John Courtney Murray
Brad Bergan

“In the year 1904, four theologians were born who would make the greatest contribution to theology, the church, and Vatican II, namely, Yves Congar in France, Bernard Lonergan in Canada, John Courtney Murray in the United States, and Karl Rahner in Germany. The year 1904 could someday be known as 'the year of the theologians'“ (McCarthy 6). Of these four theologians, John Courtney Murray, SJ was the sole American Catholic theologian whose contributions to the church lie chiefly in the area of religious liberty and religious tolerance.

Murray was schooled by the Jesuits and entered the Society of Jesus in 1920. His early years in the Society were spent studying Philosophy at Weston College in Massachusetts. Murray's theological studies took place at Woodstock College in Maryland. In 1933 he was ordained a priest. Further studies took him to Rome where he studied and was awarded a doctorate in sacred theology, or S.T.D. from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1937. He returned from Rome to Woodstock and was a theology faculty member there until his death in 1967 (Hennesey 589).

Throughout the 1940s Murray was an advocate of improving the theology courses at Catholic Colleges. He did not become prominent until 1954 when he engaged in a series of debates in the pages of Theological Studies with two professors from the Catholic University of America. These debates, which would get Murray in trouble with Rome, centered on religious freedom and toleration, the separation of Church and state, and how those two entities could achieve an “ideal” relationship (Hennesey 589). Keith J. Pavlischek says that “from 1946 to 1954 Murray was preoccupied with the question of religious liberty” (5). Eventually he was censured by Rome and “cleared his office of all works on the issue of religious liberty and church-state relations, canceled a book contract, and turned down an offer by the University of Chicago to lecture on religious liberty” (Pavlischek 6).

Murray came to national prominence in 1960 with the publication of a book that contained a series of his articles: We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Murray attempted to address the problems of balance between church and state. “Murray steadfastly defended the notion that there is no necessary incompatibility between the Church established by Jesus Christ and the government established by the United States Constitution” (Ferguson ix). Pavlischek says that, “Murray intended it to be a primer on the problem of American pluralism” (6). Murray had already made a name as a national figure in religious and political circles prior to the publication of this book.

The election of the first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, in 1960 heightened interest in Murray. He even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in December 1960. Murray's fame however did not get him a spot at the Second Vatican Council. He did not even get asked to participate in the discussions leading up the First Session, which took place in 1962 (Pavlischek 6).

Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York saw to it that Murray was present at the second session of Vatican II in 1963, “where he was listed as a “peritus” or “expert” (Hennesey 589). It was at this session that Murray made major contributions to the document on religious freedom. Timothy G. McCarthy says that the conciliar document, Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). “was the distinctive contribution of the United States to Vatican II” (184). McCarthy goes on to say it was the “brilliance” of John Courtney Murray that brought this document into being. Murray himself called the discussion about the document “the greatest argument on religious freedom in all history [which] happily broke forth in the church” (intro to document on religious freedom). Often called one of the most controversial documents of Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae “affirmed religious freedom as an inalienable right (n.2)” (McCarthy 260). McCarthy also says “the bishops reaffirmed the most basic principle of catholic social teaching: the dignity of the responsible person in society. In his introduction to the declaration, Murray said, “the declaration has opened the way toward new confidence in ecumenical relationships, and a new straight-forwardness in relationships between the church and the world” (Abbott 673).

In the last couple of years before Murray's death in 1967, he “applied his theological principles of freedom to critical social, political, and moral problems of the times like racial discrimination, censorship, abortion, the population explosion, war and anti-war movement, and the Christian-Marxist dialogue”(Hennesey 590). Forty years after the Second Vatican Council and thirty-eight years after John Courtney Murray's death, the church still recognizes the contributions of this American theological genius.

Works Cited
  • Timothy G. McCarthy, The Catholic Tradition: The Church in the Twentieth Century. Loyola Press. Chicago, Illinois. 1998
  • Walter M. Abbott, S.J., The Documents of Vatican II. Guild Press. The American Press. New York, New York. 1966
  • Thomas P. Ferguson, Catholic and American. Sheed & Ward. Kansas City, Missouri. 1993
  • Keith J. Pavlischek, John Courtney Murray and the dilemma of Religious Toleration. Thomas Jefferson University Press. Kirksville, Missouri. 1994
  • The Modem Catholic Encyclopedia. Michael Glazier.Ed. The Liturgical Press. Collegeville, MN. 1994+8

    John Courtney Murray: The Problem of God
    New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964

    Abstract by Colleen Bartholomew

    To truly understand Murray one must look at his works. From reading only the first chapter of Murray's The Problem of God, one can see that Murray's work is highly structured. Murray is also careful to explain theological terms to his readers. For example, Murray says that God is immanent, transcendent, and transparent. Murray in following paragraphs will explain to the reader what these terms mean and how they apply to his argument. While The Problem of God does not involve the politics and the argument of religious freedom that was so close to Murray's heart, this book does beautifully tell how intelligent Murray's theology is. This book explains who God is by examining the different ways God has been explained throughout history. Murray does this by showing how as the faith has been passed on several "problems of God" have been confronted. These problems of God are questions that people have asked about the God they experienced. In Chapter One Murray seeks to understand God through the Israelites that first experience God and then the early Christians who first experienced Jesus, the Son of God.

    First Murray begins with an exegesis of the exodus story to explain the background of the people who had the first experience of God. In doing this Murray analyzes what it meant when God revealed his name, Yahweh, to the Hebrew people. God revealing His name to the Hebrew people, Murray explains, is significant because in the Hebrew culture a name was a description of "power, role, and function" (Murray 7). What did the Hebrew people understand God as they learned what God's name was? Murray presents three possible exegeses: first that God is the absolute existent, One with all the power. Secondly Murray presents that God was the maker of all, and thirdly the promise of God's presence with his people. It is the third exegesis that Murray accepts and he then develops the concept further. He says that God's presence with the people throughout history and in the future is immanent, transcendent, and transparent. Murray explains to the reader the concept of how God is present in these three terms. God is immanent in the history of the people, transcendent in that God is mystery (and in the mystery absent), and transparent in that God will make his saving action present to the people (Murray 10). The effect of God revealing His name to His people is significant to the nation of Israel. Murray states that the "Name Yahweh is the 'banner' of Israel (Exodus 17:15), the rallying standard about which the tribes realize their religious and national unity as a people. In this sense the divine Name is at the root of the whole theology of the people of Yahweh that develops throughout the Old Testament" (Murray 11). The people of Israel now equipped with a better understanding of the "God of Abraham" now enter into a new period of their history where they are Yahweh's People.

    Beginning this context Murray outlines the nature of the relationship of the Israelites and Yahweh. Murray explains that the nature is God interacts with the people, but the people do not interact with God. Murray says that the God of the Israelite people does not have the same relationship as we do now. The Israelite God is not a "God whose function is to respond to the needs of men or to fulfill their aspirations or, even, to terminate their quest for something beyond themselves" (Murray 12). The prophet Isaiah writes in his works about the relation of God to the Israelites. God is the "high one", and the power of God is emphasized here, as it through much of the Old Testament. God is also seen as a mighty judge. This is the nature of the relationship of the Israelites, and understanding how this differs from our view of God the lover is significant in understanding how the Jewish people (the early Christians in fact) would understand God the Incarnation in Jesus.

    Murray now begins a new inquiry into the Old Testament, he looks at questions that can be posed on "what the problem of God was for the man of the Old Testament"(Murray 16). He says that this question is a four-part question. First, Murray asks "whether God is with us now"(17). To answer this Murray turns to several biblical stories in which the Israelites doubted that God was in their midst. Murray comments that Israel always had a certain anxiety about whether or not God was present. The second question is "The God who is with us-what is he?" (Murray 18). This question, Murray explains, asks what the function of God is. This is answered in that the experience of God for the Israelites, Yahweh "is present among his people both as Savior and Judge, in steadfast love and in wrath" (Murray 18). Next Murray presents the third question and fourth question together, "how is this God who is present as Savior and Judge to be known" and "how is this God, who is known to be present but also known to be God, to be named" (Murray 19). Murray answers these questions by first explaining that God's name is a paradox in the Old Testament, in that it was meant to be a mystery, yet God has "given himself to be known and named by men" (Murray 19). Although Murray acknowledges the paradox he continues to answer the question by saying that men have named God by their experiences with God. Through all these experiences men have known God as continuous and thus God is known as the "living God". Knowing now the questions and problems of God that the Old Testament people encountered, Murray has now given the reader an understanding of how God is experienced and how God is known for the culture.

    After knowing how God is experienced, one can ask how the Israelites respond to the experience of God. Knowing how they responded will help us understand the response of the early Christians to the incarnation. Murray proceeds to this topic. First he establishes that there are two possible responses: knowledge and ignorance. To be knowledgeable of God in the period of the Israelites is much different than our understanding of knowledge. Knowledge for the Israelites, Murray explains, "is an affair not simply of cognition but of recognition" (Murray 22). Specifically to have knowledge of God is to recognize God's presence among the people. Murray explains that God has knowledge of the Israelites by quoting several biblical passages, i.e. "I will make my abode among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people" (Ezechiel 37:27). The duty of the Israelites is give God the knowledge that God has given them. So the opposite of this knowledge is ignorance. Murray explains that "to be ignorant of God implies an active ignoring of him, a refusal to recognize him as present in the moment" (Murray 23). The Israelites can respond and did respond in two ways; they were either aware of God's presence among them or they were not. Knowledge of God for the Israelites "is no simply an affair of intelligence; it is an affair of the heart, in the biblical sense of the heart as the center of the whole inner life in its full complex of thought, desire, and moral decision" (Murray 21). Understanding what knowledge is to the Israelites gives the modem reader sense that there are emotions and "heart" connected with the relationship of God and the Israelites. Many times in reading the Old Testament a person might get up caught up in a mindset that the Israelite God is a legalistic God. In fact, knowing God and knowing the law of God is a matter of the heart. The reader now has a deep understanding of the Israelite people and their "problem of God".

    The reader, now having a better understanding of who the people were that encountered Jesus are, can begin to understand the experience of Jesus. "The problem of God" in the New Testament is what unites the two books. The four questions that are encountered in the Old Testament are ultimately the same questions that are encountered in the New Testament. First, the question of whether God is present among his people is confronted in the New Testament is "where in the presence of the man Christ Jesus, God himself is present to his people" (Murray 26). The second question of the role or function of God now asks what the function or role of Jesus is. Finally the third and fourth question that ask how is God to be known and named is asked in the New Testament as "how is God now to be known, and how is he to be named" in light of the Incarnation. The question of the presence of God now is answered in that the Jesus is the divine and that "the father who is the one God and the Son who is the Lord-of-us are present in us through the Holy Spirit" (Murray 28). The role of Jesus is obvious; Jesus is the redeemer that has come to save us all from our sin. Jesus reveals the name of God to us as Father, or Abba, thus solving the problem of the name of God and how God is known. The New Testament is intimately connected to the Old Testament through this similar experience of God.

    The function Murray's work in the first chapter of The Problem of God is primarily to show how God can be understood from experience of the Israelites and the early Christians. He develops the early Israelites in depth to both show the nature of God in the experience of the Israelites and to give a background of the ancestors (tradition) of the Early Christians. Next, Murray ties the New Testament to the Old Testament by showing how the same problems were encountered with the Incarnation experience. Murray continues in the book to show how the understanding of God and Christ progresses from experience to reasoning.


    A John Courtney Murray Bibliography by Alice Hacker
  • “World Order and Moral Law.” Thought XIX (December 1944) pp.581-86.
  • “Current Theology: Freedom of Religion.” Theological Studies VI (March 1944) pp. 85-113.
  • “Freedom of Religion, I: The Ethical Problem.” Theological Studies VI (March 1945) pp. 229-286.
  • “Towards a Theology for the Layman.” Jesuit Educational Quarterly XI (March 1949) pp. 221-28.
  • “The Morality of War.” Theology Digest VII (Autumn 1959) pp. 131-37.
  • We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960.
  • The Problem of God, Yesterday and Today. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.
  • “The Issue of Church and State at Vatican Council II.” Theological Studies 27 (December 1966) pp. 580-606.