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Jesuit theologian Courtney Murray continues to inspire the church

WASHINGTON — There's little doubt among the church's deep thinkers that renowned theologian Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray continues to shape Catholic social thought and interaction today, 50 years after his death.


Beginning in the 1940s and through his death in 1967, his writings on religious freedom, birth control, church-state relations, Catholic engagement in pluralistic American society, war — even nuclear war — and peace have led to a more prominent profile for the U.S. church in public life.

Father Murray also played a role in the Second Vatican Council, having been sent to Rome for the council's second session in 1963. Although he had been forbidden to speak publicly on the issue of religious freedom from 1956 to 1960 because his views contrasted with long-standing church teaching on engagement with other faiths, he drafted the third and fourth versions of what became the council's 1965 document on religious freedom, "Dignitatis Humanae" ("The Dignity of the Human Person").

While the average Catholic may not know about Father Murray, his essays and theological reflections shaped U.S. Catholic thought in the middle of the 20th century and continue to influence American church life today.

A daylong Georgetown University program Nov. 16 marking Father Murray's Aug. 14, 1967, death examined his legacy within the U.S. Catholic Church. Panels of speakers and a keynote address broadly reviewed what they described as the public theology the Jesuit undertook, examining his writings and relating them to the contemporary world.

In his keynote address, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego repeated a description of Father Murray that he used in a 2005 article in America magazine, calling him "the most significant Catholic theologian that the church in the United States ever produced."

"His thought was so deeply rooted in the enduring questions of humanity, faith and society, and so precise in its expression that we still find in his work a mine from which we can extract profound insights to address the most compelling questions that we face as a people of faith and a nation in this new millennium," Bishop McElroy said.

It's not just the sheer quantity of Father Murray's work that qualifies him for Bishop McElroy's honor, but also the breadth of issues the priest explored.

And it was his landmark 1960 book We Hold These Truth that helped shape Catholic understanding of the church's role in a pluralistic society.

A biography on the website of Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Library describes, for example, how bishops consulted with Father Murray on numerous legal issues, including birth control and censorship of pornography.

Several presentations also addressed Father Murray's concern for the importance of building understanding among people in an increasingly secular society, particularly across faith divides.

Such concerns, said Bishop McElroy, who has extensively studied and written about the work of the Father Murray, suggest that the Jesuit would have been outspoken about the divisiveness that marks American society today. He said Father Murray early in his career wrote about cooperation across faiths long before it became an important goal of Catholic officials.

"His early writings were on this question, defending the notion that there could be working together," Bishop McElroy said. "It may be best for our country in terms of public consensus ... to work together for common goals rather than working out all the foundations for dialogue before we begin to take actions in solidarity."

Afterward, Bishop McElroy said that Father Murray's insights offer the church and society the opportunity for its members to re-establish bonds with each other and to move beyond political or ideological differences. The bishop called for the solidarity that St. John Paul II envisioned "that ties us together, that there's a sense we're willing to make sacrifices for one another."

"It is the understanding that we are graced to live and are debtors of the society. It's a different stance," Bishop McElroy added. "It's understanding we are all children of one God, we're all together and we're a community graced. We're debtors first and that's how we begin."


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017