Murray Biography

Murray Biography from American National Biography. By Leon Hooper, S.J. Edited by John A Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999


MURRAY, John Courtney (12 Sept. 1904-16 Aug., 1967), Jesuit theologian, was born in New York City, the son of Michael John Murray, a lawyer, and Margaret Courtney. Murray entered the New York province of the Society of Jesus in 1920. After completing courses in classical and philosophical studies (B.A., 1926, and M.A., 1927, at Boston College) he taught Latin and English literature at the Ateneo de Manila, Philippines. He returned to the United States for theological studies at Woodstock College, Maryland (1930-1934, S.T.L.), was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1933, then pursued further studies at the Gregorian University (Rome). In 1937 he completed a doctorate in sacred theology (S.T.D.) with a specialization in the doctrines of grace and the Trinity. Returning to Woodstock, he taught Catholic trinitarian theology and, in 1941, assumed editorship of the Jesuit journal, Theological Studies. He held both positions until his death in Queens, New York.

            Despite the heavily theoretical bent of his training and teaching, Murray was drawn into the intricate religious tensions of American public life. As a representative of the U.S. Catholic bishops, he helped draft and promote the 1943 “Declaration on World Peace,” an interfaith statement of principles for postwar reconstruction, which led to his study of lay religious education and social action. In 1950, as a consultant to the religious affairs section of the Allied High Commission, Murray successfully recommended a close constitutional arrangement between the restored German state and churches, including the dispersal of state-collected taxes to German churches. After a lectureship in medieval philosophy and culture at Yale University (1951-1952), he collaborated with Robert M. MacIver of Columbia University in a project on academic freedom and religious education in public universities, during which he deepened his own understanding of American Constitutional law, arguing for tax aid to private schools and for ultimately sympathetic exposure to the faiths of the American people within public schools. Throughout his public life, several bishops consulted Murray on legal issues such as censorship and birth control, leading him to recommend against coercive Catholic boycotts of pornographic literature and against Catholic opposition to the repeal of a Massachusetts law that had outlawed the sale or use of artificial contraceptives. In each case, Murray argued that participation in substantive public arguments offered a better school of public virtue than did simple appeals to civic coercion. In the submitting of moral opinions to public argument, he maintained, Americans might both deepen their moral commitments and preserve the "genius" of American freedoms. From 1958 through 1962 he participated in projects for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, during which he applied just war criteria to Soviet-U.S. relations, arguing for a policy of nuclear deterrence and even for the moral possibility of limited nuclear war—arguing in this case that only a state of war is possible, given the total lack of shared values between the East and the West. After the election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as president, Murray was celebrated on the 12 December 1960 cover story of Time magazine for his contributions to American domestic and foreign policy debates and for his sympathetic if critical understanding of religion in American public life. In 1966 he served on a presidential commission, prompted by the Vietnam war, that reviewed Selective Service classifications, agreeing with a minority that supported the allowance of a classification for those opposed on moral grounds to some, though not all, wars—a recommendation not accepted by the Selective Service Administration.

            Two sets of Catholic doctrines complicated Murray’s public involvement. First, Catholics claimed that there was no salvation outside the church and that Catholic teaching was socially necessary. In 1940 Murray himself had argued that America could "rescue from its deep abasement the essential idea upon which a democratic culture must be erected—the idea of the dignity of human nature and of man's spiritual freedom”—only by adopting the doctrines of the incarnation, the Trinity, and the cross. By 1944, however, he allowed that agreement on philosophical premises and natural theism (prescinding from revealed religious truths) would be sufficient for cooperation in the immense task of postwar reconstruction. His endorsement of full cooperation with other theists led to Catholic complaints that he was endangering American Catholic faith. At the time, many Catholics recommended minimal cooperation with non-Catholics for fear that lay Catholic faith would be weakened.

            Second, Catholic doctrine on church/state relations also encouraged public distrust of a growing American Catholic minority. During centuries of European religious conflict, the church urged Catholics, if they could, to establish Catholicism as their sole, state-sponsored religion (establishment) and to suppress public expressions of non-Catholic and atheistic beliefs (political intolerance). Played out against America’s prejudice toward Catholic immigrants, Catholic magisterial commitments to establishment did little to secure public trust, reaching a vitriolic climax during the 1928 presidential candidacy of Catholic Alfred E. Smith. At the insistence of several American bishops, Murray took up the issue of religious freedom as defined and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

            Murray eventually argued that Catholic teaching on church/state relations was inadequate to the moral functioning of contemporary peoples. The Anglo-American West, he claimed, had developed a fuller truth about human dignity, namely the responsibility of all citizens to assume moral control over their own religious beliefs, wresting control from paternalistic states. For Murray this truth was an “intention of nature” or a new dictate of natural law philosophy. Murray’s claim that a new moral truth had emerged outside the church led to conflict with Augustus Cardinal Ottaviani (prefect of the Vatican Holy Office) and the eventual Vatican demand, in 1954, that Murray cease writing on religious freedom and stop publication of his two latest articles on the issue.

            Murray continued to submit religious liberty manuscripts privately to Rome, all of which were rejected. When finally invited to the second (though not the first) session of Vatican Council II (1963), he drafted the third and fourth versions of what eventually became the conciliar endorsement of religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae personae (1965). After the council he continued writing on the issue, stating that the arguments offered by the final decree were inadequate, though the affirmation of religious freedom was unequivocal.

            At that time Murray turned to questions of how his church might arrive at new theological doctrines. He argued that, if Catholics were to arrive at new truths about God, they would have to do so in conversation “on a footing of equality” with non-Catholics and atheists. He suggested restructuring his church, which over the last two centuries had developed its notion of authority at the expense of the bonds of love (secured in ongoing conversation) that more foundationally ought to define Christian living.

            Since his death, writers have appealed to Murray's work for its theory of law and its insistence on a closer interplay between America's religious commitments and civic life. Amid fears of cultural anarchy, attention has focused on his mid-1960s claim that diverse religious communities can and must begin in appreciation of the good found in each community. That Murray drew from his own Catholic tradition a consistent basis for an appreciation of God's action beyond the Catholic community suggests to both Catholic and non-Catholic scholars the possibility of constructively bringing diverse, rich theological sources to public debates.


            We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960) is a collection of 13 essays written between 1950 and 1960. Murray’s> The Problem of God, Yesterday and Today (1964) is a trinitarian analysis carried into a dialectic with atheistic existentialism and Marxism. The Problem of Religious Freedom (1965) was published during Vatican Council II and is included, with suppressed and late religious liberty articles, in Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism (1993). Early and late Murray essays are collected in Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selecting Writings of John Courtney Murray (1994). Murray’s collected papers are in Special Collections, Lauinger Library, Georgetown University. Obituaries: Walter J. Burghardt, “A Eulogy,” Woodstock Letters 96(Fall 1967), 416-420, and Emmet John Hughes, “A Man for Our Season,” The Priest 25 (July-August 1969), 389-402. Recent works on Murray include Dominique Gonnet, S.J., La Liberté Religieuse à Vatican II: La contribution de John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1994); Thomas P. Ferguson, Catholic and American: The Political Theology of John Courtney Murray(1993); J. Leon Hooper, S.J., The Ethics of Discourse: The Social Philosophy of John Courtney Murray (1986); D. Thomas Hughson, S.J., The Believer as Citizen: John Courtney Murray in a New Context (1993); Robert McElroy, The Search for an American Public Theology: The Contribution of John Courtney Murray (1989); Keith J. Pavlischek, John Courtney Murray and the Dilemma of Religious Toleration (1994); Donald E. Pelotte,John Courtney Murray: Theologian in Conflict (1976); and George S. Weigel, Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (1985).