John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit scholar, was a key player in the 20th-century development of positive Catholic attitudes toward religious freedom and American democracy. He saw clearly that the United States is a product of Protestant and Enlightenment thought. But he believed that Catholics could not only “fit into” American life, but also thrive here by contributing their faith to the moral health of the country. And that’s been proven true. . .at least in part. We Catholics have done very well in America. Arguably too well for our own good.
Today, Murray is probably best remembered for his work on Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty, and for his book We Hold These Truths; a book very favorable toward America and its possibilities. But there’s another side to Murray that’s an interesting footnote to his work. In 1940, he delivered a series of lectures that became an essay entitled “The Construction of a Christian Culture.” And in it, he said the following about the country he loved:
American culture, as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world. It would seem to be erected on the triple denial that has corrupted Christian culture at its roots, the denial of metaphysical reality; [the denial of] the primacy of the spiritual over the material; [and the denial] of the social over the individual. . . .Its most striking characteristic is its profound materialism. . . .It has given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for. And its achievement may be summed up thus: It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.
In the same text, he added that, “in view of the fact that American culture is built on the negation of all that Christianity stands for, it would seem that our first step toward the construction of a Christian culture should be the destruction of the existing one. In the presence of a Frankenstein, one does not reach for baptismal water, but for a bludgeon.”
Murray wrote those words more than 80 years ago. His sympathy for the American project was very real. But it hinged on our nation preserving its Biblical leaven, and Catholics staying faithful to their religious identity. Neither has happened. Just the opposite. The America of 2023 would be unrecognizable to the John Courtney Murray of 1940, or even 1960.
We’re living through a sea change unlike anything in the last 500 years. It has different names and explanations – the Great Reset, the New Reformation, the Great Awokening, the Upheaval – but the same transformational content at society’s cellular level. And old answers don’t work. Old thinking doesn’t work.
That means we need to ask ourselves the kind of questions that force us to examine our premises, our strategies, and our tactics. And too many of us who seek to be faithful Catholics haven’t done enough of that. Which is why today’s woke revolution feels like an ambush, when it’s actually been a long march through the institutions. “More of the same” didn’t work in Vietnam. And it’s a lesson we should keep in mind in dealing with the struggles we now face as religious believers in an unfriendly culture.
Which leads us finally to what we need for the renewal of that same culture.
The American Founders had a special interest in Roman architecture, law, and the division of powers in the old Roman Republic. It influenced their creation of a federal republic with a system of checks and balances. We’re not a direct democracy. And that’s part of the design, just as it was in Rome. The Roman Republic worked well for a long time. But nations age and change, just like people. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., the Republic was already essentially dead, replaced by Roman imperial ambitions and the massive wealth that accrued to its ruling class.
Our own country may lack a river named Rubicon, but it’s a fact today that in the United States, 70 percent of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of the top 10 percent of the population. The bottom 50 percent of the population, in other words our plebeian class, have 2.5 percent of the wealth. And the gulf that separates our very rich from everyone else is widening. Wealth inequality in the United States is actually growing faster than in any other advanced economy. Meanwhile public safety and respect for the law, nationwide, are under growing pressure. When we read modern experts on the Roman Republic like Edward Watts and Tom Holland, the differences between us now, and the Romans then, become very obvious. But so do the similarities. And they’re striking.
So how do we fix things? How do we restore what we once had? Well, the truth is, maybe we can’t. Maybe that shouldn’t be our main focus. There’s no quick fix for problems we behaved ourselves into. But as Christians, we can at least change our thinking and our actions. We can support each other as friends, to save the good that can be saved, and to build something new and better over time. We can be the kind of leaven in our culture that the Gospel calls us to be. In The City of God, Augustine is ferocious in his criticism of Roman iniquities. He never anchored his Christian hope in earthly permanence or promises. But that didn’t stop him from working with Roman authorities, when necessary, to serve the needs of his people.
The lesson is simple. Politics involves the use of power. And power always has a moral dimension. Thus, political engagement is a Christian duty. We have the obligation to make this world as good as we can. . .without ever deluding ourselves that it’s our final home. Because – as history teaches – when we try to create heaven on earth, we build a pretty good copy of hell instead.
*Image: Colossus of Constantine (remains of) by an unknown artist, early-4th-century [Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori Musei Capitolini, Rome]
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s Our American Catholic Rubicon
W.H. Auden’s The Fall of Rome