Peter Augustine Lawler, who served as Dana Professor of Government at Berry College until his death on May 23, 2017, was one of America’s most insightful critics of politics, religion, and culture. Throughout a highly productive career in which he wrote or edited eighteen books, Lawler brought his vast classical and Christian wisdom to bear on a wide range of contemporary issues, including conservatism, human dignity, bioethics, and technology. In a modern world that celebrates autonomy and individuality, Lawler called us to remember that we are relational beings, a fact that is grounded in our creation by a personal God.
To commemorate the fifth anniversary of Lawler’s death, this week Public Discourse will publish a series of essays from three leading political scholars, each reflecting on different aspects of Lawler’s legacy and its enduring relevance: Daniel J. Mahoney on Lawler’s vision as a Catholic political philosopher, James Patterson on Lawler’s view of higher education, and Richard Reinsch on Lawler’s understanding of America’s constitutional tradition.
To begin our symposium, we republish Lawler’s introduction to John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. In addition to serving as a comprehensive introduction to a classic text in Catholic and American history, this essay demonstrates the intellectual range of Lawler, whose wise and sober reflections continue to be missed in our increasingly feverish political and cultural debates.
– R. J. Snell, Editor-in-Chief
The Jesuit John Courtney Murray (1904–1967) was, in his time, probably the best known and most widely respected American Catholic writer on the relationship between Catholic philosophy and theology and his country’s political life. The high point of his influence on his own country was the publication of We Hold These Truths in the same year as the election of our country’s first Catholic president. Those two events were celebrated by a Time cover story (December 12, 1960) on Murray’s work and influence. The story’s author, Protestant Douglas Auchincloss, reported that it was “the most relentlessly intellectual cover story I’ve done.” His amazingly wide-ranging and dense—if not altogether accurate—account of Murray’s thought was crowned with a smart and pointed conclusion: “If anyone can help U.S. Catholics and their non-Catholic countrymen toward the disagreement that precedes understanding—John Courtney Murray can.” My limited purpose here is to defend that conclusion through an introduction—and only an introduction—to the unfashionable but always timely argument of this still underrated book. Murray’s work, of course, is treated with great respect and has had considerable influence, but now it’s time to begin to think of him as one of America’s very few genuine political philosophers.
Murray’s We Hold These Truths is one of two astute and comprehensive books written by American Catholic citizens about their country. Murray’s disarmingly lucid and accessible prose has caused his book to be widely cited and celebrated, but it still is not well understood. It is both praised and blamed for reconciling Catholic faith with the fundamental premises of American political life. It is praised by liberals for paving the way for Vatican II’s embrace of the American idea of religious liberty, and it is blamed by conservatives and traditionalists for obscuring the real conflicts between Catholicism and “Americanism.” Both the liberal praise and the conservative blame are somewhat misguided. The last thing Murray wanted to do is bring the church up to date with the latest currents in American thought. He wanted to show how distinctively Catholic thought could illuminate the authentic American idea of liberty.
The truth is that Murray wrote as a Catholic to transform his country politically and evangelize it religiously. He wrote as an orthodox proponent of the Catholic natural-law tradition that began with St. Thomas Aquinas. He thought that this medieval and Christian view of philosophy and theology is not only our Catholic inheritance but still quite reasonable and true. He also thought that only the Catholic community in thought could illuminate what was true and good about what our founders accomplished. Because they built better than they knew, they themselves could not be relied on to give an adequate account of what they had done. In order to defend our Constitution effectively today, our duty as citizens is to give it a better theoretical foundation than its framers did.
The other great Catholic book on America written by an American Catholic is Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic (1866). Murray never expressed any debt to Brownson, and it’s very unlikely that Brownson had any significant direct influence on his writing. Despite enormous differences in style—Murray’s writing is rather pithy and dry while Brownson’s is redundant and passionate—the similarities in both the character of their Catholicism and their analysis of America are quite striking. Those similarities are worth emphasizing to save Murray from both his friends and his enemies who make him much more of an innovator than he was.
We can say that there is sort of a tradition in American Catholic thought that begins with Brownson and ends (so far) with Murray. Because it is based in the truth about reason or human nature and revelation, it is a tradition that always might be revived. The last two chapters of We Hold These Truths proclaim the death and the eternal rebirth of the doctrine of natural law—the realistic view that the human mind is fitted to know the truth about human purposes and that what we know through revelation completes—not contradicts—what we know through reason. The fact that in our time this doctrine is taught almost nowhere in American colleges and universities—in Murray’s day it was taught in Catholic colleges and universities—and almost universally disparaged by our intellectual elites should not make us unduly pessimistic.
The modern and postmodern crises in self-understanding can only be overcome through natural law’s revival, and that revival is always possible because the doctrine of natural law never becomes obsolete. It always expresses what we really know about ourselves and our openness to God. From Murray’s view, what we usually call postmodernism is really hyper-modernism, an openly anti-rational exaggeration of the modern insight that the purpose of human freedom is the imposition of our wills upon a nature indifferent to our existence. Genuine postmodernism—a real reflection on the failure of the modern project—would be a recovery of the idea that the lives of free and rational beings are really directed by purposes given us by nature and God.
Murray’s Ambitious, Innovating Traditionalism
Brownson’s The American Republic is ambitiously comprehensive in intention; it means to transform our nation’s self-understanding through an extensively detailed account of American political life in light of the true structure of all reality. Its very ambition is one reason for its neglect. It carries too much rather peculiar philosophical and theological baggage to be convincing to most Americans or even most Catholic Americans. We Hold These Truths seems, by contrast, to be a modest collection of essays written for a variety of occasions and purposes, and even Murray’s friends usually call his writing unsystematic. But in his preface, Murray alerts us that these essays are to be read with a “thread of unity” in mind. Each is an exploration of the “American Proposition” or what is “otherwise called . . . the public consensus or public philosophy of America.”
The word proposition, of course, comes not from our Constitution but from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where our most ambitious and philosophic president affirmed and transformed the work of “our Fathers.” Lincoln meant to articulate our common purpose better than they did in light of the crisis that was the Civil War. Murray views his transformative task as more urgent and ambitious than even Lincoln’s. His book, like Brownson’s, means to define American public or political philosophy—and not just for Catholics—for his time. Murray’s appeal to Lincoln is meant to locate his book securely in the mainstream American tradition of reverent constitutional reform.
Murray’s most urgent question is “whether and to what extent this nation, now no longer new, still remains dedicated to the conception of itself that first constituted us as a people organized for action in history.” The question is that of an American citizen. Are his people still a people properly speaking? Do they still have any common purpose that is the foundation for effective action? Does being an American citizen now mean anything at all? Especially for those who believe that Murray was simply adjusting his church to contemporary American realities, it is important to see that Murray answers all those citizen’s questions negatively. He shows, as Lincoln did, both that our dedication to what our Fathers (both spiritual and political) have given us has declined over time, and that part of this decadence can be attributed to the fact that we never were constituted fully and properly. He also follows Lincoln in muting his criticism of our founding to draw upon the gratitude people naturally and rightly have for the sources of their being.
Murray’s political piety is not really feigned; he does distance himself from most of his fellow citizens by examining carefully and systematically the intentions of our founders. And he certainly holds that their thought was better—more informed by the truth—than the dominant strains in American thought today. Murray’s “Catholic reflections on the American proposition” are finally not from the perspective of an American citizen, but they show that the citizen’s perspective is only deepened—not alienated—by the older and more comprehensive Catholic tradition in thought. If veneration for the true accomplishment of our political Fathers is the standard of citizenship, those within the Catholic natural-law community of thought are the least alienated of Americans today.
Murray’s project for revitalizing our constitutional principles is not just a reconstitution. His very first assertion is that “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.’” This close paraphrase of Lincoln’s greatest speech subtly calls attention to how the president attempted to understand anew what we were given by our Fathers. The word proposition is Lincoln’s, not theirs; it is found neither in their Declaration of Independence nor in their Constitution. It made more definite and central a particular nation’s dedication. The men Lincoln called our Fathers would not want that title to be confused with the Patriarchs of the Bible or even God the Father. They, for the most part, thought of themselves as too rationalistic, too liberated, to base good government on sacred tradition. Lincoln’s veneration for our political Fathers is, in part, a criticism of their own illusions about their own and American liberation.
Lincoln blurs the distinction between the words of our Fathers and those of the Bible because the Fathers’ rather abstract and secular rationalism is an inadequate foundation for human dedication. The selfish individualism of their Lockean theory (explained below) is an inadequate foundation for either the eradication of slavery or an extremely bloody war in defense of both the nation they created and their principle of equality. Lincoln’s careful, measured, and rhetorically astute criticism of our founding thought has become, Murray observes, “classic American doctrine.” He became the authoritative interpreter of our political inheritance; he established for us an improved but nonetheless more sacred tradition.
Neither the theoretical nor the practical demonstration of the proposition’s truth is ever finished. We never become wise, and history never comes to an end or perfects itself through our efforts. The proposition demands, Murray contends, “development on penalty of decadence.” It is not given to us imperfect thinkers and actors to be able to rest content with what our Fathers gave us. Genuine devotion to our Fathers’ affirmation and intention requires their “enlargement.” The necessity and opportunity for such enlargement occur most readily at “a moment of national crisis,” such as the Civil War. Then Lincoln “asserted the imperilled 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.’” People in their pride came to doubt that we all are equal, and Father Abraham renewed our dedication with less a proof than a project. That crisis could be solved through willful resolution or dedication because it was so partial and particular. The remaining truths we hold in common were not in doubt, and the crisis was contained to a particular country.
Murray both learned from and is ultimately critical of Lincoln’s tendency to attribute ultimate or religious significance to the merely political project of a particular country. He takes from Lincoln the phrase “ancient faith,” and he too repeatedly refers to “our Fathers.” All political principles are held, in part, as “patrimony” or “prejudice,” and to be effective they must be rooted in the soil or traditional way of life a people share. All political reform, Murray learned from Lincoln, is best understood as renewal of a nation’s dedication to its original, constituting self-conception, and he uses Lincoln’s rhetoric of innovating traditionalism to his advantage. But for him, our ancient faith finds its most complete expression not in our political Fathers, but in the Fathers of the Church. He appeals to the prejudice—that happens in this case to be full of truth—that the more ancient the Father, the more wise he is. For Murray, our political foundation always points beyond itself to our philosophical and theological foundation. What is most true in what Thomas Jefferson said was better said and understood by Thomas Aquinas.
Our spiritual Fathers’ doctrine of natural law points us away from Lincoln’s political assertiveness and even the “voluntarism” of our political Fathers’ doctrine of individual rights and toward the rational creature’s dutiful subordination of a moral order discoverable through reason and which exists independently of our own making. It points beyond political piety toward gratitude for the deepest sources of our being. “Our decisions,” Murray asserts, “cannot be purely political.” They must be “much more profound” than our Founding Fathers’. We must make “a metaphysical decision” about “the nature of man.” Our choice or decision—our enlargement of our proposition—must be in accord with what is really true about the dignity of free, rational, and social creatures. We Americans must make a metaphysical decision—embrace what is for us a theoretical innovation—to defend our free political life.
The crisis of Murray’s time was to rescue the “central” idea of the American proposition—the “realist epistemology” asserted by “We hold these truths”—by showing both its reasonableness and its indispensability. Our crisis concerns not our devotion to this or that self-evident truth but the very idea that we can know the real truth about our real situation. Gone seems to be our Fathers’ “conviction” that good or just government “is founded . . . on a certain body of objective truth . . . accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible.” Our crisis is our excessive pluralism and relativism; we’ve lost confidence in the possibility that there are truths we social and rational beings can hold together as the foundation of our political life.
To defend the truth of the American Proposition, Brownson (who, unlike Murray or Lincoln, saw the crisis of his time—the Civil War—as one concerning our truthful self-understanding) and Murray employ Catholic natural-law thinking as good American citizens in three key ways. First, they expose the merely destructive and implicitly nihilistic character of the thought of John Locke and, second, they criticize our Constitution’s framers insofar as they employed that thought. Third, they explain that our Constitution, quite providentially, is nonetheless not fundamentally Lockean. Our Constitution, instead, places Americans “under God.”
Locke’s Political Atheism
The core of our crisis is that we seem to have every reason today to question the self-evidence of what our Fathers held to be true. Their theoretical guide, Murray holds, was the English philosopher John Locke, who, as the old and true joke goes, is the key to America, at least in theory. Every schoolboy and schoolgirl now seems to know that his views of God, nature, and truth became “the serene, and often naive, certainties of the eighteenth century,” which “have crumbled.” Those certainties were based, for the Fathers, on Locke’s individualistic law of nature, which depends on certain premises about the individual’s natural, asocial existence in the “state of nature” and the contractual origin of government. Murray held that the “genuine and true [critical] insights” of “Darwin, Freud, and Marx” have, whatever their shortcomings, had the theoretical merit of destroying completely the Lockean idea of man.
The French revolutionaries, Murray adds, had the theoretical merit of understanding Locke’s individualistic or asocial law of nature more consistently than he did himself. They understood that its “naked essence” was to reduce politics—really all of human life—to a question of power. The individual, as a result, lost any perspective, either theoretical or practical, by which he might oppose the power of the state. By depriving the human individual of any social, natural content, Locke leaves him or her defenseless against superior power. The result was the “monism” or politically imposed unity of the French Revolution, and that “omnipotent” or totalitarian democracy was the inspiration for the harder totalitarianism of the twentieth century. Inspired by Rousseau, the French Revolution attempted to reduce human beings to citizens and nothing more, and religion to “civil religion” and nothing more. There are no real limits to the state’s power to shape human beings according to its political requirements.
The strength and weakness of Lockean individualism is that it is merely destructive. Its undeniable achievement has been “to destroy an order of political privilege and inaugurate an era of political equality.” But it gives no content to the liberty that we all are free to exercise equally. Lockean individualism frees the individual from all constraints for nothing in particular, thereby creating a vacuum that might be filled by anything. If human liberty has no purpose, then it is no good. That’s why Murray writes that “Communism”—which claims to be the absolute negation of the Lockean individual—“is political modernity carried to its logical conclusion.” The collectivist tyranny of communism is the product of Locke’s deepest thought; there is no real support for or any intrinsic dignity in individual or personal life. And that’s why theories that deny the real existence of human liberty—such as Darwinian sociobiology (which denies any qualitative distinction between human and other forms of animal life)—are the natural consequence of Locke’s emptying human liberty of its content. But neither communism nor sociobiology can eradicate the emptiness at the core of the modern individual.
Lockeanism, from that view, turns out not to be destructive enough; no modern solution can eradicate the longings given us by nature and God. We’re still stuck with “a spiritual vacuum” that it seems no modern theoretical or practical effort can fill. Our relentless pursuit of individual happiness has made us powerful, wealthy, and free but far more anxious than happy. We long for a “definition of freedom,” for liberty with “positive content,” for “an order of human freedom.” We need more than ever to know the truth about the purpose of the liberty we hold in common. “Self-understanding,” Murray writes, “is the necessary condition of a sense of self-identity and self-confidence. . . . If the American people can no longer base this sense on naive assumptions of self-evidence, it is imperative that they find other more reasoned grounds for their essential affirmation that they are uniquely a people.” We need a self-understanding less naive and more reasonable than the one our political Fathers gave us. For Murray, our postmodern moment is the result of our discovery of the emptiness at the core of modern thought, and that’s why he suggests that the recovery of the realism of Thomistic natural law may turn out to be postmodernism rightly understood.
Murray’s attack on our Fathers’ theory insofar as it was Lockean is cast as a Lincolnian concern. It does owe to Lincoln the thought that the Constitution of 1787—with its individualistic silence on God—is pretty purely Lockean, but the Declaration of Independence is only ambiguously so. But Murray’s attack really does owe more to the American Catholic natural-law tradition inaugurated by Brownson. Brownson is even more emphatic that our Fathers understood their Constitution according to destructive, individualistic theory, and he blames their theory for the national disintegration that caused the Civil War.
Brownson did not hesitate to write that “the theory held by our fathers” is “unsound and incompatible with the essential nature of government.” He adds that it was already true in his time that no sound statesmen held to the theory that government originated in a compact among sovereign individuals. After that theory culminated in the indiscriminate leveling of the French Revolution, no political leader—and no theorist—could take seriously either its truth or its utility. Nonetheless, Brownson admits, that theory “is the political tradition of the country.” The history of America is the working out of the details of a destructive theory that nobody really any longer believes is true. That observation is the beginning of the contribution that Catholic thinkers can make to restoring on a new foundation our nation’s self-understanding, to making sense of the truths we hold.
Brownson is an unambiguous critic of the theory of the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. By making consent and only consent the foundation of government, Jefferson “declared law derives its force of law from the will of those it is to bind.” He, in other words, declared “the purely human origins of government”; the foundation of obedience is nothing more than the enlightened self-interest of sovereign individuals. According to Brownson, “the so-called Jeffersonian democracy, in which government has no powers but such as it derives from the consent of the governed, is . . . pure individualism—philosophically considered, pure egoism, which says, ‘I am God.’” Government needs more than the unfettered egoism of a purely atheistic philosophy to sustain dutiful citizens loyal to republican government.
On the basis of this Lockean/Jeffersonian theory—the almost universal belief of the time among those in the know—the framers of our Constitution built quite incoherently. They thought they were both “constituting a real government” and producing “a treaty, compact, or agreement among sovereigns.” If individuals are sovereign or autonomous in the sense nations are, then all obedience to authority is voluntary and may be withdrawn at will. Locke compared the condition of individuals in the state of nature before government’s institution with relations among sovereign nations today. Sovereign nations surely have the right to break treaties when their self-interest dictates without being invaded, and so sovereign individuals surely have the right to withdraw their consent from government. In Brownson’s view, it makes sense to say that the “right of secession” is the same in both cases.
The right of secession, Brownson admits, was decisively rejected by the framers of the Constitution. But that doesn’t mean they gave a coherent argument against it. Under Lockean compact theory, the Confederates were right: The United States had no right to treat secession as rebellion and “to suppress it by employing all the physical forces at its command.” A Lockean union consists not of citizens but of confederates—individuals merely allied with each other in pursuit of their sovereign private interests. Brownson himself was the strongest of unionists, but only because he thought the theory of our framers did not really account for our Constitution. He sought to explain why what they accomplished actually deserved our loyalty.
The failure of our founders’ theory to prevent the Civil War or account for the need and genuine existence of human loyalty is why Brownson contends that the United States “has more need of full knowledge of itself” than ever in the wake of that war. And by giving a genuinely realistic account of the truths we hold common he aims to assist the American people in “the realization of the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual.” Like Murray, he aims to show that reasonable, Catholic reflections on the truth about human nature are what his country especially needs to resolve a nationally destructive crisis.
For Brownson, “the right of secession” sums up what’s destructive about Lockean theory generally. The sovereign individual has rights, not duties, especially the right to free himself or herself from all social ties that bind. His prediction—which Murray repeats—is that, unchecked, Lockean theory will transform all human relationships—including marriage and friendship—into mere alliances. Who can deny that Lockean individualism has transformed marriage in our time into something pretty close to just another contract to be broken at will? And even friendship is turning into networking—a convenient alliance of independent operators. The process that empties human life of social, moral, and political contents in the name of liberty we now see in the creeping libertarianism emerging as our mainstream political consensus. Lockeanism guides us more in practice now than ever before, despite our rejection of Locke’s theory. Our relativism is really the Lockean view of liberty divorced from its theoretical foundation.
Our Providential Constitution
The Catholic attack on the theory of Locke, for both Murray and Brownson, is a prelude to the gratitude they want us to have for the “providential” fact that our Constitution is more, much more, than a reflection of that theory. Murray quotes a key statement of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884): “We consider the establishment of our country’s independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers ‘building better than they knew,’ the Almighty’s hand guiding them.” The American bishops rejected the theory but affirmed the result of our framers’ building, attributing that miraculous disjunction to the providential hand of God. Murray himself gives a more specific explanation: “The providential aspect of the matter, and the reason for the better building, can be found in the fact that the American political community was organized in an era when the tradition of natural law and natural rights was still vigorous.” The reason our framers built better than they knew is that they were more influenced by a decaying but still vigorous tradition than they knew. The destructive side of their theorizing about nature exhibited itself to good effect in the Declaration of Independence, which both dissolved our bonds with Great Britain and declared illegitimate any political standard but what we know about nature through reason. But it left intact the thought that we share self-evident truths in common, and it was a somewhat traditional rather than Lockean understanding of those truths that guided the construction of our political institutions. Our framers built better than they knew, ironically, because they thought they knew less than they really did.
Murray writes more than once that the American Constitution, properly understood, was “a great providential blessing” for American Catholics in particular. Catholic American citizens—unlike citizens of, for example, the French Third Republic—can affirm the goodness of their political institutions not out of mere expediency—or “the need to accept what one is powerless to change”—but out of “conscience and conviction.” They can see “the evident coincidence of the principles which inspired the American republic with the principles that are structural to the Western Christian political tradition.” The providence is the coincidence; American Catholics are both blessed and lucky. Our Fathers—not Catholics or Thomists or even many Christians themselves of course—happened to be under the influence of the Christian natural-law tradition.
The key providential fact, for Murray, is that “the distinction between church and state, one of the central assertions of this tradition, found its way into the Constitution.” They understood that separation as “the distinction between state and society,” which followed the tradition in its assertion of “the existence of a whole wide area of human concerns which were remote from the competence of government.” Among those concerns about which government has no competence is religion. Our framers distinguished themselves from the French successors by denying the “primacy of the political”; for them, it was not true that there is “nothing above the state.”
Murray explains that “here again it was a matter of the Fathers building better than they knew.” Although they were in thought rather anti-Catholic and even anti-ecclesiastical, they still, despite themselves, defended “the freedom of the Church.” Although the Fathers did not affirm, they did not deny—and so they presupposed without really being conscious of it—the reality of the Church as an organized social community, a genuine intellectual community, an “order of culture” that transcends political life and resists politicization. They knew that government cannot “presume to define the Church or in any way supervise her exercise of authority in pursuit of her own distinct ends.” For us Americans, religious freedom is not merely guaranteed to the individual—including the individual Catholic—“but to the Church as an organized society with its own law and jurisdiction.” The area from which our framers excluded government “coincides with the divine mission of the Church” as the Church herself understands it.
“The Jacobin thesis,” Murray contends, “was basically philosophical”; it was a claim about all of reality and so a claim over the whole human being. So the Church can only exist—if at all—under the terms government sets for it, and religious or intellectual freedom are given only to isolated individuals who have no effective way to resist the state’s allegedly rational and comprehensive jurisdiction. Murray claims both that “the American thesis is simply political” and that its limitation of political life is “recognizably part of the Christian political tradition.” Both those claims can be true at the same time only because the American Constitution also implies a philosophy of the nature of man; “man has certain original responsibilities precisely as man, antecedent to his status as citizen.” Our Constitution roots our rights in our responsibilities, and higher than our responsibilities as citizens are our responsibilities to the Creator as creatures. “The American Bill of Rights,” Murray boldly concludes, “is not a piece of eighteenth-century rationalist theory; it is far more the product of Christian history,” and the person whose rights it guarantees against government had to “learn . . . his own personal dignity in the school of Christian faith.” The person whose rights are protected by our Constitution “is, whether he knows it or not, the Christian man.” From this view, what’s most providential about the Constitution is the First Amendment, which guarantees our freedom for the free exercise of religion. It is the part of the Constitution that most presumes the existence of the providential Creator of nature described in the Declaration as the source of our rights.
Murray’s account of the providential character of our Constitution is meant for several audiences. First, he writes for good Catholics—including those at the Vatican in the 1950s and under its influence—who confused the American view of liberty with the repressive “monism” of the political liberalism originating with Jacobinism—the murderous ideology of the French Revolution. American liberalism is based on the principle that human beings are not merely material or political beings; they are social creatures open to the truth about God and the good. America recognizes the freedom the Church claims for herself, and so Catholics can affirm American principle and not merely cooperate with an alien power out of expediency. Murray also writes for all American citizens. Only a Thomistic or natural-law understanding can make sense of our framers’ accomplishment. It is not enough merely to return to their self-understanding; we have to understand them better than they understood themselves. The destructive character of their theory is the main reason why we have lost contact with the purposes of their positive achievement.
Finally, Murray writes for American Catholics; it is the tradition of thought alive in the Catholic community in America that might provide what our nation most needs in response to the crisis of our time—a crisis of both truth and purpose that we sometimes call relativism. Far from wanting to adjust themselves to the dominant climate of opinion in their country today, American Catholics should lead their nation to rediscover the true foundation of the truths Americans once held in common. One reason, Murray thought, that “the Church in America has accepted this thing which is the American economy” is that “Catholic education in its present many-storied structure” would not exist without the widespread prosperity it has created. The Church always should understand American freedom and abundance not just as goods in themselves but above all as instruments for her distinctive, divine mission.
The Catholic view that our framers providentially built better than they knew began with Brownson. Every nation, he thought, has a providential constitution, which in the American case precedes and shapes the possibilities of the written Constitution. A providential constitution is “given by God himself, operating through historical events or natural causes.” The statesman who consults history and human nature discovers what God intends for his nation. Our framers, “as wise and able statesmen, who understood their age and country,” were guided by the providential constitution far more than by an abstract, individualistic theory. They are to be distinguished from those “mad theorists”—such as the French—who attempted to establish a wholly new government uprooted from “national traditions, the national character, or the national life.” Our framers were too sane or statesmanlike to reject what they had been given and could not or should not change.
Our framers gave us, Brownson observes, a republican form of government because our providential constitution included no monarchy or nobility. Because only the “commons” came to America, they saw democracy not only as choiceworthy, but as necessary for us. They were also indebted to the republicanism of Greece and Rome, as well as to Greece’s science and art. They owed more than they knew to Christianity, which made republicanism compatible with rights—both the rights of citizens and the rights of man—the rights of the creature by nature open to the truth about his Creator. Our providential constitution also incorporates certain British political institutions, such as Common Law, which also, in a democratized form, keeps alive in America something of the Christian tradition.
Brownson thought that our unwritten, providential constitution is both prior to and more fundamental than our written one, and that even the ambiguities of the Declaration of Independence must be resolved in its light. Read in light of Locke, according to Brownson, our Declaration of Independence comes close to “political atheism”; read in light of our providential Constitution, it recognizes the rights of free human beings under God. We must admit that Brownson’s account of the content of the unwritten or providential constitution is too idiosyncratic to have had any chance to sweep the nation, but his basic insight that our framers’ accomplishments were better—because of debts they did not properly acknowledge—than their theory—which was based on an abstract or unrealistic view of human liberty—is indispensable for reconciling our Constitution with the Catholic tradition in thought, with the natural purposes of beings who are social and religious by nature.
A century before Murray, Brownson maintained that the Catholic Church has no reason to be dissatisfied with the American Constitution properly understood. Its mission of evangelization is not impeded by American government, and the Church has full freedom as an institution to wield moral and political influence through persuasion. He admits that some Catholics might be dissatisfied that “the church is not formally established as the civil law of the land.” But his view is that “nor is it necessary that she should be; because there is nothing in the state that conflicts with her freedom and independence, with her dogmas or her irreformable canons.” So there is no reason why Catholics cannot be good or even the best American citizens. So confident was Brownson in the natural-law principle that what human beings know through revelation completes and does not contradict what they know through reason that he thought that Americans were particularly ready for Catholic instruction precisely because they were “freemen” who distrusted “blind obedience” and demanded reasons.
The Catholic contribution to understanding the American Proposition, Murray explains, is to show why ours is “a nation under God.” That explanation seems more necessary today than even in Murray’s time. Part of the Supreme Court seems to think that saying those words unconstitutionally mixes church and state, and the other part says those words are constitutional because rote repetition has emptied them of any genuinely religious content at all. Those who find the words unconstitutional appear to have the text of the Constitution on their side. “Under God” is conspicuous by its absence in the Preamble after “We the people.” Our written Constitution by itself, our intellectuals have finally figured out, can be construed to embody “political atheism.”
Murray’s response, following Lincoln, is to appeal to the Declaration of Independence. But his interpretation of that document is not so Jeffersonian: He contends that the key teaching of that “landmark of political theory” is that there’s “a truth that lies beyond politics: it imparts to politics a fundamental human meaning. I mean the sovereignty of God over nations as well as over individual men.” And according to Murray, the Declaration asserts that we can know of God’s sovereignty through our natural reason. That “first article of American political faith” distinguishes “America from the Jacobin laicist tradition of Continental Europe,” one that “proclaimed the autonomous reason of man to be the first and sole principle of political organization.” Americans, unlike those Europeans, believed at the time of our founding that human beings are not autonomous; what they think and will is limited by the truth about God.
Knowing that the Declaration and even the First Amendment are more ambiguous than he says, Murray also appeals to our political life to make the American distinction clear. “In the Jacobin tradition,” he observes, “religion is at best a purely private concern, a matter of personal devotion, quite irrelevant to public affairs.” Those within that political tradition view government and statesmen as “by definition agnostic or atheist.” They have no right to accept guidance from any source higher than the sovereign people, and the people means simply, in the Jacobin tradition, the party in power.
But in “the authentic American tradition,” parties and statesmen who “erect atheism into a political principle” are rejected. We expect American statesmen to be in some sense believers; if they don’t believe, they are compelled (like Jefferson, Madison, and so forth) to keep their agnosticism or atheism secret, as Madison did in his “famous Memorial and Remonstrance.” We don’t trust statesmen who don’t present themselves “under God.” Murray reminds us that President John Adams proclaimed that “men . . . should, as a society, make acknowledgements of dependence and obligations to Him.” That thought was echoed by Lincoln in another proclamation: “it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God.” President Eisenhower (in office when Murray wrote) quoted Lincoln’s words in a similar proclamation, and our Supreme Court stated in 1952 that “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” It’s because our Constitution presupposes a Supreme Being that it had no particular need to mention Him; that’s the common sense of citizens and statesmen in our authentic tradition. Murray’s quoting of proclamations and opinions is certainly selective, but for a Thomist our authentic tradition must certainly be construed according to our nation at its best.
Our political history is the decisive evidence that our Constitution does not allow the people to usurp the place of God. There is also, Murray acknowledges, a secularist tradition in America, but it has basically been in dissent and far from militant. Our atheists have respected believers, and they too characteristically view themselves as bound by some reality that exists independently of their own making. The American political tradition rejects the ideas of both individual and political autonomy. The thought of both our believing statesmen and best skeptical thinkers points them together in the direction of the truth about nature they can share in common.
Part of that truth is “that only a virtuous people can be free.” What that means, according to our authentic tradition, is that “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.” Our constitutional foundation must be “an order of reason and therefore of freedom,” a “work of reason, but not of an absolutely autonomous reason.” That must mean that “reason does not create its own laws, any more than man creates himself.” According to Murray, once we’ve gone that far together a final step is suggested by reason itself: “My situation is that of a creature before God.” The Declaration, as well as our great presidents, says something like those very words, although Murray does not claim that they understood them as well as they might have.
Brownson is even more definite about why our nation, like every other free republic, is under God. For him, the creation of the world by God is self-evident, a necessary premise of all reasoning about human nature. It is clear that “nothing in man, in nature, in the universe, is explicable without the creative act of God, for nothing exists without that act. That God ‘in the beginning created the heaven and the earth’ is the first principle of all science.” And creation cannot have occurred once and for all but must be active and continuous. “It is as bad theology and philosophy,” he explains, “to suppose that God created the universe, endowed it with certain laws of development or activity . . . and left it to go of itself. It cannot go of itself, because it does not exist of itself.” Something like Deism, or belief in the God described in the Declaration, who “endowed” but does not actively endow, could not possibly be true. So we must, in the name of reason, abandon all pretensions to self-sufficiency or autonomy. The Declaration’s account of God is, finally, incoherent: His creative activity could not be both only past-tense and providential.
The real world and our apprehension of it are possible only because of Providence or God’s gifts to us. Because of his confidence in the gift of reason, Brownson thought he could be certain that science does not and cannot conflict with the revelation of God. Thinking about that gift shows the need for revelation to complete what we know through reason. We will never know, through reason alone, why rational, finite beings came into being. Human reason, by reflecting on itself, can acknowledge the human need for revelation. “The human mind,” Brownson realistically concludes, “cannot have all science, but it has real science as far as it goes.”
We must affirm that natural law originates with a Creator, and that we are dependent on Him and not on ourselves. It is that affirmation, the very opposite of the Lockean principle of sovereignty or self-ownership, that is the foundation of human equality or our “equal rights as men.” All governments that protect rights depend on the assumption that man is not God, and all despotism originates in the “sophism,” “error,” or “sin” that in some sense he is. The idea that natural law somehow binds us all depends on the existence of a Creator who commands us all. “An imperative will, the will of a superior who has the right to command what reason dictates or approves,” Brownson contends, “is essential to government; and that will is not developed from nature, because it has no germ in nature.” It is because we see that natural law has its foundation in “the eternal will or reason of God” that we can say that “all acts of state that contravene it are . . . violences rather than laws.”
Murray is more aware than Brownson of the problems in holding that we know through our natural powers alone that we are creatures and that there is a Creator. His thought that we need a metaphysical decision about our natures suggests that the evidence might point more than one direction. But he firmly agrees with Brownson that surely something like that idea is required to justify the American view that a human being has responsibilities—and not just rights—as a human being, and not just as a citizen. And for those responsibilities to be characteristic of human beings as human beings, they must be given to us as knowing, natural beings of a certain kind.
Murray’s Relevance Today
Murray offered his interpretation of the American Proposition in opposition to an intellectual pluralism he perceived in America, one so extreme and in some ways so dogmatic that it made moral and political community impossible. He saw some—if not all—of what separated American Catholics and Protestants as based on a misunderstanding. The Protestants wrongly suspected American Catholics of being politically authoritarian, of accepting the American idea of religious liberty only expediently and temporarily. His teaching about American religious liberty was in anticipation of the time when Catholics and Protestants “under God” would ally against an increasingly more aggressive effort to secularize completely all of American life. He knew that Lockeanism or libertarianism would continue to expand in America, moving from being an economic and political doctrine (Murray saw our free economy, properly limited to its sphere, as a true human good) to a “cultural” one. All of life should be reconfigured according to the doctrine of autonomy or all human relationships should be based on contract and consent. The “mainstream” or moderate factions of both of our parties today are now both pretty libertarian—for economic freedom and “pro-choice” on the various social or cultural issues.
Murray wrote, in part, to prepare American Catholics for the “culture war” or at least the rather deep cultural division of our time. It’s basically between those who are in some sense religiously orthodox and those who are not. It is, to use the most unflattering, extreme, and misleading terms available, between “fundamentalists” and “secular humanists.” The largest and most devoted group on the orthodox or fundamentalist side is Christians who call themselves evangelical.
The evangelical view is that America is a great nation because it has a Christian or Biblical foundation. America, for them, is divided today into those who live by God’s word—as did our Constitution’s framers—and those who do not. Our libertarians respond to them that we’re not going to let your arbitrary and tyrannical view of that word limit our liberty, a view which is reflected in your distorted view of what is really a basically secular Constitution. There is, of course, room for compromise between these two views, and our Republican party today is all about that compromise. But there is no real ground on which to find reasonable agreement.
From a Catholic, natural-law view, the evangelical way of conceiving our cultural conflict more or less guarantees their political defeat in America. Their view looks unreasonable—or contrary both to the true enlightenment of our framers and to our nation’s idea of liberty. The evangelicals, their critics too easily say, have no right to impose their merely Biblical views on, say, abortion or same-sex marriage on those who do not share their faith. If our choice is between Biblical fundamentalism and Lockean individualism—as those on both sides of the culture war so often think it is—then the individualists—as the rationalists—will win, and win completely. But from the natural-law view, there’s reason and error on both sides.
The Catholic view, as articulated by Murray, is that Lockean individualism is itself somewhat unreasonable. It doesn’t correspond with what we can see with our own eyes as the truth about our natures; it, in particular, can’t account for the free and responsible being open to the truth about all things, including God. We really can know that the misguided, destructive effort to reconfigure all of life according to the abstract, individualistic principles will empty human life of much of its moral contents. We really can know that what we can know through reason has its limits, and the reductionism of modern rationalism is an attack on the complex truth about human liberty.
From Murray’s and Brownson’s natural-law view, for example, we can know that Darwinism or evolutionism as a comprehensive explanation of being human is not only anti-Biblical but unreasonable. The point is not whether evolution in some sense happened (the previous pope said it did) or whether the earth—as some fundamentalists say—is literally a little over 6,000 years old (virtually no Catholic believes that), but whether evolutionary explanations really can account for what we know about our natures. Can they explain why we are theologians, poets, philosophers, physicists, princes, or presidents? Can they even account for the individual’s liberty to conquer nature that the Lockeans cherish so much? Surely few phrases are more oxymoronic than “libertarian sociobiologist,” but it describes more than ever the views of our mainstream intellectual elite.
That means, of course, that Darwin’s thought has merit in undermining the vain pretenses of the creeping libertarianism or Lockeanism of our time. Murray explains that “evolutionary theory” has the merit of reminding us that “man is solidary, by all that is material in him, with all life.” Sociobiological materialism is erroneous as a form of reductionistic “monism” that denies what is distinctive of human beings, and Lockeanism has the merit of reminding us of its inability to account for human liberty or individuality. But Murray adds that “purified of monistic connotations,” the Darwinian principle of natural continuity “is compatible with a central thesis of Christian anthropology” that “asserts the law of solidarity for both flesh and spirit.” Human beings are social beings both as animals like the others and as free and rational social beings. Darwin is right on natural sociality, and Locke is right on our distinctive freedom. Natural-law properly understood brings what is true about sociobiology and libertarianism together in a complete understanding of distinctive but still natural human being.
Brownson devoted many, many pages to refuting the scientific reductionism—including the Darwin-inspired eugenic schemes—of his time; he showed that such reductionism both perniciously denied the dignity of human liberty and moral responsibility and just did not square with the facts we actually can know. Today, the Catholic natural-law writers still give rational, natural arguments against abortion, biotechnological eugenics, sexual permissiveness, same-sex marriage, pornography, callous indifference to the poor, and capital punishment, as well as for genuine subsidiarity and religious liberty, appealing not just to believers but to all free men and women who rightly demand reasons. That’s not to say their arguments are always airtight or even right, but they’re arguments nonetheless. They mean to create the kind of disagreement in America that might be a prelude to shared understanding. They mean to restore Murray’s view—which he shared with both our political and spiritual Fathers—that “the whole premise of the public argument . . . is . . . that among the people everything is not in doubt, but that there is a core of agreement. . . . We hold certain truths; therefore we can argue about them.”
We Hold These Truths at least offers the hope that Catholic natural-law thinking can bring together the religious devotion and moral concerns of the evangelicals with the devotion to reason and concern for scientific truth of the secular humanists. It offers the hope of getting Americans really arguing again, of holding again the truth that they are capable of engaging in the dialogue about the human good that is the foundation of any civil and civilized moral and political life.
Reproduced from WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS by John Courtney Murray, SJ – Introduction by Peter Augustine Lawler, published by Sheed & Ward. © Sheed & Ward, 2005. Reproduced by arrangement with Sheed & Ward.