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“The Catholic Hour”

The American Proposition


Original Editors' NOTE: On the last four Sundays of January "The Catholic Hour" has been presenting a series of television programs of particular interest to readers of The Commonweal: Presented on N.B.C.-T.V. and produced in cooperation with the National Council of Catholic Men under the supervision of Richard Walsh, the series is entitled "Catholic Reflections on America." With Philip Scharper of Sheed & Ward as moderator, the programs include discussion of such subjects as religious pluralism in America, the role of the layman, national purpose, and the ecumenical movement. Featured on the first two programs, on January 8th and 15th, is Father John Courtney Murray, S.. T. Participating in the last two programs, January 22 and 29, are Monsignor Francis J. Lally, editor of the Boston Pilot, William Clancy, editor of Worldview, and James O'Gara, managing editor of The Commonweal. Substantial excerpts from Father Murray's first program:

Mr. Scharper: Father Murray, you are the author of a recent book, We Hold These Truths, Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. . . . Who, precisely, are the "we"?

Father Murray: I think I would say in the first instance that the term "we" has rather a broad and sweeping historical meaning. "We hold these truths"—the first "we" there is we the peoples of the West. In the West a very distinctive type of civilization has been wrought out, not elsewhere found, even though elements of it might elsewhere be found, and the American people, who are the second meaning of “we” in the title, have this larger inheritance. We indeed did give to an older tradition a very distinctive stamp. We made it – we put it in an American form, suited to the conditions of our own particular national life.

Mr. Scharper: But at this precise time in history, the beginning of 1961, “we” hold these truths? When you look at America you find an astonishing variety of philosophies, of religious positions. We usually break down our composition into Protestant, Jew, Catholic—agnostics, secularists, and so forth. And yet “we” hold these truths?

Father Murray: That’s of course part, an essential part, of the whole problem that confronts us in America, that confronts all the world but we face it in our own particular and distinctive way. We are religiously divided. “We” are not one religious community at all. And our divisions as between religions are very real, very deep, and the convictions proper to each of these religious communities of America that you have enumerated are dear to them. Consequently you have, as an essential aspect of our common problem, how to preserve the integrity of the individual conscience and its conviction, and at the same time not completely disrupt the whole political community by allowing divisions in religion to thrust themselves into the common life. It’s extremely difficult and it’s a problem that is never finally solved, I presume. It is one that calls for continual solution, progressive solution, as different aspects of it come to the fore, in history.

Mr. Scharper: Of the two possible extreme solutions, you would obviously reject the one of submerging our religious differences by pretending, for example, that they didn’t exist—as though while we are Protestant, Catholic, Jew, secularist and so forth, this is not terribly important.

Father Murray: Here you really have to arrange your proper loyalties, and anyone who really believes in God must set God and the truth of God above all other considerations. His basic, his highest loyalty always is to his conscience and to the community within which his conscience is formed. And hence there can be no thought of blurring religious differences, or somehow submerging them in some undifferentiated mass opinion where the result would be that it didn’t really matter. It matters terribly. It must matter to any man who has a set of religious convictions, that he be protected in the holding of them and in the exercise of the duties that they impose upon him.

Mr. Scharper: So that quite apart from the differences that mark us . . . there is an immense deposit you would hold in the political and social order of truths which we the American people hold?

Father Murray: Well, I think that's the basic distinction that has to be made between the truths of the theological and religious order (and on this plane we are radically divided) and the political community which, if it is to be a political community at all, must somehow be one. It must have some principle of cohesion. This is the second aspect of what is commonly called the problem of religious pluralism. How do you protect the pluralism of the religious plane at the same time that you maintain an adequate unity, at any rate, on the plane of political life? And vice versa, how do you prevent the unity on the political life from 'thrusting itself into the religious sphere and blurring, or tending to blur religious differences?

Mr. Scharper: Father Murray, with regard to this unity on the level of political life, what would be, on 'the political level, the unity of truth, the common agreement in We Hold These Truths? What are the truths?

Father Murray: This of course is the first question. I think to answer it you have to recall that political life is a life of action. Society and the state ought to be -conceived in terms of action, basically. Now all action must have a purpose of some sort, and hence the basic truths to which I make reference here are not simply mine. I took the book title, after all, from the Declaration of Independence—"we hold these truths to be self evident." The basic truths here are the truths that govern the political purposes as such. And I don't suppose you could find a better, or more classic statement of them than that afforded by the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States where it said, "We the people"—beginning with our "we"—"in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure the domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . . .” In this classic statement you have the essential structure of political ends, the ends that are proper to a civilized society. These are not just words. . . . For instance; the basic political end would, of course, be justice. This is the primary purpose of government and of law, and it is the purpose too of the citizenry, in cooperation with the agencies of government, to insure justice, to insure that what is owed to men be rendered to them.

Now of course the first thing that is owed to a civilized people is freedom. This goes back as far as John of Salisbury. "It is the first duty of the king to fight for justice," he said, "and for the freedom of the people." And the fight for freedom is, really, an aspect of the striving for justice. Then, if justice is rendered the citizenry and by the citizenry to the government in terms of fulfillment of political duties (and if the people are free), then you have an achievement to some relative extent of what is the highest political end, namely peace, which is what we mean by "the domestic tranquility."

Mr. Scharper: Your citing the Preamble of the Constitution brings up what seems a significant point. . . . Here we had a body of men, brought together at a critical moment in their history and the world's history, and yet in a comparatively brief time they managed to come to some kind of very operative agreement. Is there a lesson for us, would you feel, in the intellectual background of these men?

Father Murray: I think there is. This is one of the great phenomena in history, that that group of men, at the end of the 18th century, when it came time to devise a constitutional law for this still not so widely scattered people but still a people that had then the germs of greatness in it—that almost without thinking, they sat down and wrote out this set of political purposes. So familiar were they with the Western political tradition to which I referred a moment ago, that these things came to their minds instantly. They hardly had to think, and they put them down, and put them down in order.

It was the force of a great tradition that launched our republic, and I suppose one of the problems . . . is how does this tradition fare today. . . . Back there you did have this extraordinary agreement on basic truth . . . certainly one great truth that lies behind this statement of political purpose—the truth to which customarily refer by saying in Lincoln's words "that this is a nation under God"—that political life has a premise beyond itself, a premise that is theological, the existence of God, and then joined with that there is the other truth about man, the essential truth about man, namely that man is a sacredness. . . .

Mr. Sharper: Father Murray, you have stated—explicitly once or twice and it seems to me to serve as more or less the intellectual background for almost everything that you have said—the idea that there is in America, which has a Western heritage, a tradition of reason which is, or should be brought to bear on these problems and situations in the political and civic order. But I think the question always comes back when one speaks of the tradition of reason, to the question—whose reason? Is it a sort of self-appointed intellectual elite, or is it to be the reason, so to speak, of the majority? When we speak of the rule of reason in law—whose reason?

Father Murray: Ah yes, yes, that’s the difficult question. I think all that one can say is that what we aspire to is the rule of right reason. And then of course the question always returns—well, yes, but whose reason is right? And this raises another and larger question, namely, whether or not there be such a thing as the tradition of reason. To speak of right reason implies that reason has some sort of historical dimension, that things have been thought about in the past, that answers have been cast up for basic fundamental human problems, and that these answers are right—right in terms of truth—they’ve been tested also by experience. There is therefore a continually growing body of reason, which I call “right”. And this comes along to us as a tradition – never finally finished indeed, always to be refined, always to be added to, as human experience, social experience especially, and political experience develops. . . .

And then, the next point that comes up is—well, where would I find this tradition of reason? . . . Well, I suppose you could go into the Bodleian Library or the British Museum or the Congressional Library or any good university library, and there on the shelves, you could find it. This would be a lengthy task and not, obviously, one that anybody at all could fulfill. I think there is a simpler solution to the question, where is this tradition of reason? The proper depository of the tradition of reason at any given moment is, and can only be, what I shall call the public mind. This is where one ought to be able to find it, if it really is a living tradition, that is setting a hand of guidance upon the national life, and being effective in the solution of problems that the national life encounters.

So you’d find it in the public mind. Well, you can’t, obviously, go and explore the public mind as such. Therefore you have to look into the public argument. In this country there is forever an argument going on, a public argument, about a variety of things. It goes on in several levels. It goes on with regard to what we call affairs of state, that is to say, the right and proper, just and prudent policies to be followed by government both in the field of domestic policy and foreign affairs. Then you have another more broad area of public argument, I’ll call it the area of public affairs. And of course there the biggest public affair always is education, and we set great store on this.

Mr. Sharper: . . . I wonder . . . how the tradition is faring today? Is the argument on the intellectual level and in the popular mind going well or badly?

Father Murray: Well, first of all, I think that when I spoke of the public mind, I perhaps should have distinguished two major levels of the public mind. The one I’ll call the level of popular wisdom. That is a very difficult thing to define indeed but I think it's an intelligible concept almost by itself. Curiously, we appeal in this country frequently (and this is good American doctrine—going back to James Madison, who himself goes back to a good medieval principle) to the idea—"the people shall judge." We presume that there is a sense of justice and a desire for freedom as well as for peace, inherent in the people at large, and that out of this sense of justice, thus participated in commonly by the people, there come basic judgments upon the conduct of public affairs, upon the style of government, upon the particular objectives that government chooses to pursue or not to pursue. This is a wisdom. . . . It has to do frequently with very simple principles of right and wrong. Sometimes it gets down pretty much to the level of the western story—you know, the hero says, "Right is right and wrong is wrong, and there's no doubt."

Mr. Scharper: "Don't ask me to tell you why but I know—"

Father Murray: That's precisely the point. He doesn't quite know. Hence the public mind must have another dimension, another level—the level, namely, of those, who are able, philosophically, to articulate this wisdom, to put it down in propositions, to argue for it, to meet objections against it, to make a body out of the whole thing. And this I presume is, or should be, the proper task of the University.

Mr. Scharper: So that when you speak of the tradition of reason, and the place where we find it, we find it on two levels, each one of which, far from excluding the other, actually presupposes and needs—

Father Murray:—they are intimately allied.

Mr. Scharper: So it is not a question of a fascist intellectual elite, so to speak, nor a question of majority or indeed mob rule.

Father Murray: I would hold very strongly to myself for the principle of aristocracy in a good American sense, a good Thomas Jefferson sense, in a sense older than Thomas Jefferson—that is to say, the leadership of what Washington called the wise and honest man—a man who is both wise and honest, who knows, and who also has virtue which makes him want to have his wisdom operative for the good of the community. In this sense I would accept, maybe not the word elite, but certainly the principle of intellectual and spiritual leadership.