purpose of Christ in regard to our nation. If the creativity of the future is to match that of the past, then we must be attentive to the quality of our Catholic life, not merely "Sunday Catholics." We must be part of a missionary Church, participants in the spirit of the apostolate, out of a deeper share in the inner life of the Church.

There are two other examples of Catholic creativeness in these United States. One is our system of education. It is the greatest religious achievement in America, a testimonial to Christian faith and sacrifice, needing no further encomium. If this were considered only as a visible ecclesiastical achievement, as such it would be ambiguous, but it is a result of inner triumphs of humility and love. But while we have been necessarily absorbed in the creation of our own educational establishment, we have put aside the problem of public education, the public school, the secular college and university. Ours has been an attitude of negation: "They are God-

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less! Stay out! Ignore or combat!"

Now this problem is inescapable. Others are concerned. The public school is in a new phase. Once the problem was "the school and personal success"; then it was "the school and society." Today it is "the public school and spiritual and moral values." A paramount task is a creative solution for the problem of religion in public education. It is our problem, for it concerns our children and our nation. There is the difficulty of adaptation to the exigencies of a pluralist community. Our problem comes from having another point of view, that of our own schools, but the two problems are related, the problem of the positive relation of religion to public education, the problem of the positive relation of the religious school to public aid.

Historically, the religious school got outside "the wall," shutting itself off from state support, largely because religion itself got outside the wall surrounding the public school and confining it to secular interests. The two problems arose together. They will be solved together or not at all. The measure of our contribution to the solution of our common problem of religion in public education will be the measure of the cooperation of others in the solution of our own problem of public aid and support. The iniquitous wall must be torn down from both sides, by common consent.

Here is a great creative task—a reduction of the outstanding ambiguity of the American constitutional system. Our institutions presuppose the existence of God; yet one crucial institution, the public school, is carried on as if God did not exist. As for the solution, there must be no sterile denunciation but positive creativity. The problem is not insoluble, but no solution can be ideal.


The second example of Catholic creativeness lies in the Christian family. We have maintained the idea and the ideal. Surely there are stresses and strains within the Christian family. There are perhaps no perfect homes or marriages; there is only some degree of goodness, bought at a price, the price of real heroism. Still we have maintained the "idea" of Christian marriage, the idea of fidelity in love and duty. God forbids that man should sunder what He has joined. Not as the God of prohibitions but of love, He works to the perfect joining. Catholic have understood all this. They have kept the idea, they have kepi the faith. The Catholic family is a shining light in a world that is infidel.

We have kept the tradition of faith and fidelity. But what of our

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tradition of "intellectuality"? Here, I suggest, lies the problem of the future. Our further creative tasks are of the intellectual order.


The major creative task set before us is really recreative. It is the problem of the public philosophy. To define it, take a look at history. Paradoxically, we were highly creative when we were not even physically present, in that period, up to 1800, when the American constitutional and political tradition was being formed, when the structure of our institutions was being fashioned. Providentially, the American constitutional commonwealth was formed with a great tradition of civility, Greek, Roman, Germanic and Christian. It was providentially formed before this tradition underwent radical secularization. While the tradition did reach our shores somewhat secularized, it was not demoralized. The 18th-century political and legal climate of the Revolutionary, the Constitutional and the Federalist periods was still substantially the climate within which the English common law was formed. It wasstill a Christian climate. Even when the impact of the Enlightenment was felt in America, Protestantism, by its tenets of faith in God and the Lord Jesus, blunted the impact.

Hence, there was a public philosophy—a whole set of concepts, principles, precepts and a general style of thinking. This public philosophy was derived from the tradition of natural law. From it came the ideas of justice and freedom, of human law as the application of divine law, of the state as a part of the moral universe, limited by rights inherent in the human person, of the state as part of the Christian economy subject to the law of Christ The American Revolution was not like the French: it was not an overthrow of tradition. It was a restatement, essentially in continuity with the "tradition of civility."

It was substantially our tradition, that had found its home within the Church. Its Greek, Roman and Germanic elements had been refined in the light of the Catholic Faith. It had been applied within the Catholic community, Christendom. It had been transmitted by the Church, which joined together the natural law and the law of the Gospel and made both of them part of the human heritage. It is true to say that historic Catholicism was creative in the origins of America. Even in our own absence we helped to form the public philosophy.

But if we turn to today, we find that the public philosophy has been eroded, eclipsed, discarded. The very idea of apublic philosophy is alien. It is regarded with incomprehension, even with fear. Yettwo facts hold true. The first is that the

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great experiment of the American constitutional commonwealth is not intelligible and cannot be made to work except by men who possess the public philosophy within whose context it was conceived. The second fact is that we are those men; for it is our philosophy, our tradition.

Therefore, with inescapable logic, there falls upon us a major responsibility to assist in the revival, the restatement, the revitalization of the public philosophy of the United States. Upon our success in this task depends, in large part, the future of our Republic and our future within the Republic. This is perhaps our greatest creative task.

Walter Lippmann has recently drawn attention to the matter of the public philosophy. There may be some disagreement with the details of his arguments, but the substance of his book, Essays in the Public Philosophy, is solid. To quote page 63 of that work:

If we go back to the beginnings of modern democratic movements in the 18th century, we can distinguish two diverging lines of development. The one is a way of progress in liberal constitutional democracy. The other is a morbid course of development into totalitarian conditions.

So, too, Lord Percy; so, too, the best scholarship of today; so, too, Pope Pius XII. The good development has come out of the English tradition as restated in the American Constitution. The bad development has come out of the French Revolution, as based on the theories of Rousseau and as culminating in Marx, Lenin, Stalin. We started on a good line, inspired by the public philosophy. We seem to have shifted to the bad line, in consequence of the decay of the public philosophy.

Again Lippmann brings this out: 

In our time the institutions built upon the foundations of the public philosophy still stand. But they are used by a public who are not being taught, and no longer adhere to, the philosophy. Increasingly, the people are alienated from the inner principles of their institutions. The question is whether and how this alienation can be overcome, and the rupture of the tradition of civility repaired (p. 115).

In other words "the poignant question is whether and if so how modern men could make vital contact with the lost traditions of civility."

In principle we may answer that this vital contact can be made, through us, through the Catholic Church, a community within which this tradition of civility is still alive. But the crucial question is: "How?" For we may well ask whether the natural law is being communicated by our Catholic colleges or whether it is merely being kept in custody. Custody is not enough. Our great problem is the communication of the public philosophy to the "public,"

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which has "lost the capacity to believe in the public philosophy."

Walter Lippmann is on the track of the solution: 

In order to repair the capacity to believe in the public philosophy, it will be necessary to demonstrate the practical relevance and the productivity of the public philosophy. It is almost impossible to deny its high and broad generalities. The difficulty is to see how they are to be applied in the practical affairs of a modern state (p. 115).

Here is a suggestion for Catholic creativity in the matter of the public philosophy. We do instill the idea of the good Catholic, the good father and mother, the honest business man, the high-principled professional man. But we do not urge the ideal of the good public servant, of the man who possesses the public philosophy and makes it operative in office. We need more Catholics in public service, competent, principled men in government, in the foreign service, in the activities of the local community. We need them because we need more and more agents of the revival of the public philosophy. Here is a task for your children and after them for your children's children.

Let me make one more suggestion. According to Francis Wilson, "in the history of Western government, the transitions of society can be marked by the changing character of the intellectuals." These form a broad class—the university men, the journalists and all who influence public opinion, lawyers, doctors, professional men. They are the men with a feeling for ideas, the men through whom ideas influence the public.


Thus, the problem of the public philosophy leads to the problem of the intellectuals. What is this problem? Is it only the question of the infiltration of Communism into the universities? Can even this problem be solved by Senate investigating committees? Is it only this problem of "throwing the Communists out of government"? Can such a purely negative line be taken by Catholics? Do we prove our Americanism and our Catholicism simply by being vociferously anti-Communist and, by consequence, anti-intellectualist? In an anxiety to "prove" our Americanism and our Catholicism, have we simplified the problem of the United States down to the problem of internal subversion by Communists, especially in our universities? Should we be agreed that the only big thing is the negative thing—to oppose Communism and to oppose it negatively by the use of the coercive instruments of governmental power?

Surely there is a more positive task. Mr. Lippmann has remarked on "the alienation from inner principles

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of our American institutions." He imputes this alienation to the people. Our Catholic people ought to accept this imputation, at least in the form of a question: "Do you understand the inner principles of our American institutions, the public philosophy?"

Yet, the major alienation is not among the people. Surely the phrase "this nation under God" and the notion of the state as part of the moral order still make sense to the people at large. Mr. Wilson finds that the "alienation" is among intellectuals. It is part of their alienation from the people. The secularization of intelligence goes back to the 14th century, to the rejection of the transcendent order and of the religious beliefs of the ordinary man. The area of intelligence was confined to this world alone; intelligence should have nothing to say about the "beyond." Here began the alienation of many intellectuals from the inner principles of Western institutions and their alienation from the people. The process was speeded up by science. If it took so long to create the schism between the people and the intellectuals, it will take a long time to heal the breach. The healing cannot be done in a hurry.

This is our work in healing, the reconciliation of the intellectuals with the people and with the inner principles of human, therefore political, life. Thus I define the function of our creativity as related to the revival of the public philosophy. We find the key to the solution in the statement of Wilson: "The path of reconciliation between the learned and the vulgar is the common acceptance of a transcendental order." By this he means the common acceptanceof a public philosophy, the first premise of which is the existence of God and of a universal moral law.

There has always been a sort of gap between the learned and the vulgar. There has always been a tension. In the great part, the eras of intellectualism, such as the 4th, 5th and 13th centuries, have seen that gap bridged by a common Christian faith. The tension has been made healthy by a common sharing in the life of a spiritual community.


But this bridge has now eroded. It is for us to build it up again. The tension has exploded into separatism. It is for us to reconcile. Is this not a big enough task, sufficient to employ us for generations? It is a new task as well as a big one. We must hold up the ideal of the Christian intellectual, who has reconciled with himself the hard disciplines of scholarship and the high exigencies of Christian faith. We must find men who will live in the tension between the actualities of secularized intellectual life and the

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ideals of Christianized intelligence.

Is this a hard life? Try it. Perhaps you cannot. At any rate, it remains the task of your children and of your children's children. We must encourage bright and intelligent sons and daughters to follow this intellectual life. It is a valid human career, a necessary Christian apostolate. While not rich in material rewards, it is most satisfying.

Up to now we have given the definition of two broad interrelated creative tasks—the revitalization of the American public philosophy and the reconciliation of the intellectuals with the people and with the inner principles of the public philosophy, the ultimate ground of human doing. They both represent creativity at its highest, because both tasks touch the inmost, the most hidden, the most delicate depths of the human spirit, where, in the last analysis, only God himself is creative.

So I who urge upon you these creative tasks conclude my urgings with a prayer: "Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be creative. And thus Thou shalt renew the face of the earth."