Catholicism and America’s Celebration of Its Freedom

As we celebrate Independence Day, perhaps we should think about the role that our nation plays in the world and if our country’s quest for freedom and liberty is compatible with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Previously, we reflected on the life and theology of the American Jesuit Priest Father John Courtney Murray, (d. 1967) a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn who grew up in Jackson Heights.

With Fourth of July upon us, Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who did his doctoral studies in theology on Father Murray’s theology, shares some perceptions about Father Murray and his thoughts on what makes the United States of America the nation it’s called to be.

Father Cush said Father Murray felt the U.S. was a place with special dignity and a special role to play in the entire world — namely to serve as a beacon of freedom, hope, and opportunity.

In, “We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition,” Father Murray describes the American Proposition as possessing a “uniqueness … continuity with and progress over, the longer civilization tradition of the West …” and writes that America, above all, “still remains dedicated to the conception of itself that first constituted us a people organized for action in history.”

The American Proposition’s epistemology, according to Father Murray, was rather simple, as described in the Declaration of Independence’s most famous phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident …” Father Murray writes:

“The sense of the famous phrase is simply this: ‘There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth.’ ”

For Father Murray, the Founding Fathers asserted that 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.” Based not solely on results, the entire American Proposal is based on truth. Father Murray further writes:

“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.”

For all his love of country, Father Murray acknowledges 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.”

Father 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: “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.”