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Who was John Courtney Murray, S.J.?

about john courtney murray, s.j.


John Courtney Murray, SJ, was a member of the Society of Jesus and an American theologian.  He was especially known for his efforts to reconcile Catholicism and religious pluralism, and he was instrumental in the formulation of many ground-breaking Vatican II (1962-1965) documents - most notably  Gaudium et Spes [The Church in the Modern World], and  Dignitatis Humanae [Declaration on Religious Freedom].  He was a friend and colleague of Karol Wojtyla during Vatican II, who eventually became the famous Pope John Paul II.

Murray was born in New York City in 1904 and entered the New York province of the Society of Jesus in 1920. He studied Classics and Philosophy at Boston College, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in 1926 and 1927 respectively.  Following graduation from BC, he travelled to the Philippines where he taught Latin and English literature at the Ateneo de Manila. He returned to the United States in 1930 and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1933. He completed a doctorate in sacred theology in 1937 at the Gregorian University in Rome.  Upon returning to the United States, he taught Catholic trinitarian theology at the Jesuit theologate at Woodstock, Maryland, and in 1941 was named editor of the Jesuit journal Theological Studies. He held both positions until his death in Queens, New York in 1967.

Murray became a leading public figure, and his work dealt primarily with the tensions between religion and public life. His best-known book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition is a collection of his essays regarding these tensions, all of which are centered on the separation of church and state, allowing individuals to assume control over their own religious beliefs.   Murray advocated religious freedom as defined and protected by the First Amendment, and he eventually argued that Catholic teaching on church/state relations no longer served contemporary society.

Not surprisingly, his work initially was not well received by the Church and he had to cease publishing his book for a number of years.  At the time, his work seemed rather progressive, particularly with respect to accommodating ideas of religious freedom with an increasingly religiously pluralistic society.  However, Murray and his work became well-known when he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in the December 12, 1960 issue, which featured "U.S. Catholics & the State" as the cover story. 

Murray collaborated on a project with Robert Morrison MacIver of Columbia University to assess academic freedom and religious education in American public universities.  In light of his increasingly public role, several American bishops consulted Murray on legal issues such as censorship and birth control.  In 1966, prompted by the Vietnam War, Murray was appointed to serve on Lyndon Johnson's presidential commission that reviewed Selective Service classifications. He supported the allowance of a classification for those opposed on moral grounds to some (though not all) wars — a recommendation that was ultimately not accepted by the Selective Service Administration.

John Courtney Murray’s legacy at Boston College is set by his steady commitment to the promotion of progressive issues, serving as an exemplary paragon to which we may all aspire.   We are honored that the home of our Graduate Student Center is named after such an esteemed, influential individual.