Winter 1994

Religious Freedom, Truth, and American Liberalism: Another Look at John Courtney Murray

David L. Schindler

"Liberalism invites us to dialogue within the (putatively) open and pluralistic market of religions, all the while that it has already, hiddenly, filled the terms of that dialogue with a liberal theory of religion."

The assumption has become increasingly common since Vatican Counil II that Catholicism and liberalism "have successfully resolved" the fundamental differences they had in the past.1 However one defines the difficult term, "liberalism," such an assumption typically comes attached to the claim that the Council vindicated the arguments of John Courtney Murray on matters of pluralism and religious freedom.

Surely religous pluralism is an ineliminable fact of life in America and throughout the West today. And just as surely religious freedom is one of the great achievements of the Council. As Murray argued, this achievement seems even to indicate a development of doctrine. Religious freedom is part of the Council's recognition more generally of modern interiority and subjectivity; and is of a piece with the Council's distinctive affirmation of the Church's openness to the world. In the matter of religious freedom, one might in fact agree with Hans Urs von Balthasar that Dignitatis humanae perhaps did not go far enough in renouncing coercive means as unworthy of the gospel: that it would have been appropriate for the Council to have apologized to humanity, in terms as clear as its apology to other Christian churches in Unitatis redintegratio (n. 7).2


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1. R. Bruce Douglass, "Introduction," Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy, ed. R. Bruce Douglass and David Hollenbach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 1-16, at 10. On the complexities of the question of the relation of Catholicism and liberalism since the Council, see, for example, the range of topics listed by Joseph Komonchak in his "Vatican II and the Encounter Between Catholicism and Liberalism," Ibid., 76-99, at 98 (fn. 22). Like Komonchak, I cannot treat these topics in a single article, and thus make no claim of providing an exhaustive analysis of the problem of liberalism during the post-conciliar period.

2. "The Council of the Holy Spirit," Theological Explorations III: Creator Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 245-67, at 262-65 (fn. 145). In his June, 1994 meeting with cardinals, Pope John Paul II proposed such an apology for the year 2000. See in this connection Tertio Millenio Adveniente, nn. 33-35.