Why the John Courtney Murray, S.J., Project Failed

Why the John Courtney Murray, S.J., Project Failed


By Will Hoyt
New Oxford Review, July-August 2017

Will Hoyt became well known to NOR readers as “the Berkeley carpenter” during the late 1980s and early 1990s before abruptly laying down his pen and moving to the Allegheny plateau to become a farmer. After a nearly two-decade hiatus, Hoyt has begun to write again while operating an inn for oil and gas workers in eastern Ohio. His articles have appeared most recently in University Bookman and Front Porch Republic.

John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) was a Jesuit priest, editor, and theorist who became famous for penning a crucial draft of Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” and a book called We Hold These Truths (1960), in which he posited an essential complementarity between American founding principles and the realist natural-law tradition. He discerned in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address four key principles: (1) God is sovereign, (2) governmental power is legitimized by the consent of the governed, (3) social community is ontologically prior to the State, and (4) freedom is inseparable from virtue. Another defining characteristic of Murray’s viewpoint was his belief in the crucial importance of public theology as a means of invigorating the American experiment so that government of, by, and for the people would not perish from the earth.

Hence, many spoke of a “Murray project.”

Given that our Founding Fathers were either Masons, like George Washington, or deists, like Thomas Jefferson (i.e., people for whom the entire concept of “salvation” was bizarre), given that our Puritan concept of ordered liberty gave way extraordinarily quickly to the trans-Allegheny West’s exaltation of negative liberty (no fences), and given that the classical liberalism that held sway in 1776 assumes a kind of neutrality that precludes, much less undermines, Murray’s third principle about the ontological superiority of pre-political commitments, the odds for the success of his project were never good.

Yet, I have always wanted it to succeed. And I now mourn its passing in the face of new, incontrovertible evidence — the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, the intolerance that is now directed toward people who depart from party lines to think for themselves, and the increasing diminishment of religious liberty — that the Murray project, as originally structured, has failed. For there was much in it that was good. Murray’s appreciation for American constitutional law and his willingness to risk his own standing among the princes of the Church by proposing, as he did, that pluralism can itself be an occasion for the discovery of permanent truths is heartening. Furthermore, who could not get behind an attempt to reconcile the brightly colored, infinitely valuable medieval inheritance with American founding principles?

Some readers might counter that the “incontrovertible evidence” cited above is merely a temporary form of madness — indeed, Murray himself prophesied, in We Hold These Truths, about possible dangers in these sorts of terms — and that what’s needed now is simply patience. But toward what end? Simply to lecture well, at some indeterminate place down the road, so as to foster dialogue with “secularists” or “moral relativists”? To think like this is to completely underestimate the size and ferocity of the wave that is currently raising its head on the shore of our time. For this wave is no mere “disagreement” or troublesome, hard-to-vanquish “point of view.” Rather, it is a cultural and intellectual tsunami generated seven centuries ago when thinkers first started to taste the benefits of overthrowing the medieval bias in favor of contemplation. Its name? Some call it liberalism, others modernity. But a better name for it might be revolt.


Many of us who recognize the worth of the hope that drove the Murray project imagined that the best way to lobby on its behalf was to show how lustrous achievements typically thought of as modern actually originated in the Middle Ages. But I now wonder whether we shouldn’t have paid more attention to standard modern assumptions regarding the Dark Ages so as to learn more about our need to deflect attention from ways in which the modern era can be defined as ignorant, superstitious, and violent.

Take magic. Walt Disney has taught us to think of magic as the stock-in-trade of wizards who guided the likes of King Arthur in the sixth century. But, in fact, magic was cultivated and (if such a thing be possible) advanced by modern-day scientists like Isaac Newton who, having bought into Francis Bacon’s idea that knowledge is power (scientia potentia est), were increasingly drawn to alchemy and a rather secretive, calculating interest in whether one was living at the end of time. (Newton, by the way, ran the British Mint.)

Alternatively, take the “divine right of kings.” That too is very much a modern concern, for the idea was hatched in order to legitimize a reach for political power that would have been unthinkable during the Middle Ages — namely, the kind of reach that becomes possible when checks like the separation of Church and state are withdrawn. Contrary to popular belief, the decentralized aspect of medieval power was reinforced by an arduously enforced division of authority between the papacy (in the person of Gregory VII) and the Holy Roman Emperor (in the person of Henry IV), and it was only upon abandoning this hard-won ideal of institutional pluralism and consenting instead to the idea of an unarticulated confessional state that apologists for new (originally Tudor, then Spanish and French) “absolutist” states subscribed to a frankly monarchic “divine right of kings” conceit.

Or take slavery. We often imagine that slavery wasn’t eradicated until the Enlightenment came along and forced people to notice the discrepancy between the institution of chattel slavery, on the one hand, and “human rights,” on the other. Slavery, however, tended to recede during the medieval era. As an institution, it got reinstated in direct proportion to the growing interest in absolute power and to the growing importance of accidentals like skin color, thanks to the increasingly common substitution of Cartesian for Christian anthropology.

So. Magic, the “divine right of kings,” and slavery all turn out to be markers for modernity rather than for the Middle Ages. That’s surprising on its own, but other surprises come into view when we start thinking about the differences between the two eras, not least of which is that the modern age is best defined in contra-distinction to the Middle Ages.

Note, for example, how modern political structures tend to self-organize in such a way as to produce centralized states and an atomized citizenry. This pattern is directly opposite to the medieval pattern of federated power and a citizenry whose members find identity and purpose through membership in a guild or in an attachment to an estate. Another contrapuntal type of difference is that though moderns have tended, ever since the Kantian Enlightenment, to see tradition — be it culinary lore or a religious rite or linguistic custom — as a “prejudice” that needs to be overcome or at least set aside if we are to access universal truths, people living in the medieval era tended to look on tradition (“established usage”) as a storehouse of collected and, to use evolutionary parlance, “selected” information that ensures access to universal truths.

And then there are the two eras’ contrasting views of knowledge. Whereas medieval persons thought of theory as the fruit of all technological science owing to its contemplative character, moderns see theory as experiment-based explanations of material and efficient causes that enable us to secure the fruit of technology. In other words, medieval persons exalted receptive, epistemologically “naïve” common knowledge that was available to everybody, regardless of station, to the very same degree that we, today, exalt doubt-based knowledge that is discovered and dispensed by experts.

Ought we not, then, to be wary of claims that the modern era is, to an important degree, founded on medieval achievement — or, at least, not any less wary of these sorts of claims than we would normally be of other, more obviously dangerous claims that, say, idealize premodern times in order to justify either the subversion of liberalism (as in Marx) or the repudiation of the entire modern age (as in ultra-traditionalist, eco-friendly fascist thinkers like Julius Evola and René Guénon)? As much as I want to side with Christopher Dawson when he depicts the humanism of the modern world as the end point or flower toward which medieval art and society had been ripening, the evidence suggests that thinkers who see continuity between the two ages are wrong.


I don’t just mean that contractual theory and other forms of legally articulated individualism have sometimes undercut rather than built up the “complex unity of social organisms” (Dawson’s phrase) that was in view during the Middle Ages. I mean, rather, that the transition from the medieval to the modern era appears to have been a programmatic, 180-degree turn, an about-face, a literal revolution that was primed by 14th-century Reformation-anticipating thinkers like Occam and Wycliffe, and then deliberately and systematically advanced by early 17th-century thinkers like Bacon and Descartes, who set out to turn the medieval world upside down.

Did this “turn” show up first in Occam’s Sentences, which was published between 1318 and 1325? Or was it heralded by the simultaneous arrival of market-oriented coal mining at Newcastle-on-the-Tyne and King Edward’s path-breaking expulsion of Jews from England in 1290? Regardless of the answer to that question, it can fairly be said that Franciscan friar William of Occam was the man who made it possible for Bacon and Descartes to look at medieval cosmology from the outside rather than from within. Rather than think of concepts as pools in which the real nature of things becomes uniquely visible, Occam boldly saw them as potentially obfuscating, entirely arbitrary mental constructs that have nothing inherently to do with the self-sufficient thing being pointed to. What’s more, he focused on how words tend to obscure the thing being talked about, much less reveal it. Given those handicaps, Occam argued, why don’t we — through conciliar means — simply jettison the needless, so-called contemplative conceptual apparatus altogether? Voilà: The question had been posed.

In that very instant, the medieval mindset slipped from instinctive reach, and the Middle Ages were gone. From 1319 forward, the point of our life on this earth was to transform nature rather than apprehend it, and by the time Descartes and Bacon came along — on the heels of Gutenberg’s printing press, Alberti’s discovery of perspective (which made artist and viewer large at the same time that it made the world small), and Henry VIII’s privatization of monastic lands that had served for centuries as a de facto commons — we began to accomplish that deed, courtesy of wondrous predictive sciences imagined by Bacon and devised by Descartes.

Sir Francis Bacon (b. 1561) served as England’s Lord Chancellor, the same office held by St. Thomas More, before being kicked out of office for taking bribes. Along the way, this lawyer/scientist wrote several books in which he envisioned (and accurately foresaw) scientific research institutes (“machines for the mind”) that were ordered toward technological advancement. In those books — one thinks, especially, of The Novum Organon (1620) and The New Atlantis (1627) — Bacon was astonishingly frank about ultimate goals. Comparing nature to a woman, he argued that subjects under white-coated (deliciously “neutral”) investigation should be teased, subjected to experiment, and physically penetrated in order to get them to “betray” their “secrets.” As for the kind of purely receptive, contemplative knowing that is geared to identity and simple thereness — to hell with it. After all, what good does it do? It’s “like a virgin consecrated to God” who “produces nothing.” According to Bacon, the only objective worth serving is complete domination over the natural world via slow but steady advances in experimentally derived knowledge. And if 2,000 years of inherited, “perennial” philosophic insight becomes useless baggage thanks to the installation of this new objective, then that inheritance has to go too.


But it wasn’t until Descartes came along that the drama really intensified, for René was less frank than Sir Francis was. Though Descartes, like Bacon, moved to upend scholastic methods and thereby make possible previously unimaginable gains in human power, he disguised these moves as service to a God he professed to worship, and to that extent he commands attention in ways that Bacon does not.

The story begins on November 10, 1619 (just one year before Plymouth Rock), when 23-year-old René — alone at the time, asleep in a snug, stove-heated loft — allegedly dreamed about a tree of knowledge. At the beginning of this dream, a nattily dressed man walks into Descartes’s room and offers him a choice of two books. One is a dusty dictionary, the other a rather exotic-looking book of poetry. Hmm. Which should he pick? After deliberating for a few seconds, Descartes chooses the latter, and he is immediately rewarded, for suddenly he has a vision of a new science through which mankind will be able to know with a certitude that had been denied in previous, merely faith-based ages. Just a few years earlier, Descartes’s teachers at the Henry-Le-Grand Jesuit College Royal had been lecturing him about how the entire point of philosophy was to apprehend, through name-like concepts, the “mirandum of being.” But now Descartes sees in a flash that the true marvel is the nearness of predictive power — assuming, of course, that one has the courage to turn the medieval tree of knowledge on its head, make quantitative physics (rather than theology) the crowning discipline, and actually cultivate a scientia mirabilis. Upon waking, Descartes set about doing just that, and by the time he was done (1650, the year of his death), he had both invented analytical geometry and, via thought experiments thrillingly recounted in Meditations (1641), provided a metaphysical basis (or apologia) for the entire edifice that came to be called “modern science.”

What did that basis turn out to be? As Descartes himself quickly and perhaps nervously realized over the course of writing his book, it came down to just three things: distrusting custom (“prejudice”) and the evidence of one’s senses, abandoning incarnational logic as an organizing principle, and dividing life on the planet into a mental realm (res cogitans) and a physical realm of inert matter that can be measured and therefore manipulated (res extensa). This new science was predicated on a point-by-point overthrow of medieval principles. Indeed, the overthrow was so perfectly calibrated, and the leverage gained so extravagantly won, that no less an observer than Bacon would have been impressed. Clearly, it was not just accidental that Descartes decided to conclude his work with a long, if increasingly shrill, argument for the existence of God.

Now the real work could begin, which was to destroy any and all reminders of a medieval way of life that functioned more and more as a rebuke.

How? By committing to the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the French Revolution of 1789, and, last but not least, the American political revolution otherwise known as the Civil War — the very same event, ironically, that made possible the justly celebrated “new birth of freedom” that Murray was in the habit of citing when he conceived, promoted, and defended his project.

Consider, first of all, that America was discovered — “planted,” if you will — a mere six years after Pico della Mirandola penned his “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” and a full 25 years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Hence, the minds of the European men who first set foot on American soil were relatively at home with medieval cosmology. Second, consider that the first American colonists arrived 34 years before Descartes performed the thought experiment described in Meditations, and 82 years before the Glorious Revolution and the publication of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Hence, the first American settlers, while in the main Protestant and to that extent without access to the robustly incarnational logic that was the hallmark of the medieval era, were completely ignorant of the uses to which the abandonment of medieval prejudices could be put. And third, consider that the United States of America was founded 13 years before the French Revolution and the subsequent war in the Vendée, which together completed the European substitution of modern ways for medieval ones. Many, if not most, Americans had no real issue with the institution of monarchy per se during those years! Rather, they fought a war against England because King George had, in their minds, misused his power. And most of them looked on with horror at the ruthlessness with which Frenchmen moved, in 1789, to exterminate royalty. In other words, America was, from the very start, positioned somewhat on the outside of the European war on medieval tradition. At virtually every key juncture, Americans watched from afar, and given that many of them were living near forts in the middle of the wilderness, they watched from posts that were not unlike the ones manned by medieval pioneers in northern Europe.

In other words, it makes sense that adherents of the Murray project have often wondered whether Americans might be better suited to protect and defend the medieval inheritance than Europeans have shown themselves able to do.

At the same time, though, modern energies found a perfect host in America. They were present in the Protestant roots of our colonies, and they got a huge boost through our wholesale adoption of Cartesian metaphysics and Lockean anthropology, our wilderness-inflected romanticism, and, eventually, our hostility to aristocracy and the leisured philosophical tradition to which aristocracy is often linked. Does it not make more sense, then, that we too would eventually move, once and for all, to root out vestigial medieval ways?

I submit that it does, and that the American Civil War — while accomplishing other, very good things — was that move.


The war against medieval tradition, as fought in the U.S., had five fronts. First, we acted to destroy supports for agriculture. This operation had, of course, already begun with the invention (in New England) of the cotton gin and the subsequent consolidation of small Southern land holdings in order to build plantations big enough to produce cotton on the scale these machines demanded. But between 1861 and 1865 industrial farming gained further and not insubstantial leverage owing to (1) the passage of the Morrill Act, which provided for a cadre of extension agents positioned to dispense scientifically validated advice to presumably inexpert farmers, (2) the related creation of a Department of Agriculture, (3) the actual dismantling of the Southern rural economy so as to be able to re-found it, via Northern capital, on coal and iron, in addition to cotton, and (5) the outright elimination (through death on the battlefield) of small, family-dependent, subsistence-based upland farmers who owned no slaves and (even more incredibly) depended on access to a commons (think medieval field strips, or “rigs”) for the cultivation of ginseng, deer, mushrooms, ramp onions, and medicinal herbs.

On the second front, we destroyed “the mind of the South” (to use W.J. Cash’s phrase) by displacing premodern, realist tracery that to some extent still organized the ways in which Southerners thought. By realist I mean “biased toward pre-scientific, receptive, word-based knowing that is geared toward what a thing is rather than what it does.” I call this kind of disposition tracery in part because evidence for this kind of antebellum disposition — outside of personal correspondence, a still operant chivalric code, and putative respect for Aristotelian authority — is slim. Indeed, the best evidence we have for a Southern inclination toward medieval realism, as a school of thought, is merely the artistic bias of 20th-century writers like Allen Tate, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, who in some sense claimed to be “unreconstructed.” Nevertheless, that body of evidence is not insignificant, for surely it is not a coincidence that nearly every American writer with a distinctively sacramental bias hails by hook or crook from a defeated South. Clearly, these writers were, to some extent, products of that South, and if we can’t see the world they came from, we can at least tell that such a place must have existed from the fact that Southerners can (if rarely) draw strength from it.

The third way in which Americans waged a war on medieval tradition during the Civil War years was by committing to the disenfranchisement of the dead and unborn, and formally substituting “universal suffrage” (so called) for established usage, as a means of steering our ship of state. Think of such suffrage, if you will, as a kind of coronation for the contract theory that legitimated our nation in the first place. As noted earlier, medieval citizens were encouraged to act in the interest of past and future generations simply by allowing themselves to be guided by precedent — which is to say, methods and patterns that had been “selected” as the ones most likely to ensure their culture’s survival. Lockean contract theory, though, undercut all that. Hence, during the Civil War, we acted to substitute enhanced access to Enlightenment truths by “education” as our default means for checking self-interest.

The fourth key front in the war against vestigial medieval ways was the front where we rewrote our Constitution and formally redistributed power from the several states to the federal government through the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. That move undercut the decentralized power structure our founders intended, and it enabled increasingly systematic withdrawals of support for citizen-directed intermediary institutions that can (and should, according to the principle of subsidiarity) perform the very same duties centralized power now depends on to justify its continued existence.

Now, I recognize that I have depicted these first four fronts as positions adopted by Northerners during a battle against Southern ways of life. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that Southerners were not complicit in the attempt to root out medieval ways. Indeed, without Southern help, the American war against vestigial medievalism might not even have been won, for if a war against something is to be successful, that thing must first be falsified, and — here we get to the fifth front — Southerners sentimentalized the Middle Ages in ways that the North could not begin to match. Tidewater Virginians might have thought of themselves as members of an “armigerous” elite that focused as much on obligations as it did on rights. But these men were not knights. Rather, they were the sons of disinherited or persecuted Tudor-generated “cavaliers” who had procured American land grants and become rich thanks to a boom in tobacco, rice, and especially cotton through the use of slaves who were literally bought and sold like commodities. Thus, Southern “gentlemen” practiced a form of leisure that was qualitatively different from, and even radically opposed to, the essentially metaphysical leisure known by medieval lords. Even more tellingly, they wound up suffocating the kind of vibrant town life that genuinely medieval manors ought, by historical precedent, to produce.

Falsification, then, is one way in which Southerners actively helped to prosecute the war on medieval tradition. But there was another way, and it becomes visible simply by looking at the terms Southerners and Northerners assented to when they declared war.


Let us return — just for a moment — to the surprising aspects of modernity. In addition to a growing attention to magic, absolutism, and the economic benefits of slavery, we noted a tendency to specifically counter medieval ways, and in order to support that statement we listed neatly opposed understandings of power, tradition, and freedom. As it happened, there was another example of contrasting viewpoints that we could have used, but seeing as how our list was already long, it didn’t seem necessary to include it. Now, however, we need that example; hence, I make haste to bring it into view. It is this: Whereas medievals depended on true opposites (life and death, Heaven and Hell) as referents, moderns always and everywhere orient themselves by similars or contraries that are mistakenly (sometimes willfully) taken to be opposites. This is not just my argument; deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida makes it too. Thanks to an inherent (Occam-derived) hostility to incarnational logic, modern thinkers tend to show a blind eye to middle terms and consequently wind up oscillating between poles that are either similar (same substance, different aspect) or merely contrary (not mutually exclusive).

For example, artists, having lost access to a genuinely common culture in which the ordinary is celebrated and “performance,” as such, does not even exist, veer either toward “high” art, which equates excellence with inaccessibility, or an equally alienated “low” art, which prides itself on being easy and cheap. Theologians, having lost access to the Greek-derived, Johannine-colored concept of Logos, swing wildly between sola scriptura (without interpretation) and nominalism (“in name only”). Metaphysicians, having lost access to a concept of creaturehood in which body and mind figure as aspects of ensoulment, become either rationalists, who stress the role of a priori knowledge and “pure” reason, or empiricists, who stress the role of sensation and observation. Statesmen, having lost access to the idea that a heavenly Jerusalem is visible in and through a broken world, envision a Kantian notion of “universal peace” one year and then unleash “total war” the next. But enough. My point is simply that such polarities are false. In each instance the so-called poles are, in fact, aspects of a middle (or whole) that was clearly in view during the medieval era but subsequently excluded or lost.

Why do I make this observation? I make it because the Civil War was itself an oscillatory dynamic that fueled itself on contraries that masquerade as mutually exclusive, therefore traction-enabling, reference points.

Freedom in its fullest sense isn’t the absence of constraints. Rather, it is orientation toward the good and embedment in (plus allegiance to) a community of mutually dependent selves. During the Civil War, however, this view of freedom was withdrawn from view. In its place, we were only able to see flip sides of its absence — “no constraints” on the one hand, “tyranny” or “continued enslavement” on the other. Thus, when Southerners and Northerners nobly took up arms to fight for one or the other of these ends, they (together!) unwittingly enacted modernity at its fiercest — which is to say, modernity at the pitch when it is most able to disable the vestigial medievalism carried by Butternuts and the American South, modernity at the pitch when it can touch down like the polarity-driven storm Santayana thought it was and compel people either to join it and help it grow, or die running from it.

The Murray project, it turns out, might not even have had the slim chance of success many of us thought it had.


Should Murray and the rest of us who joined him in his hope have been less blind to its probable futility? I see no reason to cast blame in that regard because the hope was honorable, and Lincoln himself, the man to whom it fell to steer our ship of state during our war on tradition, would have agreed to Murray’s first, second, third, and fourth principles every bit as firmly as Adams or Jefferson would have. Moreover, it is important to remember that Lincoln did in fact save the Union. Without Lincoln, who was unquestionably our finest president, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation, no blues, no jazz, no army strong enough to defeat Hitler, and certainly no Murray project. Lincoln did the best he could to protect our experiment in liberty, given the Calvinist terms available to him, and for this reason it has been difficult to note the ways in which his presidency also ensured a de facto second founding that destroyed our ability to protect the medieval inheritance on which our freedoms depend. Hence, our challenge now is to take solace in our relatively newfound ability to recognize the severity of our second founding and, in that way, prepare for a new project that aims for the restoration of realist traditions on American soil, rather than their maintenance.

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One comment on “Why the John Courtney Murray, S.J., Project Failed

  1. Since the medieval way that Father Murray was educated and trained has been overturned, thanks to the Spirit of Vatican II and the Land O’Lakes agenda, there are no longer enough to sustain this debate. It will take a new generation of Catholics to recover their lost heritage to pick it up again. Meanwhile, you’re all hiding your joy, according to the modernists who want to continue the revolution of the hermeneutics of discontinuity. In fact, if you are of Western European heritage, the modernists want to help their Illuminati allies and puppet masters destroy what’s left of Western civilization, so appealing to logic, reason, and common sense (or tradition) will get you sent to the doghouse ….

    Did you read that? Modernists are no longer educated or trained in the manner Father Murray was, so they lack the formation necessary to enter into this argument with any coherence or perspective. Hold on. It gets more absurd….

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