The political landscape in which We Hold These Truths was published sixty years ago is almost unrecognizable today. The Cold War was in full swing, but far from over. The civil rights movement had already achieved some success in the 1954 Brown decision, but its greatest moments were yet to come. The Catholic Church was at the height of its cultural powers in the United States. Bishop Fulton Sheen had recently finished his television series (1952-57), seminaries were full, and Catholic schools at all levels were flourishing. If a bishop appears on television today, he is likely to “take his knee” before the piety of left-wing liberals or on the way to prison. Another time is hardly imaginable.
The enduring value of Br. John Courtney Murray’s book is its implicit understanding that the Church has always had a political problem. Or rather, maybe the church has always had a problem with politics. Let me make this understanding clearer.
The Second Person of the Trinity was born and executed by the administrative dictates of a transnational bureaucratic empire under harsh conditions. All the apostles also died, executed by the Roman administrative state, with the exception of John, who escaped the boiling oil. The church, built on the blood of the martyrs, was persecuted until it was decriminalized by an emperor who only converted on his deathbed. About a century later, the Christians were charged with the sack of Rome, prompting Augustine to write his great city of God against the Gentiles, which is not a fully successful defense against the indictment.
The Middle Ages are often seen as a moment of Catholic integration of church and state, but every successful attempt to rise above small kingdoms was a return or flight to the political form of the Roman Empire, partially or even “holy”. If Virgil was an honest guide through the underworld, the Renaissance wasn’t much better than the early modern period that followed. Since the French Revolution, the Church has been directly attacked at one time or another in almost every country in Europe.
One moment of true political success was the opposition of St. John Paul II to Soviet communism, but even this was a rejection of the Vatican’s earlier Ostpolitik, or an accommodation that tended to appease. Unfortunately, today’s Pontifex Maximus builds so many bridges to Beijing that even Disney Corporation could blush at the submissiveness. In short, the church has a problem with politics.
Discovering what can be learned from Murray’s book today is made difficult by the way its date is intertwined with the great political and social changes and, at the same time, with the liturgical and theological changes that followed immediately. As far as we’d like, the 1787 constitution has been significantly changed (with and without amendment) since then. And the parochial and liturgical fullness that characterized the Church before the Second Vatican Council, or, to be fair, the “spirit of the Second Vatican Council”, is found only in a few parishes, but certainly not in an entire diocese. Not even close.
Perhaps Locke got a few things right, which he did, if the history of the nations that never had or left this list above can be entered as evidence. Admitting this does not mean giving up the law of nature.
How the causality runs between the social and political changes of the 1960s and the liturgical and theological changes is a complicated question. Patrick Deneen finds a way to break the Gordian knot by arguing that both are the result of the naturally corrosive effects of curly liberalism. Interestingly, in The Demon in Democracy, Ryszard Legutko has argued that these processes have taken place in the short time since the emancipation of Eastern Europe. Legutko’s concern is that Poland, among other nations, has been forced to accept a philosophical system – a democracy devoid of beauty, truth, religion, and nation – that contradicts both its historical culture and a more noble understanding of human freedom. Ms. Murray’s attempts to distance the American experiment from Lockean nominalism suggest that he would agree with these analyzes, which explains his argument that America is not a fundamentally Lockean state.
How do we deal with the irony that the parts of America that are most likely to adhere to natural law principles on issues such as abortion, marriage, gender ideology, and the like are the most “curious” parts of the country? These parts hold on to their guns and religion, as the former president said, instead of running headlong into the progressivist future. Property rights, contracts, markets, freedom of speech, self-defense, family and religious tolerance all sound terribly Lockean. Or are the real heirs of John Locke the bright capitalists like Disney, an American company that refused to do business in Georgia because of a law on the fetal heartbeat, but thanked the administrators of the Chinese province of Xinjiang for their help with filming. (The Babylon Bee’s satirical attitude says it all: “Disney Editing Blunder: This Uighur concentration camp can be clearly seen in the background of ‘Mulan’.”) Perhaps Locke got a few things right, which he did when the history of the nations Anyone who has never or has never left this list above can be entered as evidence. Admitting this does not mean giving up the law of nature.
If the founders “built better than they knew”, it is because they built better than the philosophers who read them. They were not ideologues, but practical men who exercised their practical wisdom. The constitution of 1787 was the result of tough negotiations, compromises, and quite a few arms twisted. Montesquieu is the most widely cited author in the Federalist Papers, but these quotes are primarily about the separation of powers, an idea that can be implemented in many ways given historical and political realities. There are certainly elements of modern philosophy in the founding, but it is impossible to understand the American regime for that alone. To paraphrase Publius, although a lot of constitution and selection went into the constitution, there was still a lot of accidents and violence.
James Patterson ends his dedicated reflection on Fr. Murray’s thoughts with a call to new institutions and leaders to make alliances with non-Catholic religious believers. That is hard to criticize other than to say that we have lost almost all of the institutions that we once had. Where Catholic universities are not officially hostile to the teachings of the Church, their faculties are largely. The same could be said of the bishops. Only a handful would dare lead anywhere except in the direction the leftmost forces of culture would lead them. Indeed, Patterson largely acknowledges this in his description of the “traditionalist paradox”: surrender to the Pope means surrender to a Pope who is more willing to “kneel before the world” than ever before, to quote Jacques Maritain’s words use.
Instructions can be found by returning to Patterson’s description of the Gelasian dyarchy as “separate but interconnected perfect societies”. The key word there is “perfect”. In context, it means something more in the sense of self-sufficiency, but it should remind us how unlikely it is to find perfection in politics. Indeed, it is remarkable how clearly the American Constitution was built on what GK Chesterton called the only empirically demonstrable principle of the Christian faith: original sin. The founders foresaw neither the rule of men by angels nor the perfection of human nature. This realism about the fallen world could be something St. Thomas would recognize.
When Aquinas addressed the issue of tolerance, he explained that just as God allows evil to exist, because removing it would cause greater evils, so must the government. This is the law of nature in practice. He even quoted Augustine’s advice not to close brothels: “If you abolish whores, the world will be shaken with lust” (ST II.II 10.xi). This is the kind of answer the practical men in Philadelphia would have appreciated, if not always for reasons of statesmanship. Nonetheless, like Aquinas and Augustine before him, they understood that political life takes place in the valley of tears, not behind a veil of ignorance or even in a vaguely sacramental regime, as our integralist friends would have.
Aristotle described democracy as the opportunity for guests to judge the food that is served to them. On the same principle, a younger contemporary of Fr Murray, the Catholic and public intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., might prefer to be ruled by the good citizens of Boston than by the faculty of Harvard. The rule of the people is not an empty platitude. Our common political life is, or should be, shared. Once the rulers are separated from the ruled, it really is no longer politics, but a barely-hidden oligarchy that is no better than being an Ivies oligarchy. The federated republic of the constitution, with its checks and balances, filtering mechanisms, and even room for a natural aristocracy, is one of the best examples of how we try to turn natural law into human laws. Where we fail, the fault lies within us.
Ms. Murray’s We Hold These Truths is a clear analysis of the wild, harsh, sometimes violent political world of Richard Reinsch and the late Peter Augustine Lawler, “meddling political idealists and vulgar indulgent, morally indifferent pirates. “They described the culture that is unique to the combination of puritans and adventurers who founded the nation, but it is equally appropriate for all fallen people. The American Constitution is particularly suited to such people. Partisans of any other form of government must be asked how not to rely on something resembling the angelism or utopianism that the founders with wisdom could reject.