John Courtney’s Murray’s We Hold These Truths at 50

Symposium: John Courtney’s Murray’s We Hold These Truths at 50

The Catholic Social Science Review Vol. XVI (2011)
  • Kenneth L. Grasso: Introduction

  • John F. Quinn: The Enduring Influence of We Hold These Truths:
    John Courtney Murray’s landmark work, We Hold These Truths, was conceived and brought into being by the editors of Sheed & Ward, who wanted to bring Murray’s work to a broad cross-section of America. When it first appeared, the book was reviewed favorably in both religious and secular journals. Political conservatives were particularly enthusiastic about its defense of natural law principles and its opposition to secularism. By the late 1960s, liberal Catholics interested in legalizing abortion began citing its distinctions between public and private morality. In the 1980s, neoconservative Catholic thinkers embraced the book for much the same reason that conservatives had endorsed it in 1960. While many other Catholic thinkers on both the left and right have grown more critical of the work in recent years, neoconservatives have remained its most dedicated adherents.

  • Kenneth L. Grasso: Getting Murray Right:
    This essay seeks to dispel two common misunderstandings of the argument of We Hold These Truths. Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, it argues, Murray does not turn the American founding into an expression of Thomistic political theory. Although he emphasizes the Christian and medieval roots of the American democratic experiment, Murray also recognizes—even if he does not explore the point systematically—the imprint left on the American founding by distinctively modern intellectual currents. Likewise, it maintains that although the rejection of the natural law tradition under the impact of Enlightenment rationalism figures prominently in Murray’s account of the crisis of the modern West, Murray’s account of the role of natural law in this crisis must be seen against the backdrop of a broader analysis whose focus is theological and spiritual in nature, and which sees the ultimate source of this crisis in modern culture’s rejection of Christian revelation.

  • William Gould: We Hold These Truths and the Pluralist Civilization
    This essay explores the project undertaken by Murray in We Hold These Truths and its relevance to contemporary America. When it first appeared in 1960, We Hold These Truths made a powerful case to the American public for the compatibility of Catholicism and American democracy and of the need for a renewal of America’s historic public consensus rooted in natural law. It also emphasized the role that the Catholic political tradition could play in this renewal. Although parts of its argument may be problematic, and vast changes in America’s cultural and religious landscape make it dated in some respects, five decades after its original publication, Murray’s book nevertheless remains highly relevant to our contemporary situation, both as a contribution to democratic theory and as a profound reflection on the nature of “the civilization of the pluralist society.”

  • Michael Novak: Holding These Truths Today:
    This essay explores “the metaphysics of American ideas” and the strengths and weaknesses of Murray’s argument in We Hold These Truths. The philosophical principles that animate the American founding, it argues, presuppose a particular understanding of the structure of being whose roots are biblical in inspiration. Murray’s account, it continues, calls our attention to the many links between the American founding and the Catholic tradition, suggests ways in which Catholic thought can give us a deeper understanding of the “truths” informing the Founding, and illuminates the gulf between contemporary America’s secular “superculture” and the many cultures of local America. Expressing some concerns about the conceptions of reason, nature, and grace that inform Murray’s thought, and of Murray’s engagement with the thought of the American founders, it concludes by attempting to extend We Hold These Truths’ argument by identifying three truths, over and above those identified by Murray, that are essential to a proper understanding of the American democratic experiment.

  • Gary D. Glenn: Murray After Fifty Years: Five Themes
    This essay explicates five themes from We Hold These Truths. Specifically, it seeks to: (1) compare Murray’s treatment of contemporary America’s loss of a public philosophy to similar arguments made by important non-Catholic journalists and political theorists in his day; (2) bring Murray’s account of the Christian roots of the liberal tradition into conversation with the view that the liberal tradition is specifically modern; (3) explore the significance of Murray’s famous interpretation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment as entirely practical “articles of peace”; (4) critically engage Murray’s account of the thought of the founders and explore the motivations underlying this account; and (5) relate Murray’s account of the natural law theory undergirding the American democratic experiment to the political theory informing the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s re-founding of the American regime.

  • Gerard V. Bradley: We Hold These Truths and the Problem of Public Morality
    This essay maintains that although We Hold These Truths represented an important milestone in Catholic reflection on the American regime, Murray’s analysis of public morality and the state’s role in its promotion and enforcement is notably weak and of little assistance to us today. More specifically, it argues that Murray’s analysis is insufficiently philosophical and too concerned with the pragmatic task of forging an approach widely acceptable in the America of his day; that it rests on an artificial distinction between “private” and “public” morality that fails to sufficiently appreciate the essential dependence of sound morals legislation upon the government’s recognition of moral truth; and that it too closely identifies the whole of law’s competence with the scope of its coercive jurisdiction, thus failing to appreciate the directive and educative properties of law and its role in the establishment of conditions conducive to human flourishing.