A key architect of Vatican II’s declaration on freedom of worship, Dignitatis Humanae, John Courtney Murray is probably the most important Catholic theologian yet to hail from the United States. We Hold These Truths, however, is a work of Christian political philosophy, not a theological treatise. Addressed to all thinking Americans, smartly written, and first published the same year that the United States elected its first Roman Catholic president, the book garnered national attention and has since established itself as a twentieth century classic.
We Hold These Truths is a selection of essays woven together around a central question: “What are the truths that we as Americans hold?” That is, what is the basic agreement beneath America’s pluralism that holds American society together and gives the government its basic sense of direction? What are the truths on which the nation was successfully founded, what is the consensus on which it stands today, and how will this “American Proposition” need to develop if it is to endure the weight of contemporary American civilization?
Murray’s book is divided into three parts. The essays in the first part introduce the basic features of the American proposition. Murray contends that the founding fathers forged a successful Constitution because they were astute lawyers and policymakers, well formed in traditional English jurisprudence. Unlike the French revolutionaries, they did not govern in the spirit of doctrinaire rationalism; instead, they built the public consensus on the shared heritage of constitutionalism and common law. This tradition was especially unifying because it was based on key truths about human society, on a sense of natural laws that were both broadly discernible and imminently practical. It taught, to pick a characteristic example, that political legislation cannot create a virtuous or educated society “from the top down,” and therefore that the common good hinges on society’s ability to sustain virtuous citizens with a full spectrum of free and flourishing nongovernmental institutions (families, schools, charities, churches, and so on). With the nation united by such a philosophy of “a free people under limited...
(The entire section is 920 words.)