A Will to Community

A Will to Community 1

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

The following article was delivered to the an Episcopal Church committee that was examining the problem of heresy. Relying on the distinction between understanding and judgment, Murray now places tight limits on the silencing of theological discourse. He also places restrictions on magisterial social criticism, based on his practical judgment/theology distinction.

As best I know, Murray never gave serious attention to the thesis that the entire church was the proper forum for creative theological discourse. Yet note his difficulty in identifying the theological fraternity, a problem that plagued his identification of the wise in civil society—Editor.

The Church and theological inquiry: I suppose that the institution of the Church which bears primary responsibility for theological inquiry as such is the studium. It no longer exists in its medieval form, of course. It is more scattered in an age of general learning. To it now belong seminary faculties of theology, faculties in church-related colleges, Christian intellectuals (in universities, as writers, etc.), religious journalists (the latest accession). All are somehow engaged in "inquiry" in the wide sense that the word "theological" has today.

At that, I am not sure that the word "obligation" would be rightly used here. The spirit of theological inquiry is immanent in the very dynamism of Christian faith itself, chiefly in its aspect of assent to the Word of God. Faith in this sense must seek understanding of itself.

The search, motivated by the love of truth, is the necessary prolongation of the "adhesion" of faith itself, which is an adhesion made in love, and made to a Message that, for all its mystery, is somehow intelligible—a true "word," with a meaning. Moreover, since the Word of God was spoken in history, and is not some sort of Platonic "eternal truth," the search must be for a historical understanding of the Word—its sources, the stages in its progressive understanding through history, etc. Moreover, since the Word of God is many words yet still one Word, the search must also be for systematic understanding of the kind that makes the Word intelligible in its unity.

Finally, complementing and further activating the impulse that issues from the interior of faith itself, there is the challenge ab extra which is constantly being put by the total complex reality of life itself, Christian and human, as history goes on. The deposit of faith is indeed a deposit, but new questions are constantly being put with regard to its meaning, its relevance, its general and particular relation to the developing problematic of human life. These questions (and oftentimes the wrong or dubious answers being currently given to them) are the starting points of theological inquiry. Much more could be said about this aspect of the matter, but I presume it is not quite the point.

I presume the real point concerns the Church as somehow a structure of authority—more concretely, it concerns the bishops. They bear, of course, primary responsibility for the preaching of the gospel; and they normally discharge this responsibility through their priests. This, however, is a matter of Christian witness, not of theological inquiry as such. And the primary matter of episcopal concern is the integrity of the witness, the purity of the faith as preached to the people of God, pastoral zeal to declare the "full counsel of God," etc.

It is more difficult to define the responsibility of the bishop for theological inquiry. This dimension of the life of the Church has to do with the development of doctrine, with the "growing edge" of the tradition. The dynamism of this progress in theological understanding is, I take it, freedom, and not authority. Hence I assume that the first function of authority is to foster the freedom of theological inquiry. (This has not always been well understood in my own beloved Church; it is only now beginning to be understood.) The responsibility of the bishop is to be in a "communion" of thought and concern with his theologians (I am speaking here of the bishop in his office as bishop; he may himself be a theologian, but that is a personal charism or achievement). The theological fraternity, which is somehow a fraternity in its own right, looks to the bishop for encouragement, support, sustenance, appreciation of the theological function in the Church, trust—things of that sort.

I also suppose that it is the responsibility of the bishop at least to know where the theological difficulties lie today, what the religious preoccupations are and ought to be, what lines of inquiry need to be pursued, what questions the "world" is asking of the Church, etc. This is part of his pastoral concern, behind which lies his doctrinal concern, as doctrinal issues always underlie pastoral issues. In particular, the bishop ought to know about the inadequacy of traditional formulations of doctrine, if and as these inadequacies are brought to light in the variety of ways in which they are always brought to light, chiefly through the enlarging experience of the Christian as he exists with-the-others-in-the-world.

Finally, the bishop today is obliged to do something about setting up and perfecting some formal structures of collaboration with the theological fraternity—both for his own sake and for theirs. I also expect he is obliged to do something about providing for the continuing theological education of his clergy and thus stimulating the spirit of theological inquiry in the pastorate as such.


The Church and social criticism: This is an even more difficult question. "Social criticism" is a large category, within which at least one distinction is altogether necessary. On the one hand, there is prophetic testimony, based on the Word of God and its exigencies, proclaimed in the first instance to the faithful but beyond them to the "world." This testimony, when rendered in the prophetic manner, has to do with issues of truth and falsity, right and wrong. This is surely "social criticism." But the phrase assumes another sense when it covers utterance (or action) within the temporal order itself, based on practical assessments of a situation, on prudent prognosis of variant outcomes, on pragmatic calculations of the better and the worse, etc. This manner of social criticism touches issues of policy—legislative policy, other public policies, the actions or omissions of government, etc.

This distinction is perhaps clear enough in the abstract; but it is very difficult to apply in the concrete, especially since the second range of utterance is or can be broad. In any event, what is at stake in the distinction is the competence of the Church as a spiritual authority in matters of the temporal order—a competence which is real, and also rather broad, but still limited. It includes the right to "pass moral judgments even on matters touching the political order, whenever basic personal rights or the salvation of souls make such judgments necessary" (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Constitution of the Church in the World Today). The problem is to be sure that the judgments are properly moral judgments; that the Church is not just proposing one more public policy, one more political or economic position, alongside others, with the consequent danger that it be simply a partisan position.

The Second Vatican Council made much the same distinction when it said that it is "highly important" that there should be a "clear distinction between what a Christian conscience leads them [the faithful] to do in their own name as citizens, whether as individuals or in association, and what they do in the name of the Church in union with her shepherds." And there are other ways of formulating the distinction, e.g., between an engagement of the authority of the Church, and an engagement of the responsibility of the Christian. As you know, Paul Ramsey likes to formulate the self-denying ordinance, governing statements of the Church, in terms of what the whole Church can say for the whole Church, speaking to the whole Church, and speaking also to all men in the name of the Church, out of her own treasury of truth and wisdom. This canon would surely make for responsible utterance. The Church can always blunder and transgress, of course; but if this canon is not held in view, the mistakes will be in a maximalist direction. And this is dangerous today, not least because it tends to cheapen the authority of the Church. Flight from this danger should not be allowed to lead to "angelism," of course. The word today is "incarnationalism," but this route to relevance is something like the famous Irishman's "narrow path between good and evil"!

Incidentally, I think there is great need for ecumenical discussion among Christian communities, and with our Jewish brethren too, on the general issue of the mission of the Church in the temporal order. We are all more or less confused. And the confusions are being publicly dramatized in many ways. For my part, I rather like the general line struck out by Leo XIII, scil., that it is not the mission of the Church to solve the social question, but that the social question will not be solved without the Church. One must go on from there, but that is the place from which to go on. I also like to insist on the principle of parsimony, so called. There are always limits to evidence, and utterance should not go beyond them. And the limits to the evidence available to the Church (or to the theologian) turned social critic are fairly stringent; they are to be defined in terms of what can honestly be called Christian truth.


The issue of heresy: The word in not popular today, even in the milieu—my own—in which it was once vigorously brandished. Yet the issue remains real enough. Perhaps the discussion of it ought to begin with the peculiarities of the situation in which we all find ourselves in this moment. The reality of contemporary life is rather brutally putting altogether fundamental questions to the Christian conscience—all multiple variants of the three famous Kantian questions. I need not develop this point. But it leads to a distinction I like to make, scil., between adventurous answers, which may well be mistaken, and hardened positions which deserve to be called errors. The former are an affair of deficient intelligence; the latter, of deficiency in what can only be called good will. Errors in faith are a matter of will.

Today there are abroad all sorts of tendencies, currents of thought, climates of opinion. And many uncertainties attend the necessary business of a renewal of the personal structures of conscience and the further business of a reform of the objective expressions of the Christian faith. We all live in an unbelieving world. And a "credibility gap" has opened between the doctrines and structures of the Church and the sheer experience of the world as it is. The truths of the Church and the forms of her life are supposed to interpret the experience of human life and to give it some saving structure. But is this happening? Many say no, and not without reason. This answer seems to have lain behind John XXIII's distinction between the "substance" of Christian faith and the "forms" of its expression. The distinction could be given a too simplistic meaning, as if only words were at stake. But it points in the right direction, toward a task we must take firmly in hand. We shall do the task badly, of course. There will be lots of "mistakes," but they are readily dealt with, since they involve no will to error. This latter thing is the danger. How to avoid it? I think the corrective is a will to community—of thought and love. The Christian community is not in error, whatever mistakes it may make.

(1) Editor Note: Originally published as 1967n:"A Will to Community," in Theological Freedom and Social Responsibility. 111-16. ed. Stephen F. Bayne Jr (New York: Seabury Press, 1967). Also published as "We Held These Truths," National Catholic Reporter 3 (August 23, 1967): 3