Christian Origin of the 1st Amendment

On Meet the Press on August 8th, Mario Cuomo specifically stated that a Catholic who takes the teachings of the Church seriously should not seek office in any capacity where a decision must be made on abortion; that he would be imposing his personal religious beliefs on the rest of society.

It is an ironic turn of events. There were conservative Catholics who once considered Murray a liberal on the question of the Church’s role in the political life of a society. Murray, you will recall, was the Jesuit generally conceded to be the architect of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, through which the Church renounced its demand for a privileged role in the law-making process, the so-called “confessional state” that obtained in countries such as Spain and Ireland before Vatican II.

Murray’s critics argued that his thesis surrendered too much of the Church’s authority on moral issues in order to make Catholics and Catholicism acceptable to the Protestant majority in the United States. Some of the critics made a persuasive case. But let’s leave it aside to focus on something else: Murray’s understanding of what it means to be a Catholic in a pluralist society. Let’s contrast Murray’s words to the position being taken by Catholic politicians such as Cuomo, Joseph Biden, Ted Kennedy, Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy on Roberts’s possible pro-life leanings. Catholics have come along way since Murray propounded his thesis in the 1960s — in the wrong direction. Murray doesn’t sound very liberal any more, not on this topic.

I don’t think I am overstating the case: Kennedy and Cuomo et al. are making the case that there should be a presumption against a pro-life Catholic sitting on the Supreme Court. They are rummaging through Roberts's writings and speeches in search of something to trot out to demonstrate his lack of commitment to a “woman’s right to choose.” They were even willing to focus on Roberts’s wife’s membership in a group called “Feminists for Life” in the hopes of gaining some leverage against him. (In early August, the New York Times raised its journalistic eyebrows over the fact that Mrs. Roberts is a daily communicant.)

We are learning much about what goes on in the minds of “personally opposed but” Catholic politicians. For decades now, they have assured us that it is only with great anguish and sadness that they feel obliged to accept the political reality that legal abortions must be permitted in a secular, pluralist society; that their fondest wish is that women could be convinced not to abort their children, but that, until that time, we have no choice but to respect the religious freedom of those who disagree with us about the nature of the fetus.

Well? Have you spotted any deep sadness in the eyes of Kennedy and Cuomo as they leap to the microphone to express their “concerns” that Roberts may be pro-life? I haven’t. I am not exaggerating: they give the impression that defending legal abortion is the highest calling of their political lives. Can you think of any other example in history when politicians have taken to the barricades to defend something they “personally oppose”? Something is out of kilter.

They say that “truth is the first casualty of war.” That includes political wars. For years we have been lectured by pro-choice Democrats that it is out of bounds for a pro-life president to apply a pro-life “litmus test” on abortion when seeking out candidates for the Supreme Court. Yet now the same people are lining up to proclaim their determination to apply one in rejecting candidates for the Supreme Court if they suspect the nominee will endanger Roe v. Wade’s status as established law. Exhibit A: Mario Cuomo.

What does John Courtney Murray have to do with all this? The “personally opposed but” Catholic politicians are making the case that Roberts's pro-life beliefs make him unsuitable for the Supreme Court; that there is a danger that a Catholic who takes his faith seriously will impose his Catholic religious convictions upon the rest of society if placed in a position of power. Murray did not harbor the same understanding of the role of Catholicism in a democratic society.


Part of the inner architecture of the American ideal of freedom has been the profound conviction that only a virtuous people can be free. It is not an American belief that free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral law.

The American system of government rests, Murray continues, upon Lord Acton’s understanding that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

Is there something undemocratic about a Catholic with firm moral beliefs making public policy? Murray:

[D]emocracy is more than a political experiment; it is a spiritual and moral enterprise. And its success depends upon the virtue of the people who undertake it. Men who would be politically free must discipline themselves.

Who comes to mind when you read the following lines from Murray — John Roberts or Ted Kennedy?

Political freedom is endangered in its foundations as soon as the universal moral values, upon whose shared possession the self-discipline of a free society depends, are no longer vigorous enough to restrain the passions and shatter the selfish inertia of men.

Does the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion entitle those who want an abortion to have one? Murray:

The philosophy of the Bill of Rights was also tributary to the tradition of natural law, to the idea that man has certain original responsibilities precisely as man, antecedent to his status as citizen.

The rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights have as their “ultimate source, as the Declaration of Independence states” in “God, the Creator of nature and the Master of history.”

Would it disqualify John Roberts for the Supreme Court if Ted Kennedy’s staff uncovers evidence that he is a devout Catholic, who takes the Bible and his faith seriously? Murray:

[T]he Bill of Rights was an effective instrument for the delimitation of government and social power, not because it was written on paper in 1789 or 1791, but because the rights it proclaims had already been engraved by history on the conscience of a people. The American Bill of Rights is not a piece of eighteenth-century rationalist theory; it is far more the product of Christian history. Behind it one can see, not the philosophy of the Enlightenment but the older philosophy that had been the matrix of the common law. The “man” whose rights are guaranteed in the face of law and government is, whether he knows it or not, the Christian man, who had learned to know his own personal dignity in the school of Christian faith.

Does Catholicism put one at odds with the consensus view of the Bill of Rights? Murray:

Catholic participation in the American consensus has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed because the contents of this consensus — the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law — approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience. Where this kind of language is talked, the Catholic joins the conversation with complete ease. It is his language.

Well, it is John Roberts’s language. Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo are another matter.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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