Barbaric Fragmentation: John Courtney Murray Foresaw the U.S. United in Confusion

Voting patterns of this last election give ample support to the notion of the divided country, and it is now virtually obligatory to bemoan polarization while calling for unity in our fragmented polis.

As obvious as our polarization seems, perhaps disunity is not the real problem; instead, perhaps we already have a unity, just of a barbaric sort rendering reasonable life and speech fragmentary, incoherent, and truncated.

Over fifty years ago, John Courtney Murray, perhaps the leading Catholic political theorist of the last century, wrote that it is quite impossible for a society to operate “without some spiritual bond of unity,” without “some concept of a doctrine that is sacred.” The question and problem facing us, Fr. Murray suggested, is “not whether we shall have a national unity—of course we shall! The only question is: what kind of unity and quality of unity shall we have? And on what will it be based, and what ends will it serve and pursue?” He continued, “American culture is not pluralistic. American culture is unitary. American culture is uniform, and it is tending always to become more and more unitary and uniform.”

How could this be? What does he mean? Don’t the charts of voting patterns and demographic shifts indicate that his claim, even if plausible in 1961, is no longer possible?

Murray posits two candidates for the “unitary and uniform” American culture. First, “the mystique of science, whose aim is to create a civilization that will be purely technological.” For Murray, belief in the power of a secular technological empire is a type of idiocy, taken in the original Greek meaning: “the ‘idiot’ meant, first of all, the private person, and then came to mean the man who does not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian.” The contemporary idiot is “the technological secularist who knows everything. He’s the man who knows everything about the organization of all the instruments and techniques of power that are available in the contemporary world and who, at the same time, understands nothing about the nature of man or about the nature of true civilization.”

Such technological idiocy will not be unsophisticated or without its skillful and educated practitioners, but their expertise will not include the things which matter most to our common and public life: “this technological order will hang, as it were, suspended over a moral confusion; and this moral confusion will itself be suspended over a spiritual vacuum.” Technology, whatever the claims made by our experts, specialists, and practitioners, cannot deliver civilization, for such an order provides no real purpose or vision of life, it is a void, a vacuum.

Spiritual vacuums are filled, for “society, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum and cannot tolerate it,” and since “traditional religion is outlawed as the public religion … what then remains to fill the vacuum that otherwise would result at the heart of society?” It is here that the second candidate steps forward to fill the lacuna left by technological society: “the candidate, of course, for this post of being the civil religion of American society has already presented himself. It is, of course, democracy conceived as a quasi-religious faith,” a “political mystique, the unclarified concept of freedom.”

Since technology cannot deliver human purpose but tends to sever us from the ancient traditions and communities, and since we cannot live entirely severed from meaning, we create a civil religion, “a substitute secular faith, that would undertake to take the place of the traditional religious faith that has historically given substance to the civilization that we call Western.” Moreover, for this new faith to capture our allegiance, “this set of democratic values is conceived to be transcendent to all the religious divisions that are unfortunately among us,” and there “must be outlawed all the traditional tenets of traditional religion.” Note, thus, how the new civil religion demands, and provides, a pale version of unity in demanding allegiance to freedom even as traditional religion is diminished and forced to bow to the newer gods.

John Paul II indicated something very similar in Evangelium Vitae: “freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth, “when it strives “to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority….” Oddly, the religion of freedom fosters both a deep alienation from others while encouraging also a mass conformity of individuals united in their quest for freedom, as John Paul II explains: “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another…. Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds…. any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism.”

Note the perverse nature of the civil religion of freedom—it serves as the underlying spiritual capital by which a people are formed, and yet it forms a people united only in their mutual alienation from each other.

In his classic, We Hold These Truths, Murray explains how such a situation is the unity of barbarism, for “barbarism is not … the forest primeval with all its relatively simple savageries,” but “the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.” “Here,” Murray reminds us, “the word ‘conversation’ has its twofold Latin sense … living together and talking together.”

The first failure of conversation—no longer living together—threatens “when men cease to live together according to reason.” Not the return to a state of “men … huddled together under the rule of force and fear,” such barbarism entails instead incoherent values, including “when economic interests assume the primacy over higher values; when material standards of mass and quantity crush out the values of quality and excellence,” and when “the state reaches the paradoxical point of being everywhere intrusive and also impotent.” The claimed omni-competence of the technological society and mass individualism fit this description well, in my judgment.

Barbarism’s second form, the end of reasonable “talking together,” also needn’t be an overt collapse, for “the barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand. He may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen…. In fact, even beneath the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility….” Even the most cultivated of a community may be barbaric when “vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogues give way to a series of monologues … when defiance is flung to the basic ontological principle of all ordered discourse, which asserts that Reality is an analogical structure, within which there are variant modes of reality, to each of which there corresponds a distinctive method of thought that imposes on argument its own special rules.”

Barbarism, in other words, threatens whenever rational standards of judgment fail, when “men cannot be locked together in argument,” for civilization itself is formed by the locking of argument. No reason, no conversation; no conversation, no argument; no argument, no civilization, Murray suggests. Or at least no civilization in the sense of a “civil multitude,” a people formed with an “identity as a people … endowed with its vital form … its sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.”

From the vantage point of the calm (and historical) analysis provided by Murray and John Paul II, we can read the current hand-wringing about polarization and clichéd calls for unity with a quite substantial grain of salt, for we have forged a very deep unity as a people, one committed to creating a secular technological heaven of individual autonomy.

And if that comes at the expense of a new barbarism, so be it.

R. J. Snell


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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  • Angsgar

    A good argument could be made that it was the triumph of Murray and his Americanist pals that actually got us where we are today, namely Catholics putting American values above Catholic Truth.

    • Adam Baum

      On the contrary, the Catholics that got us where we are, are very rarely “Americanist”. Whether it was Mario Cuomo trying to thread the needle with his personal opposition to abortion or Kathleen Sebelius’ less nuanced frontal attack, these folks, who are often graduates of prestigious nominally Catholic colleges never justify their political positions as American. They are moral anarchists and political statists, whose first and foremost objective is to be held in high regard by the left. Catholicism only influences them when it can be twisted to support massive expenditures on so-called “social welfare” programs.

      • Crusader

        “They are moral anarchists and political statists, whose first and foremost objective is to be held in high regard by the left.” I disagree. They are Marxist-Leninists, and their only objective is to gain power over others and use it against their enemies.

  • A thoughtful article. Whenever I encounter this topic, I’m reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel. While I’m not arguing that our unity of understanding and purpose has been confused by God as retribution for hubris, I think it’s a natural consequence of secularization, and alienation caused by emphasis on the individual. (I was going to say primacy of the individual, but we seem to be trending more and more towards primacy of the state.)

    • zcastaux

      It would be good to be aware that certain theorists (thinkers? philosophers? prophets?) have long warned us that the ongoing elevation of so-called individual freedoms, especially those which break down the most fundamental religious/ social/ biological bonds (man-woman, child-parents, heaven-earth, spiritual-physical, village-clans-agriculture, coitus-reproduction etc.) is going to result in the absolute dominance of the Master-State. People who didn’t want God were already worshiping an ‘omnipotent’ golden calf, way, way back before Marx and Lenin. And Moses WASN’T trying to develop any ‘constituency’, either. He was bringing direct information on how to live. We have to be VERY, very careful in choosing ‘Whom’ we will serve. It is a very old problem. Emperors claiming they were Gods used to require total human sacrifices, long before now. Long before the Nuremberg Rallies. Some people get confused when they think that ‘totalitarianism’ began sometime lately, with those quirky bad ‘leaders’ we’ve seen pictures of.

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  • Brilliant article, Professor Snell! I think it is exactly right: we have degenerated into a nation of idiots and barbarians, after the Greek definition. The Cyclops in the Odyssey is an idiot, not because of his brainlessness (he isn’t really brainless), but because the Cyclopses do not meet in assembly, and every family ignores its neighbors.

    • Tired of the chicken littles

      Yeah, you elitists go on ahead and put yourselves above the idiots and barbarians. Cloister yourselves in your narrow libraries, blaming everyone else for not seeing as you see. Hombre111 has my vote for the best posts in t his thread.

  • hombre111

    Once again, Crisis embraces a man who was despised by the conservatives of his day. By the way, he had great respect and admiration for unions.

    • Ib

      True. Courtney Murray was a radical in his day. And, although much of what he actually wrote is not all that radical, it was the spirit with which he wrote it that made the difference. He generally treated the Bishops as if they were his students, rather than the genuine teachers of the Roman Catholic Church. This attitude of respectful disrespect is almost universal among academic theologians today. It was fr. Courtney Murray s.j. (among others during that same time) who made such a thing possible.

      • hombre111

        At one time, theologians were included in the Magisterium. But the bishops, with their paternalistic order of things, could not put up with that. Most bishops have degrees in Canon Law. If they are like my own bishop, his knowledge of theology (biblical theology, history, the Fahters) is pretty minimal. When he writes a document to the people that requires some theology, he has one of his priests do it. Unfortunately, most of the priests in the diocese also have minimal training in theology. Even with a pope this can be true. Pope John Paul, for all his brilliance, was a philosopher, not a theologian. His knowledge of biblical theology was sketchy, revealed especially in his Theology of the Body.

        • Ib

          This idea of the dual magisterium is a myth. It never was as hombre writes: no theologians qua theologians were ever part of the magisterium. There is not one official Roman Catholic Church text stating this (going back to the patristics era). Sure you can find a theologian or two who assert that they, by gum, are part of the magisterium too; but asserting something don’t make it true. Like the myth of women’s ordination (one can find small mentions of women being ordained in a number of ancient sources; this doesn’t mean that the Roman Catholic Church approved any such events), this is an old canard that won’t die. Hombre quit dreaming and do some serious research in the official stances of the Roman Catholic Church.

          • hombre111

            Good post but you may be too sure of some subjects where qualified people beg to differ. That said, thanks. I was saying the Divine Office today (great reading in the Office of Readings) when the image I was looking for. The Church is a medieval contraption somebody dragged onto the runway of a modern airport. Now the Pope and bishops are trying to convince the world that the thing can fly.
            I had some more thoughts about the institutional Church. I accept the institution and laud the indespensible role it can play. But the institution, as an institution, is just not doing what it is supposed to do. Millions fall away and leave the Church, especially the youth. In the meanwhile the conservatives blame the Vatican Council, even though the Council is fifty years in the past. We had almost fifty years of John Paul II and Pope Benedict. They chose the bishops. They set the agenda. And, to change the metaphor, the thing still don’t float. I will soon be with God. You will have to live with whatever has shown up.

            • Ib

              I am sad that you are so disappointed by the Roman Catholic Church at this point in your life. I too have been hurt by pastors and religious superiors who behaved unethically. But the Roman Catholic Church is not to blame for the bad behavior of these men. They are morally responsible for themselves. Just so with the Bishops. A gaggle of bad Bishops does not count to discredit the mission of Jesus Christ’s Church.

              The more I reflect on it, the more I think we actually live in a good time for the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, there’s division, but when wasn’t there some division? And here we can disagree on fairly important matters and neither of us will be called in to answer for our words! Moreover we can do it on the Internet — which is far more public than any Church door in Wittenberg.

              What might be the future of the Roman Catholic Church? Will it move toward the illusions of “the Spirit of the Council”? Or will it read those documents with a “hermeneutic of continuity”? I don’t know, but one thing is certain, being disappointed by life (with or without the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church) is a tough struggle for everyone.

              • hombre111

                Actually, my disappointment in the Church boils down to four points. 1) The role of women in the Church.
                2) The Church’s attitude toward gays. This along with its attitude toward the divorced and remarried, has had huge consequences with young people.
                3) Has to do with my own love of the priesthood. In 1979,it became apparant to me that we were about to enter into a vocation crisis. A vocation crisis means a priest crisis. At that time, we had 107 priests serving about seventy thousand Catholics, mostly Anglos. Now we have 42 priests serving 150,000 Catholics, about half of them Hispanic. This is hard on the people and hard on the priest. In my last parish assignment, when I was in my late sixties, I was serving four parishes 29, 65, and 95 miles apart. Rome is content to let this disaster continue. At last count, we had 6 seminarians, the best that the conservative young guns who now run our diocese could do.
                3) The sex abuse scandal and the failure of the hierarchy from top to bottom, including Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict.
                4) The Church’s extreme position on birth control.

              • zcastaux

                Sorry to spoil the party…. Haven’t you heard of the Wounds of Christ? These are the refuge, the TRUE refuge, not for bloggers, but for us, for sinners, for those who really wonder what suffering is about…Or disappointment. And there is a Litany of the Holy Wounds. And so, so many writings (those of Sr Martha Mary Chambon, those of Sr Josefa Mendes, and many more; go back to St Gertrude the Great, if you wish). Or there is just your Crucifix; you can keep looking at it. And that wonderful old indulgenced prayer: “Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus…” It was taught for so long as a highly-recommended prayer for meditation after Holy Communion, whereas the ‘modern’ style has required communicants to get up and loudly chat, ASAP, to show our ‘familiarity’ with God. Or just to rush out, in pleasure-seeking. Jesus communicated to Saint Faustina Kowalska that one hour of (real) meditation on the wounds and suffering of His Passion, were worth much more than many months of other mortifications. Please do try the Holy Wounds. Stop worshiping aerodynamics. Try fasting (as Christ did; it is the only way to expel certain demons, as He said), and it will cut right in on your ‘disappointments’.

            • zcastaux

              Oh dear, pues hombre, ?que pasa? Are you going to try to get to Heaven by flapping your wings? Or do you need a Church? You will be the one flapping sadly on the runway, hahahah. Honestly. Can’t you get better metaphors? Really, really.

    • Adam Baum

      Ahh Unions. They are to be loved unconditionally, no matter what they do, because they are for “the working man” and the ends justify the means. Hey, Padre did you know unions are generally corporations with lots of cash?

      • hombre111

        The Church has always supported unions. In the old days, there were the “union priests.” The Church saw that unions were a way for people to get out of poverty.

  • JJ

    America does not have a political problem; she has a spiritual problem. We can only pray that the Holy Spirit unites our country and church in truth. Pope Benedict XVI was, indeed, wise to declare this the Year of Faith and to call for a New Evangelization.

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  • Marvin

    The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, has an excellent book addressing some of the science & technology vice theological thinking. The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning

  • annedanielson

    No doubt, the Line that has been drawn in the Sand is between those who recognize the truth about the personal and relational essence of the Human person, created in The Image of God from the moment of conception, to reflect Love, as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters…, and those who claim, erroneously, that God created us to live our lives in relationship according to sexual attraction, as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transexual, polysexual…in direct violation of God’s own Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery. The objectification of Human Life by some persons, is what has caused division.

  • zcastaux

    I just want to draw attention to a ‘reverse use’ of a common idiomatic expression, ‘at the expense of…’ It has been excellent to discover John C Murray, since we were given (as undergrads) bits of Harold Laski (“Politics: Who gets what, when and how”). I am sure Murray was carefully hidden away. The sharpest arguments we knew, along the lines Murray had ALREADY pointed out, appeared to come later in American philosophical argumentation. It happened when Herbert Marcuse (born in Europe, of the Greco-German philosophical tradition) defined ‘one-dimensional man’, that creature dominated by a merely one-sided, but all-powerful, technological view, a half-being for whom all true ‘debate’ (and thus ‘conversation’, as Murray puts it) has ceased to exist. In passing, one of the characteristics of ‘neurosis’ is an inability to really listen or converse. But I am concerned by the odd use of ‘at the expense of’. This properly means that you are LOSING something. It does not refer to a price tag. I am surprised at this, since the literacy of this article is generally so high. The point is important. The unhappy ‘unity’ of secular pseudo-freedom, with its false, non-moral ‘values’, comes at the expense of (true) civilization, which is the LOSER. It comes with a price-tag called the ‘new barbarism’, and this is very expensive indeed, since human civilization (as we knew it, as John Paul II refers to it) is paying this price. The new, fake unity comes AT THE EXPENSE of true social and moral unity, at the expense of a truly human and humane culture. We cannot possibly conclude, even ironically, with ‘so be it’. Please do consider my comment carefully. As an attempt at a rhetorical flourish to finish this piece, this concluding lines are disastrous.