John Courtney Murray

John Courtney Murray, S.J.
Born (1904-09-12)September 12, 1904
New York City
Died August 16, 1967(1967-08-16) (aged 62)
Queens, New York
Academic background
Alma mater Boston College, Gregorian University
Academic work
Institutions Ateneo de Manila, Jesuit theologate Woodstock, Maryland
Main interests Theology
Notable works We Hold These Truths
Notable ideas Dignitatis humanae

John Courtney Murray, SJ, (September 12, 1904 – August 16, 1967), was an American Jesuit priest and theologian, who was especially known for his efforts to reconcile Catholicism and religious pluralism, particularly focusing on the relationship between religious freedom and the institutions of a democratically structured modern state.

During the Second Vatican Council, he played a key role in persuading the assembly of the Catholic bishops to adopt the Council's ground-breaking Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae.

Early life and education

John Courtney Murray was born in New York City on September 12, 1904. In 1920 he entered the New York province of the Society of Jesus. He studied Classics and Philosophy at Boston College, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in 1926 and 1927 respectively. Following his graduation, he travelled to the Philippines, where he taught Latin and English literature at the Ateneo de Manila.[1]


In 1930, Murray returned to the United States. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1933. He pursued further studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and in 1937, he completed a doctorate in sacred theology.[1]

After his return from Rome to the United States, just before the beginning of World War II, he joined the Jesuit theologate in Woodstock, Maryland and taught Catholic trinitarian theology. In 1940, Murray still fully supported the Catholic doctrine that there was no salvation outside the Church.[2]

In 1941, he was named editor of the Jesuit journal Theological Studies. He held both positions until his death.[1]

As representative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and consultant to the religious affairs section of the Allied High Commission, he helped draft and promote the 1943 Declaration on World Peace, an interfaith statement of principles for postwar reconstruction, and successfully promoted a close constitutional arrangement between the restored German state and the Church, which included sharing of tax revenue with the churches.

By 1944, Murray's endorsement of full co-operation with other theists led many Catholics to complain that he endangered American Catholic faith, who at the time, recommended minimal cooperation with non-Catholics for fear that lay Catholic faith would be weakened.[2]

Similarly, Murray advocated religious freedom as defined and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which contradicted Catholic doctrines of church/state relations before Vatican II.[2]

Postwar reconstruction

While his background and training suggest a heavily theoretical bent, Murray became a leading public figure, and his work dealt primarily with the tensions between religion and public life. His best-known book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), collects a number of his essays on such topics[3]

In 1951 to 1952, following a lectureship at Yale University, he collaborated on a project with Robert Morrison MacIver of Columbia University to assess academic freedom and religious education in American public universities. Ultimately, the proposal argued for tax aid to private schools and for sympathetic exposure of religious faiths in public schools. The project was both nationally influential and personally formative, as it deepened Murray's understanding of and esteem for American constitutional law.

In his increasingly public role, several American bishops consulted Murray on legal issues such as censorship and birth control. He argued against what he saw as the reactionary and coercive practices of some Catholic bishops and instead advocated participation in substantive public debate, which he suggested offered a better appeal to public virtue. Instead of civic coercion, he argued, presenting moral opinions in the context of public discourse enabled Americans to both deepen their moral commitments and safeguard the 'genius' of American freedoms.

From 1958 to 1962, he served at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, applying just war criteria to Soviet-American relations.

Tensions with the Vatican, 1954

By the late 1940s, Murray argued, that Catholic teaching on church/state relations was inadequate to the "moral functioning" of contemporary peoples. The Anglo-American West, he claimed, had developed a fuller truth about human dignity, which was the responsibility of all citizens to assume "moral control" over their own religious beliefs and to wrest control from paternalistic states. That truth was an "intention of nature" or a new dictate of natural law philosophy.[1]

Murray’s claim that a "new moral truth" had emerged outside the church led to conflict with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Pro-Secretary of the Vatican Holy Office. In 1954, the Vatican demanded for Murray to end both writing on religious freedom and publishing his two latest articles on the issue.[1]

Second Vatican Council, 1963

In spite of his silencing, Murray continued to write privately on religious liberties and submitted his works to Rome, all of which were rejected.

In 1963, he was invited to the second (but not the first) session of the Second Vatican Council in which he drafted the third and fourth versions[4]

In 1965, it eventually became the council's endorsement of religious freedom Dignitatis humanae personae.[5] After the council, he continued writing on the issue by claiming that the arguments offered by the final decree were inadequate even if the affirmation of religious freedom was unequivocal.

In 1966, prompted by the Vietnam War, he was appointed to serve on Lyndon Johnson's presidential commission, which reviewed Selective Service classifications. He supported the allowance of a classification for those opposed on moral grounds to some (though not all) wars, but the recommendation was not accepted by the Selective Service Administration.[6]

Murray then turned to questions of how the Church might arrive at new theological doctrines. He argued that Catholics who arrived at new truths about God would have to do so in conversation "on a footing of equality" with non-Catholics and atheists. He suggested greater reforms, including a restructuring of the Church, which he saw as having overdeveloped its notion of authority and hierarchy at the expense of the bonds of love that had, from the start, defined the authentically Christian life.[6]


In August 1967, Murray died of a heart attack in Queens, New York, one month before his 63rd birthday.[1]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904-1967)", Ignatian Spirituality
  2. 1 2 3 "Murray, John Courtney, American theologian". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-04-18.
  3. Murray SJ, John Courtney. We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, (Sheed & Ward, 1960)
  4. "Religious freedom-- Vatican II modernizes church-state ties", Agostino Bono, Catholic News Service, 12 Oct 2005, retrieved 15 May 2007.
  5. "Dignitatis humanae personae", Second Vatican Council, 1965, retrieved 15 May 2007
  6. 1 2 S.J. Leon Hooper,Murray Biography from American National Biography Edited by John A Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999
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