We Need a Theory Worthy of Our Practice of Liberty

The political landscape in which We Hold These Truths was published sixty years ago is almost unrecognizable today. The Cold War was well under way, yet far from over. The Civil Rights movement had already had some success in the 1954 Brown decision, but its greatest moments were still to come. The Catholic Church was at the height of its cultural powers in the United States. Bishop Fulton Sheen had recently ended his television series (1952-57), the seminaries were full, and Catholic schools at all levels were thriving. Today when a bishop appears on television, he is likely “taking the knee” before the pieties of left-wing liberals, or on his way to jail. It is hard to imagine a more different time.

The enduring value of Fr. John Courtney Murray’s book is the implicit understanding that the Church has always had a political problem. Better stated, perhaps, the Church has always had a problem with politics. Let me make this understanding more explicit.

Born in rough conditions due to the administrative dictates of a transnational bureaucratic empire, the Second Person of the Trinity was executed by the same. All the Apostles died likewise, executed by the Roman administrative state, except for John, who escaped boiling oil. The Church, built on the blood of the martyrs, was persecuted until it was decriminalized by an emperor who converted only on his deathbed. About a century later, the Sack of Rome was blamed on the Christians, prompting Augustine to write his magnificent City of God against the Pagans, which is not an entirely successful defense against the charge.

The Middle Ages are often held up as a moment of Catholic integration of church and state, but every successful effort to rise above petty kingdoms was a return or escape to the political form of the Roman empire, partially or even “holy.” If Virgil was an honest guide through the underworld, the Renaissance was not much better than the Early Modern period which followed it. From the French Revolution onwards, the Church has found itself under direct assault in almost every country of Europe, at one time or another.

One moment of true political success was the opposition to Soviet Communism by St. John Paul II, yet even this was a repudiation of the Vatican’s earlier policy of Ostpolitik, or an accommodationism that leaned towards appeasement. Alas, the present Pontifex Maximus is building so many bridges to Beijing even the Disney Corporation might blush at the obsequiousness. In short, the Church has a problem with politics.

Discovering what might be learned today from Murray’s book is complicated by the way in which its very date is tangled up with the major political and social changes and, at the same time, with the liturgical and theological changes that occurred just afterwards. As much as we might wish, the Constitution of 1787 has been significantly altered (with and without amendment) since that time. And the parochial and liturgical fulness that characterized the Church prior to Vatican II or, to be fair, the “spirit of Vatican II” can be found in only a few parishes, but certainly not in a whole diocese. Not even close.

Maybe Locke got a few things right, which he did, if the history of nations that never had or have abandoned that list above can be entered as evidence. Admitting as much does not mean abandoning the natural law.

Which way the causality runs between the social and political changes of the sixties and the liturgical and theological changes is a complicated question. Patrick Deneen finds one way to cut the Gordian knot by arguing that both are the result of the naturally caustic effects of Lockean liberalism. Interestingly, Ryszard Legutko has argued in The Demon in Democracy that those processes have played themselves out 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—democracy devoid of beauty, truth, religion, and the nation—that is antithetical to both its historical culture and a more noble understanding of human liberty. Fr. Murray’s attempts to distance the American Experiment from Lockean nominalism suggests he would agree with these analyses, which explains his argument that America is not a fundamentally Lockean state.

How do we deal with the irony that the parts of America most likely to adhere to natural law principles on matters such as abortion, marriage, gender ideology and the like are the most “Lockean” parts of the country?  These parts cling to their guns and religion, as the former President said, rather than race headlong into the progressivist future. Property rights, contracts, markets, free speech, self-defense, family and religious toleration sound awfully Lockean. Or are the true inheritors of John Locke the woke capitalists such as Disney, an American company that balked at doing business in the state of Georgia because of a fetal heartbeat bill but thanked the administrators of Xinjiang province in China for their assistance filming there. (The Babylon Bee’s satirical take says it all: “Disney Editing Blunder: This Uighur Concentration Camp Can Be Clearly Seen In The Background Of ‘Mulan’.”) Maybe Locke got a few things right, which he did, if the history of nations that never had or have abandoned that list above can be entered as evidence. Admitting as much does not mean abandoning the natural law.

If the Founders did build “better than they knew,” it is because they built better than the philosophers they read. They were not ideologues, but practical men exercising their practical wisdom. The Constitution of 1787 was the result of hard negotiation, compromise, and no little arm twisting. Montesquieu is the author most cited in the Federalist Papers, but of those citations most are about the separation of powers, an idea that can be implemented in any number of ways, given historical and political reality. There are certainly elements of modern philosophy in the Founding, but it is impossible to understand the American regime as merely that. To paraphrase Publius, while much reflection and choice went into the Constitution, there was nonetheless a great deal of accident and force.

James Patterson ends his engaging reflection on the thought of Fr. Murray with a call for new institutions and leaders to forge alliances with non-Catholic religious believers. That is hard to criticize, except to say we have lost almost all the institutions we once had. Where Catholic universities are not officially hostile to the teachings of the Church, their faculties largely are. One might say the same about the bishops. Only a handful would dare lead anywhere other than in the direction the leftmost forces of the culture would take them. Indeed, Patterson largely acknowledges as much in his description of the “traditionalist paradox”: devotion to the pope means devotion to a pontiff more willing to “kneel before the world” than any before, to use the words of Jacques Maritain.

We can find instruction if we return to Patterson’s description of the Gelasian dyarchy as “separate but interrelated perfect societies.” The key word there is “perfect.” In context it means something more along the lines of self-sufficient, but it should remind us how unlikely it is to find perfection in politics. Indeed, it is striking how clearly the American Constitution was built upon what G.K. Chesterton called the only empirically demonstrable tenet of the Christian faith: original sin. The Founders foresaw neither the governing of men by angels nor the perfection of human nature. This realism about the fallen world might be something St. Thomas would recognize.

When Aquinas addressed the question of toleration, he explained that, just as God allows evils to exist because eliminating them would cause greater evils, so too must government. This is the natural law in practice. He even cited Augustine’s advice not to close brothels: “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust” (ST II.II 10.xi). This is the kind of response the practical men in Philadelphia would have appreciated, even if not always for statesmanlike reasons. Nevertheless, they, like Aquinas and Augustine before him, understood that political life takes place in the vale of tears, not behind a veil of ignorance, nor even in a vaguely sacramental regime, as our integralist friends would have it.

Aristotle described democracy as the opportunity for diners to judge the meal they are served. On this same principle, a younger contemporary of Fr. Murray, the fellow Catholic and public intellectual, William F. Buckley, Jr. could prefer to be governed by the good burghers of Boston than by the faculty of Harvard. Rule by the people is not an empty platitude. Our shared political life is shared, or it should be. Once the rulers are separated from the ruled, it really isn’t politics anymore but a barely concealed oligarchy, which is not better for being an oligarchy of the Ivies. 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 we have of trying to make human laws out of the natural law. Where we fail, the fault lies in ourselves.

Fr. Murray’s We Hold These Truths is a clear-eyed analysis of the bumptious, raucous, sometimes violent political world of, to use a description from Richard Reinsch and the late Peter Augustine Lawler, “meddlesome political idealists and vulgarly self-indulgent, morally indifferent pirates.” They were describing the culture unique to the combination of Puritans and adventurers that founded the nation, but it is equally appropriate to all fallen humanity. The American Constitution is especially suited to such people. Partisans of any other form of government must be asked how they do not rely on something akin to the angelism or utopianism that the founders had the wisdom to reject.