Works By John Courtney Murray, S.J.
John Courtney Murray, S.J.
Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, a Vatican II expert, spoke to an ecumenical group of priests and ministers concerning the external and internal problems facing the church. Many of these problems, while not new, must be faced by the church in new ways, since "the Council moved the church squarely into the world of history," ending the church's attempt, over several centuries, to operate as if it were outside history. Within history the church faces three major external problems.
First, the church has had to adjust to the now two-century old transition of civil society conceived as sacred to a society that is secular. The Declaration on Religious Liberty and The Church in the Modern World defined the church with its own proper transcendence and the world with its own proper secular autonomy. With the recognition of this sacred/secular distinction, the problem now is how to reunite the sacred and the secular, without collapsing one into the other.
Second, the churchin acknowledging a rightfully secular societyalso faces a world that is an unbelieving world. "The problem of the world today is the problem of God. . . . The Church is not the focus of interest todaybut the issues of God, faith, revelation, belief, unbelief." This shift of focus from the church as institution to the truths of Christian faith is recently new for both the church and the world.
Third, there is the deep cultural crisis caused by the transition from "classical to historical consciousness." To the classicist, he said, truth is so objective that it can exist apart from anyone's possession of it. It is Platonic truthwith "ideas always up there in Heaven." In this view of truth, there is no such thing as an historical dimension to truth, no development, no growth.
By contrast, "historical consciousness" holds to a certain notion of truth that, while recognizing that it is objective, yet also insists that truth must be intelligently conceived and rationally affirmed.
Another characteristic of classicism, said Father Murray, is the cult of certainty which developed especially in the Cartesian era, resulting in an excessive development of the notion of papal infallibility.
Father Murray explained that historical consciousness assigns the primacy not to certainty but to understanding. The immediate criteria governing historical consciousness, then, are not certainty and doubt, but rather adequacy and inadequacy.
"The war here is not against doubt. The war here is against the incomplete, the partial, the unilateral, the simplistic.
As a community now consciously situated within history, the church faces internal difficulties that in part reflect those external problems. Father Murray suggested that the present manner in which the church is dealing with the birth control issue clearly exemplifies those internal difficulties. In his judgment the publication of the majority and minority opinions of the members of the papal birth commission was "an act of genius." He even ventured that if the leak was deliberate, he would be inclined to attribute it to Pope Paul himself.
He discussed birth control as one of three areas that used to be of the most unquestioned certainty. (The others are the liturgy and obedience-authority.)
Teaching on birth control, said Father Murray, had been "very clear and very certain." The trouble, he said, was:
"The church reached for too much certainty too soon, it went too far. Certainty was reached in the absence of any adequate understanding of marriage. This, many would holdI would holdis today no longer theologically tenable. . . . It is also psychological untenable.
"There was a little too much exuberance for a Church whose dynamism was not within the Christian faith itself but in the classicism which had infiltrated into Christian faith. In itself it is not Christian but Platonic."
This is evident, said Father Murray, in the majority and the minority opinions.
He said the majority clearly was in quest of new understanding that would be in continuity with the past and representative of progress.
For the minority, the issue is not one of control but certainty. Those of the minority view, he said, are still classicists in search of certainty, raising an issue of authority related to certainty. They transferred the problem of birth control from moral groundsnot arguing about birth control at allto argue about certainty and the authority of the Church. These are two different problemsrelated but to be distinguished.
Father Murray admitted that one must distinguish between the moral norm itself governing marital intercourse and adherence to the norm. To find out about adherence to the norm is a sociological problem. Surveys can be made, he said, to find out how many are not living up to the norms of Casti Conubii (Pius XI, 1930).
However, noting that the question of the moral norm itself is a theological problem, Father Murray also suggested that the social might have something to offer to our understanding of the theological.
"Perhaps the sense of the social is reshaping the norm itself.... They are forcing us, the official Church, to reflect on the authority that was in the former norm."
At worst, he said, what's going on is that the historical consciousness of the faithful is expressing itself rather confusedly, not seeing what it is in the technical sense. But it is the mentality of the moment that the majority have grasped, and the minority apparently have not.
"It is very difficult for the classicist to accept what is going onis it only because he doesn't like what is going on or thinks it wrong?
Further, Father Murray said that the discussion about birth control is not the only issue caught in transition from "classicism to historical consciousness."
The big divider between the two mentalities was, he said, the modernist crisisbetween faith and history, the absolute and the relative, Christianity as doctrine and Christianity as event.
Father Murray said the Council fathers rejected classicism and embraced historical consciousness.
"They conceived the renewal of the Church to mean a turn to the sources of the life of the Churchthe sources in history which are also trans-historical; the event of Christ and the Word of Christ in the Gospel. This is where the renewal must start."
This reform, he said, is taking place also in the realms of theology or faith or ecclesiastical structure. Theology itself is caught in a crisis of understanding.
"The traditional affirmations of faith are still being made. The question is whether or not their historical content is adequate, whether we have had an adequate understanding of faith. This is what the theological fraternity is up to today.
Father Murray said the Church is newly aware of the situation it always has been in, that it must exist at the interior of the world, of history.
To do this, however, means that the Church must exist in a state of multiple revolutions. History is at a turning point where new directions have to be seen and followed. Human consciousness is deeply troubled, especially in the case of the young.
The council's insistence that the church see itself in history was consistent with Pope John. Pope John's idea, he noted, was to get into history and guide it in terms of discernment of what is going on, what is right and true and good in what is going on, and of how to get everyone into this currentwhat is salutary for the Church, the world, for all.
Pope Paul, he said, sees real values in both the old classicism and the historical consciousness. Apparently still attractive to Pope Paul is the classicist view of being able to stand outside the world and somehow exercise control over history, to guide it according to pre-given concepts.
"Paul cannot quite make up his mind which to dostand outside, come down inside. And who would know?"
What is the source of reform that is sweeping the church, as well as the world? It has changed, said Father Murray. He appealed to a distinction, made by sociologists, which he believes to have theological validitya distinction between religious and ecclesiastical reform.
Religious reform has to do with values, norms, goals, types of experience. It is rather personal and interpersonal. Ecclesiastical reform has to do with doctrinal formulations, structures, procedures. The council was watchful of both types, but the dynamism of each is different.
"The dynamism of Christian reform is the Christian himselfthe Christian and the Christian community, ongoing Christian experience. This reform takes place from the bottom up. The source of ecclesiastical reform for us Catholics is authority, its sanctions and changes in structure.... This type proceeds from the top down. One might entertain that these two forms should go hand in hand. And we might assume that the ecclesiastical reform ought to be in charge of the religious. I am afraid this assumption just really is not true.
all. They seem to the Christian community, especially the avant-garde, to be quite irrelevant."
He illustrated this development in terms of the rapid changes overtaking the church's liturgical life. Without inferring a negative evaluation of the church's pre-conciliar liturgical practices, he said, one could fairly claim that a principal motivation for Mass attendance included the obligation imposed by law on Catholics of weekly attendance. Also demanded was some mental attention to what was going on, although that attention was passive and highly individual.
Today, especially for youth, Mass is a function of community and the emphasis is on creative participation. Today, there is new interest in understanding the Eucharist, so that one does not go to Mass without going to Communion, essentially a community act. The liturgical movement is now primarily a religious movement, only secondarily an ecclesiastical movement.
Father Murray said one thing is clear in the distinction between religious reform and ecclesiastical reformthe religious changes that are going on are beyond the control and even the responsibility of the Chancery.
"I think this is recognized by bishops, pastors, priests, all of us. We know that you cannot sit on the lid. You cannot stop these things even if you tried.
Father Murray said it is not the function of a bureaucracy to change itself but that institutions are only changed in one of two wayspressure from without or by some sort of dialectical process from within. It is hoped that the institutional changes can be brought about through an internal dialectic process, which by another name is dialogue.
"It is certainly not that one or other side should try to winthe Church beat the people or the people beat the church. That is silly! What is needed is a work of discernment and reconciliation.
ple into the good things and the right things and the true things that are going on. There will always be a fringe on both sidesright and left. But try to get as many as possible into the mainstream of the life of the Church today."
This, said Father Murray, was the mind of Pope Paul in a recent statement on liturgical extremism. He was saying: "Why can we not get into the middle where the real action is supposed to go on?"
The worst thing that could happen, said Father Murray, would be to deny there are conflicts. There must be recognition that conflicts are inevitable. The best thing, as sociologists say, would be to institutionalize the conflicts, set up forums in which conversation can take place. "Let us have confrontation on both sides."
He said that bishops have yet to learned how to talk with priests, priests with each other, Catholic Christians with other Christian brethren. Dialogue is in its infancy.
"[Dialogue] would be at once to a religious people the agent and mechanismwhat all we Christians always wanted to doto maintain our continuity with the past and at the same time know we must progress in the new world, the only world we have."
(1)Editor Note: A talk delivered in Toledo on May 5, 1967.
(2)Editor Note: Other available reports of the talk appear dependent on the Catholic Chronicle story. See "Murray Says Church Was Too Sure," The National Catholic Reporter (May 17, 1967), p. 3; The Tablet (May 20, 1967), pp. 566–567: The Advocate (May 26, 1967).
(3)Editor Note: Several months earlier Murray received a draft of what eventually became Lonergan's "The Transition from a Classicist World View to Historical-Mindedness" (A Second Collection, edited by William F.J. Ryan, S.J. and Bernard J. Tyrrell, S.J. (Phiadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 1–10. That paper was presented to the Canon Law Society of America in 1966 and first published in 1967.