Front Page Titles (by Subject) JOHN P. McCARTHY, John Courtney Murray and The American Proposition - New Individualist Review
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JOHN P. McCARTHY, John Courtney Murray and The American Proposition - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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John Courtney Murray and The American Proposition
THE GROWING right-wing sentiment in American intellectual circles is caused almost certainly, by the awareness of the decline of liberty within the nation and of our inadequate strategy of defense against the external menace of communism. Too often, however, this awareness is simply a vague intuition rather than a precise understanding of our dilemma, and, as a result, many of the new rightists offer solutions that are unrealistic and self-defeating.
A man who appears to come to grips with the nature of the challenge to liberty, and from whom the American right can learn much, is the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray. In his book We Hold These Truths, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960) he identifies as the substance of democracy the admission of “an order of rights antecedent to the state . . . (and) of another order . . . also antecedent to the state and regulative of its public action as a state . . . the order of justice.” These are the self-evident truths, or, as he calls them, the proposition to which the founding fathers dedicated our nation, and the challenge to liberty is the result of the abandonment of this proposition as the basis of our public philosophy.
This might impress some as simply an attempt to impose Catholic “Natural Law” as the public philosophy of America. A careful reading, however, will show that it is more essentially an appeal for return to the philosophy or consensus of the founders of the nation; a philosophy considerably closer to the Western tradition deriving from Medieval times than to much of what goes by the name of modern liberalism.
The essential Medieval contribution to the cause of liberty was the concept of the “freedom of the church,” which asserted the right of the church to fulfill her spiritual duties of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying, as well as the freedom of the Christian people to live a Christian life. This meant that certain temporal things such as family life, various human relationships, and intellectual truths, were beyond the limits of political order and free “from profanation by the power of the state and other secular powers.” “Freedom of the church,” insofar as it was granted, served as a constitutional limitation on governmental sovereignty, as an instrument for judging the government according to a prior and higher standard, and as a means of insuring that the King would “fight for justice and the freedom of the people.”
Modern politics would substitute the individual human conscience acting through free political institutions for the freedom of the church as a method for achieving the same ends. Philosophical rationalism asserted the autonomy of human reasons, which necessarily implied that all values are man-made. These rationalists conceived of the state simply as a construction of human reason designed to serve man’s wants and interests. The notion of a higher and external standard from which to limit and judge the government’s powers and actions was abandoned. The only standard for political power was an internal one—adherence to the democratic procedure. Once this was complied with, there was no limit to the sovereignty of political power over all human activity. This monistic system resisted the claim of other authorities to speak on human affairs, for it admitted no standard outside of the democratic political process itself.
The libertarians in the Locke tradition sought at least to make the end of their activities the limitation of governmental interference with man’s free direction of his own affairs. While this view did not consider the corporate nature of society, and the demands of justice arising from it, it did serve liberty. While the libertarian concerns himself with extending freedom, he cannot conceive of justice as demanding action by the state for ends other than the extension and protection of freedom. It is on this point that the Catholic and the libertarian necessarily differ, for the Catholic insists that justice can demand positive action by the state for attaining and distributing certain human needs. Both, however, are united in their opposition to the theories of our contemporary social engineers, which Murray labels “evolutionary scientific humanism.”
This is the latest step in the monistic development of modern political thought. It is rationalist and insists on the complete independence of human reason, but differs from the old rationalism in that it is evolutionary. It does not conceive of a static law of nature waiting to be discovered. Rather, nature evolves, and the goal according to them then becomes the advancement of the evolutionary process by increasing the fullness of life. The necessary steps are determined by scientific examination. The total resources of government are devoted to the task of furthering the evolutionary process and forming the new citizen. Philosophies concerning a juridical order with limitations on government or standards to which the government must conform are simply dismissed as the aims or ideals of a particular society, lacking any necessary relationship to the real order.
We have come the full course from the Whig attempt to regard government as man’s instrument for protecting his freedom and property to an attitude towards the state as an end in itself from which man receives the interpretation of his own nature and guidance towards his destiny. “The state creates the ethos of society, embodies it, imparts it to its citizens, and sanctions its observance with rewards and punishments.” Any source of authority which attempts to judge society other than the democratic process itself is viewed with distrust, for no standard is recognized other than that set by the democratic state itself. Such an attitude is the height of absolutism: the political process itself is deified.
This philosophy, or democratic religion, is most pronounced in the field of education, where the ideal is to mold a future citizen who will fit the pattern of social desirability as determined by the democratic process. This contrasts with the former ideal of educating a free citizen conscious of both his own liberty and the order of justice which the state must serve. This accounts for the violent objections of extremists of the scientific humanist camp to private religious education. They cannot help but regard as devisive a system of education which gives men an understanding of their own nature, as well as a higher standard on which to judge the actions of the state that conformity to the democratic process itself. The standard offered in the place of conformity is how well the state protects and advances liberty and justice.
Reflection on these matters suggests that American Catholicism, with its strong commitment to natural law may yet be one of the strongholds of the cause of liberty in America. The political philosophy of the founding fathers—the American consensus—finds one of its few and strongest modern sources of support in American Catholicism. This goes a long way towards explaining the basic compatibility, which history has demonstrated, between Catholicism and American democracy. Our public philosophy at its inception asserted the same principle as the medieval “freedom of the church” theory: that the government is limited and is subject to direction from standards outside of itself. The first amendment to the Constitution provides all that the church need demand from the state, namely, limitation of the state’s powers and the exemption of certain realms of human life—especially those pertaining to moral and religious matters—from the political sphere. This guarantees the church just what the medieval notion guaranteed: freedom to fulfill its mission, and the freedom of Christian people to live as Christians.
This contrasts with the juridical omnipotence claimed for the state by the Jacobin liberals, who tolerate religion so long as it remains a purely individual matter and does not act as an authority for collective attitudes in opposition to the state’s dictates. The American separation of church and state is a pragmatic arrangement devised to further the peace and common good of our pluralistic nation, not an institutional pronouncement of the irrelevance of religion as a guide for man and society.
For this reason the American system did not incur Papal condemnation as did continental liberalism, which asserted the thesis of the juridical omnipotence and omnicompetence of the state, and predicated freedom of religion and separation of church and state on this thesis.
* * *
In the light of these conclusions, Dr. Murray devotes a major segment of the book to an analysis of our struggle with Communism, and to a plea for the development of some sort of doctrine on the use of force. He examines the Soviet Union in its four unique aspects: first, as a state or power; secondly, as an imperium “organized and guided in accordance with a revolutionary doctrine”; thirdly, as an empire “mastering the older imperialistic techniques of military conquest, political puppetry, etc.”; and lastly, as the “legate of a longer history . . . as the inheritor both of Tsarist imperialism and of mystical panslavist messianism.” The Soviet Union can not be understood unless all these aspects are taken into consideration, and the Cold War is especially unintelligible unless the second aspect, the revolutionary doctrine, is considered. Without that doctrine the Soviet Union would not be a threat to the United States. Naturally the notion of a nation guided in its action by a strict doctrine is incomprehensible to the pragmatic American mind, and this accounts for much of our failure in the Cold War.
Professor Murray draws certain conclusions with regard to our cold war strategy from his understanding of the Soviet doctrine. These conclusions eliminate the need of relying solely on the resources of improvisation or practical wisdom in dealing with the Soviet moves, since they enable us to base our actions on certain expectations, for instance, that “communist leadership will yield only to calculations of power and success.” Consequently, we should “put an end . . . to the Wilsonian era of diplomacy with its exaggerated trust in world assemblies,” and rely on direct negotiations with the Soviets. Furthermore, we should negotiate to achieve certain policy objectives, rather than base our policies on negotiations. We should cease to enter negotiations with “sincerity” as the only guiding principle, and realize that the search for Soviet “sincerity” is a total waste of time.
This approach will rule out “disengagement,” for, given the inherent aggressiveness of Soviet doctrine, the Soviet Union “continually probes for every vacuum of power and for every soft spot of purpose.” Disengagement would “heighten the danger of war, most probably by permitting the creation of situations that we could not possible accept.”
Soviet doctrine dictates a strategy of maximum security and minimum risk. Their first consideration is to take no action which will endanger the gains of Socialism. Since the Soviet Union acts under an internal dynamism, it will not be provoked into taking actions exceeding the minimum risk. We have also been following the same policy of maximum security and minimum risk, but this is disastrous for us since it inhibits us from blocking any aggressive thrust. It puts us in the position of taking decisive action only when the question is a matter of our survival, in contrast to the Soviets who use force for limited goals and seek to avoid being in the dilemma of having to use force as a matter of survival.
Realizing this situation, we should reverse our strategy and seek to create situations of risk for the Soviet Union, risks which they would wish to avoid. Only in this way can we seize the initiative in world affairs and reverse the pattern of Communist advances.
Murray goes on to examine the moral question of the use of force by the state. He criticizes the two common approaches in American thought, that of near-pacifism, which would seek to apply the beatitudes to the state, and that of moral ambiguism, which would have us avoid making moral decisions. The tradition of reason demonstrates that the nature of the state demands the exercise of force for the purpose of advancing and protecting liberty and justice. There are certain moral principles regulating the use of force, but the very exercise of force is not in itself immoral.
We Hold These Truths is a significant and insightful contribution to the appreciation of the present moral crisis, both in the philosophical realm and in the field of practical politics and diplomacy. It is a book to be recommended to all thoughtful readers anxious for a dispassionate analysis of the American philosophy.
[* ] John P. McCarthy is an Associate Editor of New Individualist Review.