Georgetown Remembers: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of John Courtney Murray

On August 16, 1967, John Courtney Murray—Jesuit priest, theologian, and public intellectual—passed away less than a month before he would have turned 63. For the final three decades of his life, he taught at Woodstock College and edited the Jesuit journal Theological Studies. Celebrated on Time magazine’s cover (December 12, 1960) for contributions to American domestic and foreign policy debates and for sympathetic, if critical, understanding of religion in American public life, he later helped compose Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (Dignitatis Humanae).

From Georgetown’s introductory Theology course, “The Problem of God”—named after Murray’s 1962 Yale Lectures—to the mission of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Murray’s influence can be seen throughout the university’s programming. This year, Georgetown celebrates John Courtney Murray’s legacy in the fiftieth anniversary year of his passing with a day-long event examining Ignatian practice and Catholic and Jesuit identity.

This event is co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Office of the President.



Thursday, November 16 (Copley Formal Lounge)

9:00 a.m. | Welcome Address

9:15 a.m. | Session One: John Courtney Murray: Jesuit, Churchman, and Public Theologian

Gerry Fogarty, S.J., University of Virginia

Francesca Cadeddu, University of Bologna

Leon Hooper, S.J., Georgetown University (moderator)

10:30 a.m. | Break

10:45 a.m. | Session Two: John Courtney Murray and the Role of Public Theology Today

Bryan Hehir, Harvard Divinity School

Robin Lovin, Southern Methodist University

Shaun Casey Georgetown University (moderator)

12:00 p.m. | Lunch

12:30 p.m. | Lunch Keynote: Murray's Fundamental Insights as Framing Principles for the Current Moment

Bishop Robert W. McElroy

1:30 p.m. | Third Session: Global Dimensions of Religious Liberty and the Common Good

David Hollenbach, S.J., Georgetown University

Paul Heck, Georgetown University

Terrence Johnson, Georgetown University

3:15 p.m. | Break

3:45 p.m. | Fourth Session: John Courtney Murray—Resource for Just War and Just Peace in the Nuclear Age?

Drew Christiansen, S.J., Georgetown University

Laurie Johnston, Emmanuel College

Maryann Cusimano Love, Catholic University of America

Anthony Arend, Georgetown University (moderator)

5:30 p.m. | Reception—Riggs Library, Healy Hall

Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904-1967)

John Courtney Murray entered the Society of Jesus in 1920. He was ordained a priest in 1933 and received his doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1937. Afterwards, he assumed the Jesuit theologate at Woodstock, Maryland, where he was a professor of theology until his death. Additionally, Murray edited the magazine America and the journal Theological Studies.

While Murray's academic specialties were the theology of grace and the Trinity, his major contributions were in public theology, especially concerning church, state, and society. His prevailing theme was the compatibility of American constitutionalism and Roman Catholicism. Indeed, according to Murray, freedom's catalyst in the West was the church's claim of independence from the state. The principle of limited government follows closely upon the recognition of this claim; consequently, large areas of human activity and experience are given the legal and moral space in which to flourish apart from the state. As he states, “The dualism of mankind's two hierarchically ordered forms of social life had been Christianity's cardinal contribution to the Western political tradition.”

The specifically American contribution, then, was to establish this principle by means of a written constitution. In his words, ““The American thesis is that government is not juridically omnicompetent. Its powers are limited, and one of the principles of limitation is the distinction between state and church, in their purposes, methods, and manner of organization.” Further, this thesis “asserts the theory of a free people under limited government, a theory that is recognizably part of the Christian political tradition, and altogether defensible in the manner of its realization under American circumstances.”

Murray's public theology troubled his ecclesiastical superiors, who restricted his freedom to write and lecture throughout the 1950s. His ideas gained a measure of vindication, however, upon his invitation to the Second Vatican Council, where he made crucial contributions to its statement on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.

Source: The Acton Institute

See Also

Writings by Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ

Published and Unpublished Works By John Courtney Murray, S.J., Compiled at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University

Articles on the Thought of Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ

Excerpts from Books on Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ

Books by Father John Courtney Murray, SJ

We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (September 2005)

The 1960 publication of We Hold These Truths marked a significant event in the history of modern American thought. Since that time, Sheed and Ward has kept the book in print and has published several studies of John Courtney Murray's life and work. We are proud to present a new edition of this classic text, which features a comprehensive introduction by Peter Lawler that places Murray in the context of Catholic and American history and thought while revealing his relevance today.

Book Reviews

Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, by John Courtney Murray and J. Leon Hooper.
Westminster John Knox Press; (June 1993)

[From the Publisher:] John Courtney Murray is renowned for his contributions to American ethical debates and well known for his defense of civil religious freedom. He strongly felt that religion should be taught in public schools and universities. Murray had a decisive influence on juridical, political, and social theories. This intriguing volume includes, in addition to two of Murray's most important statements on religious freedom, two essays newly made available to the reading public: one on religious freedom originally suppressed by the Vatican and published here for the first time, and a discussion of human dignity - how it is defined and how it functions as the philosophical foundation of religious freedom - newly translated into English. This fascinating collection will help readers look back at past struggles over religious liberty and forward to dilemmas presently facing the church.
Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selected Writings of John Courtney Murray, edited by J. Leon Hooper.
Georgetown University Press (October 1994)

Book Reviews

The Problem of God, by John Courtney Murray.
Yale University Press (1964)
[From the Publisher]: In an urbane and persuasive tract for our time, the distinguished Catholic theologian combines a comprehensive metaphysics with a sensitivity to contemporary existentialist thought.

Books on John Courtney Murray, SJ

The Believer As Citizen: John Courtney Murray in a New Context , by D. Thomas Hughson
Paulist Press (July 1993)

[From the Publisher]: In recent years religious leaders of mainline Christian and Jewish groups have been calling on their adherents to play a larger role in the creation of a just social order. One of the most publicized of these was the declaration of the American Catholic bishops, Economic Justice For All. It remains to be seen whether believers raised in an era of affluence are deeply committed to the plight of the needy, and whether religion itself can mark out a path between social activism and conventional party politics. John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) was a pioneer in the ongoing dialogue about the role of believers in public life. For all of his contributions, however, Murray spoke in a patrician manner to a social order that was stable and structured. How useful are his ideas in an age of multiculturalism, when the strongest pressure for justice comes from grassroots organizations of the poor and marginalized? The Believer as Citizen proposes a fresh view of Murray's public philosophy in a way that makes it applicable to today's conditions.
John Courtney Murray and the Growth of Tradition, by J. Leon Hooper.
Sheed & Ward (November 1, 1996)

[From the Publisher]: John Courtney Murray was the most significant figure in bring together Catholic and American tradition in the 1940s, 50s, and '60s. This volume brings together twelve of the foremost Murray scholars to plumb his work for resources to respond to today's questions.
Catholic and American: The Political Theology of John Courtney Murray, by Thomas P. Ferguson.
Sheed & Ward (July 1, 1993)
John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation, edited by Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso.
Eerdmans Pub Co (June 1992)

Book Reviews

The Search for an American Public Theology: The Contribution of John Courtney Murray, by Robert W. McElroy.
Paulist Press (May 1989)

[From the Publisher]: A synthesis and critical evaluation of Murray's social writings which argues that Murray's life work still represents the best starting point for public theology in the United States of America.