We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition

We Hold These Truths

Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition




I wish to thank the editors of Religious Education, America, Social Order, Modern Age, The Critic, and Theological Studies for their kind permission to reprint essays which have appeared in their pages. Thanks are also due to The Fund for the Republic, the College of New Rochelle, and Marquette University, sponsors of seminars at which some of the papers printed in this book were originally delivered. Grateful acknowledgment is made to The Institute for Religious and Social Studies for permission to reprint an essay which originally formed a chapter in Great Expressions of Human Rights (edited by R. M. MacIver; distributed by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1950; reprinted by permission of the copyright holders) and to Meridian Books, publishers of Religion in America (edited by John Cogley; copyright 1958 by The Fund for the Republic) in which one of the essays reprinted in this book was first printed.

c Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1960

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 60–12876C t ISBN: 0–934134–50–2

Imprimi Potest: John M. Daley, S.J.
Praep. Prov. Marylandiae

Nihil Obstat: John R. Ready
Censor Librorum

Imprimatur: + Robert F. Joyce
Bishop of Burlington
Burlington, June 18, 1960

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Time Magazine's issue of December 12, 1960 had for cover story "U.S. Catholics & the State." Against a background that reproduced a title page of St. Robert Bellarmine's Controversies, artist Boris Chaliapin had drawn the distinguished features of Jesuit John Courtney Murray. The writer, Douglas Auchincloss, author of 16 other such pieces, called this "the most relentless intellectual cover story I've ever done." The occasion? The appearance of Murray's book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, with a Catholic President about to direct the course of American public life. "In the months to come," Auchincloss predicted, "serious Americans of all sorts and conditions—in pin-stripes and laboratory gowns, space suits and housecoats—will be discussing [Murray's] hopes and fears for American democracy" (p. 64).

The unifying thread of these 13 essays, fashioned over the previous decade, was Murray's effort to explore, on a high level of reason and rhetoric, America's public philosophy, the civic consensus whereby a people acquires its identity and sense of purpose. With the Founding Fathers, Murray held that there exists an ensemble of substantive truths that "command the structure and the courses of the political-economic system of the United States" (We Hold These Truths, p. 106), truths that can be known by reason—not indeed self-evident but reached by "careful inquiries" of "the wise and honest" (p.118). Reduced to its skeleton, the consensus affirmed a free people under a limited government, guided by law and ultimately resting on the sovereignty of God.

Does the consensus still exist? Not really, Murray argued. Especially if you combine the consensus with its basis in natural law. "By one cause or another it has been eroded" (p. 86). Influenced by modern rationalism and philosophy, "the American university long since bade a quiet goodbye to the whole notion of an American consensus, as implying that there are truths that we hold in common, and a natural law that makes known to all of us the structure of the moral universe in such wise that all of us are bound by it in a common obedience" (p. 40). For its part, Protestant theology has never been happy with the thesis of a human reason so sheltered from original sin that it can know God unaided by grace. Perhaps the people are wiser than their philosophers and pastors, but such a hope Murray found too "cheerful" for his intellectual comfort. As for Roman Catholics, traditionally their "participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed, because the contents of this consensus—the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law—approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience" (p. 41). Regrettably, within our philosophically and religiously pluralist society we do not have a common universe of discourse: we do not know what the other is talking about.

Do we need the consensus? Yes indeed, Murray trumpeted. And we need it on the basis of reason, of natural law. But not a natural law misunderstood. Its adversaries "seem forever to be at work ... burying the wrong corpse" (p. 298). Murray stressed the new validity of natural law in a new age, "its secure anchorage in the order of reality" (p. 320). He rejected not only the old Liberal individualism, not only the Marxist concept of human rights based solely on economic productivity, but also "the new rationalism," because it is unreasonable and is destructive of sound political philosophy. In contrast to those options, "the doctrine of natural law offers a more profound metaphysic, a more integral humanism, a fuller rationality, a more complete philosophy of man in his nature and history." Over and above all that, "it furnishes the basis for a firmer faith and a more tranquil, because more reasoned, hope in the future" (p. 335).

A quarter century ago, Auchincloss called John Courtney Murray "unquestionably the bellwether of [the] new Catholic and American frontier" (Time, Dec. 12, 1960, p. 70). Despite his sudden death at 63 in 1967, this architect of Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom has been increasingly recognized as primarily responsible for bringing the Catholic tradition on Church, state, and society into civilized conversation with the "American proposition" of pluralist democracy. We Hold These Truths is the most compre

hensive and cogent expression of his positions and arguments in this area, and for that reason alone it is gratifying to have the volume once again available for purchase. But an added reason lends the book a timely significance. We Hold These Truths lies at the heart of a crucial discussion in contemporary political/social philosophy: Will the Church contribute more responsibly and more persuasively to public and ethical discourse in America if, in Murray's steps, it formulates its positions in the categories of philosophical reason, or would it be wiser to express them in the symbols of religious belief?

The problem has been highlighted in an article appropriately titled "Theology and Philosophy in Public: A Symposium on John Courtney Murray's Unfinished Agenda" (Theological Studies 40 [1979] 700–715). In this symposium, John A. Coleman, S.J., of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, and Robin Lovin of the University of Chicago Divinity School suggested that Murray's efforts to renew the American public philosophy can and should be supplemented by a public discourse that explicitly appeals to Christian religious symbolism. J. Bryan Hehir of the U.S. Catholic Conference called for a reappropriation of Murray's method as indispensable in today's situation and stressed the need for a renewed public philosophy if both America and the American Church are to move intelligently toward greater justice in a world marked by deep pluralism of ultimate beliefs. David Hollenbach, S.J., of the Weston School of Theology, concluded that neither an exclusively particularist public theology nor an exclusively universalist public philosophy will serve the needs of the Church at this historical moment. The task of fundamental political theology, he claimed, is to discover the relationship between these two spheres of meaning. American Catholic theologians are beginning to address this task, but, in Hollenbach's reading of the literature, the most recent efforts in this area have not addressed the critical relationship between Christian tradition and prevailing forms of American political and social discourse in a serious way. Though Murray's suppositions about the compatibility of these two traditions may be too simple, he took the American secular political position much more seriously than have most contemporary American theologians. Creative development of American Catholic social thought will occur when Murray's lead is followed in this regard.

John Courtney Murray hoped only to limit the warfare of conflicting philosophies and to enlarge the dialogue. His death and the intervening two decades have increased our awareness that a flaming torch has been passed on to us (Murray would have smiled engagingly and called it a hot potato). To refuse it would be to risk incomparable harm to both the Church universal and society American style. Not to read We Hold These Truths is to miss the cutting edge of the "conversation" in its original Latin sense: living together and talking together.

Walter J. Burghardt, S.J.
Georgetown University

[p. vii]


IT IS CLASSIC AMERICAN DOCTRINE, immortally asserted by Abraham Lincoln, that the new nation which our Fathers brought forth on this continent was dedicated to a "proposition."

I take it that Lincoln used the word with conceptual propriety. In philosophy a proposition is the statement of a truth to be demonstrated. In mathematics a proposition is at times the statement of an operation to be performed. Our Fathers dedicated the nation to a proposition in both of these senses. The American Proposition is at once doctrinal and practical, a theorem and a problem. It is an affirmation and also an intention. It presents itself as a coherent structure of thought that lays claim to intellectual assent; it also presents itself as an organized political project that aims at historical success. Our Fathers asserted it and most ably argued it; they also undertook to "work it out," and they signally succeeded.

Neither as a doctrine nor as a project is the American Proposition a finished thing. Its demonstration is never done once for all; and the Proposition itself requires development on penalty of decadence. Its historical success is never to be taken for granted, nor can it come to some absolute term; and any given measure of success demands enlargement on penalty of instant decline. In a moment of national crisis Lincoln asserted the imperilled part of the theorem and gave impetus to the impeded part of the project in the noble utterance,

[p. viii]

at once declaratory and imperative: "All men are created equal." Today, when civil war has become the basic fact of world society, there is no element of the theorem that is not menaced by active negation, and no thrust of the project that does not meet powerful opposition. Today therefore thoughtful men among us are saying that America must be more clearly conscious of what it proposes, more articulate in proposing, more purposeful in the realization of the project proposed.

This is my excuse, if excuse be needed, for editing and collecting in this volume a series of essays that were done over the past decade. Their thread of unity is an effort to explore the content, the foundations, the mode of formation, the validity, etc., of the American Proposition, or as it is otherwise called, with nuances of meaning, the public consensus or the public philosophy of America. There is some argument in these pages about the Proposition—in its uniqueness, in its continuity with, and progress over, the longer civilizational tradition of the West, in certain of its applications, and in some of its problematic aspects. In particular, I have felt obliged, as others have, to raise the question, whether and to what extent this nation, now no longer new, still remains dedicated to the conception of itself that first constituted us a people organized for action in history.

One idea, rooted in the American tradition, has seemed to me to be central, and therefore it has been recurrent. Every proposition, if it is to be argued, supposes an epistemology of some sort. The epistemology of the American Proposition was, I think, made clear by the Declaration of Independence in the famous phrase: "We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . ." Today, when the serene, and often naive, certainties of the eighteenth century have crumbled, the self-evidence of the truths may legitimately be questioned. What ought not to be questioned, however, is that the American Proposition rests on the forthright assertion of a realist epistemology. The sense of the famous phrase is simply this: "There are truths, and

[p. ix]

we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth."

To our Fathers the political and social life of man did not rest upon such tentative empirical hypotheses as the positivist might cast up. The dynamism of society was not furnished, as in Marxist theory, by certain ideological projections of economic facts or interests. The structure of the state was not ultimately defined in terms of a pragmatic calculus. The rules of politics were not a set of operational tools wherewith to further at any given juncture the dialectic process of history. On the contrary, they thought, the life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible. If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke. It is indeed in many respects a pragmatic proposition; but its philosophy is not pragmatism. For the pragmatist there are, properly speaking, no truths; there are only results. But the American Proposition rests on the more traditional conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for, if they are not held, assented to, consented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City, in which men may dwell in dignity, peace, unity, justice, well-being, freedom.

The essays that follow make no pretense of completeness in the treatment of their central theme. Originally they were "occasional" papers; here they are entitled "reflections." They are the reflections of a citizen who considers it his duty to be able to answer the fundamental civil question: "What are the truths we hold?" They are also the reflections of a Catholic who, in seeking his answer to the civil question, knows that the principles of Catholic faith and morality stand superior to, and in control of, the whole order of civil life. The question is sometimes raised, whether Catholicism is compatible with American democracy. The question is invalid as well as impertinent; for the manner of its position inverts the order of values.

[p. x]

It must, of course, be turned round to read, whether American democracy is compatible with Catholicism. The question, thus turned, is part of the civil question, as put to me. An affirmative answer to it, given under something better than curbstone definition of "democracy," is one of the truths I hold.

The American Proposition makes a particular claim upon the reflective attention of the Catholic in so far as it contains a doctrine and a project in the matter of the "pluralist society," as we seem to have agreed to call it. The term might have many meanings. By pluralism here I mean the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions—those ultimate questions that concern the nature and destiny of man within a universe that stands under the reign of God. Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus. There is no small political problem here. If society is to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of all religious groups, despite their dissensions, in the oneness of the community. On the other hand, these common principles must not hinder the maintenance by each group of its own different identity. The problem of pluralism is, of course, practical; as a project, its "working out" is an exercise in civic virtue. But the problem is also theoretical; its solution is an exercise in political intelligence that will lay down, as the basis for the "working out," some sort of doctrine.

As it found place in America the problem of pluralism was unique in the modern world, chiefly because pluralism was the native condition of American society. It was not, as in Europe and in England, the result of the disruption and decay of a previously existent religious unity. This fact made possible a new project; but the new project required, as its basis, a new doctrine. This requirement was met by the First Amendment to the Constitution, in itself and in

[p. xi]

its relation to the whole theory of limited government that the Constitution incorporates.

On any showing the First Amendment was a great act of political intelligence. However, as in the case of all such acts, precisely because they are great, the question arises, how this act is to be understood. Concretely, what is the doctrine of the First Amendment? How do you define the project that it launched? On what grounds does the Fast Amendment command the common assent and consent of the whole citizenry? And how is it that this common assent and consent do not infringe upon the "freedom of religion," that is, the freedom of consciences to retain the full integrity of their own convictions, and the freedom of the churches to maintain their own different identities, as defined by themselves. I take it that every church claims this freedom to define itself, and claims too the consequent right to reject definition at the hands of any secular authority. To resign this freedom or to abdicate this right would be at once the betrayal of religion and the corruption of politics.

These questions, I presume, are put to every citizen, when he undertakes to articulate for himself the fundamental civil question, what are the truths we hold. They are put with special sharpness to the Catholic intelligence. Not that the questions themselves are embarrassing, but that the inner exigencies of the Catholic intelligence are high. The Catholic may not, as others do, merge his religious and his patriotic faith, or submerge one in the other. The simplist solution is not for him. He must reckon with his own tradition of thought, which is wider and deeper than any that America has elaborated. He must also reckon with his own history, which is longer than the brief centuries that America has lived. At the same time, he must recognize that a new problem has been put to the universal Church by the American doctrine and project in the matter of pluralism, as stated in the First Amendment. The conceptual equipment for dealing with the problem is by no means lacking to the Catholic intelligence. But there is the obligation of some nicety

[p. xii]

in its use, lest the new problem be distorted or the ancient faith deformed. I hope I have displayed the needed nicety.

One hardly knows, after a while, how much of one's own thought is derivative. Hence I shall make no effort here to acknowledge my intellectual debts. There is, however, an editorial debt that may not be overlooked. It is owed to Mr. Frank Sheed and to Sheed and Ward's gifted editor, Mr. Philip Scharper. The existence of this book, and therefore any usefulness it may have, are due to them—not only to their interest but also to their talent for tactful harassment. The author's need of vires a tergo measures his gratitude, which is therefore great.

[p. xiii]





1. E Pluribus Unum
The American Consensus

2. Civil Unity and Religious Integrity
The Articles of Peace

3. Two Cases for the Public Consensus
Fact or Need

4. The Origins and Authority of the Public Consensus
A Study of the Growing End

5. Creeds at War Intelligibly
Pluralism and the University


6. Is It Justice?
The School Question Today

7. Should There Be a Law?
The Question of Censorship

[p. xiv]

8. Is It Basket Weaving?
The Question of Christianity and Human Values

9. Are There Two or One?
The Question of the Future of Freedom


10. Doctrine and Policy in Communist Imperialism
The Problem of Security and Risk

11. The Uses of a Doctrine on the Uses of Force
War as a Moral Problem

12. The Doctrine is Dead
The Problem of the Moral Vacuum

13. The Doctrine Lives
The Eternal Return of Natural Law