John Courtney Murray and Reflections on Religion in the Public Square

For my write-up today on The Search for God at Harvard, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Ari Goldman says on pages 117-118 about the Catholic thinker John Courtney Murray’s stance on church and state:

“On writing on church-state issues, Murray said that the church should not try to impose its will on society through legislation that would outlaw for all citizens those practices forbidden to Catholics, such as divorce.  (Today, Murray followers might add such practices as birth control and homosexuality, maybe even abortion, all issues unthought of in the context of church teaching in Murray’s day).  Rather than try to impose the Catholic will on others, Murray said, the church should present its positions on the basis of moral values and reason and thereby try to influence both its own members and society at large.  Such a position, Murray admitted, did ‘not promise to transform society into the City of God’ but only to prescribe ‘the minimum of morality which must be observed by the members of society if a social environment is to be human and inhabitable.”

I’ve wrestled with the issue of religion and the public square on this blog before: see, for example, here and here.  I suppose that, if I have a position on whether religion should influence public policy, I’d tentatively say sure, so long as the religionists make their arguments in the public square, not on the basis of divine revelation, but rather on the basis of what is good for society.  Does that overlap with Murray’s position?  I don’t know.  As I look at Goldman’s characterization of Murray’s position, it does appear to maintain that the church should seek to influence society through an appeal to moral values and reason, and that is essentially what I’m saying.  On the other hand, Goldman also quotes Murray as saying that society should prescribe a “minimum of morality” that is necessary for society to be “human and inhabitable”, which (to me) implies that society should ban things like obvious murder and theft, but not things like divorce and birth control.  I’m just guessing here, for I have not read Murray.

The thing is, one can argue that a more expansive role for government—-more expansive than John Locke’s view that government should limit itself to protecting people’s life, liberty, and property—-is essential for society to be “human and inhabitable”.  From a left-wing perspective, one can argue that having a social safety-net that makes sure that people don’t fall through the cracks when they become poor and sick is essential for society to be “human and inhabitable”.  From a right-wing Catholic perspective, one can argue that society should discourage divorce because marriage is better for the stable upbringing of children (whether that’s true or not has been debated).

But, even if conservative Catholics can advance secular arguments (if you will) for why their religious preferences should be made into law, it should be remembered that there are limits to what the law can accomplish.  Abortion will not vanish just because there’s a law against it, for example, for there are reasons that women have abortion, and in some cases those reasons are understandable (the costs of raising a child), even if you don’t want to go so far as to say that abortion is justifiable.  A blanket prohibition on divorce will not necessarily bring about family stability because keeping together two people who hate each other and constantly bicker will not help the children or provide them with a stable environment. 

Whether or not I agree that accepting the evangelical version of the Gospel will necessarily change people’s hearts and minds, I do believe that societal change is contingent on people’s hearts and minds being changed—-on them becoming more compassionate, or tolerant, or reflective.  I wouldn’t say that there should be no laws until people’s hearts and minds are changed, however.  While I believe that laws against divorce and birth control would be unrealistic, I think that there should be a social safety net because, if the government does not provide that, nobody else will, at least not on an adequate level.  And, in the case of civil rights, the government was right to step in and to ban discrimination against African-Americans, for, while white racists did need for their hearts to be changed in order for discrimination to come to an end, waiting for that to happen would have been futile, in my opinion: the government needed to provide that push.

That said, I enjoyed Ari Goldman’s discussion in his chapter on Catholicism and his complex relationship with the controversial conservative Catholic Archbishop of New York (from 1984-2000), John Joseph O’Connor!  The way Goldman narrates, O’Connor liked Goldman and his family and also respected their Jewish practices when they all ate together.  But O’Connor did not always like how Goldman (a reporter) covered O’Connor’s controversial stances in the public square.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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