John Courtney Murray, SJ (1904-1967)

John Courtney Murray, SJ, was a member of the Society of Jesus and an American theologian. One of John Courtney Murray’s major concerns was to help the Church navigate its way in a world of religious pluralism.

John Courtney Murray was born in New York City. He entered the New York Province of the Society of Jesus in 1920. Murray was ordained in 1933 and completed a doctorate in theology at Georgetown in 1937. In 1937 Murray became a Professor of Theology at the Jesuit theologate at Woodstock, Maryland, and in 1941 he was named editor of Theological Studies. Murray held both of these positions until his death by heart attack in 1967.

As a theologian, John Courtney Murray was principally interested in the subjects of the Trinity and grace in human life. But Murray’s principal contribution to American theology was his studies on what it meant for the Church to flourish in a pluralistic society. Murray thought that American constitutionalism and Roman Catholicism were compatible with each other. The Constitution of the United States called for limited government and separation of church and state. This gave citizens the opportunity to assume moral control over their own religious beliefs, instead of being told what to believe by paternalistic states. Murray presented his views in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.

The Vatican did not initially appreciate Murray’s writings, and he had to cease publishing them for a number of years. However, John Courtney Murray made a significant contribution at the Second Vatican Council, especially in The Declaration on Religious Freedom. Murray later wrote:

The statements in Gaudium et Spes [The Church in the Modern World], like those in Dignitatis Humanae [Declaration on Religious Freedom], represent aggiornamento. And they are programmatic for the future. From now on, the Church defines her mission in the temporal order in terms of the realization of human dignity, the promotion of the rights of man, the growth of the human family towards unity, and the sanctification of the secular activities of this world.

John Courtney Murray, “The Issue of Church and State at Vatican Council II.” Theological Studies 27 (1966): 601.

Related Links
Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJA summary of John Courtney Murray’s life and works, including links to articles on his thought.

Works by John Courtney Murray, SJA comprehensive list of Murray’s works, many of them downloadable.