Another Perspective

We Hold These Truths Because They Are True

John Courtney Murray's essays still resonate 50 years later.

By 12.29.10

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The proper bafflers are the ambiguists. Their flashes of insights are frequent enough; but in the end the fog closes down. They are great ones for the facts, against the fundamentalists, and great ones of "conscience," against the cynics. They insist on the values of pragmatism against the absolutists; but they resent the suggestion that they push pragmatism to the point of relativism of moral values.
-- John Courtney Murray, S.J. (September 12, 1904-August 16, 1967)

We should not let the year end without noting the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of an American classic of political philosophy, one that combines both an appreciation of the unique nature of the American project with a profound understanding of the eternal verities of natural law reasoning, a mode of thought and discourse embedded in the nation's founding documents but otherwise banished from the halls of our great secular universities.

In 1960 the venerable publishing house of Sheed and Ward released We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition by John Courtney Murray, S.J. It was a series of essays exploring "the American Proposition" which Abraham Lincoln cited in the opening lines of his Gettysburg Address.

Father Murray understood that, even in the 1950s, "the serene, and often naïve, certainties of the eighteenth century have crumbled." Thus, the "self-evident" truths of the Declaration of Independence "may be legitimately questioned."

"What ought not to be questioned, however, is that the American Proposition rests on the forthright assertion of a realist epistemology," asserts Murray. "The sense of the famous phrase is simply this: 'There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth.'" Over and against positivists, Marxists and pragmatists, the Founding Fathers thought that "the life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible."

"If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke," argues Murray. "For the pragmatists there are, properly speaking, no truths; there are only results. But the American Proposition rests on the more traditional conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for, if they are not held, assented to, consented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City, in which men may dwell in dignity, peace, unity, justice, well-being, freedom."

Murray says "we hold these truths because they are true. They have been found in the structure of reality by that dialectic of observation and reflection which is called philosophy."

In the Catholic world prior to Vatican II, the issue of American religious pluralism was problematic. Indeed, Father Murray's writings were restrained from time to time by Rome. Yet, as can be seen in the teachings of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, the American constitutional system is now viewed as a positive good, not out of any tolerance for moral relativism, but due to a greater appreciation of the handiwork of James Madison, the First Amendment, "a great act of political intelligence" according to Murray.

As a matter of historic fact, "pluralism was the native condition of American society." Yet, the first truth to which the American Proposition makes appeal in the Declaration of Independence ("that landmark of Western political philosophy") basically asserts "the sovereignty of God over nations as well as over individual men," hardly a Jacobin or laicist position. Recall that language of inalienable rights coming from a Creator.

Murray takes a phrase from Boswell's Dr. Johnson to characterize the first two articles of the First Amendment, forbidding the establishment of a state religion and protecting the free exercise of religious practice, as "articles of peace," not articles of faith in our pluralist society. Although today, decades later, it may seem like a commonplace observation, he believed that the "goodness" of the amendment was "manifested not only by political but also religious experience. By and large (for no historical record is without blots) it has been good for religion, for Catholicism, to have had simply the right to freedom."

Absolutists, calling for walls and moats and the elimination of religion from the public square, forget that the First Amendment was designed to protect religious freedom, not to undermine it.

"The American Catholic is on good ground when he refuses to make an ideological idol out of religious freedom and separation of church and state, when he refuses to 'believe' in them as articles of faith," writes Father Murray. "He takes the highest ground available in this matter of the relations between religion and government when he asserts that his commitment to the religion clauses of the Constitution is a moral commitment to them as articles of peace in a pluralist society."

We Hold These Truths is not merely a book about limited "Catholic" interests in the American political system but a sustained defense of reason and rationale discourse in a civil society. In it Murray argues for the necessity and universality of natural law reasoning which provides a cogent basis for governing the commonwealth.

"The doctrine of natural law has no Roman Catholic presuppositions," says Murray. "Its only presupposition is threefold: that man is intelligent; that reality is intelligible; and that reality, as grasped by intelligence, imposes on the will the obligation that it be obeyed in its demands for action or abstention."

Rejecting John Locke's abstract, isolated individualism, Murray believes that natural law "regards the community as a 'given' equally with the person." Moreover, "Man is regarded as a member of an order instituted by God, and subject to the laws that make the order an order-laws that derive from the nature of man, which is essentially social as it is individual."

"Law is not simply the protection of rights but their source, because it is the foundation of duties," says Murray.

Murray had a keen intellect, steeped in the classical and Western traditions once common among Jesuits of his stature. He was comfortable arguing politics, theology, national defense policy and history. He challenged assumptions of both the Left and Right. He offered precise and subtle arguments that have been used and, sometimes, misused by both sides in debates over different issues over the years. But his faith in the inherent reasonableness of God and man is a welcome tonic to the corrosive anti-intellectualism, power politics and relativism of the present age.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.