The Question of Res publica Christiana in Post-conciliar Catholic Doctrines

by John C. Rao

Editor’s Note:  Dr. John C. Rao has kindly allowed The Josias to publish this brief survey of the roots of the present situation of the Church with respect to the secular order.  We will publish it in three parts. The first, found below, is largely concerned with the work of Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ; the second, with the Uriage movement in France; and the third with the implications of pluralism for the Church’s self-understanding vis-à-vis the State since Vatican II. A version of this paper appeared in: Revista VERBO número 527-528: actas Ciudad Católica (September-October, 2014).

Never in the history of Christendom has there been such an outpouring of rhetoric regarding brilliant developments in the Church’s understanding of her own nature and her proper relationship with the world than since the days of the Second Vatican Council. But a man of both Faith and Reason who looks beyond this rhetoric of stunning progress encounters a trinity of problems revealing a contemporary reality that is anything but brilliant: 1) the transformation of the Church into the plaything of passionate factions; 2) her abandonment of any distinctly Catholic effort to influence either society at large or the State in particular; and 3) the apparent disappearance of all sense of “society” and “common good” that might, as in the past, be used as a natural “seed of the Logos” that one could baptize in the cause of constructing a true res publica Cristiana. Rather than a positive development, Catholics who respect both Faith and Reason see a modern regression to an intellectual and practical environment open neither to the message of Christ nor to that of Solon the Lawgiver; a brave new world where believers are led by “a willful Church subservient to a willful society”.

Justice demands that we begin our examination of this contemporary return to Plato’s cave by taking the claims of the proponents of a modern “development of doctrine” at face value; as the considered judgments of men who have the well-being of the Church at heart. No one’s arguments are better suited to such a friendly examination than those of John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-1967), a peritus of New York’s Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman, and a man whose influence on the final Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatus humanae, was enormous. Knowledge of Murray’s position is crucial, because it combines the serious reflections of a man of faith together with debatable historical judgments that he himself was aware could—and according to some progressive readings, would have to—cause more fundamental turmoil in the future.[1]

Murray argued that anyone seeking a complete understanding of the extraordinary development of Catholic Social Doctrine emerging from the Council had to study Dignitatus humanae together with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, as a comprehensive unit. He claimed that the advance they represent in toto is two-fold in character: 1) a transformation in mentality regarding the Church’s awareness of how she is to approach dealing with the outside world that incalculably strengthens her age-old struggle to restore all things in Christ; and 2) a rooting of this broader and more effective evangelical consciousness in a much sounder ecclesiology than in the past.

Basically, Murray’s thesis runs as follows. The Catholic Tradition clearly recognizes that the Church’s mission is the salvation of individual human persons possessing Reason and free will. It teaches that these individual persons make their pathway to their supernatural end by means of a natural world whose great riches are channeled to human use through a complex social order, a society composed of many different societies, one of which is the State. Because of nature’s intrinsic limitations, as well as Original Sin and its consequences, the societies in which individuals develop and perfect themselves need the teaching and grace offered by the Church, the Body of Christ, to understand and fulfill their purpose effectively.

Unfortunately, the Church, in practice, has shaped her approach to the complex society of societies forming the whole of the individual person-friendly social order through her relationship with the State alone. She has done this by seeking spiritual and juridical ties with public political authorities that determine how and under what conditions she can engage the rest of society. This has regularly resulted in her co-option by authoritative political forces in the service of their own limited, distorted, and sometimes openly anti-Catholic purposes. Even when she has sought to address the problems of the rest of society—as through the praiseworthy encyclicals of Leo XIII—the restoration of all things in Christ has nevertheless, in practice, ended up being treated as a kind of “second class” activity; a mere “extension” of her basic sacramental labor rather than a marching order emerging logically from the meaning of the Incarnation issued to every believer, clerical and lay alike.

Historically, therefore, the Church has found herself in the curious position of being simultaneously politicized—as the ally of States frequently using her as a cover for their earth-bound projects—and not political enough—through her denial of the innate need for every member of the entire Christian community to be completely free to serve the Incarnate Word and transform the whole society-rich Creation in Christ’s image. Murray was convinced that this arrangement unacceptably sacralized the State at the expense of desacralizing the Church and the rest of society. We might say that he was convinced that it produced one Cardinal Richelieu after another, ready to work primarily for the glory of his nation, whatever the nefarious consequences for the Catholic cause in general, and not enough men like St. Vincent de Paul and his dévot followers in France, burning with zeal to use spiritual tools to fight evil in every realm of life.[2]

Let us pause for a moment to note that this position in many respects exactly parallels that of the great twentieth century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968).[3] Barth, horrified by the willingness of religious denominations to follow their various governments unquestioningly into the carnage of the First World War, attributed their slavishness to that same tradition of Church and State unity politicizing religion and crippling the Church’s true supernatural mission to judge the world that Murray attacked. His leap into battle against the Nazis after having fled from the politicized religious world of the 1910’s was in no way contradictory; it reflected his understanding of the independent and “God First” vantage point from which the Christian’s inevitable political and social impact must emerge. Even Barth’s refusal to fight the Communists after 1945 was logical. He felt that joining in the anti-Communist “crusade” would turn him into a political tool of a “Free World” whose secularism posed more dangers to Christianity ‘s supernatural transforming mission in the long run. But, ironically, it was precisely to that American political experience providing the ideological guidance for the “Free World” anti-Communism so distrusted by Barth that Murray appealed—and as the very model for assuring liberation of the Church to fulfill her more vast and spiritually-rooted social mission.

Murray argued—at least to begin with—that his judgment was based on simple historical and sociological observation. America, due to the ever more diversified waves of immigration reaching her shores, had become a land of many faiths and cultures: a “pluralist society”. An application of the political developments inherited from the England of the Glorious Revolution to her own peculiar pluralist circumstances had led America to realize that the State’s primary and God-given duty to preserve social peace and quiet required a governmental retreat from alliance or positive interference with the numerous religious denominations competing for her population’s faith. She left them all free to pursue their independent development and fulfillment. Through this general governmental retreat the Catholic Church had thereby been given the opportunity to engage and potentially Christianize the entire social order, to which it now finally had direct access. Yes, the same could also be said for opposing denominations; but Catholicism was strong enough to face and defeat them on its own two feet alone.

And anyone with eyes to see could judge the results for himself. Not only had the Church prospered and grown in the American context, but she had done so without the divisiveness and bloodshed that had characterized her fight for survival in the past, both when in alliance with the State as well as when openly opposed by it. The conclusion was that Catholics were morally bound to maintain a system that so clearly permitted the State, the Church, and the rest of complex corporate society to carry out all of their diverse, specific missions so peacefully and so well.

Many factors contributed to spreading the prestige of the American pluralist system in the post-1945 world: European exhaustion and questioning of the dangers of all ideological rigor after two world wars and genocidal butchery, that of the anti-religious Enlightenment included; admiration of the contrasting stability, power, and wealth of the United States; and, inevitably, comparison of Old World ecclesiastical failures with Church success on the other side of the Atlantic. Prestigious intellectuals like Jacques Maritain, himself personally well acquainted with the situation in the United States, openly drew the consequences of America’s “teaching” for the instruction of the Catholic world as a whole. Making reference to those “signs of the times” that indicated both a weakening of hostility to the Church on the part of a previously antagonistic but chastened liberal world, as well as a recognition of the need for a common anti-totalitarian front composed of everyone nurtured by a sense of “human dignity” that was rooted, historically, in Christian teaching, men like Maritain labored for the practical creation of a universal pluralist environment. They fostered the impression that the outside world was waiting breathlessly for Christ without really knowing it; that under a pluralist regime, men could finally open their arms fully to the Church, knowing that they were opening them to Faith as opposed to political expediency; to Jesus, rather than to Constantine. Hence, the call to a new gaudium and a new spem.

Let us begin our analysis of Murray’s arguments by admitting that aspects of his critique of the Catholic past are all too accurate, beginning first of all with the question of ecclesiology—the theology of the Church and her “constitution”. Ecclesiology, historically, has indeed been something of a neglected child in the Catholic family. This is not particularly surprising. It involves a subject that is intimidating in its all-encompassing complexity. More than that, historical circumstances of varied kinds have stood guard, like angels with fiery swords, preventing a full and proper treatment of the idea of the Church as such. Hence, the real progress in ecclesiology and understanding of the complexities of the social order that can be seen in the work of some of the thirteenth century scholastic theologians was stalled and then almost entirely buried alive by the blow to the prestige of the intellectual world brought about by the bitter battles of philosophical Realists and Nominalists. The consequence was that when the heretical ecclesiological writings of William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua presented the vision of a Church-Empire wherein the sacral was indeed swallowed up by the secular realm, the response of a Papacy that was itself obsessed with temporal political issues proved to be painfully deficient; dominated by legalist canonical arguments as anti-intellectual as those of its opponents.

Only a renewed but also slow and haphazard “ascent of Mount Carmel” worked to pull together once again all of the elements necessary to understanding the “constitution” of the Church and her relationship to the world at large. Trent sought to tackle these questions, but could not do so because the theological complications of the papal-episcopal relationship and the demands of States jealous of religious prerogatives won in the late Middle Ages risked the shipwreck of the entire Council. After further Enlightenment-engendered setbacks, the Catholic revival movement of the nineteenth century was finally able to stimulate further advances. But here, too, a mixture of intellectual turmoil and international political pressures prevented First Vatican Council from completing work on that comprehensive “constitution of the Church” and discussion of her mission to the world at large that had first been planned.

Secondly, even though the Roman Church’s history is replete with efforts to make contact with the many communities that shape individuals persons for the purpose of “restoring all things in Christ”, let us also admit the claim that she has tended to focus her external concerns on her relationship to the State. It is certainly not difficult to understand why. The State was prior to her in time, greater than she was in power, and respected by her as a God-given institution. The Reformation, in its frontal assault on the Church and its panicked hunt for protection from the ensuing social convulsions, strengthened the position of the State still further. Enlightenment appeals to governmental aid in fighting organized religious influence over daily life, as well as that of “irrational” and “tyrannical” subsidiary social groups obstructing “progress” continued to feed the State’s totalitarian potential. Trying to “bypass” the State to confront a social order that was itself in dire straits alongside the Church would have illustrated wishful thinking at best; destructive self-delusion at worst.

All this was complicated enough when power lay in the hands of ruling authorities traditionally tied to the idea of an international Christian order. It grew still more problematic when the many offshoots of the naturalist Enlightenment sought control over the swollen powers of the secular, national State. Precisely because all of these offshoots could make appeal to one or another distorted aspect of that Catholic European past from which they had confusedly emerged, any liberal, democrat, nationalist, socialist, or Bonapartist faction willing to seek Catholic help could find some aspect of the Church’s message that his party seemed to promote and that its enemies ignored. And just like monarchs of the past, partisan factions of more recent times could thereby press for public Catholic recognition of their “godly” mission.

Finally, there is no denying that the clergy—which, in addition to being the God-given authoritative force within the Mystical Body of Christ, also represents a human “interest group” all too ready to view the Church’s relationship with the State from the standpoint of its own particular limited concerns—has often demonstrated a willingness to abandon the broader work of Christianization, leaving the powers-that-be untroubled in exchange for its own security in carrying out its basic sacramental activity.

Nevertheless, the clergy has been divided in the way in which it has pursued such “deals”. Italian concerns have often pulled the Papacy and the Roman Curia to seek security in ways that have conflicted with national episcopacies cementing alliances with their local “sacred” States. Although the lower clergy in the modern world, angry at the co-option of its bishops by local government authorities, has indeed often taken up the cudgel of the broader Christianizing cause, it has regularly done so at the price either of exaggeratedly praising all papal decisions in these realms, or through a union with one or the other naturalist “party” that was happy to legitimize its activities in the eyes of believers through a clerical presence in its ranks. In any case, given both the propensity of the old monarchies to build alliances with moderate Enlightenment forces, as well as the atmosphere of panic created by the “parties of order” regarding the Red Menace, national episcopacies and Papacy alike, moved generally down the direction of making their peace with and blessing the monarchical-liberal State—and whatever other allies it felt it had to make to fend off more radical challenges. In short, the social order was sacrificed to ensure that a clerical dominated and sacramental “clubhouse” remain untouched.

Murray argued that the pluralist solution, in freeing the Church from all direct involvement with the State, liberated her from those totally unacceptable restrictions that the union of Throne and Altar had also placed on her ability to Christianize the entire social order. Leaving the highly limited Anglo-American State its secularism in its own narrow sphere—where it could do no harm to religion, society, and the development of the human person—she now marched out to conquer the world under the banner of the dignity of man alone. She had nothing to fear in doing so, because she had given birth to that concept in the first place. Papal elaboration of its meaning in the recent past demonstrated her conviction that she understood what was required to develop and perfect it better than anyone else. And armed with a better ecclesiology underling the responsibilities of each and every one of her children in the evangelical enterprise, she was confident that what she had to offer the world gave her an historical, rational, and grace-backed superiority in a free dialogue with others that no role as the Established Church or Concordat could hope to equal in fruitful consequences.

As hopeful and tradition-friendly as Murray’s prognosis may have sounded to many people, it sadly masqueraded two great dangers that were to lead to the post-conciliar dominance of teachings and actions totally destructive to any substantive sense of social order whatsoever, Christian or non-Christian. The first was the fact that the embrace of the American pluralist system burdened the Church with a new set of political and social luggage equipped with a ticking anti-Catholic and anti-rational “time-bomb”. Secondly, commitment to pluralism facilitated the progress of that many-headed European personalist movement that was even more influential at the Council than anything coming from the American experience, and presented a much more clearly subversive alternative view of the Catholic future to boot. Let us explore both of these dangers in their common work for the banishment of Faith, Church, and Reason from all discussion of State and society.

Murray himself knew that the success of the pluralist system actually depended upon it being not all that pluralist in reality, since it required a moral consensus ”with regard to the rational truths and moral precepts that govern the structure of the constitutional state, specify the substance of the common weal, and determine the ends of public policy.”[4] America maintained this consensus, at least for a time, due to any number of factors, including the powerful influence of ordinary human inertia and the presence of traditional institutions like the Catholic Church that served as militant counterpoints to logical ideas and practical behavior working to break down all rational and moral unity.

The destructive developments flowing from these ideas and this behavior were rooted in Protestantism, developed in conjunction with the so-called “moderate” Enlightenment and its response to disruptive religious conflict, and taught most completely and confidently from the time of the Glorious Revolution onwards by men like John Locke and his American disciples. Founded upon a consideration of the human person as an isolated atomistic being defined by his many material desires, these first worked primarily to construct a society that was friendly to the freedom of individual property owners—as well as the theorists defending their concerns. Constructing a property-friendly society demanded a weakening of coercive authorities dangerous to the two interests in question.

In the seventeenth century, these authorities were economy-disrupting Anglican and Puritan religious forces as well as the Stuart Monarchy, with its demand for taxes to support an ever-larger standing army and navy. Taming them in a way that did not foster a fearful Spinoza-like atheism and endanger basic social peace and quiet as well led to the call for “religious toleration” and the “necessary evil” of a government with “checks and balances”. Religious toleration allowed freedom for so many different religious denominations to flourish that no one of them could succeed in dominating social life. While appearing to be religion-friendly and maintaining commitment to a common moral vision as yet contested by no one, it nevertheless turned one’s religious faith into a purely “decorative” aspect of life; a personal consolation with no public significance.[5] The tendency was to make government as “decorative” as possible also. Both forces were shown their limitations by the real powers in the land—the men of property and their moderate Enlightenment intellectual allies—who shaped the social order according to their will.

All these developments, especially when translated into the New World environment, could seem, at first, to offer an opportunity for the Catholic Church and the subsidiary societies of a corporate order to prosper. After all, the attack on authoritative influence in life was aimed primarily at two Protestant entities and the power of the State alone. But the deeper teaching of the Anglo-American experience was its definition of the need for the individual, defined by Locke as a bundle of passions, to be “free”. And with this principle as a guide, any social authority that stood in the path of the fulfillment of material “freedom” had to come under assault—Catholic and subsidiary as well as zealous Protestant and governmental in character. The use of coercive authority—which so many philosophers, throughout the ages, had seen to be an absolutely essential rational requirement for any effective social activity—had to be presented as somehow unnatural in character. What took its place was the raw power of the strong individual, whose will was thereby unchained to lord it over the weak.

Moreover, the individual “freedom” promoted could be of any kind whatsoever. Yes, the men of property and some of their intellectual allies may have wanted to limit “freedom” to economic concerns, utilizing concepts like “common sense” to try to shame others into “behaving themselves” for the maintenance of public order. Still, the ideas in play simultaneously took the call for liberty down different directions than purely economic ones. Proponents of other, assertive “freedoms” argued that public order was threatened due to a failure to accommodate the liberties they loved, and that “common sense” therefore demanded their acceptance.

In the long run, what this meant was that the strongest individual wills would ultimately be the arbiter of everything. And in America, where the system permitting such a triumph of the will was shored up by a “civil religion” that divinized the desires of its historical creators, the strong men found themselves obliged to tie their will together with that of the Founding Fathers. An ultimatum was thereby issued to Faith, Reason, Common Sense, and all social institutions—the Church, now reduced to the level of a mere “religious denomination”, the emasculated State, and other corporate authorities. Either they publically committed themselves to supporting the will to power of the strongest proponents of particular “freedoms”, or they had to be paralyzed and relegated to a powerless, “decorative” role in life.

Gaudium et spes argued that the “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. . . . Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other.”[6]. American Catholics entering into the social arena to “Christianize” the world understood from their pluralist historical baggage and environment just how that “false opposition” could be erased. It was certainly not by bending society to the Catholic vision as traditionally understood. In order for the “true message” of Christ to triumph, those responsible for teaching it would have to read the American “signs of the times” that taught them the game of “Follow the Will” discussed above. And this showed that a new Catholic order of the ages would only come about by recognizing the catholicity of the will of the Founders as authoritatively defined by the strongest “freedom fighters” of the day—and obeying its dictates.

Therefore, if anything in pre-existing Catholic theology and the rational philosophy traditionally utilized in union with it stood in opposition to the will of the “Strong Men—Founding Fathers”, then it was these discordant theological and philosophical elements that had to disappear. To make matters worse, the Council’s “clearer understanding of ecclesiology” was also called upon to justify such a surrender. The Council’s grant of “full citizenship” to the laity was said to be a sign that the Church was finally “catching up” to the spirit of that American democratic and pluralist environment which had proven to be so beneficial to Catholics in the United States. What was now needed was to carry a “pilgrim Church’s” learning process to its obvious conclusions, as, bit by bit, the deeper spirit of the American experience taught her what Christ really expected from her: a structural democratization favorable to baptizing as Catholic the dictates of individual “free consciences”; and a condemnation of the use of coercive social authority of any sort—even that of purely internal impact and devoid of physical penalties—as offensive to human dignity and the dignity of Sons of God. Both the Catholic Church and her Christianization of the world at large would thus be guided by supposedly Christ-like, but actually John Locke shaped individual consciences; individual consciousnesses whose “liberation” was demonstrated by their slavish repetition of the demands of the latest willful interpretation of the willful Founding Fathers.

Did Murray expect or want this result? Given John F. Kennedy’s insistence during the 1960 campaign that his Church, so respectful of Faith and Reason, would have no influence in shaping his individual conscience and behavior as president (What then would? Reading omens? Investigating tea leaves? Or simply playing the game of Follow the Will?) it hardly seems that such a development would have been surprising to him. A number of Murray’s colleagues from Fordham University known to me personally (like Fr. Francis Canavan and the late Dr. William Marra) insisted that he was aware of the exaggerated emphasis upon individual freedom troubling the American experience and disturbed by its post-conciliar application to Church teachings and structure, both doctrinal and moral. But others create a different picture; that of a Murray arguing for a coercion-free development of the human conscience:[7]

 Murray had assiduously avoided joining the debate on religious freedom in society with the question of freedom in the Church. He did this for both theological and tactical reasons, contending that the conciliar text did not have the theological foundation to argue the internal issues, and that any attempt to revise the text in that direction would be a fatal mistake. After Vatican II had stated the Catholic position on religious liberty as a human and civil right, however, Murray commented: “Inevitably, a second great argument will be set afoot—now on the theological meaning of Christian freedom. The children of God, who receive this freedom as a gift from their Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, assert it within the Church as well as within the world, always for the sake of the world and the Church. The issues are many—the dignity of the Christian, the foundations of Christian freedom, its object or content, its limits and their criterion, the measure of its responsible use, its relation to the legitimate reaches of authority and to the saving counsels of prudence, the perils that lurk in it, and the forms of corruption to which it is prone. All these issues must be considered in a spirit of sober and informed reflection.”

[To be continued tomorrow…]


[1] Murray’s work is mostly in article form, including We Hold These Truths. For Murray and the Council, see J. Bryan Hehir, “Church-State and Church-World: The Ecclesiological Implications”, Proceedings of  the 41st Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America (1986), pp. 54-74;; Francis Canavan, S.J., “Religious  Freedom: John Courtney Murray, S.J. and Vatican II”, Faith & Reason (Summer, 1986),

[2] See my article, “Can Anything Good Come From France?”, (The Remnant, December 31st, 2004,

[3] See Andreas Lundén, Karl Barth’s Social Action. The Development of Karl Barth’s Theopraxis.

[4] John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), pp. 72-73.

[5] See Blanford Parker, The Triumph of Augustan Poetics (Cambridge University Press, 1998) for the concerted effort to reduce religion to a personal, decorative element rather than a public force shaping society.

[6] Gaudium et Spes, 43.

[7] Hehir, pp. 72-73, citing Murray in Walter Abbot, ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 673.