American Pluralism and the Catholic Conscience, by Richard J. Regan, S.J New York: MacMillan, 1963. Pp. xii–xv.
John Courtney Murray, S.J.
The ensemble of issues that gather round the American constitutional provisions for the free exercise of religion and for separation of church and state do not constitute the most urgent political and legal issues that confront the American people today. Nonetheless these issues have a peculiar interest and significance.
In the first place, they do not arise by accident of historical circumstance. They are endemic in American society in consequence of its religiously pluralistic character, as related to our traditional aspiration for a maximum of social freedom under a system of limited government. Therefore in regard of these issues, which are destined constantly to emerge, we find ourselves in a course of continual constitutional experiment whose end is not, and likely never will be, in sight.
Moreover, these issues arise in an area in which, naturally enough, we have found it most difficult to create and maintain that social consensus—or public philosophy, if you will—which must somehow furnish the footing for reasonable and commonly acceptable public decisions, whether formally legislative and judicial or informally social. All decisions in this area are reached through widespread public controversy; and each decision is normally the starting point of new controversy.
Furthermore, these issues arise because the sensitive nerve of the religious or moral consciousness has been touched. Ordinarily they do not so much arise as explode. They tend to be felt as issues of truth and error, right and wrong—basic issues in which all men feel emotionally engaged, each in his own sense. Therefore when a conflict of positions occurs, it is accompanied by a collision of passions. And this clash is not seldom intensified by incremental considerations of social power and prestige. In such circumstances it is often not easy even to discern just what the real issue in the particular case is; and it is never easy to resolve the issue, once it is discerned.
Again, as controversy over these issues tests the temper of our citizenry and its capacity for rational argument, so it also puts our democratic polity itself on trial to see whether it can, in accordance with its own nature, do justice, and therefore guarantee freedom, and in further consequence fulfill its highest duty, which is to the public peace.
Here, I think, the major value of the present book begins to appear. With great sureness of insight the author brings into focus, and keeps in focus, the central principle in the whole matter—what he calls the "political nature of the religious settlement embodied in the First Amendment" (page 278). I shall let him state his own understanding of this complex principle and also make his own case for its centrality. It may be sufficient for me to register my own view that, if the understanding were impressed on the public consciousness, and if the case for its centrality were made integral to the public philosophy, the paramount cause of the public peace would be considerably advanced, and its twin supporting pillars—justice and freedom—would be established with new solidity.
A glance at the Table of Contents will reveal that the author has covered the controversial waterfront with all completeness. A study of the book itself will then reveal that the coverage has been critical, based on careful research, done by a mind that understands both the sacred character of basic commitments in matters of religion and morals and also the uses of pragmatism in matter of politics and law.
The purpose of the book is argument. Writing as a Catholic, the author has his presuppositions, as all authors on the subject do. But the argument itself is evenhanded. There are, I suspect, Catholics who will find it so evenhanded that it may seem to them to be improperly weighted. In any case, no ex parte case is here presented. The reader whose acquaintance with the subject is slight will find here the data and the reasoning that will assist him in the formation of a view. The tutored reader, and even the expert reader, whose views are formed, may well discover from these pages (as I did) that his views need revision or refinement here and there. The author's wide field of inquiry has already been covered in a vast literature. This fact makes it the more remarkable that in every corner of the field he has made his own personal contribution. The book will be useful to every citizen who takes seriously his prime duty as a citizen, which is to understand, and therefore to be able intelligently to enter the public argument about, a set of issues that vitally concern the public peace.