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Truths Still Held?

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition — arguably, the most important such reflection composed in our time. Its publication landed Fr. Murray, an urbane New York Jesuit, on the cover of Time, in the days when that distinction actually meant something. Three years later, New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman brought Murray to the Second Vatican Council as a peritus, a theological adviser, so that the Jesuit Murray’s work on church–state theory could help shape the council’s deliberations on religious liberty, an issue of particular concern to the bishops of the United States.

For a man who was America’s most prominent Catholic public intellectual in 1965, the year in which Vatican II adopted the Declaration on Religious Freedom that his work had helped make possible, Murray went into strikingly rapid eclipse after his untimely death in 1967 from a longstanding heart ailment. The younger Jesuit generation jettisoned Murray as impossibly old hat, claiming, as one put it, that “we know so much more than Murray did.” In the mid-1980s, however, after twenty years of neglect, Murray was resurrected by Catholic thinkers seeking materials from which to build a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty. This, in turn, led to an effort, perhaps not surprising, to reclaim Murray for progressive Catholicism—a project risible to anyone familiar with the stories of Murray’s contempt for some of the woollier-headed notions being circulated at Woodstock College in the years before his death.

We Hold These Truths was not without its critics, both in the 1960s and more recently. Some have argued that Murray’s account of the American Founding massively reduced the role of biblical religion, and especially Calvinism, in the national consensus that produced the new republic. Others have suggested that Murray’s theory of democracy was based on an excessively neoscholastic (meaning, specifically, Suarezian) reading of the relation between nature and grace, even as others have argued that Murray’s theory of democracy is too beholden to John Locke. Then there are the critics who find in Murray an opening for what might be called Cuomoism among Catholic public officials — a charge that does a disservice to Murray even as it gives an undeserved intellectual gloss to Mario Cuomo and those theologians and lawyers who helped turn Catholic politicians into advocates for “reproductive choice.”

My purpose here is not to sort out the arguments over Murray’s analysis of the Founding, and still less to judge the metaphysics and epistemology that buttressed his church–state theory. Rather, I want to review the “American Proposition” he sketched in We Hold These Truths as a template for measuring the health of the American republic and its public culture as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The opening paragraphs of Murray’s book summarize its argument and give the flavor of his cool, dry rhetorical style: “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.’”

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 those senses. The American proposition is at once both 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 [even as] it also presents itself as an organized political project that aims at historical success. . . .

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 imperiled part of the theorem and gave impetus to the impeded part of the project in the noble utterance, 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.

The American Proposition, as Murray understood it, was a conservation by development of the political dimension of Western civilization’s project, as it emerged over the centuries from the interactions of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome — that is, the interaction of biblical religion, Greek rationality, and Roman law. As such, the Proposition rested on a realist epistemology: There are truths built into the world and into us; we can know those truths through the arts of reason; that knowledge lays certain obligations, both personal and civil, on us. To be sure, those truths had to be “held, assented to, worked into the texture of institutions” for there to be a “true City, in which men may dwell in dignity, peace, unity, justice, well-being, [and] freedom.” But that never-to-be-taken-for-granted quality of the truths of the American Proposition simply underscored the fact that the United States was an experiment: an experiment in ordered freedom.

That could be said, I suppose, of any democracy; Weimar Germany and the French Third Republic chillingly demonstrate the perils attending any democracy’s failure to order its public life by the moral truths we can know by reason. What is distinctive about American democracy, however, is that our very nationhood depended on the truths to which the Founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. The German nation remained Germany after the collapse of the Weimar Republic; France remained France under the Vichy regime. But, Murray argued, America’s native condition was plurality, and the American people—the American nation—had to be constructed, not out of the old materials of blood and ethnicity and language and soil and common religious conviction, but out of the new materials of adherence to truths in the civic order. The survival of America, as both theorem and project, rested on the American ability to create pluralism out of plurality: to transform the cacophony of ethnic and religious difference into an orderly conversation about public goods, based on a common allegiance to the elementary truths of the Proposition.

Murray’s theory of democracy, while seeming thin to some of his critics, was thus far thicker than that of today’s democratic functionalists, whose sole concern is to get the machinery of governance right. Murray, by contrast, thought of politics not as machinery but as deliberation—common deliberation among men and women who were citizens and not merely bundles of desires; common deliberation about public goods, using the arts of reason to apply agreed-on first principles of truth in the civic order to the exigencies of governance amidst the flux of history. In this conception of democracy, civility and tolerance are moral accomplishments, not poses, attitudes, or pragmatic accommodations. Tolerance means not differences ignored but differences engaged. Civility is the achievement of order (and thus a measure of clarity and perhaps even charity) in the public conversation.

“The distinctive bond” of civil society, Murray wrote, “is reason, or, more exactly, that exercise of reason which is argument.” Argument, in turn, gave form to a distinctive kind of association in the American democratic experiment. Jacques Maritain might have called it “civic friendship.” A generation after Murray, John Paul II called it “solidarity.” It is, Murray wrote, a “special kind of moral virtue, a thing of reason and intelligence, laboriously cultivated by the [disciplining] of passion, prejudice, and narrow self-interest.” This is not the friendship of David and Jonathan, or the fierce inclusiveness of the clan or tribe; it is not the bond of charity that binds disciples within the Church. It is a civic friendship and solidarity born of a common passion for justice, with the requirements of justice—what is owed by the city to the citizenry, and what citizens owe the city—understood according to the canons of public reason.

The bonds of this civic friendship in America reinforced the founding consensus that gave philosophical content to Murray’s American Proposition. This consensus was, in Murray’s words, “an ensemble of substantive truths, a structure of basic knowledge, an order of elementary affirmations” that reflect the truths we can and must know by reason about how we ought to live together. No political arrangement is possible if everything is in doubt. If there is to be genuine argument, Murray wrote, there must be “a core of agreement, accord, concurrence, acquiescence.”

This may sound daunting, but we need not discover these truths by our own labors alone. Rather, the truths that form the moral-cultural foundations of American democracy come to us, as an inheritance to be honored and cultivated, from the project of Western civilization — the gift that Leo XIII, founder of modern Catholic social doctrine, called the patrimony of humankind.

The first of these inherited truths that give content to the American Proposition is that we are a nation under judgment, because God is sovereign over nations as well as individuals — a fact that “lies beyond politics,” Murray insisted, and “imparts to politics a fundamental human meaning.” Here, like Edmund Burke, Murray distinguished the Anglo-American political tradition from the Jacobinism of Continental European political philosophy. The latter began its thinking about politics with autonomous human reason; the former looked “to the sovereignty of God as to the first principle of its organization.” The American experiment, in other words, was an experiment under transcendent judgment: the judgment of the God of the Bible; the judgment of those moral truths inscribed by nature’s God — in the world and in us — as a reflection of the divine creative purpose.

That “natural law,” which we can know by reason, gives government the authority to command, even as it limits the power of governors. The constitutional agreement by which the people, through their representatives, ratified the basic instruments of American governance and amended that agreement as circumstances required created a process, as Murray understood it, by which “the people define the areas where [public] authority is legitimate and the areas where liberty is lawful.”

The second foundational truth of the American Proposition also grew out of the Christian Middle Ages: the principle that all just governance exists by and with the consent of the governed. On this reading of Western history, royal absolutism and its parallel union of altar and throne are an aberration; the rich social pluralism of the Middle Ages and the assumed limits on princely authority reflect, in Murray’s view, “the premise . . . that there is a sense of justice inherent in the people.” This principle of consent, with its premise that the people can know the moral truths by which we ought to live together, stands in sharp contrast to the Jacobin tradition in Continental Europe and its twentieth-century manifestation in totalitarianism, which proposed governance by elite vanguards.

The principle of consent and the premise of the people’s sense of justice framed Murray’s understanding of human rights, which posed another challenge to an autonomy-based theory of democracy:

The proper premise of these freedoms lay in the fact that they were social necessities. . . . They were regarded as conditions essential to the conduct of free, representative, and responsible government. People who are called upon to obey have the right first to be heard. People who are to bear burdens and make sacrifices have the right first to pronounce on the purposes which their sacrifices serve. People who are summoned to contribute to the common good have the right first to pass their own judgment on the question, whether the good proposed be truly a good, the people’s good . . .

In the American Proposition, in other words, rights are not trumps recognized as such by the sheer fact of their assertion. Rather, rights are rooted in the dignity of the human person as capable of rational moral choice and considered political judgment. Thus, rights are acknowledged in law to facilitate the promotion and defense of human dignity and of the common good, not simply to innoculate individual “choice” from what someone may consider “interference.”

The third truth of the American Proposition is, as Murray put it, that “the state is distinct from society and limited in its offices toward society.” Society exists prior to the state, ontologically as well as historically, and the state exists to serve society, not the other way around. This retrieval of the medieval distinction between studium and imperium, the order of culture and the political order, would have large consequences for Murray’s church–state theory and indeed for the Second Vatican Council, but in the American Experiment, the salient point, as Murray put it, was that government, rightly understood, “submits itself to judgment by the truth of society; it is not itself a judge of the truth in society.” Neither is government the judge of the truths inscribed in nature. Rightly ordered government submits itself to the judgment of those truths built into the world and into us, and if it attempts to redefine those truths, it has acted unjustly and illegitimately.

The fourth component of the American Proposition is “the profound conviction that only a virtuous people can be free.” Murray knew that there are no guarantees about the success of freedom. Freedom can dissipate into license, private license into public decadence, decadence into chaos, and chaos into authoritarianism. “It is not an American belief,” Murray wrote, that “free government is inevitable, only that it is possible.” Moreover, “its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral law.” Freedom and moral truth, Murray wrote in anticipation of the teaching of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, are inextricably bound together: Freedom must be tethered to truth and ordered to goodness if freedom is not to become its own undoing.

Murray applauded the ways in which the American cultural instinct for freedom had succeeded in placing limits on the sphere of government within a functioning democracy. But the American demand for freedom could “be made with the full resonance of moral authority only to the extent that it issues from an inner sense of responsibility to a higher law.” The American idea is ordered freedom: ordered to goodness because it is tethered to truth. “Men who would be free politically must discipline themselves,” Murray explained. “Political freedom is endangered in its foundations as soon as the universal moral values, upon whose shared possession the self-discipline of a free society depends, are no longer vigorous enough to restrain the passions and shatter the selfish inertia of men.” Democracy, in other words, is “a spiritual and moral enterprise.”

This was the inherited cultural consensus that, in John Courtney Murray’s view, had informed and shaped the American Proposition for centuries. But were these truths still held in Murray’s time, a half-century ago? Murray had his doubts.

He did not think the Proposition could be carried any longer by the primary institutions of its historical transmission, the Christian communities of the old Protestant mainline, already beset by theological and doctrinal chaos. Nor would the falling torch be picked up by an American academy then in thrall to pragmatism: an academy that had “long ago 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 to a common obedience.”

Murray’s suggestion — a striking one at its historical moment, given the anti-Catholic prejudice manifest during the 1960 presidential campaign — was that the originating and constituting consensus of America was still possessed by, and might be revived by, the Catholic community in the United States. That revitalization was not to happen, as American Catholicism lurched into the fever swamps of the 1960s and 1970s. The opportunity Murray saw in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a victim of the post–Vatican II silly season; although if we listen carefully, we can hear echoes today, and sometimes more than echoes, of the consensus ideas of the American Proposition in the pro-life advocacy of Catholics and their allies among the more thoughtful leadership of evangelical Protestants.

On the first page of We Hold These Truths, Murray wrote of the “civil war” that was the “basic fact of world society.” He was referring, of course, to the contest between the West and communist totalitarianism, a contest concluded some two decades ago. Yet the civil war — which is fundamentally anthropological in character, in that it is based on fundamentally opposed ideas of the human person — continues, in what is sometimes called the American “culture war” and its analogues in Europe. Murray didn’t use the term “culture war,” but he clearly anticipated its possibility when he penned one of the most striking passages in his book:

Perhaps one day the noble, many-storeyed mansion of democracy will be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged. Perhaps there will one day be widespread dissent even from the political principles which emerge from natural law. . . . The possibility that widespread dissent from these principles should develop is not foreclosed.

Indeed not, for that possibility is now manifestly with us. But the foreclosure need not be complete, and the mansion need not be leveled or abandoned. Saving it, however, means facing squarely the ways in which the truths of Murray’s American Proposition are no longer held.

It might seem that the first truth of the Proposition — the sovereignty of God over nations as well as individuals, with its parallel conviction about the universal moral law inscribed in nature and accessible to reason — would be most gravely threatened by the so-called New Atheism. But as David Bentley Hart bracingly demonstrates in his recent book Atheist Delusions, the attacks of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, as well as their down-market cash-out in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, do not get us to the true root of the problem, which is not the historically ill-informed and philosophically embarrassing New Atheism, but what Romano Guardini used to call the “interior disloyalty of modern times,” which is, Murray said, a betrayal of “the existential structure of reality itself.”

This betrayal is most powerfully embodied by postmodernism’s skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty — a skepticism that yields, on the one hand, metaphysical nihilism, and, on the other hand, moral relativism. Indeed, according to a trenchant reading of modernity by the French philosopher Rémi Brague, nihilism may be the defining challenge of this cultural moment in the West. In Brague’s analysis, the twenty-first century will be the century of being and nothingness, as the twentieth century (defined by the contest with totalitarianism) was the century of true and false and the nineteenth (defined by the social question emerging from the industrial revolution) was the century of good and evil. The metaphysical question — the question of loyalty to being itself — is the cultural bottom line today, in a way not seen since metaphysics first emerged from Greek classical philosophy.

In 1955 Flannery O’Connor wrote that “if you live today you breathe in nihilism.” Those who once found that complaint a bit extravagant might ponder the reality of contemporary nihilism through one of its recent public manifestations — the claim that the natural moral law we can know by reason is, in truth, a form of irrational bigotry and extremism. That claim was adduced this past October 30 in the lead editorial of the Washington Post, written to cripple a candidate for attorney general of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, whose defense of natural law as an instrument for formulating public policy was decried by the sometimes-sensible editors of the nation’s leading political newspaper as a “retrofit” of “the old language of racism, bias, and intolerance.”

As we assay the health of our political culture through the template of Murray’s American Proposition, what was truly stunning about this editorial assault on natural law (launched in aid of the Post’s relentless campaign in favor of same-sex “marriage”) was its implicit willingness to throw out Jefferson’s claims in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s claims in the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s claims in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” all of which appealed to a natural moral law that was a reflection of the eternal and divine law. To deny that such a moral law exists, and to compound that intellectual error by the moral crime of labeling those who still adhere to the first truth of the American Proposition as bigots, brings to mind, in this golden anniversary year, Murray’s cautions about the barbarism that threatens us: “Barbarism is not . . . the forest primeval with all its relatively simple savageries. Barbarism . . . is the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.”

One might think Murray’s second truth — the principle of consent, which reflects the conviction that the people have an inherent sense of justice, and which is allied to the principle of participation that provides an account of the nature of our civil and political rights — is in better shape. Elections in America take place regularly, however vulgarly. Public officials are rotated in and out of office, if not as often as some would like. Initiatives and referenda repair the damage that the people’s inherent sense of justice tells them has been done to the common good by legislatures or courts. Free speech and freedom of the press are robust, if too often shallow. But the barbarians are among us on this front, too.

The most obvious instance of an assault on the principle of consent is what a 1996 First Things symposium termed the “judicial usurpation of politics.” This violation of a constituting truth of the American Proposition was most egregious in Roe v. Wade; the degree to which the Supreme Court got it colossally wrong in Roe can be measured by the degree to which the effects of Roe have roiled our public life ever since. By the same token, of course, the people’s refusal to acquiesce to what their inherent sense of justice tells them is the fundamental injustice embodied in America’s nearly unfettered abortion license — a refusal that launched and sustains the pro-life movement — expresses the vitality of the second truth of the Proposition.

Yet it is not easy to see how the mistake that the Court made in Roe can be remedied until our public culture gains a firmer grip on the first truth of the Proposition. And there is a new assault on the second truth that bears careful watching and to which resistance must be mounted: the censorship of rationally defensible moral judgment in the name of laws banning what some deem “hate speech.” Such censorship, enforced by coercive state power, is already under way in Canada and in Europe. The degree of resistance that can be mounted to these efforts will be an important measure of the degree to which the truth of the principle of consent is still held in these United States.

Our grasp of the third truth of the American Proposition — that the state exists to serve society, which is ontologically and historically antecedent to the state — has also become attenuated, as two recent controversies illustrate.

Debates over the doctrinal and moral boundaries of communities of faith have been a staple of American life for centuries; the state of Rhode Island is the result of one of those arguments. Into none of these debates, however, has the president of the United States ever injected himself and his office — until this past May, when President Obama did precisely that in his commencement address at Notre Dame. There, the president leaped into the middle of a decades-long ecclesiological debate within American Catholicism by suggesting that the good Catholics, the real Catholics, were men like Fr. Theodore Hesburgh and the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin — indeed, like all those Catholics who supported the Obama candidacy in 2008 and agreed with the president on the nature of the common ground to be sought in American public life. President Obama, in other words, would be the arbiter of authentic Catholicism in America.

The Catholic Church can take care of herself and is doing so in the face of this challenge. What I wish to underscore here is the threat that the president’s Notre Dame address poses to religious freedom in America — which is one constitutional expression of the third truth of the American Proposition. The White House likely thought it was simply playing wedge politics, strengthening its grip on certain Catholic constituencies while widening the gap between those Catholics and their bishops. But the larger meaning of Obama’s commencement address cannot be obscured by such tactical maneuverings: Here was the state, embodied by the president, claiming a purchase in what had for centuries been understood to be the inviolable territory of society.

To be sure, President Obama is not the reincarnation of the Holy Roman emperor Henry IV, contesting with the pope for the legal authority to appoint bishops. But whether or not he knew what he was doing, the president was usurping the bishops’ right to define the doctrinal and moral boundaries of the Catholic community. That this astonishing act was not recognized for what it was is an important, and chilling, measure of the degree to which the third truth of the American Proposition is, at best, tenuously held these days.

Then there is the marriage debate. There is no need to rehearse this at length. Marriage is one of those societal institutions, like the parent–child bond, that antedate the state historically and are prior to the state ontologically and morally. It is not within the competence of the state to define marriage, and any state that does so has breached the border between society and state in a way that gravely endangers civil society and the common good. Any state that does so is engaging in what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called, on April 18, 2005, the “dictatorship of relativism”: the use of coercive state power to compel a relativist concept of the good. Such dictatorships will, sooner or later, lead to what the late John Paul II described as “open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

As to the fourth truth within Murray’s American Proposition — the truth that only a virtuous people can be free — the challenges from which it is under assault are obvious. Theories that reduce the democratic experiment to a matter of political mechanics chip away at the link between freedom and virtue by consigning virtue to the sphere of private life. The mantra of choice, the unassailable trump in our contemporary public discourse, deliberately avoids the question of the good: Choose what? The reduction of public virtue to an ill-defined tolerance erodes our sense that civil society is built on numerous virtues. The vulgarities of contemporary popular culture — the demeaning of women by a multibillion-dollar pornography industry, the casual brutality of some aspects of our sports, the eroticism of so much advertising — are challenges to virtue and also to freedom, rightly understood. Decadence and democracy cannot indefinitely coexist. If the American experiment constantly requires new births of freedom, the birth of freedom we need in the early twenty-first century is one in which freedom is once again tethered to both the true and the good.

If the Catholic community in the United States did not, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and the cultural whitewater of the 1960s, grasp the destiny that Murray envisioned for it fifty years ago, might it do so today?

Any such recovery of Catholic identity and Catholic nerve would have to address America’s loss of grip on the truths that constitute us as a unique and uniquely free people. The Church has been doing so for almost four decades now by insisting that the defense of the right to life of the unborn, and indeed of all innocent life from conception until natural death, is a first principle of justice that can be known by reason, regardless of one’s theological location or lack thereof. More recently, the Church has taken up the cudgels of public argument in defense of marriage rightly understood, in defense of its own integrity as a self-governing institution, and in defense of the conscience rights of the people of the Church. These efforts must continue, and they must be intensified.

In addition, however, the Catholic Church in America, if it is to help rebuild the foundations of the American democratic experience in ordered freedom, must remind America of the truths about the principle of consent, and the priority of society over the state, that are essential building blocks of American democracy. Those truths are embodied in what modern Catholic social doctrine has called the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, the Church lifts up and honors those mediating institutions or voluntary associations that stand between the individual and the state, and teaches that decision making should be left at the lowest possible level of society; that is, at the level of those most directly affected by the decision, commensurate with the common good.

These mediating institutions and that rich pluralism of societal deliberation and decision making constitute what John Paul II called the “subjectivity of society.” Both the institutions and the pluralism are threatened today by the seemingly inexorable thrust of the modern state into every crevice of life. Were the Church to take on this essential task of public moral education, some reconsideration of longstanding Catholic policy positions as articulated by the bishops of the United States might be required; how, for example, is it possible to achieve universal health care while honoring the principle of subsidiarity? If the principle of subsidiarity is true, then there must be answers to this question and to related questions in the fields of education and social welfare that do not involve a wholesale transfer of power to the national government. The search for those answers, which may well lie in a reconception of the roles of both government and mediating institutions, ought to help in the process of regrounding American public life in two of its foundational truths.

Over the past few months, there has been welcome electoral evidence that what the advocates of the dictatorship of relativism imagined to have been their Waterloo-like rout of the advocates of classical biblical morality and classical Western political philosophy in November 2008 was in fact no such thing. Yet John Courtney Murray’s template reminds us to be ever attentive to the deeper, long-term trends in our political culture. And over those same few months I have been struck by the number of t

This article was originally published on First Things

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