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A giant in church-state history

Jesuit John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) is a key figure in any discussion about Church and state in modern times. Gerry Whelan SJ was invited by the Loyola Institute TCD to speak about the man who made a major contribution on the issue at Vatican II, particularly regarding the document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Gerry Whelan was speaking at the recent three-day conference hosted by Loyola on ‘The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?’ In an interview with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications just before his talk, he outlined the importance of Courtney Murray who he says,”helped bring the Catholic Church out of the middle ages”, in relation to its teaching on Church and state. According to Gerry, until 1964 the Catholic Church held that it should ideally be the official religion of the state and that there should be a formal intolerance of other religions. With the help of the US bishops in particular and John Courtney Murray, all that was to change.

In Ireland, Gerry argues, we see a similar pattern regarding how the Church related to the state in the pre-Vatican II era and it was much slower to change after Vatican II. Indeed he says the whole vexed issue of how to be Irish and Catholic was never resolved until relations actually collapsed in recent times.

His conference talk was entitled ‘John Courtney Murray SJ, two converging processes of Church and State’. He says Courtney Murray was a creative thinker who wanted to explore, “the issue under the issues,” raised in Vatican II. John Courtney Murray turns to philosopher Bernard Lonergan SJ and says that the underlying issue of Vatican II was the change of mentality from classicism, which views truth as a static deposit, to historical consciousness, which sees truth unfolding and developing in terms of dialogue with culture.

According to Gerry Whelan, the Lonergan approach which John Courtney Murray espouses, urges us to become intellectually converted, wise people who make good decisions. That means above all that we learn how to dialogue with culture, learn from it, “discern what is progress, decline, or redemption within it, and go on to be catalysts for redemption.”

This dialogical process must be reflected within the Church also, he contends. The official Church must proceed with wisdom but its process of doing so must be inclusive and consultative if it is to be a credible and effective voice in society today.