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John Courtney Murray, religious liberty, and modernity: Part II: modern constitutional democracy.


THE ARGUMENT THAT STUDENTS of Murray make in defense of liberal or constitutional democracy as the best regime simply for the Catholic understanding can be found in Murray's own writings, at least in outline. It is a historical argument, and runs as follows. Unlike the liberal or laicist democracies of nineteenth-century Europe, which were in fact more or less what I have described as Hobbesian or Lockean, American constitutional democracy is not characterized by an indifference to the truth of religion or, worse, by a rationalist faith that seeks to rid the world of "superstition." The American political order is quite different. As its Declaration of Independence says, it conceives of rights as endowed by a sovereign God, and the belief in those rights as a "holding of truths." (2) In addition, the First Amendment's free exercise clause makes clear that the political agreement reached by the Framers was an agreement of religious men or representatives of a religious people, who wished their government to have a care for the protection of their religion from government interference. This people was, certainly, a Protestant people; they shared a Protestant consensus or "public philosophy," and their disagreements presupposed this more fundamental consensus or agreement. But the principles that they articulated in the First Amendment are in fact truly Catholic principles. They evince a care for religion. Moreover, the distinction between the State and civil society is, both historically and theologically, a Catholic principle, for the Galatian doctrine of the two swords, altogether unknown to antiquity but required by Christianity, is what has eventually borne fruit as the distinction between the state and society. Finally, the complementary notion of indirect government through a secular state, which informs the American political order, is first found in the writings of John of Paris.

Now to be sure, the modern understanding of all of these notions found its initial expression in writers such as Hobbes and Locke, and was largely directed against the Catholic Church, which failed to follow John of Paris and instead sought confessional Catholic states. But this too was a historical accident. The Church had, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, to fill the civilizational void of rule left by that collapse. Having done its work and assisted the maturation of Western man, however, the Church failed to step aside as its own principles, had they been fully understood, would have dictated. And so it was left to the Church's secularist opponents to articulate the doctrines that gave rise to constitutional democracy. Now, standing as it were at the end of this maturation, if not at the end of history, the Church recognizes the fully awakened consciousness of human freedom and reclaims as her own the principle of human liberty that informs constitutional democracy. She recognizes the truth and justice of American Constitutional democracy as the best regime simply. (3)

That is Murray's historical, and historicist, argument. There is an initial difficulty with it: while there are undoubtedly Christian influences on the American Founding, hard historical evidence indicates that Jefferson and Madison--upon whose work the American Founding rests--were Hobbesian or Lockean, intent on promoting a soft or easygoing indifference in their fellow citizens in the name of comfortable self-preservation. (4) Murray's broad reading of the free exercise clause, which finds that the American regime intended to favor religious practice, mistakes a difference of tactics for a difference of intent. "Our sister states in Pennsylvania and New York," says Jefferson, "have made the happy discovery that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play." (5)

More broadly, Murray's argument is supported by rather thin evidence, including appeals to the true thought of Roger Williams (who was not one of the Framers),6 and an uncritical dependence on Clinton Rossiter and on the Carlisle brothers' neo-Hegelian history of political thought. (7) As a result, it tends to confuse a government that "derives its just powers from the consent of the governed" with government that is "derived from law and limited by law"; (8) it confuses "natural rights" with "the rights of Englishmen"; (9) it confuses the medieval doctrines of consent and representation with their radically different modern equivalents; (10) it confuses the distinction between church and state, each of which makes a formal competing claim to authority, with that between the "state" and "culture," (11) which knows no such competition. In sum, it confuses "government" with "rule." (12)

Some have called Murray's argument a new, consciously constructed historical myth, designed to take the place of the myth that, according to Murray, had usurped it--that is, the destructive myth that gained currency after the Civil War and continues in our day, the secularist or secularist/Protestant myth according to which America is a regime securing the liberty of strictly autonomous individuals, and best understood as such. (13) But if Murray's argument is a consciously constructed myth, it is an unfortunate one. Myths or legends are by their nature captivating to a wide audience. One can readily grant that the American Founders were not all Enlightenment rationalists, but can anyone really believe, as Murray claims, that "the First Amendment is simply the legal enunciation" of Pius XII's teaching that "in certain circumstances God ... does not impose any duty ... to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false"? Does the First Amendment "say," as Murray boldly claims, "that in American circumstances the conscience of the community, aware of its moral obligations to the peace of the community [is] speaking therefore as the voice of God"? (14) Does this not, as Denenfeld had charged, clearly change the very meaning of the First Amendment?

In fact, students of Murray now argue, it does and it doesn't. It creatively corrects that meaning. As Murray himself had put it, the Founders "built better than they knew." (15) They relied upon the Christian tradition without being fully aware of it. The "Creator" to which the Declaration of Independence refers as having endowed us with rights can be consistently understood only by reference to the Catholic natural law tradition. The Founders must have conceived of us, George Weigel argues, as "persons." (16) The basis of their consciousness is Christian.

Now the serious argument behind this claim is that Christianity, by disclosing the horizon of the city of man as a mere horizon, radically alters human consciousness, making us incapable of being political animals any longer, and that modern political philosophers, wittingly or not, were affected by this change. But this argument, more often associated with Augustine than Aquinas, (17) is not without problems of its own. To be sure, there is no denying that Christianity has had a profound impact upon the self-understanding of those who have come to believe in it. Defining man as "the rational animal," the Christian comes to understand being political as only, so to speak, a particular consequence of being rational. Christianity explicitly teaches indeed that our longing for wholeness is not fully satisfied by political life and, since his final end transcends political life, the Christian is not as fully integrated into that life as most citizens might appear to be in the thought of some pre-Christian philosophers. Moreover, the Christian's understanding of what constitutes virtuous activity appears to be altered: such activity aims not simply at the noble, as it could appear to in non-Christian politics, but at the fulfillment of divinely ordained justice. (18)

Still, to say nothing for the moment of the adequacy of the understanding of pre-Christian politics contained in this dichotomy, even in the Augustinian teaching the equality of all human beings before God does not abolish their natural differences or their fundamental inequality in regard to intellectual capacity and human perfection, as liberalism wishes to do. If all differences are transcended in the unity of faith, they nonetheless retain their political significance for Augustine. (19) And it remains the case for him that human beings cannot obtain their full moral and intellectual development outside of political society. Augustine certainly never approved of anything like the divorce between ethics and politics that is characteristic of Murray's thought. (20) Far from equipping Americans with a better understanding of their own regime, Murray's argument would merely deprive Christians of a rich heritage of political reflection, which might be the more needed in our depoliticized times.

A more serious problem for our politics is that the Murrayite argument destroys the naturalness of the natural law, the alleged basis of our natural rights. Murray declares: "Christianity freed man from nature by teaching him that he has an immortal soul," which he would not have known by nature. By so doing, "it taught him his own uniqueness, his own individual worth, the dignity of his own person, the equality of all men, the unity of the human race." (21) Hence natural law, whose precepts are, according to its traditional proponents, accessible to unassisted human reason, becomes in Murray's hands something that can be known only to those who, on the basis of a specific, historically disclosed religious teaching, experience or share in the consciousness of the "dignity of the human person," a dignity that is allegedly unknowable to others. "Nature" is replaced by a divinely altered "consciousness," and natural law thereby disappears.

When Murrayites like Richard John Neuhaus appeal to non-Catholic citizens in the idiom of "natural right" and "natural law," then, one has good reason to believe that they are indeed thinking of America as a "Christian nation," one founded by human beings whose consciousness was decisively shaped and improved by the Christian teaching on the immortality of the soul, and one that should accordingly be ordered in accordance with a divine revelation. For Murrayites to deny that this is what they are thinking, in fact, could appear to non-Christians as almost Orwellian. At the same time, Murrayites are clearly engaged in an effort to idealize the Catholic tradition of political thinking, to understand it not as its greatest exponents did but in the light of a possibility known fully only to those who live in allegedly more advanced (modern) times. To effect a shotgun wedding, as it were, between two long-time antagonists, they have dressed up liberalism in borrowed finery and dressed the other down in borrowed casual clothing. In light of the likely prospects of any such union, the attempt is unfortunate. It is the more unfortunate in light of the fact that for those who wish to fulfill the practical duty of preserving and fostering the living tradition of Catholicism, there is another direction, a more authentically Catholic one, that might have been taken, one that recognizes the essentially liberal nature of the American Founding and the more than liberal nature of Catholicism, but which might self-consciously provide a modus vivendi for Catholics living in liberal regimes.

Thomistic opposition to liberalism, because it is deeper than the issue of rights, includes a certain place for what liberals call "rights." Aquinas presents neither a doctrine of duties resting upon rights nor a doctrine of rights resting upon duties, but a political doctrine resting upon goods and an order of ends. To Aquinas rational individuals are not their own last ends; we are ordered toward ends outside or beyond ourselves, toward which healthy political life directs us. In this Aquinas stands quite apart from liberalism, which begins with the denial of natural ends. Yet from these quite deeply opposed starting points, Aquinas and practicing liberals do reach a common result in speaking about personal dignity and freedom. Long before Kant, Aquinas cites, and in several places uses, a definition of the human person as having a property pertaining to dignity. The ground of this dignity is ontological, not moral: it rests on our possession of a rational nature, not our possession of virtue. And "dignity" itself, on whatever grounds, must mean something like a quality of intrinsic worth; it means being a principle or end rather than a mere "instrument" (as are all nonrational creatures, ultimately). If for Aquinas human beings are ordered to ends beyond themselves, they are also "for their own sake," or ends in themselves. To be sure, the dignity we possess as rational creatures, unlike liberal dignity, is not utterly invariable: virtue adds to it, vice detracts from it--perhaps even to the point of effacing it altogether, as we have indicated. Still, for Aquinas human persons always retain in this life at least the natural dignity of being potentially sons of God. If hardened criminals are in a way like beasts, their dignity as persons is nonetheless irreducible. In this sense even a criminal may (loosely) be said to have certain irreducible rights--such as the right to a priest, to a proper burial, to a just regime. A full and careful exploration, articulation, and deepening of this Thomistic teaching might prove much more fruitful to modern Catholics than the confused synthesis that currently dominates Catholic political thought. Indeed, in the light of this Thomistic teaching the "Declaration on Religious Liberty" might come to be seen as attempting to lay hold of something valid in liberal speech, to wrest it from the liberal spirit, and to deepen it.

Similarly, while the Murrayite understanding of the American Founding cannot be sustained, a careful assessment of the American Founding and of American political history--one that does not assume beforehand that the dignity of the person articulated within the Catholic tradition is simply compatible with modern constitutional government--might help Catholics find a healthy life within American constitutionalism. As we have noted, the spirit of the American Founding, if heavily Lockean, is not unequivocally liberal. And even if the most important Founders intended it so, their intention is not the only thing that matters in identifying its spirit. The intention of those who ratified the documents, of those whose consent put it into effect, must be analyzed, including the Christian (Protestant) element in the American Founding. Finally, not everyone, even the American, who uses the language of inalienable rights is convinced of its truth on liberal grounds. If the discovery of both liberal and preliberal elements in America should reveal the American spirit as ambivalent, it will not be the first time that something great is found to rest on an irreducible tension. The American Founding may indeed be better than its rationalist proponents had hoped.

Still, a great deal of caution is in order: the American Founding could also be worse than its proponents had hoped. Regardless of their intentions Catholics may run a risk, when embracing the principles of the American Founding, of becoming part of a project that runs contrary to what they stand for, and of failing in an obligation that, with the destruction of modern rationalism, Catholic leaders will have a growing opportunity to fulfill. To understand that risk and that opportunity, Catholics will have to do more than search for points of agreement between their tradition and the American Founding. They will need to conduct a full, careful, deep examination of the broad theoretical intention of modern political philosophy over and against the classical political philosophy from which it distinguished itself. This latter task is one that has scarcely begun to be accomplished. (22) But a critical assessment of a few key claims of John Courtney Murray might help us make a start. For Murray's claim on behalf of a historically disclosed "natural law" has the great advantage of forcing us to examine whether allegedly novel, "Christian insights" contained in that law were present in human consciousness prior to Christianity, (23) and whether they were treated adequately by post-Christian or modern philosophy. As we have seen, the most important of these insights, for Murray, is that of the immortality of the soul and of a divine providence that accompanies the argument for justice. Understanding the two fundamental responses to these issues, ancient and modern, may provide a helpful first step to an assessment of our current situation.


To Murray, consciousness of the divinely disclosed teaching of the immortality of the human soul, and hence of the dignity of the human person, renders our moral reasoning superior to merely scientific reasoning, which ignores the full reality of human being. In making this claim Murray may be said to imply that the reasoning of the genuinely moral man will rest (consciously or not) not upon unassisted human reason but upon religious faith. And Murray's claim in this case shows that he has not been led, by modern political rationalism, to an estrangement from what is perhaps our fundamental concern as human beings: immortality. Yet the activity of classical political philosophy with respect to this very concern, our immortality, is overlooked by those who view classical political philosophy, as Murray does, as a historically necessary (and historically limited) defense of the city's justice against the critique of ancient conventionalists, a defense that ends in the fatal monism of the polis. (24)

To see the centrality of that concern for classical political philosophy, it is important to note that Plato's Socrates, far from assuming the goodness of the philosophic life, the life led in accordance with reason, took seriously the challenge posed to that life by the pious citizen, to whom philosophizing appeared corrupt. We may even say that a questioning of the assumption of philosophy's goodness lies at the core of Socratic philosophizing. (25) That is, in light of the always-incomplete character of our knowledge of causes, Socrates took seriously the prospect that the pious citizen might be right--that the philosopher's whole activity might be seriously mistaken, so that his soul, which might be eternal, would be condemned to eternal misery. (26) And this very seriousness appears to have been behind Socrates' turn to the practice of dialectics. In any event, in the course of his examination of the moral opinions of his interlocutors, Socrates appears to have seen something like this: the hope for an end to our troubles, most importantly the troubling awareness of our own mortality, or the brevity of all good things, informs the moral life and the moral man's belief in gods who will notice the self-sacrifice entailed in all admirable or noble deeds. Moral virtue thus appeared as a sign of our discontent with our mortality or particularity; it was seen to contain the hope that, by making ourselves worthy of it, through spirited self-sacrifice that pleased just gods, we could overcome the limits that our nature imposed. (27) Plato's Socrates recognized in those spirited opinions of the pious citizen an awareness that we cannot obtain by ourselves the satisfaction of our longings. Now it does seem to be the case for Plato that, through dialectics, the impossibility of the hoped-for pious solution to our troubles could become manifest to the potential Socratic, and that with this, the soul was free to philosophize without the spirited hopes that had prevented it from seeing the world as it is. But seeing at the same time the depth of our longing for immortality, and its deep effect on nonphilosophic reasoning, the impossibility of a genuinely rational politics became manifest to the Socratic. Nor does Plato's Socrates suggest that the longing for immortality disappears with the loss of spiritedness and the hopes that sustain it. And since the longing cannot be satisfied, a certain sadness accompanies the resignation that follows from the Socratic's insight into his mortality.

Whatever its agreement with classical political philosophy, modern political philosophy entails a rejection of such resignation, and a defense of the conviction that this world can and ought to satisfy us--that, owing to blind superstition of "the Kingdom of Darkness," human beings have been mistakenly abjuring the happiness that is indeed available to us on our own. For if resignation to the limits of our nature seems to be a central part of classical political philosophy, the moderns attempt to avert any resignation to our enslavement to nature. In modern political philosophy, one finds not so much dissatisfaction or restlessness in the soul but dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction, a rejection of both religious longing and philosophic resignation (or "utopianism"). Whether the moderns' revolt against such longing and resignation was justified or not is, of course, the question. A final reflection on John Courtney Murray's assessment of modern political rationalism suggests why it may not have been.

To Murray, modernity is characterized by two things: "secular technological reasoning," on one hand, and the rise of a historical consciousness of freedom and immortality, on the other. The former has its antidote in the latter, insofar as the latter gives rise, at least in America, to a politics of the person. For to Murray, the political thought of the Enlightenment was merely a temporary aberration, necessary for the destruction of the old regime and its religious strife, but also something that "bore in its depths an intention of nature ... to situate the human person at the center of the whole social order." (28)

This remarkable claim stands at the heart of the Murrayite embrace of modern constitutionalism. But the claim fails to take account of a possible theoretical and practical union of the modern political project and modern science. Just as classical political philosophy was more than a civic-minded response to the conventionalists' challenge to justice, Enlightenment political philosophy may have been more than a response to the political problem created by the religious wars in Europe after the Reformation, and less than "an intention of nature." Its deepest goal may well have been not practical but theoretical, a goal to be served by the anticipated atrophy of all transcendent longing through the transformative work of modern natural science.

Arguing against all titles to rule, as we saw above, modern political philosophy argues for the rule of reason, that transformative power that we humans happen to possess over and against what is given by nature. The full activity of reason is thus no longer theoria, contemplation, understanding of nature as it is given to us, but a remaking of the naturally given, for that given-ness is held to be deceptive. The naive activity of theoria carries us away from the genuine, unskeptical, autonomous rule of reason, and so it must be overcome. In Montesquieu's words, the sciences of speculation "render men savage." (29) Theoria causes us to seek fulfillment in something transcendent, and that is its difficulty. If classical political philosophy is the grounding ascent from our naive or political perception of the world to a genuinely natural understanding, (30) modern philosophy appears by contrast as an attempt to wrest the natural phenomena themselves away from the naive understanding by recreating them, making the phenomena over again, so that a want of bodily goods will not lead, as it has in the past, to the longing for a creative, just God. The modern practical project, that is, may have been in the service of the theoretical project of answering the challenge to the life of reason posed by divine revelation, which the moderns assumed had been left unanswered by ancient political philosophy. (31)

Modern political philosophy, on this telling, is a bold experimental project that sets out to refute the validity of all transcendent longings, above all the longings that give rise to the various opinions about the rule of a mysterious if just God. But modern political philosophers appear to have been crucially mistaken in at least one important respect: human beings show no sign of having become so fully content with the security and comfort brought about by commerce that we feel no longer the desire to escape our mortal condition. We have not lost our longing for transcendence. On the contrary, as Chesterton frequently noted, human longings are giving rise to superstitions that threaten to displace the modern rationalism whose proponents had hoped would wipe out religion.

In the light of these considerations, the concerns of the Murrayites may suggest that the moderns' bold political-theoretical experiment is beginning to look like a failure just when it seemed to be in hailing distance of a final victory. Certainly in the American context classical liberalism, which had for a long time and for reasons of its own accommodated itself to religious longing, has now begun to overreach. The growing chorus against modern liberal rationalism, confused though it be, may signal something other than a resurgent madness in the human soul, something more than a temporary forgetfulness of the horrors that modern rationalism has defeated. (32) It may evince the stirrings of human longing in those who, awakened, now see the reign of liberalism as a long, induced sleep. If this is so, then something much more than a reconstituted or vaguely Christianized liberalism may be helpful, for our polity and for ourselves. Prudent statesmen in our constitutional democracy may have to find a way to again make room for those political-religious opinions in public life that a pure or classical liberalism had sought to negate. And with a better grasp of their own rich tradition, Catholic political thinkers may be in a position to fulfill their obligation to assist the inhabitants of modern regimes to find their way to their true ends.


(1.) This article is published in two parts. The first portion was published in the last volume of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Spring, 17:2.

(2.) We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Propostion, John Courtney Murray, SJ (Sheed and Ward, [2005]), 28.

(3.) See especially We Hold These Truths, 27-43. See also the fine essay by Kenneth Grasso, "Getting Murray Right," The Catholic Social Science Review 16 (2011): 85-94.

(4.) Murray notes this but fails to see its significance: We Hold These Truths, 58. Similarly, he begs the question of the Framers' intention when he claims (60) that the religion clauses of the First Amendment, precisely as "articles of peace" or "social necessity," are actually an "appeal to a high moral principle," a "divine and Christian imperative," rather than a taking of "the low ground." Murray likewise ignores both the "no religious Test" of Article 6 of the Constitution, and the enormous significance of the patent and copyright provision of Article I, section 8.

(5.) Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. W Peden (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1954), Query 17, 161. Madison seems to have shared Jefferson's opinion on this: "When indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude. But enthusiasm is only a temporary state of Religion, and while it lasts will hardly be seen with pleasure at the helm of government. Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than to restraint from it." Madison to Jefferson, October 24, 1787 in Madison, The Writings of James Madison, 9 Volumes, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: Worthington, 1900-1910), v: 28-29. So peculiar is Murray's "Catholic" founding of the United States that his defender, Thomas Love, was compelled to recognize it as unique and problematic: Thomas T. Love, John Courtney Murray: Contemporary Church-State Relations (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 71,74. It isn't quite unique, however. Murray shares it with the Far Right Southern Agrarians, with whom he also understands "nature" in the light of "tradition" and "custom," and with whom, significantly enough, he prefers to refer to the Civil War as a "conflict of interests," not of principle, between the states. See, for example, We Hold These Truths, 13, 38, 73.

(6.) We Hold These Truths, 60-62.

(7.) See especially We Hold These Truths, 31,64. See also 10: The "principles and doctrines" of "the American consensus" are "those of Western constitutionalism, classic and Christian. This is our essential patrimony, laboriously wrought out by centuries of thought, further refined and developed in our own land ... the Scholastic tradition, that has been formative of the liberal tradition of the West" (22); "In 1884 ... the tradition of natural law and natural rights was still vigorous" (30).

(8.) We Hold These Truths, 32.

(9.) We Hold These Truths, 38-39: "The men who framed the American Bill of Rights understood history and tradition, and they understood nature in the light of both.... The rights for which the colonists contended against the English Crown were basically the rights of Englishmen. And these were substantially the rights written into the Bill of Rights.... The American Bill of Rights is not a piece of eighteenth-century rationalist theory; it is far more the product of Christian history. Behind it one can see, not the philosophy of the Enlightenment but the older philosophy that had been the matrix of the common law." See, however, 49, bottom, and his acknowledgment of the "anti-ecclesiasticism" of Madison and Jefferson on 65.

(10.) We Hold These Truths, 33. Compare Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., "Hobbes and the Science of Indirect Government" American Political Science Review 65, 97-110; Clifford Orwin, "On the Sovereign Authorization," Political Theory III. 1 (Feb. 1975): 26-52.

(11.) We Hold These Truths, 35, 66, 70-71.

(12.) I leave aside the misinterpretations and misrepresentations of medieval thought upon which part of Murray's argument rests. Most of these can be traced to his failure to grasp what the political is, and a corresponding tendency to impose on medieval political thought the categories of modern thought. With this imposition Murray begs the whole question of whether the origins of modern political thought are to be found in medieval thought. For a careful, probing examination of Murray's treatment of medieval thought, see Ed Goerner, Peter and Caesar (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), esp. 94 ff.

(13.) See We Hold These Truths, 21,42.

(14.) We Hold These Truths, 62-63. Consider also the arguments of Gary D. Glenn, "Murray After Fifty Years: Five Themes": "Despite the book's title, Murray has little to say about the Founding Fathers. His book does not show that he studied their thought with any particular care. And this occasionally results in his attributing to the Founders some ideas that are simply not well supported by the evidence" (118). Glenn does not take this to be a "huge problem."

(15.) Peter Augustine Lawler, "Murray's articulation of the American proposition," in John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation, ed. Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 130.

(16.) Kenneth L. Grasso et. al., eds., "Concluding reflections," in Catholicism, Liberalism, and Communitarianism (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), 255.

(17.) It is perhaps telling that Murray's most distinguished follower, Richard John Neuhaus, is both a former Lutheran and an Augustinian rather than a Thomist.

(18.) To take perhaps the most telling example, the noble pride of the magnanimous man, which Aristotle understood to rest upon his own assessment of his worth and that of others, is replaced by a humility in the face of the infinite distance between the goodness of God and one's own goodness, a sense of duty to his command to love as he loves, and a sense of gratitude to him for granting one whatever measure of obedience to his command one has attained. Magnanimity becomes a part of courage. [See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. II-II q. 129 a. 5]. And justice properly understood becomes something far more binding upon individuals. For like all the moral virtues, justice requires prudence, and prudence, in order to direct the passions to their proper end, must have knowledge of man's supernatural end. This knowledge, perhaps impossible without the grace of God [see Ibid. I-II q. ioo], entails the command of love. Actions not resulting from obedience to this command are not, properly speaking, moral virtues at all, or are imperfect virtues or virtues only in a restricted sense. One is bound in duty, out of a love of the God who will grant one an afterlife with him, to love one's neighbor, or rather to prove oneself a neighbor by loving others. The privileged place Christianity accords justice thus understood, and its demotion of magnanimity, rests upon the belief that all human beings are created by and for God, in his image, and are commanded by Him to attend to the needs of others, all of whom are worthy of one's love.

It is necessary to note, however, that Aristotle's presentation of the virtues in the Nichomachean Ethics, including that of magnanimity, may be as much an attempt to guide and therefore correct the commonsense understanding found in ancient political life as an attempt to present that understanding. The sense of reverent shame or humility that characterizes the Christian life is not only present in the lives of characters found in Thucydides (especially at Sparta) but is manifest in interlocutors in Platonic dialogues.

(19.) See, for example, De utilitate credendi, especially io. 24.

(20.) On Augustine's political thought, see Ernest L. Fortin, "Idealisme politique et foi chretienne dans les pensee de saint Augustin," Recherches Augustiniennes 8 (1972), 231-60; "Augustine's City of God and the Modern Historical Consciousness," The Review of Politics Vol. 41, no. 3 (July, 1979): 323-43; "The Political Implications of St. Augustine's Theory of Conscience," Augustinian Studies, 1970, Vol. 1. For Murray, the distinction between public and private morality is crucial to determining the right disposition toward particular legislation. See, for example, his advice to Cardinal Cushing in 1965 with respect to the proposed amendment of Sections 20 and 21 of Chapter 272 of the General Laws of Massachusetts, quoted by Mary C. Segers in "Murray, American pluralism, and the abortion controversy," in John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation, ed. Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 240. Here also is evident Murray's collapsing of the natural law into the "Catholic point of view" (239). For a recent, well-argued, friendly critique of Murray's divorce of ethics and politics, see Gerard V. Bradley, "We Hold These Truths and the Problem of Public Morality, The Catholic Social Science Review 16 (2011): 123-32. See also David L. Schindler, "Religious Freedom, Truth, and American Liberalism: Another Look at John Courtney Murray," Communio 21 (Winter 1994): 696-741.

(21.) We Hold These Truths, 192.

(22.) An important recent contribution to this effort is Robert Kraynak's Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

(23.) On most of the points Murray makes for a novel "Christian consciousness" it is not difficult to see that his claims are patently false. The case for "moral freedom," for example, is not only present in Aristotle, but is absolutely crucial to the moral life as he understands it. Nor did Aristotle neglect the individual for the sake of a "monistic" politics of the polis: particular justice is a virtue concerned with what is due to individuals, either by a private individual, as in commutative justice, or by a public official responsible for distributing public honors or offices--distributive justice. Again, it is by no means clear that for Aristotle the human being is exhausted by political life; to say nothing of the philosophic life, the moral life has two poles, magnanimity and justice. And the first explicit denial of man's political nature belongs not to Christianity, but to Epicureanism, which views justice not as an end in itself but as a means to the individual's desire to procure his own good. Even the argument from "natural law" precedes Christianity: it is found in Cicero (if not the Stoics), from whom Augustine took it over. Finally, in stressing the uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of the "two spheres," Murray ignores the actual practice of citizenship in the ancient world, which was never simply political but looked beyond itself to the gods, who were believed to manifest their care for men through punishments of the unjust and through their attention to the sacred; divine law was held to be prior to the laws of the city.

(24.) See, for example, Eric Voeglin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1968), 17.

(25.) Consider Leo Strauss, "On classical political philosophy," in What Is Political Philosophy? (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1959), 78-94, especially the reversal of perspective on 92.

(26.) See David Bolotin, "The Life of Philosophy and the Immortality of the Soul: An Introduction to Plato's Phaedo," Ancient Philosophy 7 (1987), 39-56.

(27.) For an illuminating examination of this aspect of classical political philosophy, see Christopher Bruell, "On Plato's Political Philosophy," The Review of Politics (Spring, 1994), 261-82. See also Leo Strauss, "The law of reason in the Kuzari," in Persecution and the Art of Writing (Westport: The Free Press, 1952), 140: "Moral man as such is the potential believer." On the Socratic-Platonic understanding of spiritedness, see Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 165-69.

(28.) "Contemporary Orientations of Catholic Thought on Church and State in the Light of History," Theological Studies 10 (1949): 213.

(29.) Spirit of the Laws, 4.8.

(30.) The ascent does not presume ahead of time the validity of the life led according to reason; it takes as its starting point, not philosophic reasoning, but the controversial opinions of citizens. The ascent takes place through these controversial or problematic opinions. See Strauss, "On Classical Political Philosophy," 86 ("This answer gives rise to further questions of almost overwhelming political significance ... the insight into the bearing of the formidable objections to it, belong[s] to pre-philosophic political life") and 89 ("the formidable theoretical objections ... grave theoretical doubts.")

(31.) For a careful examination of Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws with an eye to this question, see Thomas L. Pangle, The Theological Basis of Liberal Modernity in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

(32.) "Forgetfulness," due to liberalism's very success in securing us a peaceful, comfortable existence, is Steven Kautz's explanation for the demands of postmodern communitarianism. See Liberalism and Communitarianism, 150-51, 168-69, 188, 190, 216. Forgetfulness is, however, precisely what Montesquieuean liberalism aims to produce. See especially Spirit of the Laws, Bk. 25, chapter 12: "A more sure way to attack religion is by favor, by the commodities of life, by the hope of wealth; not by what drives away, but by what makes one forget; not by what brings indignation, but by what makes men lukewarm, when other passions act on our souls, and those that religion inspires are silent. A General Rule: with regard to changes in religion, invitations are stronger than penalties." It appears to be a remembering of something lost rather than a simple forgetfulness that lies behind postmodernism.
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Author:Burns, Timothy W.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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