Works By John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Woodstock Home | Woodstock Theological Center Library | Bibliography

The Catholic Position—A Reply

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

[p. 274]

When I was asked to comment on an article, which I had not yet seen, dealing with Protestant concern about Roman Catholicism, it occurred to me—a wry thought—that I could very well sit down and myself write the Protestant article. The formula has become entirely familiar: some introductory pious platitudes, a superficial advertence to the Catholic theological doctrine of the church, the stock tags from a few Catholic documents on Church and State, the allegations of the "horrible example" (the "Catholic State" on the Spanish model), a selection of the stock incidents purporting to show that the horror begins to dawn in the United States, a rhetorical flight on the unparalleled contributions of Protestantism to the growth of democracy, and the final concluding plea that Catholic and Protestant leaders should sit down together and discuss their differences. This familiar formula allows certain variations in vocabulary and emotional tone; there will, be instance, be a more or less liberal sprinklings of epithetical qualifications of the Catholic Church ("ecclesiastical arrogance," "clerical tyranny," etc.), and a more or less indignant arraignment of the Catholic Church for the ultimate immorality—the quest of power for the sake of power. Finally, Protestant writers always throw in the two distinctions that are classic in the Communist polemic against the Catholic Church: first between Catholicism as a faith and as an institution; secondly, between the Catholic laity and the Catholic hierarchy.

Dean Bowie faithfully follows the familiar formula, with a literary accent that is, of course, quite Union Theological Seminary rather than Southern Baptist or Boston Methodist.

In my comments I have been asked to be "specific." It will be a bit difficult, given the sweep of some of Dean Bowie's generalizations, which could only be met with statements of similar sweep. He asserts, for instance, that it was the Protestant majority which founded this nation that "has given to it its particular genius of liberty." To this the only brief answer is to say: Historical nonsense. Again, he asserts that the Church of Christ is "that

[p. 275]

larger and unstereotyped fellowship of the spirit which includes Christians of different names." To this one can only reply: Theological nonsense. Again, he asserts that "the dignity of all human souls and . . . liberty of mind and spirit [is] the only guarantee of truth." And to this one must simply answer: Epistemological and ethical nonsense. To go beyond this two-syllabled word would be to write a three-volume work. . . . At all events, I shall be as specific as possible in the circumstances, and on a subject in which ideas and assumptions, rather than what are called "facts," are determinant of conclusions.

I am in agreement with Dean Bowie when he says that the issue of Catholic-Protestant relationships should be "clearly faced with no smokescreen of evasive words." And this leads me to suggest that he is using an evasive word when he describes this issue in terms of "tension." In the United States there are indeed tensions, properly so called, in the inter-racial and economic fields, and between religious and secularist forces, and between Jew and non-Jew. But between Protestants and Catholics there cannot properly speak of "tension." To have a tension, both parties (not one) must be tense, as, for instance, are white and colored in certain sections. But today in the United States, and elsewhere, Catholicism is not tense, not polarized against Protestantism. In fact, every intelligent Catholic I know would agree that, in the contemporary spiritual state of the world, a polemic against Protestantism is practically an irrelevance, except insofar as this or that Protestant position manifests an alliance with secularist tendencies. Between Catholicism and secularism one may indeed speak of a proper "tension"; but if Protestantism is caught in it, the reason is that it has itself entered the field between two poles.

One would therefore be less evasive if one said that what is happening today is simply another resurgence of the anti-Catholic feeling on the part of Protestants which has been a sociological phenomenon in the United States since, and even before, the repeal of the Maryland Act of Toleration. One would be still more forthright if one admitted that this phenomenon is itself the product of a necessity inherent in Protestantism, especially of the American, "left-wing" type. It is not, in fact, possible for Protestantism to situate itself historically, to define itself as a religious system, or to deploy itself as a cultural dynamic except, fundamentally, in terms of opposition to the Catholic Church. What Newman called "the anti-Roman bias" is of its

[p. 276]

essence. In contrast, an anti-Protestant bias is in no sense of the essence of Catholicism, which does not need to situate or define itself in negative, critical terms—terms of "protest."

Moreover, this anti-Roman bias has always had social repercussions. I do not doubt that individual Protestants would wish it otherwise; the question is whether it can possibly be otherwise. A Protestant minority is by necessity aggressively anti-Catholic, as Pastor Brutsch has said of Spanish Protestantism. A Protestant majority is by necessity oppressively anti-Catholic, as in the First and Second German Reichs and in contemporary Norway and Sweden. Even in the United States the necessity has worked itself out, as readers of Billington's Protestant Crusade and Myers' History of Bigotry in the United States are aware. And I suppose the necessity will continue to operate.


To put the matter, with Christopher Dawson, in psychological terms, it seems that hostility to the Catholic Church is profoundly lodged in the Protestant collective unconscious, in consequence perhaps of some natal trauma. The outbursts are periodic, as in the Colonial period, in the 1830s, after the Civil War, after World War I, and most recently in the last five years or so. Each has had its special social context and particular quality. Erick von Kühnelt-Leddihn has suggested that the latest one is a display of "defensive aggressiveness." Actually, in the judgment of Professor Paul Tillich, in today's cultural situation and in the face of the dynamic forces that are shaping it, for good or ill, "Protestantism is merely on the defensive." Inevitably, there is a reaction to this situation. And I suppose it is equally inevitable that the reaction should take the form of what Dr. Bowie rather evasively calls "concern" about Roman Catholicism. For here is the old enemy, at which alone Protestantism knows how to strike. Against other enemies—the real ones today—its arm is somewhat palsied. I say all this simply in the interests of being specific. The thing that needs specifically to be understood about Protestant "concern" is its profoundest motivation. And nothing is gained by being evasive on this point.

My second specific comment concerns Dr. Bowie's central thesis. It is contained in the sentence he approvingly quotes from Avro Manhattan's book, The Catholic Church Against the Twentieth Century, to the effect that "the Catholic Church [is] a ruthless and persistent enemy of our century and of all that individuals and nations are laboring and sweating

[p. 277]

to attain." The italics are mine; they indicate the breath-taking sweep of the thesis. At that, it is but part of the larger, traditional Protestant thesis that the Catholic Church has been the enemy of every century since the sixteenth when, on the Protestant account, the centuries began to have a friend (Protestantism) as well as an enemy.

I think it will be agreed that Dr. Bowie has undertaken to prove a good deal. In fact, this thesis would instantly be declared unprovable by any intelligent man of good will who knows our century, and a few other centuries, and who is even slightly acquainted with the religious and social activity of the Catholic Church. To such a man the mere casting up of this resounding thesis will be evidence enough that something besides logic, idea and fact is operating in the mind of its proponents. Such a man will also see the identity between the thesis adopted by Dr. Bowie and the thesis being proclaimed at the moment by Mr. Cepicka in Czechoslovakia. It is likewise the identical thesis recently sustained by Mr. Paul Blanshard, the undiluted secularist who has just been coopted into the ranks of the Fathers of the Protestant Church. (His book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, seems to have been published with the silent imprimatur of a multitude of Protestant clergymen; and Dr. Bowie reverently quotes it.)

There is, of course, the difference that, in choosing to be against the Catholic Church, Mr. Cepicka (quite clearly) and Mr. Blanchard (up to a point) know what they are for. The former is for a Communist world order; that latter is for the democratic social-welfare State as the single and ultimate vehicle of whatever salvation is available to man—a State within which secularism will be the established religion, publicly professed and supported, with a grant of freedom of private worship and practice to the outworn traditional religions. However, it is not easy to know what Dr. Bowie is for. He does indeed believe three things: "That every soul is accountable to God, that religion can only be real when each man espouses that which he himself believes, and that, in the long run, where there is spiritual independence, truth can be trusted to emerge." But this is not helpfully specific. Every religious man believes the first thing; any rationalist will subscribe to the second; and the third sounds like one of the clichés of nineteenth-century liberalism which I thought we had all seen through by this time. At all events, we know what Dr. Bowie, like Mr. Cepicka and Mr. Blanshard, is against—the

[p. 278]

Catholic Church. It is, in his view, the enemy of the twentieth century, of the State, of religious and civil liberties, of "civic morale," of democratic culture—in fact, "of all that individuals and nations are laboring and sweating to attain." What are his specific proofs?


After what he admits are "general assertions," he says, "let us particularize." Analysis reveals that the particularizations fall under three main heads: the conduct of Catholic teachers in public schools; the Catholic position on government aid to education; and an alleged "attempt to set up a censorship that reaches into the whole field of our public life." This is the sum of his indictment. In the inadequate space remaining let me make some brief and specific comments.

The first statement alleged is by a Catholic moralist, to the effect that when a religious, moral or social problem is being discussed in a public school, a Catholic teacher ought to state his or her position—that of the Catholic Church. So—I inquire inelegantly—what? Are we to suppose that the Catholic teacher could only be a true friend of the twentieth century by keeping his or her mouth shut in those circumstances? And can it be that Dr. Bowie gives Protestant benediction to the "singular phenomenon" pointed out by Professor Frank Gavin of Princeton, that "in the modern secular American university [the same goes for the public school] attacks upon religion and its fundamental theses can be delivered and accepted by society without demur, and yet a vigorous defense—in anything like so able a fashion—of the root principle of religion [the same goes for any religious and moral position] immediately arouses opposition and antagonism"? Or is there an action inimical to democracy simply because a Catholic position is stated? I suspect that this is it. It is entirely "democratic" for one public school teacher to tell here pupils (with all her teacher-authority): "I am in favor of divorce, euthanasia, birth control, etc." But it is "undemocratic" for another to say: "The Catholic Church is against these things, as forbidden by the natural and divine law—and so am I." This, I take it, is Dr. Bowie's position. To state it is to show its absurdity.

The second count in the indictment concerns the Catholic assertion that the religious school which serves a public purpose is entitled in terms of moral right and political principle to a fair proportion of public support. This is an enormously complicated issue, not to be settled in a sentence. Dr. Bowie settles it in a sentence; he

[p. 279]

is against having "a divisive religious influence supported by public taxes." In other words, he settles the issue by begging all the leading questions involved in it. I have no space to argue the whole issue here; hence I shall make one point.

Dr. Bowie attempts to force the Catholic position, asserted in the Federal-aid debate, into a pattern, conceived by himself, of Catholic aggression. On the contrary, a fair-minded survey of the educational situation would reveal it to be what in fact I know it is—a necessary piece of defensive strategy. From the Protestant and secularist assertion, "You have no right to aid," viewed in the light of the reasons and feelings behind it, it is but a step to the declaration, "You have no right to exist." And powerful forces are urging that the step be taken. Professor Childs of Teachers College was recently their spokesman when he urged obligatory public-school education for all American children, at least for a portion of their school life. (The "at least" is the nose of the camel of secularist Statism in the tent of American education; and aren't Protestants very familiar with what happens to tents when camels' noses get into them?) Mr. Max Lerner was also their spokesman when he said that the Oregon school case decision in 1925, vindicating the right of parents to send their children to a school of their own choosing, was the first step in the wrong direction—the first breach in the wall of separation between State (i.e., education) and church. It is against this parental right that today's educational aggression moves; it is in its defense that the Catholic position is taken. We are indeed aggressively opposed to the idea of the State as the primary educator and to the institution of the single State school. But this is no aggression against religious and civil liberties; it is a rally to their defense. And if we are charged with being in this respect the enemy of the twentieth century, in which the single State school has had, and is having, such horrid success, we do not hesitate to plead guilty.

The third main count in the indictment concerns an alleged Catholic attempt at a "censorship" over "the whole field of our public life." Again the sweeping charge ("whole field"). And again the scanty premisses—seven incidents or utterances. I cannot deal with them in detail. Let me say, first, that every utterance is taken out of context, and every incident is reported with such a lack of factual detail as to quite misrepresent its significance. For instance, Dr. Bowie cites an article written in America in 1928 on boycotting offensive newspapers; this is somehow

[p. 280]

to prove us the enemy of "free speech." What he fails to note is the significance of the date, 1928. Does he expect his readers to have forgotten that in 1928 the campaign of misrepresentation, calumny and vilification, launched against the Catholic Church because a great American who happened to be a Catholic was seeking the Presidency, was about at its height? (Incidently, would it be ungracious to venture the understatement that the campaign did not proceed without Protestant assistance?) Does Dr. Bowie wish to maintain that this ugly campaign was justified in the name of "free speech"? And what were the Catholics supposed to do—stand smiling at the crossroads while the dirty work went on?

We were angry in 1928, not without reason; the situation was such as to call for means of last resort. And a metaphorical horsewhip was here and there used. (There is something of a tradition that when a man deliberately and continually insults your bride or mother the principle of free speech does not forbid use of a horsewhip.) The facts of 1928 are freely admitted; but when, twenty years later, they are recalled, I should like to see them all recalled. If they are, no fair-minded man will draw from them the implications that Catholics are the enemies of free, responsible, democratic discussion of all issues affecting the public weal. We are, if you will, opposed to a poisoning of the public mind by the spread of lies and slander about ourselves or anybody else. But does this fact stigmatize us as enemies of the twentieth century?


Another instance of Dr. Bowie's slapdash reporting is his one-sentence reference to the famous banning of the Nation. It is "well known," says he, that Catholic pressure did the trick; you see how Catholics are the enemies of free speech. What does one do with this sort of back-of-me-hand-to-you thing? A one-sentence swipe serves his turn, which is further to fasten the hold of a myth on the public mind. It would take me five pages to marshal the facts and principles relevant to forming a fair judgment on the Nation incident. The fair judgment would by no means have the deceitful simplicity of Dr. Bowie's myth; he could trust it not to have the same impact on the public mind. I confess, therefore, that Dr. Bowie has the advantage of me. I must deal in nice conclusions from complex premises of fact and premises; he can use what the logicians call the fallacy of progressive assertion ("Say it often enough and everyone will believe you").

The same technique of accusation characterizes his rapid enumeration of

[p. 281]

other incidents. For instance, certain Protestant and Jewish doctors are dismissed from the staff of private Catholic hospitals for their advocacy of birth control. You see, says Dr. Bowie, how the Catholic Church is the enemy. (Enemy of what? It's not at all clear; suffice it that we are the enemy.) But what is omitted is any suggestion of a reason why they should not have been dismissed. Granted their sincere conviction that birth control is ethically right, what possible moral or legal right have they to practice in a private hospital whose ethical code asserts that it is wrong? Or has it somehow got to be undemocratic for a hospital to have an ethical code?

However, enough of all this small stuff. Dr. Bowie is quite aware that these stock-in-trade incidents are completely inadequate to explain what he chooses to call Protestant "concern." Actually, they are to him like the bone or two out of which the Sunday-supplement archaeologist constructs the museum-piece prehistoric monster. Only Dr. Bowie wants to exhibit a monster of the future, not the past. This future monster is, of course, a "Catholic America." And what Dr. Bowie at bottom is saying is this: "A future Catholic America would be exactly like contemporary Catholic Spain. How monstrous! Americans, beware!"

This is the very heart of the Protestant line being plugged today. One cannot, of course, do anything with it in a page. It is always a bit difficult to convince anyone that a bogey-man does not exist. And the difficulty is greater here because (to return to the previous metaphor) Dr. Bowie does indeed have his few scattered bones. He has Cavalli's article, a tag or two from Leo XIII, a proposition from the Syllabus, a fragment from a Spanish catechism, etc. What one would have to do, therefore, would be to prove that it is impossible or illegitimate to construct out of them his fearsome monster—a United States of the future that, if inhabited by a Catholic majority, would have the political structure and the mode of religio-social organization visible in contemporary Spain.

If this is what Dr. Bowie would wish me to prove, I quite frankly give up. For one thing it is like being asked, "When are you going to start beating your wife?" For another, as a Catholic theologian who knows a bit about political history, I have more sense than to regard past Catholic documents on Church and State as so many crystal balls in which to discern the exact shape of things to come. Even if one looked at these documents in their entirety and immense number, and not (with Dr. Bowie) at a few splintered fragments,

[p. 282]

they do not contain political prophecy or a preview of constitutional history. If, for instance, one had attempted in 1076 to explain to Gregory VII the future constitutional concept, "religion of the State," which took shape in the nation-States of post-Reformation Europe, he would have been exceedingly puzzled; for he could not have understood the idea of a "nation-state" or of a "constitution." I am afraid, therefore, that I shall have to leave the crystal-gazing to Dr. Bowie; he seems to be much more authoritative about it than I should care to be. However, if I were to venture a prophesy, it would be that the development of the genuinely Catholic and democratic State will mean the end of the concept, "religion of the State" (on the Spanish or Cavalli model), as the constitutional form in which the doctrinal idea of the "freedom of the Church" has historically found its expression. I could explain this statement in roughly fifty pages.


There is another more profound reason for my unwillingness to follow Dr. Bowie onto his unsubstantial ground—the future of the United States Constitution in a hypothetically Catholic America. The reason is that this is not really what "concerns" him—what really gnaws at Protestant religious vitals. I should wish to put the matter delicately because it is a delicate matter. Protestants are not really afraid lest one day they become "second-class" citizens in the United States, as they maintain their coreligionists are in Spain today. This is what the psychologists call a "secondary affect." There is something deeper. They are wounded and angry because the Catholic Church considers Protestantism to be a second-class religion. They are wounded because they are conscious of being first-class people—better, some of them, than their Catholic neighbors. And they are angry at what must be taken by them as a disparagement of something they hold sacred. What they really want, as Dean Bowie implies, is the repudiation by the Catholic Church of "the flat assertion of her sole prerogative" of being the one true Church of Christ. At bottom, they are not seeking official papal assurance that Catholicism will never become in the United States "the religion of the State" in the Spanish sense; they seem to want the Pope himself to take his seat, as an equal among equals, at the table of the World Council of Churches. This, if I understand it, is the heart of the matter—the refusal of the Church to acknowledge the equality of the churches.

Here, however, is the point of

[p. 283]

irreducible difference. This refusal will continue to be made; for it is the obverse of an affirmation cardinal to Catholic faith. It is quite literally an awful affirmation to make; and for a Catholic to make it with the slightest touch of arrogance would be irreligious in the extreme. However, make it he must, being ready the while to argue this theological question on its merits, with humility, with the tools of rational reflection and historical investigation, under the illumining influence of God's grace sought by prayer.

And for the rest, there remains a secondary question in another and lower order of ideas and life; I mean that of the equal friendship of men of different faiths in the political order of society. Modern developments have revealed this to be a political question separate from the theological question of the equality of religious faiths in the light of God's revealed law. The political question can be solved affirmatively, with that always limited measure of satisfaction that attends all human solutions. I know that the Catholic can give assurance that, whatever may have been historical situations of fact, there is nothing in any element of Catholic faith that requires the religious dissenter to be accounted a "second-class citizen" in a society of Catholics. Reciprocally (to voice at the end a Catholic concern about today's Protestant "concern"), he would wish the assurance that the anti-Roman bias inherent in Protestantism should not issue in pro-secularist attitudes and policies in the civil order that will, he rightfully thinks, result in making all of us, Catholics and Protestants, second-class men in a society from which religion itself shall have been ruled as irrelevant.

[p. 637]

A Statement by Fr. Murray

Sir: In reply to your request for an "over-all comment" on the 52 letters you sent me, let me make four points.

First, controversy is a dreary business and (as several correspondents remarked) largely a profitless one; I had thought to maintain a certain lightness of tone. It was therefore disconcerting to learn that I had been supercilious, sarcastic, arrogant, slippery, disparaging, cavalier, haughty, disdainful, glib, cocksure, tricky, contemptuous, smug (these are some of the epithets with which your correspondents adorn me). Apparently my attempt at lightness misfired rather badly. Only one correspondent seems dimly to have glimpsed the point, when he "wondered" whether my piece "was intended as a rare bit of exceedingly dry humor or . . . as a serious-minded statement." Actually, the whole subject—is much too serious to be taken too seriously.

Secondly, I frankly could not manage to take too seriously Dr. Bowie's thesis of "the Catholic peril." I suggested, and am prepared to maintain, that Protestants take it so seriously because of the "anti-Roman bias" inherent in their position. I cannot match their seriousness for a reason suggested in one or other way in the fifteen letters from atheists or secularists. They say in effect, "A plague on both your houses! The future of America belongs to us." One of them asserts that "the influence of American clergymen (he means both Protestant and Catholic) has sunk almost to the level of astrologers and chiropractors." The contemptuous exaggeration serves to emphasize the core of sobering truth in the statement. The peril of "a Catholic America" is a chimera; the real peril is other.

Were I to identify it, I should point of course to Mr. Blanshard. His name, as he himself knows, is Legion; and his creed, as he likewise knows, is shared by millions of Americans. He and they are significant, not because of what they are against (the Catholic church) but because of what they are for. I have elsewhere called it the "New Nativism." Men more learned than Blanshard have given it a philosophical armature which they call evolutionary scientific humanism. Other men more practical than he are endeavoring to give it political expression in what I should call "our Holy Mother the State," almighty (by democratic means, of course), creator of all things visible and invisible, even the dignity of man. Here, I think, is the enemy, all the more dangerous because it comes bringing gifts—gifts that are doubly "Greek." In the presence of this enemy I consider (as I said and still maintain) Catholic–Protestant polemic to be an irrelevance. And this perhaps is why there appeared in my article a note of impatience—a refusal to take the Protestant polemic as seriously as it takes itself. This is not to say that I do not take seriously the dynamism of the

[p. 638]

polemic—the pervading fear of Catholicism which, my Protestant friends tell me, has gripped the Protestant community. However, here one is dealing with an emotion, not an argument; the problem is not refutation but exorcism. And despite a concern about it, I confess myself at a loss.

Thirdly, the only troubling accusation is that of having been evasive (sophistry and Jesuitical casuistry, some called it), because I said that in the space allotted I could not argue the issue. However, I can only repeat this statement. On the matter of Catholic doctrine with regard to Church-State relationships I flatly refuse to be what is called "simple," because the subject, historically and doctrinally, is enormously complex. Padre Cavalli was "simple," in the article cited by Dr. Bowie; I reject his theory of "unblushing intolerance" as a ruthless simplification that distorts the truth by ignoring the whole political dimensions of the problem. Other Catholic polemists are "simple" when they seem to assert that the whole issue is settled by the axiom, "Error has no rights." I reject this false simplicity; the axiom is at best politically inoperative (it settles nothing about governmental repression of error) and at worst ethically meaningless (it merely asserts that error is error). I likewise reject all simplistic interpretations, whether Catholic or Protestant, of the Syllabus of Errors, which is a notoriously difficult document, and of the utterances of Leo XIII, whose doctrine is greatly complex and delicately adjusted to a special historical context. I reject the simplifications of Protestant polemists who allege the Golden Rule as

[p. 639]

singly decisive in the whole matter, or who argue that an authoritarian Church cannot be reconciled with a democratic society, or who assert (as indeed do some Catholic apologists) that the constitutional concept, "religion of the State," on the Spanish model, represents a "Catholic ideal," necessarily to be realized by inherent exigence of Catholic faith wherever there is a Catholic majority.

I refuse therefore to "sum it all up in a few words," however much I wish I could! This is not dishonesty, as one correspondent implies, but its exact opposite.

For the rest, if any of your readers wish to see the problem dealt with at length I refer them to three articles of mine in Theological Studies (of which I am Editor), for December 1948 (pp. 491–535), June 1949 (pp. 177–234), and September 1949 (pp. 409–32).

Finally, I was dismayed to learn that some readers understood me to be making a personal attack on Dr. Bowie. I profoundly regret this mistaken impression. It seemed to me sufficiently clear from my opening paragraph that I was aiming not at him but beyond him at the whole contemporary Protestant offensive against the Catholic Church. I deplore personal attacks, no matter who makes them. At the same time I maintain the right to deal sharply with an argument. If perhaps any of my language made it too difficult for my readers to make the distinction I myself had made—between a man and his argument—I am sorry.

Search the Murray Collection: