Religious liberty is a guaranteed right in the United States, a right that we often take for granted. Often, we see that right challenged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, Catholic entities that provide health insurance to employees often come under fire for excluding coverage that involves contraception or abortive procedures. At times, we see lawmakers introducing legislation that would challenge the seal of confession. Freedom of religion is a core value of our American experience, and as Americans, we must strive to preserve and protect it.

A key Catholic figure in the area of freedom of religion was John Courtney Murray, S.J., who was born in 1904 in New York City and died in 1967 in Queens, New York. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1933, and taught at the Jesuit theologate in Woodstock, Maryland, for 30 years. In 1941, he became editor of Theological Studies, and soon thereafter, religious editor of America. During World War II, Murray wrote on the subject of interfaith cooperation, maintaining that a refusal to cooperate with non-Catholics could not be justified if it endangered human life or social justice. Murray was instrumental in drafting Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious liberty.

When Murray began to explore the topic of religious liberty, the ideas of separation of Church and state and religious freedom were controversial among Church authorities. The traditional position of the Church was that the state should support the Church as the state religion, and that other religions not be tolerated. Given the pluralistic circumstances in the United States, free exercise of religion might be tolerated as a lesser of two evils.

Murray looked at the idea of religious liberty from a different point of view. He argued that the state’s duty was to assure the Church’s ability to operate. He grounded his assertion of the compatibility of Catholicism and American democracy in a natural law analysis of human dignity. He saw the separation of Church and state, along with religious liberty, as central issues, and viewed religious liberty as a fundamental human right. He pointed out that Pope Leo XIII’s concerns about the separation of Church and state came about during a crisis of anti-clerical liberalism, and thought that separation would mean the subordination of Church to state. Murray was convinced that conditions had changed sufficiently to allow constitutional forms to ensure the Church’s freedom.

Murray’s ideas were considered controversial, and this brought with it warnings from Rome. In 1955, the Jesuit authorities denied Murray permission to publish the last of his papers on Pope Leo XIII. Murray cancelled a contract on a book he was writing on Church and state relationships.

However, by 1958, the mood was changing. In the United States, it became clear that a Catholic would be running in the next presidential election. On Oct. 28, 1958, Angello Roncalli was elected pope and took the name John XXIII. Not long thereafter, Murray published his book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.

The ideas on Church and state relationships, religious freedom and consensus, upon which he expounds in We Hold These Truths arise from the philosophy of natural law. In the book, Murray draws a distinction between the state, which is concerned with the public order, and the society, which is concerned with the public good. He argued that it was possible to have a unified state without religious unity. He spoke of the “American proposition” of equality, inalienable rights and limited government as part of natural law. For a nation to develop a vital society and identity, consensus, an acceptance of basic truths was vital. The truths of the “American proposition” could be sustained only through dialogue. In a pluralistic culture, the dialogue is a philosophical one and not theological, concerned more with natural ethics than religious meaning. The state could not make claims to resolving religious questions, nor could the Church presume to resolve political problems.

Murray believed that the principles of the “American proposition” were in danger. He perceived that there was growing dissent in universities and intellectual circles against the concept of natural law and public philosophy. Yet, he believed that despite the growing dissent, the Catholic community would hold to the principles because natural law served as the philosophical foundation of the Church’s theology. Political and ethical principles derived from natural law appealed to Catholic thought and conscience. He saw the concept of religious freedom as a virtue. A pluralistic society needs dialogue to establish consensus. In order to achieve this, attitudes of equality and respect must be assumed in public argument. In order to establish the common goods of society, it is necessary to create an environment of public trust, not suspicion. Only then can the Church move in the direction of shaping public policy flowing from its own philosophical and theological convictions.

Murray composed an article before and during the third session of the Second Vatican Council called “The Problem of Religious Freedom,” which appeared in the book Religious Liberty, Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, edited by J. Leon Hooper. In it, he wrote that in order to maintain an orderly relationship between Church and state, three requirements of religious freedom must be met: 1.) There may be no infringement upon the Church as a spiritual authority and the community of the faithful. The Church’s autonomy must be seen as inviolable, and the free exercise of its apostolic mission must be respected. 2.) There must be no confusion between the religious and the political; in particular, there must be no confusion between religious unity and political unity. Public power has no share whatever in the unity of the Church. 3.) The relationship between Church and national government must be so conceived that it will not result in the alienation of the people from the Church.

While some praise Murray for developing a language of public discourse that is both philosophical and civil, others criticize him for not evoking biblical symbols, which call people to holiness, justice and unity. Others note that his reliance on natural law becomes problematic when dialoguing with religious and secular groups that do not subscribe to it. However, all would agree that his arguments have advanced the cause of protecting and preserving freedom of religion. Following his ideas, the Second Vatican Council upheld the idea that free exercise of religion in society is proper to the dignity of the human person.