John Courtney Murray’s “We Hold These Truths” is hardly a tumbleweed of early-twentieth-century Catholic social thought. Though it initially helped to reconcile Catholicism and the religious pluralism that our nation champions, it is also a work that deals deeply with that taboo concept of today: patriotism.
Reading John Courtney Murray’s famous work, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, it would almost seem as if it had been written just this year. Take one of his statements, for example: On that declaration that all men are created equal, he wrote, “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 [American] project that does not meet powerful opposition” (p. viii). One would be surprised that the work was published in 1960, since it could easily be applied to the political climate of today. The American Jesuit priest and theologian has left a mark on American religious intellectual life that we continue to debate even to this day, and the relevance of his work is coming back as we continue to see tensions regarding American culture, religious identity, and the importance of American Constitutionalism.
Murray’s work is hardly a tumbleweed of early-twentieth-century Catholic social thought. Though it initially helped to reconcile Catholicism and the religious pluralism that our nation champions, it is also a work that deals deeply with that taboo concept of today: patriotism. Not patriotism in the way we envision it, as pride in one’s country, but a patriotism that is locked in arms with a civic sense of duty and obligation to one’s country. This latter form of patriotism begs for a return to civic knowledge, even historical knowledge, that calls to mind the wisdom and uniqueness of the American Founding—and acts upon it to restore what I call the American civic psyche.
Murray is one writer whose work can begin to elucidate on the importance for this historical and civic patriotism, since only with this psyche are people from various backgrounds, faiths, and philosophies able to contribute to their nation’s mission without resorting to a form of “civil war.” He opens his work by reminding us that our Founding Fathers’ endeavor is not over. To paraphrase Murray, the United States of America, as it was “immortally asserted” by Lincoln, is dedicated to a proposition that sustains itself on the moral spirit of its people. In philosophic terms, a proposition needs to be demonstrated; in mathematics a proposition is often a statement of an operation to be performed. Thus, Murray wrote, “The American Proposition is at once doctrinal and practical, a theorem and a problem. It is an affirmation and also an intention. It presents itself as a coherent structure of thought that lays claim to intellectual assent; it also presents itself as an organized political project that aims at historical success” (p. vii). From this assertion he concludes that “neither as a doctrine nor as a project is the American Proposition a finished thing” (p. vii). We cannot take its historical success for granted.
As the preface to We Hold These Truths, written by Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., points out, the unifying thread of Murray’s essays are the effort to explore America’s public philosophy, which Burghardt defines as the “civic consensus whereby a people acquires its identity and sense of purpose.” To reach this civic consensus, there needed to be an overarching agreement on what Murray called “substantive truths” (p. 106). He believed that the Founding Fathers’ writings upheld that these truths “command the structure and the courses of the political-economic system of the United States” (p. 106). In other words, while our founding documents are immortal in their applicability, they delineate the structure of our political and economic quite clearly and does not need revision. Of course, dissenters of the American project might say that these so-called truths were subjective. If prompted to explain why these truths are, in fact, true, we might respond saying that they are “self-evident,” quoting from our Declaration of Independence. But, as the title of his work indicates, Murray did not think truths can be self-evident. To Murray, the truths that the Founding Fathers wrote about were known by reason; reached by “careful inquiries” of the “wise and honest” (p. 118). This fact meant that those truths that the Founders had discovered to be self-evident were now open and accessible for the world to see: If we lose sight of them today, it is not because they were false from the beginning, but because we have lost the ability to undertake that same wise, honest, and careful inquiry into the founding principles of our nation.
Why have we lost this ability? Every proposition presupposes an epistemology of some sort, Murray argued. So the epistemology of the American Proposition was made clear by the Declaration of Independence in the phrase that reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” The method of reasoning of the Founders had led them to conclude that the truths upon which they would build a nation were self-evident to anyone willing to deduce them, as they had. Murray’s contemporary society had a problem, however. He wrote that the “serene, and often naïve certainties of the eighteenth century have crumbled,” and so the “self-evidence of the truths may be legitimately questioned” (p. viii). What could not be questioned, however, was that the American Proposition “rests on the forthright assertion of a realist epistemology” (p. viii). Our modern epistemology is flawed, and it started to become flawed years ago.
From the reasoning of the Founding Fathers, the American people were left with a consensus of elements that were ingrained in the American civic psyche: People are free; under a limited government; guided by law; ultimately resting on the sovereignty of God. Murray argued in 1960 that this consensus no longer existed, and we might say today that this consensus is outright rejected. To our Founding Fathers, Murray wrote, the political and social life of man “did not rest upon such tentative empirical hypotheses as the positivist might cast up. The dynamism of society was not furnished, as in Marxist theory, by certain ideological projections of economic facts and interests. The structure of the state was not ultimately defined in terms of a pragmatic calculus” (p. ix). Liberal individualism or any new form of rationalism would be hostile to sound political philosophy, and Murray wisely saw how the influence of modern rationalism and philosophy in the university had helped to erode political philosophy. Now, consensus on our founding principles cannot come from modern philosophical creeds.
Another element that impaired belief in this consensus was its basis in natural law. Murray wrote, “the American university long since bade a quiet goodbye to the whole notion of an American consensus, as implying that there are truths that we hold in common, and a natural law that makes known to all of us the structure of the moral universe in such wise that all of us are bound by it in a common obedience” (p. 40). The founders and early political theorists treated the concept of natural law as an inheritance. Murray’s own understanding of natural law was based on the notion that man is intelligent, that reality is intelligible, and that reality (as grasped by intelligence) imposes on the will an obligation to be “obeyed in its demands for action or abstention” (p. 109). Given America’s religious and philosophical pluralism, however, Murray argued that we needed to reach this consensus again on the basis of reason and natural law. But this very premise has come under scrutiny. A rejection of natural law now acts antithetically to the purpose of the American Founding.
Murray’s work is an intellectually rigorous effort to understand the American project from a Catholic perspective. There is something problematic for a Catholic about claiming that truths are self-evident and can be discovered by reason. Murray’s writings in We Hold These Truths has a deeper element that entwines Catholic theology and political philosophy: What is the role of the Catholic in today’s cultural climate? Is it better to engage in social and civic discourses from the premise of philosophical reason, or must one uphold theological language and religious belief? This predicament goes back to the issue that Pope John Paul II discussed in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, and it is a topic that is much too lengthy to open up at this moment. Suffice it to say that recognizing that America’s founding principles—its self-evident truths—came from a realist epistemology does not negate neither the vital role of faith in public life nor the need for faith overall. Murray viewed natural law, the basis of self-evident truths, as something that offered “a more profound metaphysic, a more integral humanism, a fuller rationality, a more complete philosophy of man in his nature and history” because it was rooted in reality in such a way that it formed the “basis for a firmer faith and a more tranquil, because more reasoned, hope in the future” (p. 335).
Natural law, then, is that point of cohesion within a civic body, between those who are not religious (or of another religion outside of Christianity) and Christians, because it allows for non-religious citizens to understand and accept the consensus of our founding principles, and it allows Christians to use that consensus to heighten their faith since a consensus based on natural law accepts limits, allowing us to defer what is beyond us to He who is greater than us. Natural law, after all, entails a realistic understanding of human nature, of the limits of government, and even of the limits of human organization in this world; thus, it serves American Christians well in their lives as citizens to uphold those truths upon which our nation was founded, partaking in political and public life, in order to preserve the ability to live out our faith most honestly. Culture and faith come before politics, always, but our culture and faith need to be worked into our political life in such a way that helps to restore the American civic psyche without also compromising the integrity of our theology. It is possible, and Murray’s writings are a step towards finding the way to do so.
Murray’s own foreword to his work said it best.
The life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible. If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke. It is indeed in many respects a pragmatic proposition; but its philosophy is not pragmatism. For the pragmatist there are, properly speaking, no truths; there are only results. But the American Proposition rests on the more traditional conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for, if they are not held, assented to, consented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City, in which men may dwell in dignity, peace, unity, justice, well-being, freedom. (p. ix)
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
1 Murray, John Courtney, S.J. We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Sheed & Ward, 1960.
2 Ibid. Preface by Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., pp. xi-xv.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “View of Washington City” (1871) by E. Sachse & Co., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.