The Catholic attack on the theory of Locke, for both [John Courtney] Murray and [Orestes] Brownson, is a prelude to the gratitude they want us to have for the “providential” fact that our Constitution is more, much more, than a reflection of that theory. Murray quotes a key statement of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884): “We consider the establishment of our country’s independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers ‘building better than they knew,’ the Almighty’s hand guiding them.” The American bishops rejected the theory but affirmed the result of our framers’ building, attributing that miraculous disjunction to the providential hand of God. Murray himself gives a more specific explanation: “The providential aspect of the matter, and the reason for the better building, can be found in the fact that the American political community was organized in an era when the tradition of natural law and natural rights was still vigorous” (46). The reason our framers built better than they knew is that they were more influenced by a decaying but still vigorous tradition than they knew. The destructive side of their theorizing about nature exhibited itself to good effect in the Declaration of Independence, which both dissolved our bonds with Great Britain and declared illegitimate any political standard but what we know about nature through reason. But it left intact the thought that we share self-evident truths in common, and it was a somewhat traditional rather than Lockean understanding of those truths that guided the construction of our political institutions. Our framers built better than they knew, ironically, because they thought they knew less than they really did.
From the “Critical Introduction” to John Courtney Murray S.J., We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition