A Diocesan Priest Was Out Front in The Quest for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in the United States is celebrating Religious Freedom Week June 22-29. As we see in the headlines, religious freedom seems to always be under attack. Certainly, there are victories that occur, such as in the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which was decided last week by the United States Supreme Court.

However, it should be noted that this victory is only a temporary one. Justice Samuel Alito, a practicing Roman Catholic, stated the following: “The City has been adamant about pressuring CSS to give in, and if the City wants to get around today’s decision, it can simply eliminate the never-used exemption power.”

We have seen the fight for religious freedom recently here at home. The Diocese of Brooklyn sued to get fair treatment in regards to capacity limits so that the faithful could safely attend Mass when many retail stores were allowed to operate at what appeared to be full capacity.

Many may not know that the Church’s “father of religious freedom” was a Jesuit priest who grew up in Jackson Heights — Father John Courtney Murray (d. 1967). Father John P. Cush, a Brooklyn priest, completed his doctorate in theology on the life and theology of Father Murray and he provided us with some details on Murray’s life.

Born in New York City on September 12, 1904, to immigrant parents, Murray’s upbringing was rather similar to many young people at the turn of the 20th century. With a Scottish-born father and an Irish mother, Murray grew up with a sense of America as a “land of the free and the home of the brave.” America was a place with special dignity and a special role to play in the world, to be a beacon of freedom, hope, and opportunity to the entire world. Murray grew up believing in the American Proposition wholeheartedly, and this American Proposition would continue to be the single lens through which we would later develop his theological enterprise.

Years later, Murray would write:

“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.’

I take it that Lincoln used the word with conceptual propriety. In philosophy, a proposition is the statement of truth to be demonstrated. … Our Fathers dedicated the nation to a proposition in both of these senses. 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. Our Fathers asserted it and most ably argued it; they also undertook to ‘work it out,’ and they signally succeeded.

Neither as a doctrine nor as a project is the American Proposition a finished thing. Its demonstration is never done once for all; and the Proposition itself requires development on penalty of decadence.”

For all his love of country, Murray acknowledges that his writings are “The reflections of a Catholic who, in seeking his answer to the civil question, knows that the principles of Catholic faith and morality stand superior to, and in control of, the whole order of civil life.”

Murray considers the question of whether or not Catholicism is compatible with American democracy as one that is “invalid as well as impertinent,” and is, in reality, an inverted question in the order of values: the question should be whether or not American democracy is compatible with Catholicism. He writes: “The question, thus turned, is part of the civil question, as put to me. An affirmative answer to it, given under something better than the curbstone definition of ‘democracy,’ is one of the truths I hold.”

Murray went on to become one of the principal architects of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae (December 7, 1965). We should thank the Lord such a great theologian as Father Murray grew up in our Diocese. May Father Murray’s passion for the American Proposition inspire us to keep up the fight for religious freedom for all.