It is a source of continuing amazement just how malleable history is for Roman Catholics. There is apparently no longer even the pretense to objectivity or constancy when representing Catholic history. Francis Oakley describes this phenomenon as “the empire that the present continues to exert over the past in so much of Catholic institutional thinking” and went on to make this prescient observaton:
Under certain circumstances, moreover, casual forgetfulness (by Catholic institutions) has betrayed a disagreeable tendency to mutate into a proactive politics of oblivion reflective of the Orwellian conclusion that if he who controls the past controls the future, then he who controls the present would be well advised to control the past.1
So it is with great interst that we observe he preeminent Catholic spokesperson of the day, George Weigel reaffirming Oaklley’s thesis in his recent National Review article Weigel weighs in on the recent SCOTUS marriage case (Obergefel) by channeling the late Fr. John Courtney Murray. Weigel captions his article, “What would Father John Courtney Murray say?” and describes the late Fr. Murray as, “one of the intellectual architects of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom and author of what remains today the best Catholic explication of the moral-cultural foundations of the old American democracy, “We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.””1. There is no better extant example of historical oblivion than this.
In order to better understand either the tragic or comic nature of Weigel’s prounouncements it will be helpful to review who John Courtney Murray was and how the Roman Catholic Church actually treated him during his lifetime.
A simple Google search will allow the reader to ascertain the bare facts or Murray’s existence. He was born in 1904, was highly educated at an early age, became a Jesuit priest in 1933 and went on to earn advanced degrees in Rome. And Murray’s area of special interest was how Roman Catholics could make sense of the American political system. Why did that require the efforts of so great a scholar? Because the American political system was described as “very erroneous” by Pope Leo XIII. and condemned as heresy. (Google ‘Heresy of Americanism” and you will find lots of information.) So how, exactly, were Americans to exist under a political system condemned by the pope? Enter, John Courtney Murray.
Whle it is beyond our present scope to outline Murray’s thought on the topic, it is necessary to describe how vehemently and vociferously the Roman Catholic Church opposed his work and used every trick possible to thwart Murray in his teaching, speaking and writing.
Americans in the first half of the 20th century were well aware of Catholic doctrine regarding church-state relations. They were also well aware of the disaster that this doctrine had wreaked on Italy, Spain and other heavily Catholic countries. Fr. Murray, realizing this, understood that ecumenical cooperation was indeed necessary for Catholic progress in the U.S. In 1943 he sought permission to address an ecumenical group at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Such permission was denied by the auxiliary bishop for the Catholic archdiocese of New York. Later speeches given by Murray were shadowed by professors from the Catholic Univeristy in America and from other Catholic seminaries. The end result was that the Vatican working through American Catholic universities had Murray’s books pulled from the shelves and, working through Murray’s Jesuit superiors, had his speeched banned and his further printing contracts cancelled. Murray was essentially forbidden to speak or write further because of his “heretical” views and became persona non grata to the Catholic world. Murray was predictably banned from attending the Second Vatican Council
There is one more very interesting twist to the story and that has to do with the rise of America’s first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy. Murray was well known to the Kennedy clan and, if memory serves, was actually sought out as an adviser to the then Senator’s Presidential campaign. That fact put theVatican in an extremely precarious position. If they persisted in forcing Murray into the Gulag, it would look bad at precisely the time a Catholic was poised to become President of the most powerful country on earth. Realizing the terrible optics that Rome had created for the American political situation, Cardinal Spellman had to intervene to get Fr. Murray out of his ghetto and on to the Vatican Council – which he did. However, Murray was not in attendance until the Second Session of Vatican II. (Oh, to have been a fly on the Vatican wall at that time!)
So I hope the reader will see with me that when Weigel goes on to muse about how Murray might have “counseled the bishops” of America, he is engaging in the worst sort of anachronism. Murray was not even allowed to “counsel” college students let alone bishops. When Weigel begins his essay, “What would Father John Courtney Murray say?” he exits the bounds of Catholic propriety by openly contradicting the Magisterium. And when he refers to Fr. Murray as the “architect” of anything with regard to the Vatican Council II, he ignores how the Vatican did what it could to preclude his very presence.
Maybe some knowledgeable Catholics will stand up and correct Weigel before he draws more discredit to Catholic historical research.
1 Oakley, Francis. History and the Return of the Repressed in Catholic Modernity: The Dilemma Posed by Constance in “The Crisis of Authorityin Catholic Modernity” ed. Lacey, Michael J. and Francis Oakley. New York: Oxford University Press; 2011. Kindle Location: 677