The Roman parable of John Courtney Murray looms large in the modern American Catholic imagination. The Jesuit theologian argued that the First Amendment was in keeping with Catholic orthodoxy at a time when the Holy See still insisted that the American model of religious freedom was a suboptimal church-state arrangement—tolerable only when the optimal arrangement, a Catholic confessional state, was out of reach. Officially censored by the Holy Office in 1954, Murray’s ideas would be vindicated a few years later by the Second Vatican Council, and specifically by the Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965), which Murray himself helped draft. As former Commonweal editor Margaret O’Brien Steinfels once said, it is “the Catholic rule of thumb, that anyone with a good idea for changing Church teaching or practice, I think here of John Courtney Murray, ought to be made to suffer for it.” Yet, so far, we have known only the contours of Murray’s pre-conciliar ordeal. Despite the meticulous historical work of Joseph A. Komonchak, who has been painstakingly piecing together evidence from a wide array of personal, ecclesiastical, and governmental archives, a crucial perspective was still missing: that of the Holy See itself.
The recent opening of the Pius XII–era archives has changed that. In a pandemic-stricken Rome, Vatican archivists have been working against both the clock and the virus to process the huge number of documents from the Pacelli pontificate and make them available to researchers. Scholars, too, have had to deal with sudden interruptions, longer waitlists, and retrieval failures. The Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (ACDF), as the Holy Office was renamed in 1965, was no exception. By mid-April 2021, however, a new holding finally popped up on the ACDF’s digital research portal: a four-volume file titled “Church and State. Ideology of John Courtney Murray, S.J.” The file contains annotated copies of Murray’s writings and addresses, correspondence to and from the Holy Office (including denunciations of Murray sent by Joseph C. Fenton, Francis J. Connell, and the canonist Thomas O. Martin); and the written evaluations of various Vatican officials.
What fresh insights can be expected from the newly available records? These documents help fill in what had been, until recently, a half-painted picture. Take the example of Murray’s 1950 memorandum to Msgr. Giovanni Montini, who was then Substitute for Ordinary Affairs of the Vatican Secretary of State and would later become Pope Paul VI: “The Crisis in Church-State Relationships in the U.S.A.,” a copy of which Komonchak retrieved among the papers of Claire Booth Luce in the Library of Congress and edited for publication in 2017. Several major questions remained about the memorandum’s exact genesis and its fortunes in the Holy Office. When and how did the document make its way to Rome? Who reviewed it? How did it become part of the dossier used to censor Murray?